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Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse

About the author

Fred Halliday (1946-2010) was most recently Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats / Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) research professor at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (Barcelona Institute for International Studies / IBEI). He was from 1985-2008 professor of international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE), and subsequently professor emeritus there

Fred Halliday's many books include Political Journeys: The openDemocracy Essays (Saqi, 2011); Caamaño in London: the Exile of a Latin American Revolutionary (Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2010); Shocked and Awed: How the War on Terror and Jihad Have Changed the English Language (IB Tauris, 2010); 100 Myths about the Middle East (Saqi, 2005); The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005); Two Hours That Shook the World: September 11, 2001 - Causes and Consequences (Saqi, 2001); Nation and Religion in the Middle East (Saqi, 2000); and Revolutions and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)

In December 2006, in the context of developing links with Israeli and Palestinian universities, I paid a visit to the city of Jerusalem, formally united under Israeli rule, but in practice still divided into an Israeli west and an Arab east. As soon as I had completed my business, I cut short my visit and left to return to my home in Barcelona: never had I felt so depressed about the prospects for peace in this region; that the two communities were so lacking in effective leadership and coherent and reasonable political purposes; that the lessons of the past, and the persistent but unnecessary suffering associated with the conflict, had been so completely forgotten, overwhelmed by a new wave of demagogy, religious intransigence and hatred.

In Israel there was little support for serious negotiations with the Palestinians or for the necessary compromises, and the government was refusing to recognise the outcome of the Palestinian elections of January 2006 which had brought victory to Hamas. The 34-day war of July-August 2006 in Lebanon had proved inconclusive and the Israelis, shocked at the outcome, were now preparing another one, as no doubt Hizbollah and the Iranians also were. The Palestinians were now ruled by Hamas, a party that (accurately reflecting the public mood) refused to accept compromise with Israel, legitimised crimes of war and, in effect, racist attitudes to Jews, and was intent on imposing a regime of authoritarian social and ideological conservatism on its own people.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on the Israel-Palestine conflict:

Stephen Howe, "The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation" (18 November 2004)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas's path to reinvention" (10 October 2006)

Eyal Weizman, "The politics of verticality" (April-May 2002) - an eleven-part project mapping Israel's three-dimensional control of the West Bank

Eyal Weizman, "Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation" (September 2003) - a three-part series on the architecture of power embodied in the separation barrier

David Mepham, "Hamas and political reform in the middle east" (1 February 2006)

Jim Lederman, "Palestine and Israel: clan vs nation, tribe vs state" (11 July 2006)

Eyad Sarraj, "The campaign that should never stop" (13 November 2006)

Richard Youngs, "The European Union and Palestine: a new engagement" (29 March 2007)

Mary Kaldor & Mient Jan Faber, "Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report" (21 May 2007)

Beyond uniqueness

This was not the first time I had been to Jerusalem. I had, indeed, been studying and engaging with the Palestine question for over four decades. While my own research and teaching work has focused on countries elsewhere in the region, on Iran and the Arabian peninsula above all, I had, of necessity to study and teach on this conflict; indeed, as part of the spread of solidarity with the "third world" of the late 1960s, I had been for a time active in the Palestine Solidarity Movement in the United Kingdom, and in 1969 I had spent a month in Jordan as a guest of the General Union of Palestinian Studies.

In the course of these years, I had met some of the main protagonists in the story - Yasser Arafat on two occasions, his successor Mahmoud Abbas, some of the main Fatah leaders, and other protagonists on the Palestinian side (the writer Ghassan Kanafani, the hijacker Leila Khaled, the Jerusalem politicians Feisal Husseini and the "Marxist-Leninist" Nayef Hawatmeh); as well as a considerable number of Israeli academics, diplomats, and personalities, among them Shimon Peres. I have lectured at the universities of Bir Zeit and Tel Aviv. At the London School of Economics I had, over more than twenty-five years, a number of Israeli and Palestinian students.

I further regard it as an essential part of my work, and also as the best contribution any outsider concerned with the issue can make, to talk, listen, argue, and continue talking with all those involved in the conflict, from Likudniks to Palestinian rejectionists: those who call for bans, or boycotts, of either side only contribute to reinforcing the antagonism of one side or the other.

Through these contacts, through studying the conflict and other comparable inter-ethnic disputes and, most of all, through drawing some conclusions for Palestine that had arisen in the context of the war in my own country of origin, Ireland, I had long ago come to a clear, if wholly unoriginal, understanding:

  • that two peoples exist in this territory
  • that whatever their historic claims and origins, each has, in the contemporary context, a right to its own state
  • that it is up to the Israelis to recognise Palestinians rights to land and for the Palestinians to recognise the Israeli right to have a state
  • that religion, far from enriching these peoples and laying a basis for compromise, is an obstacle to it
  • that in the end a compromise, far short of what each side would wish for, was possible and desirable; in other words, a two-state solution.

