October 11, 2001
and the Arab-Israeli Conflict
A Brief Guide for the Perplexed
David A. Harris
The American Jewish Committee
As the magnitude of the horrific events of September 11 sinks in and our
nation implements its multifaceted military, diplomatic, and economic response,
greater public attention is once again being paid to the Middle East—in the
media, on college campuses, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, much of this
discussion is misinformed and lacks historical context.
This paper provides some perspectives and talking points, both historical
and contemporary. It is not intended as an exhaustive
examination of the subject.
The case to be made on behalf of Israel
is as strong today as ever.
When presented with the facts, sensible people should understand:
fifty-three-year-long quest for peace and security; the real dangers faced
- a tiny country no larger than
New Jersey, in a tumultuous,
heavily armed neighborhood;
unshakable commitment to democracy and democratic values;
- the common enemies of
extremism and fanaticism faced by Israel
and the United States;
- Israel’s impressive
contributions to world civilization in such fields as science, medicine,
technology, agriculture, and culture—contributions that are even more
remarkable given the country’s relative youth and its heavy defense
No country’s historical record is perfect, and Israel,
like other democratic nations, has made its share of mistakes. But
acknowledging fallibility is a national strength, not a weakness. And I’ll
gladly match Israel’s
record with that of any other country in the region, indeed well beyond the
region, when it comes to the values the West holds dear.
Israel has a
proud record and the country’s friends shouldn’t hesitate to shout it from the
rooftops. That record actually begins long before the establishment of the
modern state in 1948.
The Jewish people’s link to the land
of Israel is
incontrovertible and unbroken.
It spans nearly four thousand years. Exhibit A for this connection is the
Hebrew Bible. The Book of Genesis, the first of the five books of the Bible,
recounts the story of Abraham, the covenantal relationship with the one God,
and the move from Ur (in
to Canaan, the region corresponding roughly to Israel.
Exhibit B is any Jewish prayer book in use anywhere in the world. The
references in the liturgy to Zion,
the land of Israel,
The same is true of the connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem.
It dates back to the period of King David, who lived approximately three
thousand years ago, and who established Jerusalem
as the capital of Israel.
Ever since, Jerusalem has
represented not only the geographical center of the Jewish people, but also the
spiritual and metaphysical heart of our faith and identity. Indeed, the
relationship between Jerusalem and
the Jewish people is entirely unique in the annals of history.
Jerusalem was the site of the
two Temples—the first built by King
Solomon during the tenth century B.C.E. and destroyed in 586 B.C.E. during the
Babylonian conquest, and the second built less than a century later,
refurbished by King Herod, and destroyed in 70 C.E. by Roman forces.
As the psalmist wrote, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand
wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of thee, if I do
not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.”
Though in forced dispersion for nearly nineteen hundred years, Jews never
stopped yearning for Zion
In addition to expressing this through prayer, there were always Jews who
lived in the land of Israel,
and especially Jerusalem. Indeed,
since the nineteenth century, Jews have constituted a majority of the city’s
population. For example, according to the Political Dictionary of the State
of Israel, Jews were 61.9 percent of Jerusalem’s
population in 1892.
The historical and religious link to Jerusalem
is especially important because some Arabs seek to rewrite history and assert
that Jews are “foreign occupiers” or “colonialists” with no actual tie to the
land. Such attempts to deny Israel’s
legitimacy are demonstrably false and need to be exposed for the lies they are.
They also entirely ignore the “inconvenient” fact that when Jerusalem
was under Muslim (i.e., Ottoman and, later, Jordanian) rule, it was always a
Zionism is the quest for national self-determination of the Jewish
Although the yearning for a Jewish homeland derives from a longing that
dates back thousands of years and is given expression in classic Jewish texts,
it also stems from a more contemporary reality.
Theodor Herzl, considered the father of modern Zionism, was a secular Jew
and Viennese journalist who became appalled at the blatant anti-Semitism
fueling the infamous Dreyfus case in France,
the first European country to extend full rights to the Jews. He came to the
conclusion that Jews could never enjoy full equality as a minority in European
societies, since the sad legacy of centuries of anti-Semitism was too deeply
embedded. Therefore, he called for the establishment of a Jewish state, which
he set out to describe in his landmark book Altneuland (“Old-New
Land”), published in 1902.
