Column

10.15.12

The Lessons of Novembers Past

Historically, November often signifies numerous crucial turning points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The lessons of Novembers past demand close attention. Palestinians and Israelis can learn from them to address their differences and common future, and American leaders to be more balanced.

On November 2, 1917, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration that favored “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." Yet Britain had no jurisdiction over Palestine and conducted no consultation with the overwhelming Arab majority. They were not mentioned by name and their political rights were ignored and overridden. The lesson is that dismissing the interests of vital constituencies will inevitably breed and continue conflict.

On November 29, 1947, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181, which endorsed the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem to be administered by the U.N. Trusteeship. The Arab countries rejected this decision. Six months later, Israel was established and, in the ensuing Arab-Israeli war, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt swallowed up the territories of the proposed state of Palestine. Effective diplomacy would have led the Arab side to be realistic about the forces around them and more amenable to an agreement. While the U.N. Resolution and the war actualized the dream of an Israeli state, it was born in the original sin of the dispossession of most of its Arab inhabitants. Halving the loaf would have gone a long way to improving Israel’s security and to assuring Palestinian self-determination, probably saving both of them—and the world—from this most damaging of unresolved conflicts. The lesson is the necessity of compromise and dire consequences of maximalism.

On November 22, 1967, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 242, specifying a land-for-peace formula. 242 anticipates the only conflict-ending arrangement possible: a two-state solution with Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine. This has become an international consensus, but it has not been achieved. The lesson is that sound formulae are not enough, and political will is required to realize them.

On November 19, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his historic trip to Jerusalem. Hailed as a peacemaker by the West and Israel but castigated as a traitor by many Arabs, Sadat overcame a huge psychological barrier and set in motion a process that resulted in the Peace Treaty of 1979 and secured the return of the Sinai from Israel. The boldness of Sadat's initiative remains unprecedented in this conflict, and is a clear lesson of what must sometimes be risked to achieve desirable results.

On November 27, 2007, the Bush Administration convened the Annapolis meeting in an effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Like numerous previous efforts, most notably the Camp David summit of 2000, the Annapolis meeting did not, in fact, advance the peace process, but fizzled. The lesson is that neither good intentions nor mere activity are sufficient, but real leadership is required to move the ball forward.

On November 11, 2011, the U.N. Security Council postponed a decision on admitting Palestine as a full U.N. member state. The Palestinian leadership proved unable even to secure the nine votes needed to force a promised American veto. The Palestinian initiative failed and resulted in an ongoing crisis of relations with the West and the donor community that is threatening the financial and political viability of the Palestinian Authority.

A few days earlier, on November 1, 2011, Israel responded to UNESCO's decision to admit Palestine as a member state by announcing 2,000 additional settlement housing units in the occupied West Bank. Such actions, ostensibly intended to punish the Palestinians, only further threaten Israel's real national interests by entrenching the occupation and making peace more difficult to achieve.

The lesson from both of these self-defeating exercises is that initiatives must reflect a sound cost-benefit analysis, and that political pandering is no substitute for responsible national leadership.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders should not allow themselves to be guided by narrow political considerations but must have a vision for their broader national interests, both of which require a peace agreement. If American leaders are serious about resolving the conflict in our own national interest, then they must exercise their influence to do so.

Palestinian leaders should refocus on laying the groundwork for an independent State of Palestine: strengthening national institutions; maintaining law and order, and security; job creation, economic viability and human development; and negotiating with the Israelis to improve daily conditions in Palestinian areas and, when possible, on a final status agreement.

Israeli leaders should avoid losing yet another opportunity for peace. While Israel has formidable military power, real security can only come from peace and integration in the region. Otherwise, Israeli society will continue to face a reality defined by injustice, occupation, and conflict.

The lessons of Novembers past have much to teach us. If we learn them, they can help secure a future based on wisdom and enlightened self-interest rather than more folly, strife, and error.