"THE PALESTINIANS never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity!" – this phrase, coined by Abba Eban, has become a by-word. It also illustrates a wise Talmudic saying: "He who finds fault in others (really) finds his own faults."
No doubt, from the beginning of the conflict, the Palestinians have missed opportunities. But these are negligible compared to the opportunities missed by the State of Israel in its 58 years of existence.
The list that follows is far from complete.
ON THE morrow of the war of 1948, in which Israel was founded, we could have achieved peace.
During the war, all the territory in which, according to the United Nations resolution of November 1947, the Arab Palestinian state should have been established, was occupied by Israel, Jordan and Egypt. Israel conquered and annexed about half of it, and the rest was divided between Jordan (which annexed the West Bank) and Egypt (which occupied the Gaza Strip). More than half the Palestinians were driven from their homes – partly by the war itself, partly by a deliberate Israeli policy. The name Palestine disappeared from the map.
In the Swiss town of Lausanne, a tripartite committee, representing the United States, France and Turkey, was convened in order to mediate between the parties. The Palestinians were not invited, since they were no longer recognized as a political entity. But a delegation of three prominent Palestinians did appear, ostensibly to speak for the refugees, but in reality to represent the Palestinian people. They contacted the Israeli representative, Eliyahu Sassoon, and offered to open direct negotiations for peace. On instructions from Jerusalem, Sassoon declined.
David Ben-Gurion did not want any negotiations that might have compelled him to take back at least some of the refugees, and perhaps even to give back some of the territory just occupied. Contrary to the UN resolution, he was determined to prevent at all costs the establishment of a Palestinian state. He believed that the Palestinian question had been closed, that the very name Palestine had disappeared forever, that the Palestinian people had ceased to exist. Much blood was shed because of this monumental mistake.
IN JULY 1952, the revolution of the Free Officers took place in Egypt. One sole voice in Israel welcomed it publicly – the weekly news magazine Haolam Hazeh, which I edited. Ben-Gurion did indeed voice a rhetorical appeal to the formal leader of the revolution, the old general Muhammad Naguib, but the moment it became clear that the real leader was Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, Ben-Gurion declared war on him. The appearance of Abd-al-Nasser frightened Ben-Gurion, because here was a new type of Arab: a young officer, energetic, charismatic, striving to unite the Arab world.
From his ascent to power until his death, 18 years later, the Egyptian leader sent out feelers again and again to find out if a settlement with Israel was feasible. Ben-Gurion rejected all these efforts and systematically prepared for the war of 1956, in which Israel tried, in collusion with France and Great Britain, then two predatory colonial powers, to overthrow Abd-al-Nasser. Thus he fixed for generations the image of Israel as a foreign implant in the region, a bridgehead of the hostile West.
Ben-Gurion was a sworn enemy of the pan-Arab idea and did everything possible to block its realization – an effort that was crowned with success by his heir, Levy Eshkol, in the war of 1967. Like many decisions of Israeli governments, this one also contained a logical contradiction. Almost all Palestinians lionized Abd-al-Nasser. They were ready to let the Palestinian identity be absorbed into pan-Arabism. Only after the defeat of Pan-Arabism, not least by Israel, did the specific Palestinian identity return to center stage.
It is difficult to estimate the seriousness of the dozens of Abd-al-Nasser’s peace feelers throughout the years. They were just never put to the test.
THE HISTORIC opportunity, the mother of all opportunities, came with the 1967 Six-day War.
The Israeli army won an incredible victory over four Arab armies. After the six days, Israel was in possession of all the territory of historic Palestine, as well as the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. The entire Arab world was humiliated and powerless, and reacted with empty and bellicose phrases (the famous "No’s" of Khartoum). The Palestinian people was in a state of shock. It was one of the rare historic moments when a whole people is able to change its basic conceptions.
At that momentous time we could have made peace with the Palestinian people and offered them life in a free state of their own, within the pre-war borders, in peace with Israel. While the war was still going on, I personally proposed this to the Prime Minister, Levy Eshkol. He rejected the idea out of hand. The temptation to acquire new territories and settle there was just too strong.
(I must explain here why I mention myself in this article: I was an eye-witness to many of the events, and to some of them I am now the sole remaining witness.)