Herzl’s vision was endorsed by the British foreign secretary, Lord Balfour,
who issued a statement on November 2,
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of
a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to
facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that
nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of
existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political
status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
In 1922, the League of Nations, entrusting Britain
with a mandate for Palestine,
recognized “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine.”
The rise of Hitler and the Nazi “Final Solution,” spearheaded by Germany and
its allies—and facilitated by widespread complicity as well as indifference to
the fate of the Jews—revealed in tragic dimensions the desperate need for a
Jewish state. (Apropos, Haj Amin el-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem,
was among the enthusiastic supporters of the Nazi genocide of the Jewish
Only in such a state, the Zionist movement believed, would Jews not have to
rely on the “goodwill” of others to determine their destiny. All Jews would be
welcome to settle in the Jewish state as a refuge from persecution or as a
fulfillment of a “yearning for Zion.”
Indeed, this latter point fired the imagination of many Jews who settled in
what was then a generally desolate Palestine,
in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, out of idealistic
convictions, and who laid the foundation for the modern State of Israel.
Israel’s adversaries to this day twist the meaning of Zionism and try to
present it as a demonic force, with the goal of undermining Israel’s raison
d'être and isolating the state from the community of nations.
This happened in 1975, when the UN, over the strenuous objections of the
democratic countries, adopted a resolution labeling Zionism as “racism.” The
resolution was repealed by the UN in 1991, but the canard resurfaced earlier
this year (of all places) at the World Conference Against
Racism in Durban, South
Africa. The Arab bloc, however, failed in
its latest effort to condemn Zionism in the conference documents. This time
many nations understood that the conflict between Israel
and the Palestinians is, and has always been, political, not racial.
In this vein, it’s well worth remembering the comments of the Reverend
Martin Luther King, Jr. on anti-Zionism:
And what is anti-Zionism? It is the denial to the Jewish people of a
fundamental right that we justly claim for the people of Africa
and all other nations of the Globe. It is discrimination against Jews, my
friends, because they are Jews. In short, it is anti-Semitism.… Let my words
echo in the depths of your soul: When people criticize Zionism, they mean
Jews—make mistake about it.
It is also important stress that non-Jews were not excluded from Israel’s
nation-building. To the contrary, today one-fifth of Israel’s
citizens are non-Jews, including over one million Arabs, and Arabic is an official
Moreover, Israel’s Jewish population has always reflected enormous national,
ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity, which became even more pronounced
in the 1980s, when Israel rescued tens of thousands of black Jews from drought-stricken
Ethiopia who were dreaming of resettlement in Israel. The eloquent comments at
the time of Julius Chambers, the director-general of the NAACP Legal Defense
and Education Fund, bear repeating:
Were the victims of Ethiopian famine white, countless nations might have
offered them refuge. But the people dying every day of starvation in Ethiopia
and the Sudan
are black, and in a world where racism is officially deplored by virtually
every organized government, only one non-African nation has opened its doors
and its arms. The quiet humanitarian action of the State of Israel, action
taken entirely without regard to the color of those being rescued, stands as a
condemnation of racism far more telling than mere speeches and resolutions.
The Arab-Israeli conflict was avoidable.
Shortly after its founding in 1945, the United Nations took an interest in
the future of mandatory Palestine,
then under British rule. A UN commission (UNSCOP, or the United Nations Special
Committee on Palestine) recommended
to the General Assembly a partition of the land between the Jews and the Arabs.
Neither side would get all it sought, but a division would recognize that there
were two populations in the land—one Jewish, the other Arab—each meriting a
On November 29, 1947,
the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 33 in favor, 13 opposed, and 10
abstaining, adopted Resolution 181, known as the Partition Plan.
Acceptance of the Partition Plan would have meant the establishment of two
states, but the Arab states and the local Arab population vehemently rejected
the proposal. They refused to recognize a Jewish claim to any part of the land
and chose war to fulfill their objectives.
