Former Senator George Mitchell is the newly-appointed ambassador of Middle eastern issues for the Obama administration. It is a good appointment. That Mitchell faces enormous hurdles hardly needs be stated, but the issues to be resolved are not complex.
We in the US and those in Europe almost always assume that the issue is land. That is, we recount the history of the region and bring it forward to the present, but our recounting always seems to begin in 1948, when Israel established its independence after defeating the Arab armies in battle.
This, we say, resulted in the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from Israel and their permanent, enduring status as Palestinian refugees, who came to be settled in the West Bank and Gaza. In 1967, Israel conquered those areas and since then the Palestinians have been living under Israeli "occupation."
If only the Israelis would withdraw back into the pre-1967-war borders, we say, giving Palestinians a homeland of their own, all would be well and at peace.
There are many errors in this (admittedly simplistic) retelling of the history. One, it ignores the fact that before 1948, there were hundreds of thousands of Jews already living in Palestine and everyone in the world, literally, thought of them as Palestinians without distinction from the Arabs who lived there, except, of course, of religion. (See my post from December 2008.)
It also ignores that just as many Jews were displaced by the 1948 war as Arabs, and that Arab governments were responsible for large numbers of Arab refugees from Israel. In fact, the Palestinian resistance organization, "Black September," which conducted the Munich Olympics attacks in 1972, did not take its name not from anything Israel did. The name comes from September 1970, when Jordan's armed forces violently crushed Palestinian polity inside Jordan, killing thousands, and expelled the Palestinians from Jordan proper into the West Bank.
But mainly this assessment of Israel and its neighbors founders on the error that the whole problem there is one of land. When I visited Israel in 2007, Israeli journalists and Foreign Ministry officers told my group clearly that if the basis of the problem was land, not only could peace be attained very quickly, the whole situation would never have deteriorated to the present point.
In 2000, in direct negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat under the auspices of President Clinton, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to hand over completely literally 95 percent of the land Israel controlled outside its pre-1967 borders, and make up the other five percent with land grants from Israel's original territory. The negotiations, done as part of the Oslo Accords process, would have resulted in independent statehood for the Palestinians and implementation of the "two-state solution" - Israel and Palestine, both autonomous.
In response, Yasir Arafat walked out of the conference and went home.
In 2005, PM Ariel Sharon removed all Jewish settlements from Gaza, leaving Gaza totally in Palestinian hands. Israel's hope was that Gazan autonomy would lead to peace there with a similar program being implemented in the West Bank. We know how things turned out in Gaza.
The issue is not land. It is ideology, an ideology tied to land to be sure, but not just land itself.
On the Palestinians' part, the ideology is simple: Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state, independent in itself. There is no difference between Hamas and the PA/Fatah on this matter. When each faction, and the Palestinians themselves, refer to an independent "Palestine," they do not mean anything resembling the two-state solution. They mean an independent, Islamic Palestine extending over all of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
On Israel's part, the Zionist ideal did not actually begin with possession of modern Israel in Palestine. In the latter 19th century, some Zionist leaders even said they would be happy with a Jewish state in what became modern Uganda. This did not last, however, and by the early 1900s Zionism became focused on the lands of biblical Israel. Israel's founders came to have three main objectives:
- A democratic state,
- that was independent and Jewish,
- extending over all the lands of biblical Israel.
Israel has never achieved all three objectives at the same time. These goals also explain the fierceness with which some pro-settlement Israelis insist that West Bank Jewish towns cannot be removed: much of the land of biblical Israel lies outside the 1967 borders (Samaria, for instance, and the city of Hebron, the second-holiest city in Judaism).
In this sense, Jewish nationalist ideology is indeed tied to land, and there are some locations that no Israeli Jew of any political stripe is willing to surrender, the ancient Temple grounds, for instance, and much of the city of Jerusalem, which is crammed with other holy Jewish sites.
Yet there is a crucial distinction between Israel's terrain-based ideology and that of the Palestinians: Israel would be quite happy for the two-state solution to become reality, as successive Israeli governments have made clear (or tried to), with full access by Muslims to Islam's holy sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Israel simply insists on the same courtesy, which the PA has never acceded in conferences. Nor does Israel call for the destruction of the West Bank and Gaza. (No, Israel's recently-concluded campaign is Gaza was not intended to destroy the place itself, although the destruction was massive.) And yes, recalcitrance to this plan on the part of the politically-powerful, pro-settlement factions in Israel have made it impossible for Israeli governments to go forward.
Even so, we only wish Mr. Mitchell well. However, if he proceeds on the basis of land equity rather than ideological conflict, his diplomacy will founder like all such attempts have before.
But there's another reason Mitchell's mission will likely die stillborn, says Prof. Anatol Lieven of King’s College London:
I see no signs, however, of a willingness in the [American] Democratic establishment to confront Israel on this issue—least of all on the part of a secretary of state who will, I fear, be engaged in a permanent, unstated, low-level campaign to inherit the presidency when Obama leaves, and who will therefore be extremely unwilling to confront any major domestic U.S. lobby. Without such willingness, Mitchell’s diplomacy will lack the necessary element of strength and will probably fail as so many before him.
There's plenty of ideology all around, and so the status quo is unlikely to change in the long term.