Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Crisis
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Other Players
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Recent History
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Looking Backwards
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Future
Why is the Israel-Palestine conflict so important on the global stage? Why does the rest of the world care, and get so involved, in this conflict in such a small place?
Global interest in Israel-Palestine reflects two different kinds of concerns: personal (including religious affiliation and national or ethnic bonds) and strategic (including military, diplomatic and other considerations). As the site of holy places of all three of the world’s main monotheistic religions, it is perhaps inevitable that passions will run high.
Strategically, in its earliest days Palestine was a crossroads of trade between three continents. Since 1967 Israel played an important role as a Cold War ally and sometimes surrogate of the U.S. Today Israel stands as one of perhaps the two or three closest U.S. allies, and for most nations around the world, maintaining good relations with Washington requires at least amicable ties to Israel.
Palestine today stands at the symbolic center of Arab consciousness, giving it a regional and indeed international significance far beyond its size. Palestine is also, since the independence of East Timor, one of the last remnants of a once far more common phenomenon: what the UN used to call “non-self-governing territories”. In other words, colonies occupied by another nation.
What is the international response to the Israel-Palestine conflict? Is there international agreement?
Since at least the mid-1970s, when the Palestine Liberation Organization was deemed the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and welcomed as an observer member of the United Nations, there has been a clear international consensus on how to deal with the seemingly endless conflict.
Security Council Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 war, is widely recognized as the basis for a permanent settlement. Outside of the U.S., however, the resolution is understood in a much different way than simply calling for an exchange of land for peace. The international consensus puts much greater emphasis than the U.S. does on the opening words of the resolution, which identifies “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” That is understood to mean that the territory Israel captured by war must be returned; that to keep it is “inadmissible.”
In terms of process, the international community has long recognized as inadequate the notion of bilateral talks under U.S. sponsorship, in which Israel and Palestine, with such enormous disparities of power, face each other as if on a level playing field. That they are forced to negotiate before a mediator which is itself the strategic, financial, diplomatic and military champion of the stronger of the two parties, only makes matters less legitimate. Instead, the UN has repeatedly called for convening an international peace conference, in which all the parties to the conflict, including Israel, the PLO, the Arab states and others would negotiate in concert under the auspices of the UN Security Council.
Why hasn’t the U.S. been part of that consensus?
The U.S. has, since 1967 or so, strongly opposed internationalizing the conflict. Washington maintained the view that multi-lateral talks would amount to other countries unfairly ganging up on Israel, and that the U.S. itself was the only outside power with a legitimate right to lead, or even participate in, negotiations. As a result, even diplomatic efforts with a patina of international legitimacy, such as the Madrid peace talks in 1991, were fundamentally reduced to separate and unequal bilateral talks between, in that case, Israel and each Arab party. (The Israeli-Palestinian talks in Madrid, in fact, did not even constitute an independent track, but rather were orchestrated as a sub-set of the Israeli-Jordanian talks.)
Why is the U.S. the central player in the Middle East?
The main reason is power. By the time Israel was created, with the end of the British Mandate over Palestine, World War II was just over and the European powers, victors and losers alike, lay decimated by war. Of all the major powers, only the U.S. survived the War intact and with economic and military power on the rise.
The U.S. spent the Cold War years locked in contention with the Soviet Union, as much as anywhere else vying for influence in the strategic Middle East. With the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the U.S. victory in the Gulf War that profoundly altered the Middle East in favor of even greater U.S. influence, Washington’s now-unchallenged super-power status only expanded. Today the U.S. remains the controlling authority in shaping the political map of the region.
The combination of the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” and the vast superiority of Israel’s power in the region further consolidates the U.S. centrality. As long as Israel remains the strongest military force in the region, with the fifth most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world and one of the most powerful conventional militaries anywhere, other countries in the region and around the world will tend to limit their diplomatic imagination to what they think Israel will accept. That means acquiescence to continued U.S. control.
What explains the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship”?
When Israel was first created, its leaders chose to maintain the clear Euro-American, rather than Middle Eastern, orientation that had characterized the Zionist movement even before the state was founded. With statehood, was inevitable that Israel would turn for help and support to the leading western power, the post-World War II United States.
