Ever-elusive peace between Israel and Palestinine has defined and confounded U.S. presidencies for decades. Since Jimmy Carter, every subsequent president has attempted to build upon the gains made at the Camp David Accords. Now, with the help of Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy, President Obama is attempting to solidify his place in history as a peacemaker by bringing Israeli and Palestinian leadership together for negotiations that could potentially set the framework for a peace plan.
“Everyone has learned from the mistakes of Bill Clinton at Camp Davis [II] of trying to force a peace plan in a week. No one wants to repeat that,” says Professor Marc Gopin, the Director of the Director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.
Indeed, the task ahead is a daunting one for the negotiators. The first issue that makes Israeli-Palestinian peace so complicated is the way in which the state of Israel came to exist. In the early 1900s, Jewish immigration to what was then called the British Mandate of Palestine began as a slow trickle under the Balfour Declaration. After the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, European powers-that-be came under increasing pressure from Jewish leaders to provide the Jewish people with a home.
Disregarding the vocal opposition of the Palestinians, the British ultimately chose to divide Palestine into a patchwork state for the Jews and another for the Palestinians, with the majority of the territory going to the former. Jerusalem, the ancient Biblical city, was to be left under the control of the U.N. until a final peace agreement could be reached.
Upon Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, it was attacked by the neighboring Arab countries. What happens next is a matter of interpretation and dispute amongst Israelis and Palestinians. Each side claims to have been the victim of aggression. Some 80% of the Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes and the Jews won decisive battles, gaining territory that was designated for the Palestinians. Later, a series of laws passed by the Israeli government prevented the Palestinians who had left from returning to their homes or claiming their property, leaving them as permanent refugees outside of Israel.
What is now left of Palestine is divided into the West Bank and Gaza, with the West Bank occupied by Israel and an ever-growing illegal population of Jewish settlements taking up more and more of the land. About 340,000 to 360,000 Jewish settlers in live in the West Bank. Another 300,000 Jews live in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital.
This lays the foundation for some of the most contentious issues that have prevented any past peace plans from moving forward:
The Right of Return: The number of Palestinians now living in exile has grown into the millions. Will any of the Palestinians who fled or their descendants be allowed to return to what is now Israel? If so, how many?
Illegal Settlements: Can any Palestinian state thrive with so many Jewish settlements continuing to grow in Palestinian land? Will those settlements be removed in a peace process or will they be absorbed into a Palestinian state.
Whose Jerusalem?: Both sides claim the ancient city as their rightful capital. The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said that any peace agreement that did not include East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine would be unacceptable. On the other hand, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to divide the capital city. Can an agreement be reached on Jerusalem as a shared capital?
“Yes, there are difficult concessions to be made, but what’s missing is leadership that’s willing to make those hard decisions…The problem is not the issues, but what each side is willing to take back to their people in any peace plan,” notes Professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Director of the Peacebuilding and Development Institute at American University.
“For the Palestinian leaders, this might be the last attempt before they completely lose their credibility in the streets.” Abu-Nimer also points out that the Palestinians themselves are divided and Hamas, who represents an estimated 40% of the Palestinians, has been left out of the proposed peace talks. This makes it even more difficult to get a plan that most Palestinians could agree on.
Gopin, however, remains optimistic that the Israeli leadership is truly ready to talk. “The fact that there has been no real pushback from Netanyahu means that he may have been told that there are real things on the table [for discussion] from the Abbas and the Palestinians.” Because of the Arab Spring, conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Egypt, the threat of attacks from Iran, calls to boycott Israel as an apartheid state, and the growing impatience of the Europeans to see a peaceful solution, the Israelis are feeling alienated on the global stage.
“Israeli-Palestinian peace is in Israel’s interest…Jews don’t see peace as a threat to Israel, the right-wing in the U.S. and Israel is the real threat,” asserts Gopin.
Further highlighting how difficult peace talks could be, the peacemakers had very different views on what a final agreement would look like. Gopin would prefer, “a one-state solution with equal rights. I’m not in favor of ethno-pure states…It’s a radical position but I’m an advocate for taking what you can get and building upon it.” For Abu-Nimer, a one state solution is no real solution:
“A one state solution is hard to market; it’s the status-quo if Israel continues with the settlements.”
He circles back to the most contentious issues, “I’d like to see the Palestinians and Israelis bring a formula that is acceptable to both sides on the issues of Jerusalem, refugees, and settlements. This might be our last chance to achieve two states.”
The fact that the Israelis and Palestinians are willing to come to the table and negotiate at all is a positive sign. For Obama and Kerry the task ahead is to build a genuine consensus amongst two groups people who have come to understand their very existence to be in opposition to one another.