As someone in general sceptical about claims of uniqueness or particularity by nationalists and their supporters elsewhere, I never saw the Arab-Israeli conflict as especially unique, either in its causes and possible resolution or in the moral claims of either side: there are no angels, and not too many devils, in either Zion or Palestine. It might indeed serve some purpose to emphasise its banality, not in regard to the suffering it involves, and will probably go on involving, but in regard to the causes of, and obstacles within, the dispute.

Equally, while the Palestine question does have major regional and international repercussions, and in the 1960s and 1970s was a major stimulant in the cold war, it is far from being the only conflict in the Middle East. It bears an at best indirect relationship to the other problems of the region: such phenomena as Kurdish nationalism, oil prices, Sunni-Shi'a relations, the nuclear aspirations of Iran, the war in southern Sudan, corruption, the rise of radical Islamism in Saudi Arabia all have their own origins, and are only indirectly related to the Arab-Israeli question.

Beyond war

For many years, I held to the view that a compromise peace was possible. This was reinforced by three considerations.

First, it is always incorrect to say that a political problem cannot be solved: political problems are, by definition, created and sustained by human beings, above all politicians, and can be solved by them, if there is sufficient goodwill.

Second, it was evident at least since 1967 that within both Israel and the Palestinian community a significant number of people had begun to make the crucial shift of perspective, accepting that they would never reach their maximal goals ("liberation" of all Palestine/establishment of a purely Jewish state in all of the "land of Israel"), and, in the process, learning at least something more about the reality and humanity of the other side. This process, known in the language of comparative conflict resolution as a "hurting stalemate", had been seen in recent years in other conflicts, notably Bosnia and Northern Ireland, and was gradually developing among Israelis and Palestinians.

Third, the regional and global actors that affected the Israelis and Palestinians, came in time to favour a two-state solution, at least verbally: even the United States was committed, from the Camp David agreements of 1979, to a recognition of Palestinian rights.

In this perspective, there were at least three moments when, from the June 1967 war, a compromise between Israel and the Palestinians was possible and when, had such an agreement been reached and implemented, a lasting and minimally just peace could have been sustained:

  • the aftermath of the 1967 war, within the framework of United Nations Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967, a deliberately vague but potentially comprehensive document
  • the Oslo and White House accords of 1993-94 and thereafter.

All historic counterfactuals are open to query. But if we accept, first, that some counterfactuals about history in general are legitimate and, second, that in matters of inter-ethnic negotiations (whether Ireland or Cyprus, Kosovo or Kashmir) some such judgments can also be made, then I would argue that we can make the same claim, with supporting evidence, in the context of the Palestine dispute.

Here, however, we come to the reasons why these opportunities, insofar as they were realistic, were not realised.

Beyond polarisation

The majority of the literature on this question is, as is well known, unequivocal: depending on the position of the writer, one or other side, the Israelis or the Palestinians, are to blame. One side is reasonable, and open to compromise, the other rejects peace. Anyone familiar with writing on the Arab-Israeli question, or on Cyprus, of Western Sahara, or Ireland, will know similar work. Yet a measure of historical perspective, of comparison and of independent judgment, may serve to show that the story may be a little more complicated than that. In politics, as in personal relations, it is rare that one side is entirely blameless, the other wholly responsible.

Clearly, the conflict would never have arisen if the Zionist movement, which aimed from its establishment in 1897, to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, had not existed and achieved its goal, in May 1948. Clearly too, Israel, as an established state and, from June 1967, as the occupying power in Gaza and the West Bank, has a particular responsibility under international law to respect the lives and rights of the Palestinian people, something it has consistently failed to do. Above all, it has not withdrawn from the territories it occupied in the six-day war of 1967; indeed, through its illegal and provocative settlement policy, indulged by successive Israeli governments and deviously funded and justified, it has made a withdrawal all the more difficult as the years go by.

The Arab world, however - and more broadly the Muslim world (now comprising the fifty-seven member-states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference) - has also failed in its obligations to recognise, clearly and without ambiguity, the state of Israel; and indeed, through reckless demagogy and inconsistency, it has done great harm to the people of Palestine. Indeed some of the most promising Palestinian initiatives have been cut down from the Arab side - as when in 1978, Said Hammami, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) representative in London (and a good friend of mine) was assassinated in his office in Mayfair, London, by Iraqi agents, because he was engaging in public debate with Israeli parliamentarians.