On May 14, 1948, the
State of Israel was founded. Winston Churchill said at the time:
The coming into being of a Jewish state … is an event in world history to be
viewed in the perspective not of a generation or a century, but in the
perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years.
Years later, President John F. Kennedy offered his perspective on the
meaning of Israel:
not created in order to disappear—Israel
will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and home of the brave. It can
neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the
shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom.
Declaration of the Establishment of the State included these words:
We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer
of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of
cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own
Tragically, that offer was ignored.
On May 15, 1948,
the armies of Egypt,
attacked the fledgling Jewish state, seeking its destruction.
In the course of this war, launched by the Arabs, civilian populations were
affected, just as in all wars. Controversies continue to this day about how
many local Arabs fled Israel
because Arab leaders called on them to do so or threatened them if they did
not, how many left out of fear of the fighting, and how many were compelled to
leave by Israeli forces. Importantly, hundreds of thousands of Arabs ended up
staying in Israel
and became citizens of the state.
But the central point must not be overlooked—Arab countries began this war
aiming to wipe out the 650,000 Jews in the new State of Israel, and by doing
so, the Arabs defied the UN plan for the creation of both Arab and Jewish
There have been two refugee populations created by the Arab-Israeli
conflict, not one.
While world attention has been focused on the Palestinian refugees, the
plight of Jews from Arab countries, hundreds of thousands of whom became
refugees as well, has been largely ignored. Indeed, many experts believe that
the size of the two groups was roughly comparable. But there was one profound
immediately absorbed the Jewish refugees, while the Palestinian refugees were
placed in camps and deliberately kept there as a matter of calculated Arab
policy and with the complicity of the UN.
There is no comparable situation in the world today where a refugee
population has been cynically exploited in this way.
Until now, only one Arab country—Jordan—has
offered citizenship to the Palestinian refugees.
The other twenty-one Arab countries, with their vast territory and common
language, religion, and ethnic roots with the Palestinians, have refused to do
so. Why? Sadly, they appear to have little interest in alleviating the plight
of refugees living in often squalid camps for two and three generations.
Rather, they want to breed hatred of Israel
and thus use the refugees as a key weapon in the ongoing struggle against Israel.
Parenthetically—just to give a sense how Palestinians are treated in the
Arab world—Kuwait summarily expelled over 300,000 Palestinians working in the
country (but never given Kuwaiti passports) when Yasir Arafat voiced support
for Iraq in the Gulf War and the Palestinians were seen as a potential fifth column.
There was hardly a peep of protest from other Arab countries about what
amounted to the expulsion of an entire Palestinian community.
Unfortunately, the story of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries is
not often told.
When the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is raised, Arab
spokesmen often feign ignorance or strenuously assert that Jews lived well
under Muslim rule (unlike Jews in Christian Europe). Sometimes they
disingenuously argue that Arabs, by definition, cannot be anti-Semitic because,
like Jews, they are Semites.
It is certainly true that there was no equivalent of the Holocaust in the
Jewish experience in Muslim lands, and it also true that there were periods of
cooperation and harmony, but the story does not end there. Jews never enjoyed
full and equal rights with Muslims in Islamic countries; there were clearly
delineated rules of behavior for Jews as second-class citizens. Violence
against Jews was not unknown in the Muslim world.
To cite but one illustration of the fate of Jews in Arab countries, Jews
lived uninterruptedly in Libya since the time of the Phoenicians, that is, many
centuries before the Arabs arrived from the Arabian Peninsula, bringing Islam
to North Africa and settling—occupying?—lands already inhabited by Berbers,
The vast majority of Libya’s
40,000 Jews left between 1948 and 1951, following pogroms in 1945 and 1948. In
became an independent country. Despite constitutional guarantees, the Jews who
remained in the country were denied the right to vote, hold public office,
obtain Libyan passports, supervise their own communal affairs, or purchase new
property. After a third pogrom in 1967, Libya’s
remaining 4,000 Jews fled, permitted to leave with only one suitcase and the
equivalent of $50. In 1970, the Libyan government announced a series of laws to
confiscate the assets of Libya’s
exiled Jews and issued bonds providing for fair compensation payable within
fifteen years. But 1985 came and went, with no compensation paid.