U.S. support for Israel was strong, but remained diplomatically and financially normal until the time of the ’67 War. Until that time Israel’s main arms supplier was France, not the U.S. But when Israel demonstrated the extraordinary military prowess that destroyed three Arab armies and occupied all or parts of four countries. Washington quickly recognized Israel’s potential as a valuable Cold War ally, and the friendly alliance segued into the all-embracing “special relationship” and a strategic alliance that continues today.
Economic assistance, military aid and diplomatic protection all soared. Within U.S. society, support for Israel grew exponentially as existing pro-Israeli organizations (mostly but not entirely based in the U.S. Jewish community) dramatically increased their influence in popular culture, in education, in the media, and among policymakers. Members of Congress who made statements in support of Palestinian rights or voted even-handedly on legislation concerning the Middle East have been regularly punished by the pro-Israel lobby. Congressman Paul Findley and Senator Charles Percy lost their seats during the 1980s, while Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and Congressman Hilliard lost in the 2002 primaries after an AIPAC-funded campaign was launched on behalf of their challengers.
How does the U.S. support Israel?
U.S. support for Israel emerges in several ways: financial, military and diplomatic. While most Americans believe that U.S. foreign aid goes to the poorest people in the poorest countries, Israel (wealthier than a number of European Union member countries) receives 25 percent of the entire U.S. foreign aid budget. Since 1976 Israel has been the highest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world. The congressional aid comes to about $1.8 billion a year in military aid and $1.2 billion in economic aid, plus another $1 billion or so in miscellaneous grants, mostly in military supplies, from various U.S. agencies. Tax-exempt contributions destined to Israel bring up the total to over $5 billion annually.
Israel is the only country allowed to spend part of its military aid funds (25 percent) on its own domestic arms industry; all other recipients of U.S. military aid are required to use it to purchase U.S.-manufactured weapons. This has helped Israel consolidate its own arms exporting sector, some parts of which actually compete for export customers with U.S. arms manufacturers. More directly, Israel has access to the most advanced weapons systems in the U.S. arsenal, for purchase with U.S. taxpayer assistance. The U.S. defends Israel’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has endorsed the principle of “strategic ambiguity” in which Israel refuses to officially acknowledge its widely known and documented nuclear capacity, and its arsenal of over 200 high-density nuclear bombs in the Dimona nuclear facility remains un-inspected.
During the Cold War the U.S. relied on Israel’s military power as an extension of its own, with Israeli arms sales, military training and backing of pro-U.S. governments and pro-U.S. anti-government guerrillas in countries from Mozambique and Angola to El Salvador, Chile and Nicaragua. That “cat’s paw” relationship consolidated the U.S.-Israeli military ties that continue today. Most of the weapons Israel uses in the occupied territories, including Apache helicopter gunships, F-16 fighter bombers, wire-guided missiles, armored Caterpillar bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian houses, and others are all made in the U.S., and purchased from U.S. manufacturers with U.S. military aid funds. Some of the weapons, such as the Merkava tanks, are joint products of Israel’s domestic arms industry and U.S. manufacturing technology.
Diplomatically, the U.S. alone protects Israel in the United Nations and other international arenas from being held accountable for its violations of international law. After 1967, U.S. patterns of opposing UN resolutions critical of Israel become more pronounced. Most of the U.S. vetoes cast in the Security Council in the 1980s and 90s, and almost all of those cast since the end of the Cold War, have been to protect Israel.
Where does U.S. aid to Israel fit in the broader scheme of U.S. foreign aid? Does the U.S. provide aid to the PA also?
The U.S. sends about $4 billion to Israel in military and economic aid every year, in addition to tax-exempt contributions. About $3 billion is mandated directly from Congress (the rest comes in smaller increments from specific U.S. agencies) and amounts to about one-quarter of the entire U.S. aid budget. U.S. laws require that aid to Israel remain at least above Israel’s international debt, thus insuring that U.S. tax funds act as a guarantee of all Israeli loans. Israel is among only a tiny number of countries whose U.S. aid allotments have remained steady even in recent years of economic slump.
Other U.S. laws insure specific aid commitments to Israel as a result of the first Camp David process between Israel and Egypt. Under those arrangements, Egypt, with nearly 70 million people and a per capita annual income of just over $3000, receives only about two-thirds of the funds allocated to Israel.