As for the Palestinian organisations themselves, since their re-emergence as autonomous forces after the 1967 war whose baleful anniversary is being marked this week, they have also for much of the time failed to accept the terms, stated and implicit, of a final compromise peace. The PLO agreed in 1988 to recognise an Israeli state and in 1993 signed the Oslo accords, but other groups in Palestinian society did not, and the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 put an end to any serious dialogue between the two parties to the conflict.

Yasser Arafat, in a mistaken gamble on Israeli weakness, agreed to support and sustain the second intifada. Hamas, on its part, which had done so much to denounce and undermine the "Oslo conspiracy" as it termed the accords, then faced acute international pressure, and domestic crises, when elected in 2006. That rejection of Oslo was taken up by much of the Arab intelligentsia in exile, and abetted by bien-pensant western political and literary journals, only broadens the group of those responsible for the subsequent, catastrophic, turn of events.

Beyond intransigence

Responsibility for the impasse is, as in other conflicts, distributed and asymmetric. It operates at three levels:

  • as between the parties to the dispute themselves, the Palestinians and Israelis, neither of whom are blameless in this regard
  • as between the broader regional, religious and ethnic communities who associate with one or other party - the Arab and Muslim world on one side, the Jewish diaspora, and pro-Israeli public opinion in the United States on the other
  • as between the major world powers, the Soviet Union and the US in the cold war, the US more or less on its own, since 1991.

It is mistaken to imagine that the outside world could (on a regional or global level) ever force either side to a compromise against their will, any more than this could be done in Ireland or in the Armenian-Azeri conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Equally, if the two main parties did agree on a settlement, they would be able to make it work. But the exacerbating influence of external factors should not be neglected: the refusal of the overwhelming majority of Muslims to accept the legitimacy of Israel certainly emboldens the intransigent elements and undercuts those disposed to compromise among Palestinians; the influence of diaspora Jewish hardliners serves (as does the comparable group among Armenians) to lessen the room for manoeuvre of the politicians in the region.

This was a major factor in the failure of the 2000 Camp David negotiations: beyond the reservations of Arafat, and the overconfidence of Ehud Barak, both contributing factors, there lay the fact that on key issues, notably a partition of Jerusalem, something both practicable and necessary, neither the Jewish diaspora, nor the Arab and Muslim worlds, had prepared themselves to support such a compromise.

Similarly, the fundamental and enduring moral discrimination and bias of US public opinion and policy with regard to the conflict serves to embolden Israeli hardliners. While much is made, and correctly, of Israel's "right to exist" in secure borders, no comparable insistence is made with regard to the Palestinians. This was evident in the aftermath of the Hamas victory in 2006: an international economic and diplomatic boycott was imposed on Palestine by the US and the European Union states because Hamas refused to recognise Israel. But, by the same logic, a similar boycott should have been imposed on Israel for much of the previous fifty-eight years, because of its refusal since 1948 to recognise the parallel, and equally legitimate, rights of the Palestinian Arabs.

Beyond hope

The situation since 2000 has in many ways deteriorated sharply, and the obstacles to negotiating and sustaining a lasting compromise appear greater than ever. On both sides, moderate voices are increasingly silenced by more militant factions; hatred fuelled by religion is on the rise; politicians are too weak to deliver compromise even if they want to. In international terms, the United States has become, again, more unilaterally pro-Israel, while, on the regional scale, Iran has emerged as a new, and opportunistic, supporter of the hard line on Palestine. It is also questionable now - in light of the spread of Israeli settlements, roads and security outposts - if it is still meaningful to talk of a two-state solution being possible, except in the unlikely event of an Israeli decision simply to abandon this territory.

If this is so, then the prospect can only be for years, indeed decades, of more conflict, with the additional danger of new inter-wars that could include an exchange of nuclear missiles. The elements of a realistic, compromise peace remain, but it will require great fortune and good leadership, as well as firm and independent-minded external support, for this to be achieved.

Perhaps one day the Israelis will come to their senses and affect a withdrawal from the occupied territories. Perhaps they will decide, instead, to grant equal citizenship to the increasingly numerous Palestinians under their rule. Perhaps the Palestinians, and the Arabs and Muslims as a whole, will go far enough to reassure and clinch a deal with the Israelis. But in June 2007 all these seem implausible, when not unattainable, objectives.

Those who pay the price for this failure are, above all, the Palestinians, who have been ill-served by the demagogy and short-sightedness of their own leaders and friends abroad, and who face an enemy who, backed by the most powerful state on earth, is little inclined to make the concessions that justice, and a longer-term sense of its own security, would entail.

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