Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s July 30, 2008, announcement of his intention to resign from office and the recent upsurge in internecine violence between Hamas and Fatah eratives in Gaza has thrown a monkey wrench in the Bush administration’s goal of seeing and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority sign a peace treaty laying out the borders and powers of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. But even in the unlikely event that such an agreement is reached, far from stabilizing Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, it will likely have either no impact on the Palestinian conflict with Israel, or a profoundly negative one.
Indeed, even if the outgoing Bush administration and the lame duck Olmert government manage to sign a peace treaty with the increasingly powerless remnants of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, that achievement is liable to be quickly eclipsed by violence that will follow the signing ceremony. The likely upsurge in Palestinian violence against Israel, in turn, will demonstrate that the Administration’s stated aim of establishing a Palestinian state—an aim which is supported by the Israeli government—has little relevance to the nature of the Palestinian conflict with Israel. Moreover, seeking such a state today will likely exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, the conflict. Indeed, the aftershocks of such an agreement will make clear that both Israel and the United States are basing their policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on false assumptions about the nature of that conflict.
In 1993, when Israel first recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian Arabs, the Israeli and American perception of the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation underwent a profound change—as did both countries’ chosen paradigm for resolving the conflict.
Prior to 1993, both Israeli and U.S. policies were based on the view that the root of the conflict was the Arab world’s rejection of Israel’s right to exist. That view was codified in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which asserted that two principles were to form the basis of any “just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” The first was an Israeli withdrawal from some of the territory taken over by the Israel Defense Forces during the June 1967 Six-Day War. The second was that the Arab states must accept Israel’s right to exist. While Resolution 242 was purposely vague about the extent of future Israeli territorial withdrawals, its language on the second component of a future Middle Eastern peace was explicit.
It asserted that a future Middle Eastern peace would be based on the “termination of all claims of states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement 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 borders free from threats or acts of force.”
Since Israel has consistently demonstrated its readiness to make territorial compromises for a lasting peace with its neighbors, it was this second condition that formed the foundation of both U.S. and Israeli policies towards the Palestinians specifically, and the Arab world generally, from the end of the Six-Day War until the onset of Israel’s peace process with the PLO in 1993.
In basing their policies on the need for the Arab world to accept Israel’s right to exist, successive American administrations and Israeli governments found themselves out of step with Western Europe, the Arab League, the United Nations and the Soviet Union. For these powers, the root of the conflict was not a refusal of the Arab world generally or the Palestinians specifically to accept Israel’s right to exist, but Palestinian statelessness itself.1
The difference could not have been more profound. The Israeli-American view placed the burden of change on the Arabs. The European-Soviet-UN view placed the burden for change on Israel. In the former case, the underlying assumption was that the principal obstacle to peace was not Israeli claims to lands it took control of during the Six-Day War but the Arab world’s refusal to accept Israel’s existence. Until the Arabs changed their view, peace would be impossible.