In 2001 Israel itself requested that the apportionment of its U.S. aid be shifted. Instead of the current balance of about $1.8 billion in military aid and $1.2 billion in economic assistance, the new plan called for a reduction by about 10 percent of the economic aid, to be matched by parallel increases in military aid. The goal would be, after ten years, to have Israel’s entire aid allocation in the form of military assistance.
Since the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. has provided some economic aid to the Palestinians. But unlike European and Japanese aid to the Palestinian Authority, or U.S. aid to Israel, U.S. financial support for Palestinians is provided only to non-governmental organizations working in the occupied territories—none goes directly to the PA. While the PA, like so many fully sovereign governments that the U.S. supports, certainly has serious problems of corruption, bypassing it only insures the PA’s continued weakness and inability to even begin to function as a government.
Didn’t the U.S. support creation of the Palestinian Authority? Why did the U.S. treat it differently than the PLO, which Washington usually tried to undermine or sideline?
The Palestinian Authority was a product of the Oslo process, which began with the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn in September 1993. While Oslo grew out of a secret diplomatic track initiated by Norway, the U.S. quickly took over as the main sponsor, and acted as overseer of the process and, tacitly, patron of the Palestinian Authority itself.
The U.S. saw the PA as a useful tool for accomplishing a key U.S. goal: stability and normalization in the occupied Palestinian territories. The PA’s authority was limited politically and geographically, and derivative ultimately of Israeli power. Israel viewed the PA largely as an agency that would take responsibility for organizing social and economic life in the Palestinian territories, including schools, health, welfare, etc., thus alleviating Israel’s obligation under the Geneva Convention to take care of the lives of the occupied population. Later, when Palestinian resistance to the occupation escalated, and especially with the emergence of suicide bombing attacks inside Israel, both Israel and the U.S. began to view the PA as a security agency—not to protect the lives and safety of Palestinians living under occupation, but to prevent any attacks on Israel. It was as if the Palestinian Authority was to serve as a surrogate for Israel’s own power—assigned the job of keeping Palestinians under control.
Unlike the PA, the PLO’s history was that of a nationalist movement fighting against an occupying power. Its means of fighting, both military and diplomatic, were similar to those of many other liberation movements, particularly during the anti-colonial wars of the 1960s and 70s. Yet Washington, as was true in so many other cases of liberation movements fighting against U.S. allies, identified the PLO as a “terrorist” organization, the same brush that tarred the African National Congress and its leader, Nelson Mandela, until well into the 1990s. As a result, despite United Nations and widespread international recognition of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, the U.S. refused to recognize or negotiate with the organization. Instead, the U.S. backed Israeli efforts to anoint various Palestinian leaders and notables as the “acceptable” Palestinians, and U.S.-led diplomatic efforts failed.
Didn’t the United Nations create the State of Israel? Why didn’t it create a State of Palestine too? Why doesn’t it now?
After World War II, with the British eager to give up their League of Nations Mandate over Palestine, the United Nations General Assembly took responsibility to figure out what to do in the conflict-riven area. The local population was angry about the influx of European Jewish settlers, whose numbers rose dramatically as the U.S. and Britain refused to allow large-scale immigration of European Jews escaping, or later having barely survived, the Holocaust. Fighting escalated between the indigenous Palestinian population and the European settlers, and the British occupation soldiers became targets of both. The UN Special Commission on Palestine, or UNSCOP, recommended that Palestine be divided into two states, one Jewish, and one Arab.
The November 29, 1947 resolution partitioning Palestine apportioned 55 percent of Mandate Palestine to the new State of Israel, leaving 45 percent for a future Palestinian state. The Zionist leaders accepted partition, though in private several indicated their intention to expand the new state to include all of Palestine. But Palestinians were opposed to the partition. At the time of the UN resolution, Jews in Palestine constituted just about 30 percent of the population, and they owned only 6 percent of the land. Given that, it was seen as a massive injustice for them to be granted more than half the land. In fact, the land the UN identified to become the Jewish state included within it over 450,000 Palestinian Arabs; the number of Jews in the area designated to become a Palestinian Arab state was tiny.
And the Palestinian state never came into existence. The Israeli Jewish state did, of course, and by the end of the 1947-48 conflict, it had absorbed 78 percent of the land, far more than the 55 percent actually allocated to it by the United Nations.