At the same time, the government destroyed Jewish cemeteries, using the
headstones to pave new roads, as part of a calculated effort to erase any
vestige of the Jewish historical presence in the country.
There were an estimated 754,000 Jews in Arab countries in 1948, the year of Israel’s
establishment; today, there are fewer than 8,000, the bulk of whom live in Morocco
Where was the Arab sympathy for the Palestinian population from 1948 to
With armistice agreements ending Israel’s
War of Independence, the Gaza Strip was in the hands of Egypt.
Rather than consider sovereignty for the loArab population and the Palestinian
refugees who settled there, Egyptian authorities imposed military rule.
Meanwhile, the West Bank and the eastern half of Jerusalem
were ruled by Jordan.
Again, there was no move to create an independent Palestinian state; to the
annexed the territory, a step recognized by only two countries in the world, Britain
It was during this period, 1964 to be precise, that the Palestine Liberation
Organization (PLO) was founded. Its aim was not the creation of a state in the
lands under Egyptian and Jordanian rule, but rather the elimination of Israel
and the founding of an Arab Palestinian state in the whole of Palestine.
Article 15 of the PLO Charter clearly revealed this goal:
The liberation of Palestine,
from an Arab viewpoint, is a national duty to repulse the Zionist, imperialist
invasion from the great Arab homeland and to purge the Zionist presence from Palestine.
In the ensuing years, PLO-sponsored terrorism took its deadly toll, focusing
on Israeli, American, European, and Jewish targets.
How did Israel
come into possession of the West Bank, Golan
Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, and the
eastern half of Jerusalem,
including the Old City?
These days, some people reflexively refer to the “occupied territories”
without ever asking the question of how they fell into Israel’s
hands in 1967. Once again, there are those in the Arab world who seek to
rewrite history and impute expansionist motives to Israel,
but the facts are clear. Here’s a quick summary of some of the major events
leading up to the Six-Day War:
On May 16, 1967, Cairo
Radio announced: “The existence of Israel
has continued too long. The battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel.”
On the same day, Egypt
demanded the withdrawal of UN forces that had been stationed in Gaza
and Sharm el-Sheikh since 1957. Three days later, the UN announced it would
comply with the Egyptian demand.
- On May 19, Cairo Radio said:
“This is our chance, Arabs, to deal Israel
a mortal blow of annihilation….”
- On May 23, Egypt’s
President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared his intention to block the Strait
of Tiran to Israeli shipping,
thus effectively severing Israel’s
vital trade links with East Africa and Asia.
replied that under international law this was a casus belli, an act of
- On May 27, Nasser
said that “our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.”
- On May 30, Jordan’s
King Hussein placed Jordanian forces under Egyptian control. Egyptian,
Iraqi, and Saudi troops were sent to Jordan.
- On June 1, Iraq’s
leader added his thoughts: “We are resolved, determined, and united to
achieve our clear aim of wiping Israel
off the map.”
- On June 3, Cairo Radio hailed
the impending Muslim holy war.
- On June 5, Israel,
surrounded by Arab forces likely to attack at any moment, launched a
preemptive strike. Within six days, Israel
had defeated its adversaries and, in the process, captured land on the
Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian fronts.
had made strenuous efforts, via UN channels, to persuade King Hussein to stay
out of the war. Unlike Egypt
whose hostility toward Israel
was unremitting, Jordan
had quietly cooperated with Israel
and shared concerns about the Palestinians’ aggressive designs. Years later,
King Hussein publicly acknowledged that his decision to enter the 1967 war, in
which he lost control of the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem,
was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made.
Another lost peace opportunity.
