Why are Arabs and Israelis unable to reach a peaceful settlement?
I remember in junior high school learning about the Hundred Years’ War between England and France and laughing, thinking how impossible it would be. Looking at the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, however, we come to realise that we are not far from reaching the landmark century point. Only 30 years to go and, at the rate relations are going, this conflict might surpass the 100-year mark.
The setback in such instances is that the longer a conflict remains unresolved, the more difficult it becomes to resolve it. Time changes everything, including conflicts. The principal actors change, their position on the world stage changes, their supporters change. Alliances and friends can change, as can one’s enemies. This conflict has changed faces more than once. What began as a conflict over real estate has metamorphosed into a clash of ideologies, politics and religions.
US President Donald Trump had high hopes of making rapid headway in narrowing the wide divide keeping the Palestinians and Israelis apart and ironing out a quick fix in the early days of his presidency. However, as anyone with a grain of knowledge of the Middle East will attest, his failure to secure a lasting peace initiative could have been predicted. There is no quick fix for this 70-year-old problem. Indeed, the only fix seems to be the one set by Israel and peace does not seem to be in the cards or on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s agenda.
History has shown that any real move towards a peace deal between Arabs and Israelis requires the full attention of the office of the president of the United States and all the prestige that goes with it. That was the case when US President Jimmy Carter convened Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the Camp David presidential retreat in 1978. The Camp David peace accords were eventually signed, paving the way for the first peace deal between Israel and an Arab country.
Given the political upheaval surrounding Trump and the controversies surrounding several major issues he is trying to address on the domestic front — health reform, tax reform, etc. — the US president will find it extremely difficult to devote time exclusively to resolving the complex and delicate Middle East conflict.
If one is to read the political tea leaves correctly, Trump’s problems are likely to increase, despite the US Supreme Court ruling partially in favour of his travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority countries.
Why, despite all the early optimism that the president could quickly wrap up a Middle East peace deal, do we seem caught up in the same quicksand environment that the previous 17 major attempts at resolving the dispute fell into?
Despite optimism that came with the new American president and the winds of change that are blowing through the region, why is there still lethargy in the Middle East to negotiating peace?
There are two basic reasons for this. First, there is absolutely no trust between the two principal antagonists. Netanyahu is firmly opposed to granting the Palestinians the state they desire and deserve. So long as he remains in power, the likelihood of the Palestinians creating an independent state is next to nil.
On the Palestinian side, President Mahmoud Abbas is politically incapable of making meaningful concessions, especially given the fact that he only speaks for the Palestinians living in the West Bank. The Palestine Liberation Organisation has no control over the Gaza Strip, where 1.86 million people live under the rule of the pro-Islamists of the Hamas movement.
Hamas, under the influence of the Sunni Gulf countries, has begun to distance itself from the Iranians and the Muslim Brotherhood, a first step in a long process that will hopefully lead to a peaceful settlement eventually.
In the meantime, there is plenty of blame to go around. Each side’s demands can be justified, up to a point. You cannot blame the Israelis for their intransigence when it comes to the question of security. As much as Netanyahu likes to remind anyone who will listen that the United States is Israel’s best friend and that the United States will never let Israel down, there is a point beyond which Israel will not outsource its security, even to the United States.
As for the Palestinians, who have spent seven decades under conditions of occupation with no state to call their own, can we really blame them?