In fact, no one seriously consulted the Palestinians themselves. While most were strongly opposed to partition, the relevant opposition, on the world stage, came not from the Palestinians but from the Arab governments in the region. They were opposed also, though in general they had little interest in defending the rights of the Palestinians. As soon as Israel declared its independence, their armies moved to oppose the unified Zionist militias, but even with a mandate limited to the areas assigned by the UN to the Palestinian state, they were soon defeated.
Once hostilities ended, Israel was recognized as an independent state (though it never officially acknowledged its borders). Egypt and Jordan were in control of the now separate parts of Arab Palestine that remained, and Palestinian independence was not on any international agenda.
Since 1967, when the U.S.-Israel special relationship was consolidated, the U.S. consistently protected Israel diplomatically, including largely preventing the question of Palestinian independence and an end to occupation off the enforceable agenda of the UN, especially the UN Security Council.
Why is Israel so often criticized in the UN? Aren’t other countries just as guilty of human rights violations?
There are many countries in the United Nations which commit human rights violations. Israel is criticized by the international community more than many other countries because its violations of Palestinian human rights are also violations of international law and a host of specific UN resolutions. That is because the specific violations often targeted by UN resolutions_building settlements, demolition of Palestinian houses, military attacks on civilians, closures and curfews, etc._all take place in the context of a military occupation that is itself illegal.
Other countries_Algeria, Sierra Leone, Uzbekistan, many more_commit massive human rights violations against their own population, but only Israel carries out those actions against a population that is supposed to be protected by the Geneva Conventions, which guarantee safety for people living under occupation.
What is the role of the UN in the Middle East these days? Why isn’t the UN in charge of the overall peace process?
In 1991, in issuing invitations for participation in the Madrid peace conference, the U.S. accepted Israel’s demand that the United Nations be excluded from participation in the conference, allowing instead only the symbolic presence of a single representative of the secretary-general, who was not allowed to speak. With the beginning of the Oslo peace process, the U.S. moved further, forcing the United Nations to pull back from longstanding positions, and sidelining the role of the global organization.
Since the Oslo process took hold, the U.S. has largely kept the United Nations out of the loop on Israel-Palestine diplomacy. In August 1994, then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, introduced a letter outlining Washington’s goals for the General Assembly. The overall thrust was essentially to remove the issues of Arab-Israeli relations, and especially the question of Palestine, from the UN’s political agenda, by claiming that the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations of the Madrid/Oslo processes had rendered UN involvement irrelevant except for economic and development assistance. Almost all past resolutions were identified as needing to be “consolidated_, improved_or eliminated.” The U.S. campaign also demanded that any UN references to the fundamental questions of refugees, settlements, territorial sovereignty and the status of Jerusalem “should be dropped, since these issues are now under negotiations by the parties themselves. (Emphasis added.) The sad irony, of course, was that under the terms of Oslo those were the precise questions not under negotiation, because they were designated “final status” issues that would not come up for five or seven years.
That pattern continued. In October 2000, when 14 out of 15 members of the UN Security Council voted to condemn Israel’s excessive force against civilians, it was the U.S. alone that abstained. Then-U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke threatened to veto any further resolution.
At the time of Israel’s reoccupation of Jenin in March, 2002, the Security Council was able to convince U.S. diplomats to accept a resolution calling for a United Nations investigation of the catastrophic crisis that had laid waste the city and killed 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers. Israel initially agreed, but when Israel withdrew its approval for the fact-finding team, the U.S. backed their rejection and refused to allow the Council or the secretary-general to enforce the resolution. The fact-finding team was disbanded. The General Assembly, however, responded to the developments by reconvening in Emergency Session to pass its own resolution calling for the secretary-general to prepare a report based on other sources, primarily international human rights organizations.
In July 2002, at the height of Israel’s reoccupation of Palestinian cities, the new U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte told a closed Security Council meeting that a proposed resolution condemning Israel was unhelpful and that the US would oppose it if it came to a vote. But he then went much further, telling the Council that in the future the U.S. would only consider Middle East resolutions that explicitly condemned Palestinian terrorism with explicit denunciations of several named Palestinian organizations. There was no such demand that all future resolutions equally condemn Israeli military or settler violence.