Shortly after the Six-Day War, Israel
indicated its desire to negotiate peace with its Arab neighbors. While Israel
was unprepared to relinquish the eastern half of Jerusalem—which contained
Judaism’s holiest sites and which, despite the terms of the Israeli-Jordanian
armistice agreement, had been entirely off limits to Israel for nearly nineteen
years (while Jordan desecrated dozens of synagogues in the Old City)—it was
willing to exchange the seized territories for a comprehensive settlement. But Israel’s
overtures were rebuffed. An unmistakable response came from Khartoum,
Sudan’s capital, where
Arab leaders issued a resolution on September 1 announcing the three noes: “no
peace, no recognition, and no negotiation.”
In November 1967, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242.
This resolution, often cited in discussions about the Arab-Israeli conflict
as the basis for resolving it, is not always quoted with precision. The
resolution stresses “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war
and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every [emphasis
added] State in the area can live in security.”
Further, it calls for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied
in the recent conflict,” but deliberately omitted use of the word “the” before
the word “territories.” The U.S.
ambassador to the UN at the time, Arthur Goldberg, noted that this was
intentional, so that any final settlement could allow for unspecified border
adjustments that would take into account Israel’s
The resolution also includes a call for “termination of all of claims or
states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty,
territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and
their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from
threats or acts of force [emphasis added].”
And, not least, it “affirms further the necessity (a) For guaranteeing freedom
of navigation through international waterways in the area; (b) For achieving a
just settlement of the refugee problem [Author’s comment: Note the absence of
reference to which refugee problem, allowing for more than one interpretation
of the refugee populations covered.]; and (c) For guaranteeing the territorial
inviolability and political independence of every State in the area, through
measures including the establishment of demilitarized zones.”
On October 22, 1973,
during the Yom Kippur War, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 338,
which called for a cease-fire, implementation of Resolution 242 in its
entirety, and the onset of talks between the parties concerned. Resolutions 242
and 338 are normally cited together in connection with any Arab-Israeli peace
The settlements have been a contentious issue.
No question, but, like just about everything else associated with the
Arab-Israeli conflict, there’s more here than meets the eye.
victory in the 1967 war, and once it became clear that the Arabs were not
interested in negotiating peace, Israel,
under a Labor-led coalition, began encouraging the construction of settlements,
or new communities, in the captured lands. This practice was accelerated under
Likud-led governments after 1977.
Whatever one’s perspective on the settlements, it’s important to understand
Israel’s motives in moving ahead on this front: (a) Israel contended that the
land was disputed—both Arabs and Jews laid claim to it—and since there was no
sovereign authority, Israel had as much right to settle there as the
Palestinians; (b) there had been Jewish communities in the West Bank long
before 1948, for example, in Hebron and Gush Etzion, both sites of massacres by
Arabs in which large numbers of Jews were killed; (c) the West Bank, according
to the Bible, represents the cradle of Jewish civilization, and some Jews,
driven by faith and history, wanted to reassert that link; (d) the Israeli
government believed that certain settlements could serve a useful security
purpose; and (e) some Israeli officials felt that building settlements, and
thus creating facts on the ground, might hasten the day when the Palestinians,
presumably realizing that time was not on their side, would talk peace.
Today, most Israelis agree that any peace agreement with the Palestinians
will necessarily entail dismantling many, though not all, of the settlements.
Polls repeatedly show that a majority of Israelis accept this prospect, but
only in the context of a real peace process. Ho, Israelis fear that any
unilateral decisions to withdraw would be viewed by the Palestinians and their
Arab supporters as a of weakness, not strength, and
could only encourage further violence.
In hindsight, this perception of Israeli weakness may have actually been one
of the unintended consequences of Israel’s
unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon
in 1999. Israeli troops were there for one reason only—not to acquire
territory, but rather to maintain a security zone that would prevent deadly
terrorist strikes from Lebanon
on the villages and towns of northern Israel.
But periodic attacks by Hizballah on Israeli soldiers took their toll, and
Prime Minister Barak concluded that the benefit to Israel
no longer justified the price. He ordered the troops home. Hizballah declared
victory over the seemingly invincible Israel Defense Force (IDF), and this may
have emboldened Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to believe that they
could follow suit and accomplish what no Arab army had succeeded in doing since
Israel’s founding in 1948, namely, defeat the IDF.
