Peace will elude us until Arab world accepts the reality of Israel

Bren Carlill

The Weekend Australian, July 12-13, 2008


PEOPLE frequently blame individual aspects of the Arab-Israel conflict for the lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But applying such selective moral outrage, as did Paul Heywood-Smith and Bassam Dally in last week’s Inquirer, ignores the elephant in the room. This elephant isn’t Israeli settlements. Nor is it just Palestinian terrorism.

The reason Israeli-Palestinian peace seems so elusive is one of simple rejectionism. Much of the Palestinian and wider Arab elite still fundamentally reject Israel’s right to exist.

Given that Israel has existed for 60 years, this sounds bizarre. But it explains why books, Palestinian television programs and even summer camps for children promote ideas of Israel’s supposedly inevitable destruction. It explains the Palestinian decision to boycott next month’s International Geographers’ Congress, because Israelis will be present. More importantly, it explains why most Arab states refuse to make peace with Israel.

Yes, the Arab League issued an Arab-Israel peace plan. But its wording made clear Israel was required to effectively dissolve itself as a country by absorbing all Palestinian refugees, plus their descendants. Only then would Arab countries decide whether to enter negotiations with Israel. Absorbing four million non-Jews would remove the Jewish nature of the Jewish state – a non-starter for Israel. Israel suggested using the proposal as a basis for negotiations. The Arab League rejected this outright, proving it wasn’t attempting peace, rather attempting to make Israel look bad for rejecting it.

The widespread rejection of Israel as a distinct Middle Eastern society has seen many Arabs blaming Israel for the region’s woes.

This furphy has been partially internalised by outsiders claiming Middle East peace would be realised if only the US and Australian governments became “honest brokers” and leaned on Israel to remove settlements, for instance. But these governments are honest. They criticise the Palestinian Authority for not ending corruption, terrorism or incitement. Where they think Israel errs, they say so. Most of the time, people who call for governments to be “honest brokers” in the conflict, rather dishonestly mean they think those governments should excuse Palestinian wrongdoing.

Besides, anyone who thinks removing Israeli settlements will improve living standards or human rights in the Arab Middle East (or prevent Sunnis and Shi’ites slaughtering each other in Iraq) is dreaming.

In 2005, Israel removed its settlements from Gaza, in a voluntary action designed to prompt peaceful Palestinian reciprocation.

The result wasn’t peaceful reciprocity. The number of rockets fired from Gaza into nearby Israeli towns dramatically increased.

Palestinian media portrayed the Israeli withdrawal as a military defeat, urging Palestinian fighters to double their efforts in order to defeat the Zionists once and for all. Nor did Palestinians build housing or industry in the former settlements.

My point? The settlements are often criticised as an obstacle to Palestinian development and a reason for violence. Yet, when the settlement excuse was removed, development didn’t increase, nor violence decrease.

Moreover, all parties to the conflict know that when a final status agreement is signed, any Jewish presence in what will become Palestine will be removed. Though Israel will keep some settlements, Palestinians will gain part of Israel, in a negotiated land swap. Palestine will become the Judenrein state it has always dreamed of being.

Despite these well-known facts, some still claim the settlements prevent peace. A recent Israeli announcement to build more apartments in eastern Jerusalem is provided as an example. But these apartments aren’t new settlements, nor are they taking any land from Palestinians; they’re completely within pre-existing Jewish suburbs.

Palestinians might hate settlements, but settlements aren’t the reason for a lack of peace. The reason is the ongoing rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

Why did the Palestinian leadership turn down peace offers in 1937, ’47, ’67, 2000 and 2001? Not because it didn’t want a state, but because accepting a state would also mean accepting Israel existing alongside it.

So why did Yasser Arafat sign interim agreements with Israel during the Oslo process from 1993? Because he was prepared to take what he could – arms, autonomy, etc – but wasn’t prepared to sign a final status agreement. When push came to shove at Camp David in 2000, Arafat walked away from a two-state offer without offering a counter-proposal.

There is no peace because of Arafat’s then – and now Hamas’s – rejectionism. This produces terrorism, which produces attempts to stop it, which hardens opinions on both sides. If the Palestinian elite would make the historic decision to reconcile itself to a state alongside, not instead of, the Jewish state, peace could quickly be realised.


Bren Carlill is an analyst at the Australia-Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.