But the General Assembly’s response to the Council’s deadlock raises the possibility of a broader role for the UN’s most democratic component. Under longstanding UN precedent, if the Council (which is the most powerful, but the least democratic part of the UN because of the veto held by the five permanent members) is deemed deadlocked, the General Assembly may take up issues that would ordinarily be limited to Council jurisdiction. That may make possible Assembly initiatives on issues such as international protection for Palestinians living under occupation (something repeatedly vetoed by the U.S.), or ultimately for an entirely new diplomatic process.
Why is Israel isolated from Arab countries in the region and in the UN and other international forums?
Some of Israel’s isolation reflects antagonism from neighboring countries, and some of it stems from Israel’s own orientation and self-definition in the world. At the time the State of Israel was created, there was already wide-spread antagonism among Palestinians and in surrounding Arab countries towards the large and rapid influx of European Jews. While European Jewish settlement had gone on since the 1880s, the numbers vastly increased in the 1930s and ’40s, as Jews escaping the Holocaust, and those who survived it, were rejected by their first-choice countries of refuge, the U.S. and Britain, and instead turned to British-ruled Palestine. Significant loss of land and political power for the indigenous Arab population was the result. Arabs, both Palestinians and others, resented being forced to pay the price for European anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in which they had played no role.
At the same time, the pre-state Zionist organizations and later Israeli government leaders viewed themselves as squarely part of the western, Euro-American part of the world. Despite being located in the heart of the Arab Middle East, Israel positioned itself as a civilized, western outpost_explicitly so in early pleas of support directed at British colonial leaders such as Cecil Rhodes_in a foreign, uncivilized part of the world. From the beginning Israeli officials oriented their economic, political and cultural policies towards Europe and the U.S., rather than making efforts to cultivate ties with their neighbors.
Later, when Israel occupied the last 22 percent of historic Palestine after the 1967 war, as well as occupying Syria’s Golan Heights, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and still later a wide swathe of south Lebanon, Arab anger increased still further. The view of Israel for an entire new Arab generation_Palestinians growing up under occupation, Syrians dismayed at their government’s inability to reclaim its lost territory, and more_was shaped by the harsh reality of occupation. And Arab anger towards, and rejection of, Israel increased. In 1968, following the 1967 War, the Arab League voted to reject diplomatic or economic ties with Israel. Even earlier Arab countries had put in place an economic boycott that prohibited trade with Israel. Egypt broke ranks with the rest of the Arab world in normalizing relations with Israel after the Camp David Accords of 1979, and faced years of ostracism within the Arab League. The Arab boycott faded with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, and Jordan and Israel agreed to full diplomatic and economic relations in 1994. Other countries, including Oman and Morocco, established various levels of trade and economic ties with Israel.
In the United Nations, certain privileges and positions, including rotating membership in the Security Council, are determined within the regional groups of the General Assembly. Composition of the groups, determined at the height of the Cold War, are partly geographic and partly political (i.e., Eastern Europe and Western Europe are in different regional groups). In a move to protest its occupation and policies towards Palestinians, Israel was excluded from participation in the Asian Group that includes the surrounding Arab countries. In 2000, Secretary-General Kofi Annan orchestrated a campaign within the UN to have Israel accepted by WEOG, the Western European and Others Group, which includes the United States, Canada and others.
Since Jordan’s population is about 2/3 Palestinian and there are 21 other Arab countries, why do the Palestinians insist on having a new state of their own?
Palestine’s origins, and its identity as a distinct region within the broader Arab world go back thousands of years. Like most of the countries of the Arab world, Palestine’s specific identity as a modern nation-state emerged in the context of colonial rule. In 1922 when British and French diplomats divided up the Arab portion of the defeated Ottoman Empire, Palestine’s modern borders, along with those of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, were drawn. Some became independent, others remained under colonial or later Mandate authority. But in all of these newly-created countries, newly “national” identity emerged within the local populations.