The possibilities of peace
In 1977, Menachem Begin, Israel’s
first Likud prime minister, took office. That did not stop Egypt’s
President Anwar Sadat from making his historic trip to Israel
the same year and addressing the Knesset, Israel’s
parliament. An extraordinary peace process ensued, with all the ups and downs
that came with a difficult set of negotiations. In September 1978, the Camp
David Accords were adopted, containing a framework for comprehensive peace,
including a proposal for limited self-government for the Palestinians. (The
proposal was rejected by the Palestinians.) Six months later, a peace accord
was signed and the thirty-one-year state of war between Israel
and Egypt came
to an end.
It was a remarkable moment in history. Sadat, virulently anti-Israel and
anti-Semitic for much of his life, and the mastermind of Egypt’s surprise
attack (together with Syria) on Israel that ignited the 1973 Yom Kippur War,
teamed up with Begin, the head of Israel’s leading right-wing party, to open a
new chapter in Arab-Israel relations. It proved that with will, courage, and
vision, anything was possible.
But every Arab country, except Sudan
severed diplomatic ties with Cairo.
And in 1981 the Egyptian leader was assassinated by members of Egyptian Islamic
Jihad, who would later become brothers-in-arms of Osama bin Laden and his
For its part, Israel
yielded the vast expanse of the Sinai (approximately 23,000 square miles),
which had provided a critical strategic buffer zone between itself and Egypt.
It also gave up valuable oil fields it had discovered in the Sinai, a big
sacrifice for a country with no natural resources to speak of. It closed
important air bases it had constructed. And, despite Begin’s staunch commitment
to settlements, it dismantled these enclaves in Sinai.
In doing so, Israel
demonstrated very clearly its desire for peace, its willingness to take
substantial risks and make sacrifices, and its scrupulous commitment to
fulfilling the terms of its agreements.
reached an historic peace agreement in 1994.
This was a much easier negotiation than with Egypt,
already enjoyed good, if quiet, ties based on overlapping national interests
with regard to the Palestinians. Israel
once again demonstrated its deep yearning for peace and readiness to take the
steps necessary to achieve it, including border adjustments and water-sharing
arrangements called for by Amman.
Another opportunity for peace was spurned by the Palestinians in
When Ehud Barak took office as prime minister in 1999, he announced an
ambitious agenda. The Israeli leader said he would attempt to reach an historic
end to the conflict with the Palestinians within thirteen months, picking up
where his predecessors had left off, and building on the momentum of the 1991
Madrid Conference and accelerated by the 1993 Oslo Accords. As it turned out,
he went beyond what anyone in Israel
might have thought possible in his willingness to compromise.
With the active support of the Clinton
administration, Barak pushed the process as far and as fast as he could, and,
in doing so, he broke new ground on such infinitely sensitive issues as Jerusalem
for the sake of an agreement. But alas, he and Clinton failed.
Arafat was not ready to engage the process and make it work.
Rather than press ahead with the talks, which would have led to the
establishment of the first-ever Palestinian state, with its capital in eastern
Jerusalem, he walked away, after preposterously trying to persuade President
Clinton that there was no historical Jewish link to Jerusalem and dropping the
bombshell demand of a so-called “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and
their generations of descendants. Arafat surely knew that this was an instant
deal-breaker, since no Israeli government could ever conceivably allow millions
of Palestinians to settle in Israel
and thus destroy Israel
as a Jewish state.
Tragically, Arafat revealed himself incapable or
unwilling, or both, of pursuing peace at the negotiating table. Instead, he
returned to a more familiar pattern—on occasion talking peace while
consistently encouraging violence.
He knew that the media images of heavily armed Israeli troops facing
Palestinians in the streets, including children cynically sent to the front
lines, would work to his advantage. Israel
would be cast in the role of aggressor and oppressor, the Palestinians as
It wouldn’t be long, he calculated, before the Arab world would angrily
denounce Israel, the nonaligned countries would dutifully follow suit, the
Europeans would urge still more concessions from Israel to placate the
Palestinians, international human rights groups would accuse Israel of
excessive force, and the world, plagued by a short memory, would forget that
the Palestinian leader had just spurned an unprecedented chance to strike a
Moreover, he presumably reckoned, Washington
might eventually take a tougher line on Israel,
as the result of pressure from Egypt
and Saudi Arabia,
two Arab countries that loom large in the worldview of American policy makers.