I raised the idea again and again in the Knesset, of which I was a member at the time. To reinforce my arguments, I held a series of conversations with the local leaders of the Palestinian community and ascertained that they were ready to establish a Palestinian state, instead of returning to Jordanian rule. I have in my possession a document signed by the Prime Minister’s advisor for the occupied territories, Moshe Sassoon (the son of the Sassoon from the Lausanne affair) in which he confirmed my findings.
We missed the opportunity to make peace with the conservative, moderate leadership of the Palestinian community – and got the PLO instead.
IN OCTOBER 1973 the Yom Kippur (or Ramadan) War broke out. The main blame for the war must rest with Prime Minister Golda Meir, who had arrogantly and rudely rejected all the peace proposals made by the Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat.
In spite of initial Israeli setbacks, the war ended in an Israeli military victory. Yasser Arafat, by now the uncontested leader of the Palestinian people, drew the conclusion that it was impossible to vanquish Israel militarily. A sober and pragmatic leader, Arafat decided that the Palestinian national aims must be attained through a settlement with Israel.
He instructed his people to establish secret contacts with Israelis who had connections to the center of the Israeli establishment. I myself conveyed messages from him to the new Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Like Eshkol before him, Rabin was prepared to listen patiently, but he rejected the Palestinian feelers. "I won’t take the first step towards a Palestinian solution," he told me in 1976, "Because the first step will inevitably lead to a Palestinian state, which I do not want."
(Intermezzo: Rabin, like all the Israeli leadership at that time, advocated the "Jordanian Option", which meant giving back a part of the occupied territories to King Hussein and annexing the rest to Israel. Once, Foreign Minister Yig’al Allon informed Rabin that Henry Kissinger proposed turning Jericho over to Hussein immediately, in order to give him a foothold on the West Bank and perhaps enable him to prevent the PLO from becoming the dominant factor. Remembering that Golda Meir had promised to hold elections before giving back any territory, Rabin answered Allon: "I am not prepared to go to elections because of Jericho".)
Already in 1974, Arafat induced the Palestinian National Council (the PLO parliament in exile) to pass a resolution that opened the way to the Two-State Solution. It took him 14 more years to get the Council to adopt a resolution that officially set up the State of Palestine in a part of the country – thereby recognizing Israel’s rule over 78% of historic Palestine. That was a revolutionary decision with far-reaching consequences. Israel did not hear and did not see. It just ignored it.
IN NOVEMBER 1977,Anwar Sadat did something unprecedented in history: in spite of the state of war existing between Israel and Egypt, he came to Jerusalem, the center of the enemy camp. He offered peace: not just peace between two states, but between Israel and the entire Arab world, with Palestine at the center.
When the negotiations started at Cairo’s Mina House, at the foot of the Pyramids, the Egyptians hoisted the Palestinian flag, together with the flags of the other Arab nations invited. The Israeli delegation raised hell, and the Egyptians were compelled to pull the flags down.
At the 1978 Camp David conference, where the peace terms were worked out, Sadat fought valiantly for a settlement of the Palestinian issue. The foundations for an Israeli-Palestinian peace could have been laid there. But Menachem Begin refused adamantly. In the end, a meaningless document was adopted. In it, Begin did recognize "the just requirements of the Palestinian people", but immediately added a letter asserting he meant "the Arabs of the Land of Israel".
Arafat was present at the session of the Egyptian parliament, when Sadat announced his planned visit to Jerusalem. He applauded. He also proposed sending a Palestinian delegation to Mina House. Among his colleagues, a revolt broke out. It was the only time during his long career when his position was seriously threatened. But the situation would probably have been different, if Sadat had obtained Begin’s agreement to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories, as he requested. It is possible that this failure cost Sadat his life.
IN SEPTEMBER 1993, a year after the return of Rabin to power, a historic breakthrough was achieved. The State of Israel and the PLO, on behalf of the Palestinian people, at long last recognized each other and signed the Declaration of Principles of Oslo. This envisaged that within five years, the Final Status would be realized.
At the last moment, Rabin’s emissaries, mostly military men, made many changes in the text previously agreed upon. The Israeli obligations became much more vague. Arafat did not care. He believed Rabin and was convinced that the agreement would necessarily lead to the establishment of the Palestinian state.