For Palestinians, national identity was first linked to the land itself. It was their land, their grandparents and great-grandparents and on infinitum, had farmed this land, these olive trees. It was very specific. National dialects, customs, cultural norms, etc., all developed in particular forms. The notion of being transferred to another country, just because they speak the same language, even before the beginning of the modern Arab nation-states, was unacceptable. The equivalent would be expecting seventh- or eighth-generation Americans to accept forcible transfer to Australia, or Britain or even Canada, simply because they speak the same language. Perhaps a more exact comparison, taken from U.S. history, was the forced transfer of Native American tribes from one shrinking reservation to another, on the theory that they could live anywhere just as well as in their indigenous territory. The 4,000 deaths resulting from the Cherokees’ forced removal from Georgia along the “Trail of Tears” in 1838-39 was only one such example.
In 1982 then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon developed a “Jordan is Palestine” plan designed to legitimate the idea of forcible transfer of Palestinians out of the West Bank and Gaza, perhaps out of Israel itself, into “their” alleged homeland in Jordan. The campaign never took off, and by 1988, at the height of the first intifada, Jordan’s King Hussein announced he was severing the formal sponsorship of West Bank institutions to insure that there would be no confusion about the right of Palestinians to their own state in Palestine.
What the Palestinians want in the 21st century is not a “new” state, but recognition of the independence and sovereignty of what is left of their old nation, which was never allowed to become independent.
Don’t the Arab countries want to destroy Israel and drive the Jews into the sea?
Unlike in Europe, anti-Semitism was not a longstanding component of popular or elite culture in the Arab world. During the Spanish Inquisition fleeing Jews famously found refuge in the Arab countries, particularly in North Africa.
In the period leading up to the creation of the State of Israel and the 1947-48 war that accompanied it, many Arabs both inside Palestine and in the surrounding Arab countries believed it would be possible to prevent the creation of a Jewish state, a self-proclaimed enclave of Europe and America in the heart of the Arab Middle East. Across the region people opposed the creation of the state, believing it unjust to the indigenous Palestinians, and governments opposed it largely from fear that a powerful, western-backed Israel would represent a serious threat to their countries’ own economic, strategic and political interests.
The token Arab armies which entered Palestine in 1948 were soundly defeated by the smaller but far superior Israeli military. They were defeated again in 1967 when Israel’s first strikes destroyed the entire Egyptian and Jordanian air forces before either country could scramble a single plane. Since that time, despite further wars, tensions and continuing occupation, Arab governments have largely come to terms with the existence of Israel in their midst; many are eager to consolidate business and financial links with the far more powerful, far better positioned Israeli economy. If popular opinion were not so strongly against such normalization, there is little doubt that virtually all the Arab governments would be lining up to exchange ambassadors with Tel Aviv.
Since the beginning of the first intifada, or uprising, in 1987, and especially since the collapse of Oslo negotiations and the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, regional anger towards Israel for its treatment of Palestinians living under occupation has skyrocketed. The emergence in the mid-1990s of Arabic-language satellite television stations (most notably Qatar’s al-Jazeera along with Abu Dhabi TV) transformed the level of outrage. While most Arabs long knew and opposed Israeli occupation, seeing televised coverage of the day-to-day humiliations, killings, and episodes of extreme violence that are endemic to military occupation brought that opposition to new and angry levels. But still, the dominant opinion in the Arab world focuses on ending Israel’s occupation and creating an independent Palestinian state.
How does Israel see its role in the Middle East region?
The pre-state Zionist leadership consciously crafted an identity for the new State of Israel that was deliberately oriented towards Europe, America and the west. Part of the reason had to do with the tactical effort to win backing from one or another of the colonial powers; to do so, the putative Israelis had to convince their would-be sponsors of their potential value as a surrogate for European, American, Russian or Roman Catholic sponsors. But it also reflected the personal world view of those same leaders; while early Zionist colonies in Palestine were largely agricultural, most Jewish settlers would have been far more at home in Paris, London or New York than in the Middle Eastern hills or desert.
Throughout the Cold War Israel deliberately shaped its position as a junior partner, or surrogate, for U.S. military and strategic reach. Cynical remarks about Israel as the “fifty-first state” reflected the familiarity of the U.S.-Israeli bond. For Washington, while Cold War-driven strategic considerations were the main driving force behind the embrace of Israel, a powerful component was the sense that “Israelis are like us.” There was more than a hint of racism in this assessment; it was rooted in distinguishing Israel from its neighbors. However close our ties with Egypt or Saudi Arabia, official Washington thinking went, they’re still Arabs, they’re not quite “like us.” Official and other influential Israeli voices consistently promoted that mythology. The irony, of course, was that two-thirds of Israeli Jews were and are in fact Arabs. But racism and history combined in Israel to insure the continuing domination of Ashkenazi, or white European, Jewish leadership in Israeli government, business and intellectual circles, making it easier for U.S. officials and business leaders accustomed to dealing with Europeans, not with Arabs.
