Why after so many years, so many decades, after so much suffering has the international community so notably failed to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict? This is an understandable question as Palestinians mark another miserable anniversary, the 75 years of the Nakba, the catastrophe. It is reflected in the findings of the Arab News-YouGov poll that highlight the pessimism at the situation, the disenchantment with the international community and Palestinian despair with the possibility of a two-state solution.
This is even more intense as Palestinians reflect on those 75 years – for them the Nakba is a continuous process, one they are still suffering from today, oppression and dispossession at the hands of Israel. So why has peace been so elusive? The amount of attention internationally has rarely been meager. The UN Security Council has debated this issue more than any other, passing dozens of resolutions. It was the UN General Assembly that opted for the partition resolution in 1947.
Since 1967, nearly every US president has made an effort to push some peace plan or other. The European powers have looked to have a role, and Norway even had its chance brokering the Oslo channel. Few conflicts anywhere on the planet have attracted such interest. Those unfortunate to be caught up in other protracted wars must be truly jealous of. No, the issue was never the amount of attention but the quality. Time was available but serious political will was rarely there to match and not just amongst the parties to the conflict.
From the outset, the international actors never understood the situation in Palestine, and ever worse, at times did not bother. Going back to 1917 and the Balfour declaration, its authors had never visited the country nor did they understand its make up. All too often many politicians took the Bible as their guide not the reality that was actually on the ground. Zionist myths were all too readily swallowed that this was a land a land without a people for a people without a land; that it was a case of an Israeli David against an Arab Goliath and that Israeli brilliance had made the desert bloom. Having taken dozens of British politicians to Palestine over the last 30 years, it never ceases to amaze me how shocked they are at a reality they discovered so at odds with what they imagined. Secondly, many of the international actors were ignorant at best and deeply prejudiced at worst. Arthur Balfour himself was anti-Semitic. Lloyd George was deeply anti-Muslim. From the outset a colonial mentality ensured Palestinians were never treated as a people with rights that had to be honoured, a situation that still persists in too many quarters today.
Many European leaders tried to salve their conscience of the appalling treatment of Jews in Europe by giving in to Zionist demands in Palestine regardless of the impact on the Palestinian Arab population. Germany is a specific case here and Israeli leaders continue to remind them of their historic guilt for what happened under the Nazis. Thirdly, the Zionist movement and Israeli leaders were very successful in targeting the major powers of the day. This started with the Ottoman empire, shirted to the British and then of course the US. The Palestinian leaderships were never so well connected in these quarters nor as adept at persuading these world leaders. The impressive Israeli lobbying operation in the US has particularly born fruit after 1967 as the US began to see Israel as its natural ally in the Middle East. Today any aspiring American politician figure addresses the Israel lobby group AIPAC and routinely gives unalloyed support to it.
In short, Israel has always enjoyed being depicted as a good faith actor when this was far from the case. Under President Trump, the Israeli leadership could do almost anything and expanded settlements at will. Under some less forgiving presidents, the Israeli leadership occasionally has to slow the pace but nothing more. The US has committed not to propose anything to the Palestinian side without having first run it by the Israeli leadership. The result is that US is not and never has been an impartial broker. It is no wonder as the Arab News-You Gov poll shows that most Palestinians, around 59 percent, do not trust the US as a broker. The remarkable thing is that this figure is not higher. Other powers such as Russia and China are now viewed by Palestinians more sympathetically as potential brokers. Fourth, supporters of Palestinians have often been divided. Whilst Israel has benefited from major power backing, all too often Arab and other states were all too easily divided and took divergent paths. Some states like Iran attempt to use the Palestinian issue for their own benefit rather than push for a resolution of the conflict.
The high point of Arab unity was the Arab Peace Initiative of 2003 that called for full Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory in exchange for full peace. Sadly, that offer was never pushed as hard and as far as it should have been. The opinion poll only highlights these divisions. Palestinians are just not sure about the future options, a reflection of the grim state of play. Only 51 percent are in favour of a two-state solution which is hardly a massive endorsement. Fifth, the sheer asymmetry of this conflict, the lopsided relationship between Israel and Palestinians. Even in 1948, Israel was in the more powerful position against the Arab armies that attacked. By 1967, it smashed the Arab armies in six days. It is a nuclear power. For decades it has been a regional superpower, militarily, economically and diplomatically. Against that, the Palestinians are largely in enforced exile or under occupation and blockade. The Palestinians cannot contest Israel on any front except perhaps one – the legal and even here the diplomatic obstacles line up against them. Israel’s demands for territory just get larger, and its rejectionism more entrenched. Sixth, the international community has suspended any effort to enforce its own laws and resolutions when it comes to Israel. The UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, the Fourth Geneva Convention and all the human rights conventions that Israel is in routine violation attract just statements shifting from concern to guarded condemnation.
Even when the UN General Assembly seeks a legal opinion from the International Court of Justice on whether Israel’s 56-year-old occupation is legal, major powers voted against it including the US and UK. If Israeli leaders know they can operate outside the boundaries of the norms of international law, why bother coming to the peace table with serious offers. None of the failures of the international community should take away from those of the parties to the conflict themselves. Israeli leaders have never made a serious offer to the Palestinians nor acknowledged the wrong that was done to them. The Palestinian leaderships over the years have alienated friends, and even their own people. It often has lacked a clear realistic strategy. The split between Fatah and Hamas has been disastrous.
Those on all sides who have perpetrated deliberate acts of violence on civilians have only pushed back chances for peace. Is it any wonder that this poll shows that over half of Palestinians in the West Bank no longer trust their leadership? A significant 44 percent say that neither Fatah nor Hamas represent them. It should be food for thought. Moving forward from the present low point, the international community has to reengage but in a different mindset. The US has cease monopolising its brokering role and allow other parties a significant say, opening the space for creative solutions. A peace process has to be founded on core principles that has to include the end of Israeli occupation, a fair settlement for refugees and a solution that respects the rights of both peoples rather than privilege Israelis only.