And finally, there was the long-term possibility that Israel, a first-world
country, would begin to tire of the struggle and its daily toll of military and
civilian casualties, the negative impact on the nation’s mood and psyche—not to
speak of its economy—and the potentially growing international isolation.
Some in the media have too uncritically bought the Palestinian spin and, as
a consequence, have been less than fully objective and balanced in their
coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So, too, have a number of
international human rights groups, which sometimes seem to have a blind spot
for human rights violations in the Arab world, including especially in the
Palestinian Authority. And many European Union nations, Germany
being the notable exception, haven’t always been as understanding of Israel’s
profound security dilemmas as they should be; it’s undoubtedly easier to render
judgments on the situation from the safety and comfort of distant capitals.
What exactly is Israel
expected to do to ensure the safety of its citizens? What would other states do
in a similar situation?
We’re about to find out, as the United States
and its allies respond to Osama bin Laden, Al Qaida, the Taliban, and possibly
some nations that provide shelter and support for terrorist groups. Judging
from the military buildup to date and the global diplomatic, political, and financial
full-court press, it doesn’t look as if “restraint,” “dialogue,” “compromise,”
and “understanding” are currently part of Washington’s vocabulary with regard
to those who attack us, nor should they be.
At the end of the day, Israel
tragically finds it has no credible negotiating partner. Instead, its citizens
are targeted for murder by suicide bombers who are brainwashed to believe they
are destined for martyrdom and sexual ecstasy in paradise.
Despite repeated requests, the Palestinian Authority has proved unwilling to
arrest and imprison those responsible for murdering Israelis.
The limits on a Palestinian police force, agreed to in the OAccords, have
long since been exceeded, and well-armed and aggressive militia forces are
emerging to do battle with Israel.
Several of these groups, including the Tanzim and Force 17, are under the
direct control of Arafat.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two radical groups on the American list of
terrorist organizations that are believed to have links with bin Laden’s Al
Qaida, operate with relative impunity in the Palestinian-controlled areas.
Cease fires negotiated with Israel
are regularly broken by the Palestinians. Ze’ev Schiff, the highly respected
defense correspondent for Ha’aretz, noted last year (October 20) that
Arafat agreed to twenty-two cease-fires with Jordan’s King Hussein until he was
banished from the country thirty years ago and to more than seventy cease-fires
during the Lebanese civil war.
The education for peace that is so necessary to laying the groundwork for a
new era in the region, regrettably, is absent in the Palestinian Authority.
Schools, the media, and the mosques preach hatred of Jews, vilification of
Judaism, Holocaust denial, demonization of Israel,
Perhaps the tragic events of September 11 will help the world grasp the kind
of threat Israel
has been facing and the rationale for Israel’s
Unflinching yes, but also measured. The truth is that Israel
could deliver a much more devastating blow to the Palestinians but has chosen
not to for a host of diplomatic, political, strategic, and humanitarian
In the final analysis, even though Israel
enjoys military superiority, Jerusalem
understands that this is not a conflict that can be won exclusively on the
battlefield. Simply put, neither side is going to disappear. This conflict can
be resolved only at the peace table, if and when the Palestinians finally
realize they have squandered more than fifty years and numerous chances to
build a state—alongside Israel,
not in its place.
is a democracy and thinks and behaves like a democracy.
That’s not always easy to do in light of the situation it faces. But, while Israel
gets its share of criticism for allegedly heavy-handed methods, the Palestinians,
despite all their shrill rhetoric, understand better than anyone that it is
democratic values and rule of law that they regard as the nation’s Achilles’
The Palestinians know, even if they don’t publicly acknowledge it, that the
democratic system puts brakes and limits on Israel’s
They know that Israel
has a multiparty political system and that these parties need to differentiate
themselves from one another to have any chance of electoral success. In fact, the
parties include every viewpoint from extreme left to extreme right, from
secular to religious, from Russian Jewish to Arab. In fact, Israeli Arabs
currently hold approximately 10 percent of the Knesset seats (and a few of
these parliamentarians have identified with Israel’s
enemies in the current conflict).