But almost from the first moment, Israel began violating the agreement. Specific dates for implementation were laid down – but Rabin smashed the agreed time-table, declaring that "there are no sacred dates". The passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, an essential item in the agreement, was not opened (to this very day). The third and most important "redeployment" (withdrawal) of the Israeli army was not carried out at all. The negotiations for the Final Status, that were meant to be concluded by 1999, did not even start in earnest.
In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak compelled Arafat to come to a conference at Camp David, without any preparations or prior understandings. That was the last opportunity to reach agreement with Arafat, then at the height of his authority.
Instead, Barak treated Arafat with open contempt and submitted what amounted to an ultimatum – a list of terms that may have seemed "generous" from the Israeli point of view, but fell far short of the minimum needed by Arafat. Returning home, Barak declared that Arafat wanted to "throw us into the sea". This way, Barak paved the way for Ariel Sharon’s ascent to power and to the siege on Arafat, which ended in his murder.
Arafat was a tough national leader who disdained no means to achieve freedom for his people – diplomacy, violence, even doubletalk. But he had a huge personal authority, and he was able and willing not only to sign a peace agreement, but also to convince his people to accept it.
Those who did not want the strong and charismatic Arafat got Mahmoud Abbas, who finds it much more difficult to assert his authority.
IN NOVEMBER 2004, Arafat died. In free elections, a large majority chose Mahmoud Abbas as his successor. "Abu Mazen", as he is generally known, has been for a long time identified with the idea of peace with Israel, more than any other senior Palestinian leader.
The Israeli government, which had demonized Arafat for many years, could have embraced his successor. It was another opportunity to achieve a reasonable compromise. True, Abbas does not have the authority of Arafat, but if he had achieved impressive political gains, his position would have been much strenthened. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon boycotted him, ridiculed him publicly as a "plucked chicken", and refused even to meet him.
Those who did not want Abbas got Hamas.
IN JANUARY 2006, the Palestinian public elected Hamas in an election that was a model of democracy.
There were several reasons for this choice. A part of the PLO leadership had become corrupt. More importantly: since the Oslo agreements, the living conditions of the Palestinians under occupation had become incomparably worse. And, most importantly: Since the Oslo agreements, the Palestinian people had not come a single step closer to the establishment of the State of Palestine, while the settlements were being enlarged and the occupation deepened incessantly. The "separation" from Gaza, which was carried out without any dialog with the Palestinians, served Israel as a pretext for imposing a blockade on the Strip and turning life there into hell.
With the advent of Hamas to power, the Israeli government retrieved from the attic all the old slogans that had served in their time against the PLO: that it was a terrorist organization, that it did not recognize Israel’s right to exist, that its charter called for Israel’s destruction. But Hamas has scrupulously abstained for more than a year from violent attacks. Coming to power, it could not abnegate its ideology overnight, but more than once it has found ways to hint that it would agree to negotiate with Israel and recognize it within the Green Line borders.
A government interested in peace would have grasped the opportunity and put Hamas to the test of negotiations. Instead, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to break off all contact with them and to urge the United States and Europe to literally starve the Palestinians into final submission.
Probably, the same rule will apply again: those who do not want Hamas will get Islamic Jihad.
THROUGHOUT THE region, extreme Islamist elements are gaining strength. One of the reasons is the festering wound of the Palestinian problem in the heart of the Arab world.
For 58 years, our governments have missed every opportunity to heal this wound. We could have achieved peace between Israel and secular-national Palestinian leaders. If the conflict, God forbid, turns into a clash between religions, there will be no opportunity to miss opportunities – there just will not be any opportunities.
The number of the opportunities rejected and the consistent way they were trampled upon by all Israeli governments may lead to the conclusion that they did not want peace at all. There has always been a tendency in Israel to prefer expansion and settlement to compromise and peace. According to this outlook, there always is "no one to talk with", there is "no solution", we shall "forever live by the sword". "Unilateral" steps, whose real aim is to annex more land, are consistent with this tendency.
If this tendency achieves final victory in Israel, it will be a disaster for the state, which has just become 58 years old.
But it should be remembered that there are also tendencies in Israel that point in another direction. Slowly but steadily, the illusion that there is or can be a military solution to the conflict is evaporating. At the same time, support for a Greater Israel and for the settlements is dwindling. The implosion of the Likud and the growing support for "Convergence" are stages on the way to a realistic approach.
If this process continues, it will become clear that there is no lack of opportunities. All we have to do is grasp them with our two hands.