Israel should give peace a chance

Sunday 13/11/2016

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States opens an opportunity for an American president to give peacemaking in the Middle East another chance.
It has been quite a few years since the United States has tried to mediate in the Palestinian issue in any serious manner — not since US President Barack Obama’s first term in office when he attempted to find an accept­able solution to the Israeli-Pales­tinian dispute. However, Obama quickly lost interest when he realised the intricacies that dominate the crisis.
However, with a new president comes a new opportunity. Trump, being an outsider from the traditional crop of official US peace negotiators, heads to the White House with no pre-existing baggage on that issue. He would go to negotiations with no preconditions and, it can be hoped, with no biases. And let us hope he can apply the prestige of the United States to help him convince the antagonists to adhere to the same principles.
Trump, who has a full agenda for the first 100 days of his administration, has concentrated nearly all his efforts on domestic issues, mostly ignoring foreign politics and policies.
The unsolved Israeli-Palestin­ian dispute lies at the root of all troubles in the region.
Arabs and Israelis have fought, on average, one major war every decade since 1948, the date of the founding of the Jewish state in British Mandate Palestine. As wars go, most of those fought between Israel and its Arab neighbours were avoidable and unnecessary. The exception was the October 1973 war.
Arabs and Israelis have a hard time agreeing on just about anything and that includes the name given to that war. Arabs call it the October war, or Harb Teshrin or Harb Ramadan, after the Muslim holy month that coincided with the start of hostilities. In Israel, the war is known as the Yom Kippur war, as it began on the Day of Atone­ment, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
Why is this war so different and important to the Arabs? To understand the implications of the October war, one needs to examine the general mood that existed in the region after the June 1967 war, also known as the Six-Day war.
As tensions rose in the Middle East following a series of exchanges and a threat in May 1967 from Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser to close the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping, a move that would have choked its southern port of Eilat. Israel launched a pre-emptive strike. Flying from the west to evade Egyptian radar, Israeli warplanes attacked Egypt’s military air­fields, decimating the country’s air force in a few hours.
Over the course of six days of heavy fighting Israel captured the Sinai peninsula as well as the Gaza Strip, which had been under Egyptian administration. They took Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, before turning attention to capture the Golan Heights from Syria.
Efforts by the United States and the Soviet Union to bring about a ceasefire were eventually successful. The devastating Arab defeat on the battlefields demor­alised the Arab world.
Before any talk of lasting peace, before Arabs and Israelis could sit face-to-face and negotiate a peaceful settlement to the conflict, morale and prestige in the Arab world needed to be lifted. The sense of defeat in the Arab world had to be erased.
Thus, the necessity of the October war. Launched as a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, it lasted 18 days, during which the Arab side lost more than 2,000 tanks and close to 500 warplanes. Israel lost 804 tanks and 114 planes. The cost was estimated at $20 billion — about $111.3 billion in today’s money.
Although technically an Arab defeat, the October war was celebrated as a victory by both sides. Egypt and Syria renamed bridges and avenues and newspa­pers after the war.
For the Arabs, the war was of particular importance as it shattered decades of belief that Israel was a military giant, an impenetrable fortress, incapable of losing a war and that its spy agency, the Mossad, was infalli­ble. It was never believed that the Arabs could prepare and launch such a large-scale operation without the Israelis knowing about it. Yet they did.
The crossing of the Suez Canal and the taking of the Bar Lev Line was a major victory for the Egyptian Army and served as a huge morale booster for the Arab world.
In Israel, the mood was quite different. Israeli leaders and heroes of the 1948 war of inde­pendence and of the June 1967 war were questioned by the public, which demanded to know how this could happen. Iconic fig­ures such as minister of Defence Moshe Dayan and prime minister Golda Meir were suddenly on the defensive.
It was largely these elements, the bittersweet victories and defeats, that helped pave the way towards negotiations and an Israeli peaceful settlement with Egypt and the establishment of diplomatic and commercial relations with other Arab coun­tries. The reality that there could be no alternative to peace through negotiations began to sink in.
The Arabs realised that Israel, despite its initial successes, could not be completely defeated but Israel realised that it could.
Yet, despite the realisation that armed conflict would not bring about a settlement in the region, despite all the wars of the past and the tragedies unleashed by continuing wars in the region, Israel is still heavily arming, expanding settlements and hesitant to give peace with the Palestinians a real chance.
Is it not about time Israel gave the peace option a chance? Or is it waiting for another autumn war?