They know that public opinion in Israel
counts for something and can affect policy; witness the grassroots movement
that successfully urged the government to pull out of southern Lebanon.
They know that Israel
enjoys a free and inquisitive press.
They know that Israel
has an independent judiciary that occupies a respected place in the nation’s
They know that Israel
has a thriving civil society and numerous human rights groups that stress their
objectivity and impartiality.
They know that Israel protects freedom of worship for all religious
communities, indeed has gone so far as to prevent Jews from praying on the
Temple Mount, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, specifically to avoid tension with
Muslim worshipers at the two mosques built there, and, since the 1967 Six-Day
War, has ceded authority for the area to the Waqf, the Muslim religious
They know that Israel
cares about world opinion, especially American and European reactions to its
They know that Israel, based on the core values of the Jewish tradition,
attaches great importance to ethical and moral standards of behavior, even
when, at times, it falls short of them.
And, as a result, they know that there are self-imposed restraints on
Israeli behavior precisely because Israel
is a democratic state and because, in the final analysis, its government is
accountable to the will of the people.
If only the Middle East resembled
the Middle West!
Wouldn’t that augur well for peaceful conflict resolution and regional
cooperation? When was the last time that one
democratic nation launched a military attack against another democracy?
Regrettably, democracy is a very rare commodity in the Middle East.
The Palestinians know how Syria’s
Assad dealt with Islamic fundamentalists, killing an estimated 10,000-20,000 in
Hama and leveling the city as an
unmistakable message to other fundamentalists in the country.
They know how Iraq’s
Saddam Hussein handled the Kurds, using poison gas to kill thousands and
destroying hundreds of Kurdish villages.
They know, as noted above, how Kuwait
responded to Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War by
expelling 300,000 Palestinians from the country in one fell swoop.
They know how Saudi Arabia
reacted to Yemeni support for Saddam Hussein during the same war. Overnight,
the country expelled an estimated 600,000 Yemenis.
And they know how Egypt
dealt with its own Islamic radicals in the 1990s—below the radar of the media,
without fanfare. Within a few years, thousands of these radicals were either
dead or locked up in jails.
The Palestinians count on the fact that Israel
will not follow any of these examples. That is Israel’s
strength as a democracy, but it comes with a price. The Palestinians seek to
take advantage of it. But they have made one fundamental error—they have
will to survive.
Israelis desperately want peace. At the same time, peace at any price is
Israelis want to stop worrying about bombs on buses and in malls. They want
to put an end to burying their children, victims of terror or military
engagements. In short, they want to lead normal lives, and they have
demonstrated their willingness time and again to endorse far-reaching, even
potentially risky, compromises in the quest for peace.
Israelis, however, have learned the painful lessons of history. Peace
without security can be tantamount to national suicide. And who knows better
than the citizens of Israel,
who include Holocaust survivors and refugees from communist lands and from Arab
extremism, how dangerous it can be to let one’s guard down too quickly, too
Are Israelis simply to ignore Iran’s and Iraq’s calls for Israel’s
annihilation, their insatiable appetite for acquiring weapons of mass
destruction, Syria’s hospitality to terrorist groups bent on Israel’s
destruction, Hizballah’s accumulation of short-range missiles capable of
reaching the northern third of Israel, and the blood-curdling calls for suicide
attacks against Israel heard in Gaza and the West Bank?
Our world hasn’t been terribly kind to the naive, the credulous, or the
self-delusional. Despite the doubters at the time, Hitler meant exactly what he
said when he wrote Mein Kampf, Saddam Hussein meant exactly what he said
when he insisted that Kuwait was a province of Iraq, and Osama bin Laden meant
exactly what he said when he called for killing as many Americans as possible.
in a particularly rough neighborhood. To survive, it has had to be courageous
both on the battlefield and at the peace table, passing both tests with flying
colors. As Israel
faces the unresolved challenges in its region, it deserves both understanding
New York, October 11, 2001