What role does Europe play in the conflict? Why doesn’t it do more?
Europe maintains a nuanced position, preserving strong economic and political ties to Israel, while expressing firm opposition to Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories and recognition of how those settlements violate the Geneva Conventions, numerous United Nations resolutions and other instruments of international law. The Euro-Israeli Association Accord, for instance, privileges European-Israeli trade by removing tariffs for all goods made in Israel. But the Accord has been the basis of a challenge by the European Union to Israel’s practice of labeling goods produced in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as “made in Israel” and including them as tariff-free in violation of the Accord’s provisions.
While Europe was invited to the 1991 Madrid peace talks, it was functionally excluded; the U.S. alone set the terms, developed the agenda and recruited the participants. During the Oslo process, the European Union was called on to pay much of the cost, but remains excluded from serious involvement in the actual diplomacy. European governments throughout the Clinton era appeared to acquiesce to U.S. domination over Middle East diplomacy. Despite his claimed commitment to “assertive multilateralism” as the bulwark of his foreign policy, Clinton never relinquished even partial control of the Israel-Palestine peace process to the Europeans_and Europe never pushed very hard for a seat at the table. In the mid-1990s the European Commission drafted a long critique of U.S. policy towards the Israel-Palestine conflict, and especially of Europe’s exclusion from the process. But the report concluded with the statement that nothing in it should be taken as a “challenge to U.S. leadership” on the issue, thus largely vitiating the critique’s impact.
When George Bush was elected, European diplomats were wary of the seeming disinterest of this oil industry-oriented administration in the explosive region. By summer 2001, the EU was already moving in where Washington feared to tread. European diplomats helped negotiate an end to Israel’s two-day tank-led occupation of the Palestinian town of Beit Jala in August. The EU’s security chief, Javier Solana, shuttled between Israeli and Palestinian officials, attempting to broker a new cease-fire. Then, when a new crisis erupted involving Israel’s shutting down the Orient House, long the Palestinians’ diplomatic center in East Jerusalem, Europe, in particular Germany, moved in. Even the White House acknowledged that the Israeli action represented an “escalation” of the occupation. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer happened to be in the region at the time, and quickly moved to the center of the diplomatic effort to reopen the Palestinian offices.
After urging that Israel reopen Orient House, Fischer invited the parties to meet in Berlin to open a new dialogue. But he undermined his own position with a careful bow to what he called “the American prerogative” in Middle East diplomacy. His initiative might have borne fruit; but just a few days later, the terrorist attacks of September 11th occurred, and Europe pulled back.
Only months later, when the post-9/11 global diplomatic impasse slowly began to crumble, did Europe begin to revive its cautious efforts. With Israel’s violent re-occupation of Palestinian cities in the spring of 2002, most of the European-funded security infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority (police stations, police cars, etc.) were destroyed by Israeli soldiers. Israel made clear its expectation that Europe, not Israel itself, should be expected to cough up the funds to rebuild the shattered infrastructure.
By the autumn of 2002, with the Oslo process collapsed, it remained uncertain whether Europe, perhaps in alliance with other countries or groups of countries, would be prepared to challenge the U.S. “prerogative” and move to initiate a new diplomatic process based on the centrality of the United Nations. In fact, Israel’s repeated attempt to close the Orient House and seize the documents and equipment met hardly any external challenge in August 2002.
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer
If you have ever wondered “Why is there so much violence in the Middle East?”, “Who are the Palestinians?”, “What are the occupied territories?” or “What does Israel want?”, then this is the book for you.
With straightforward language, Phyllis Bennis, longtime analyst of the region, answers basic questions about Israel and Israelis, Palestine and Palestinians, the US and the Middle East, Zionism and anti-Semitism; about complex issues ranging from the Oslo peace process to the election of Hamas. Together her answers provide a comprehensive understanding of the longstanding Palestinian–Israeli conflict.