The Mideast Peace Process's Biggest Myth

The Mideast Peace Process's Biggest Myth

Rabin's survival wasn't the key to long-lasting peace.

Or perhaps it was two, that Arafat had throughout played a duplicitous game and had never reconciled himself to or sought a two-state solution, whatever the parameters, and had merely strung the Israelis and Americans along in order to appear conciliatory and gain points in Western public opinion but had in fact held out for a “solution” in which all of Mandatory Palestine, unpartitioned and unshared, would ultimately come under Palestinian Arab sovereignty.

By extension, the question is whether the Palestinian national movement, which down to the 1980s had forthrightly and publicly sought the destruction of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state in all of Palestine, had from, say, the late 1980s resigned itself to a settlement based on a partitioned Palestine, with Jewish and Arab states, with the Palestinian state consisting of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Or not.

If one believes that the Palestinian national movement, consisting of both its fundamentalist and secular wings, represented by Hamas and Fatah respectively, has never reconciled itself to sharing Palestine with a Jewish state, whatever the exact territorial configuration, then the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin probably made very little difference. As they had rejected a two-state solution back in 1937 and 1947, when the Peel Commission and then the United Nations General Assembly had put such solutions on the table, so they would have rejected such solutions after 1995. In other words, had Yigal Amir not shot Rabin, there was nothing that Rabin could conceivably have done or offered that would have persuaded Arafat or his successors to acquiesce in a two-state solution and to sharing Palestine with a Jewish state. To be sure, they would have continued to play any number of diplomatic games to curry favor with Washington and Europe, but when it came down to the wire, they would ultimately not have signed off on a two-state settlement (as, indeed, they had failed to agree to such solutions when offered by Rabin’s successors in 2000 and 2007).

But rejecting this bleak, perhaps deterministic view of what has driven and drives the Palestinian national movement does not necessarily mean that had Rabin survived Yigal Amir’s assault, the ongoing peace process or a subsequent peace process would have ended in Israeli-Palestinian peace. Put another way, it is quite possible to believe that Arafat or his successors sincerely wanted (and still want) peace and would have sincerely agreed to the principle of a two-state solution and yet believe that no peace would have been achieved between Israel and the Palestinians had Rabin lived.

The basic geopolitical reality is that the Land of Israel/Palestine between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean—ten thousand square miles in all, the size of Vermont—is simply too small to divide between two peoples, each with robust demographic growth rates, into two viable states. (More than ten million people currently live between the River and the Sea, some fifteen times the population of Vermont.) Moreover, the multiple issues dividing the two peoples are of such depth, weight and consequence—most prominently, the Palestinian Arab refugee problem and the problem of Jerusalem and its Temple Mount—that no reasonable amount of good will by a Rabin or peace-minded Arafat could conceivably overcome them.

No Israeli prime minister could ever agree to a mass refugee return to the territory of pre-1967 Israel—as all Israeli prime ministers since 1948 have viewed such a return as the absorption of a giant fifth column, guaranteeing Israel’s destruction, demographically, politically and militarily. And no Palestinian leader could ever give up the “right” of Palestinian refugees living in the hovels around Tyre and Sidon, Tripoli, Damascus and Gaza, to return to their original homes and lands in pre-1948 Palestine. For Palestinian leaders, this would mean abandoning “justice” and their impoverished brothers in exile.

Similarly, no Israeli premier (though Barak came close to it in 2000) could ever agree, or at least sell to the Israeli public, the abandonment to Arab sovereignty of Jerusalem’s “Holy Basin” and Temple Mount—while no Palestinian leader could give up parts of East Jerusalem to Jewish sovereignty, especially part of the Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount). Among both peoples there are enough wholehearted rejectionists who would make sure that a Clinton parameter-like deal was never struck or brought to fruition (as Rabin’s assassination demonstrated from the Israeli side). Neither Arafat nor Abbas could conceivably sell such a deal to the Hamas and neither would (or did) try. They knew and know their people. And there is no logical reason to believe that Arafat or his successors would have been more amenable to a deal such as offered by Barak, Clinton and Olmert if their interlocutor had been Rabin. His blue eyes would have made no difference.

Then there is the proven inability of all Israeli prime ministers to confront and suppress opposition by the settlers and their supporters to uprooting the West Bank settlements. Even the deeply antisettler Rabin—he once described the settlements as “a cancer in the body of Israeli democracy”—found it impossible in 1994, after the Goldstein massacre, to uproot a mere handful of settlers from downtown Hebron or Tel Rumeida. Shimon Peres, Rabin’s heir, proved no more willing or able to confront the Israeli Far Right after the assassination, again, at a time when he would have enjoyed a wide public mandate to do so.

True, Sharon in 2005 managed to uproot the seven thousand Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip without real bloodshed. But it is also true that the Gaza Strip is not the West Bank in terms of demography, sanctity, history or strategic importance. The resistance to removing major West Bank settlements—Kiryat Arba, Ariel, Ma’ale Adumim, etc.—would probably be a hundred times greater. This doesn’t even take into account the overwhelming practical challenge posed by a prospective resettlement of more than one hundred thousand displaced settlers from the core areas of Judea and Samaria in Israel proper.

In short, Rabin, had he lived, almost certainly could or would not have offered more, and certainly not much more, to the Palestinians than Barak had offered them in Camp David in July 2000 or Clinton in his subsequent “parameters” of December 2000. And Arafat had responded to both offers with a firm “no”—as, in effect, had Abbas to Olmert’s offer in 2007. President Clinton, in an interview aired in November, was quoted as saying that, had Rabin lived, Israel and the Palestinians would have reached a peace settlement “within three years.” I doubt it.

Benny Morris is a professor of history in the Middle East Studies Department of Ben Gurion University of the Negev. He is the author of 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (Yale University Press, 2008).

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain