Last month, Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff, affirmed the administration’s frustration with “50 years of Israeli occupation.” He placed the blame upon the Jewish state’s alleged unwillingness to compromise and said the administration would “need to re-evaluate our position” when it comes to Israel. Omitted is the assigning of parallel fault to the Palestinians. Such an omission is contradicted by the facts of the past half-century of diplomacy.
In June 1967, Israel fought a just war, gaining control of the Sinai, the Golan Heights, Gaza, and the West Bank. This was a war of self-defense against multiple Arab armies seeking to “push the Jews into the sea.” UN Resolution 242 subsequently called upon Israel to relinquish acquired territory (not necessarily all such territory) in exchange for a comprehensive peace with defensible borders. Israel responded in the affirmative and sought to negotiate treaties. The Arab League proclaimed “3 Nos” — no negotiations, no recognition, no peace.
A first breakthrough occurred 10 years later. In 1977 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat paid a surprise visit to the Knesset. He then partnered with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and concluded a peace treaty two years later. Israel withdrew from 100 percent of the Sinai, three-quarters of all the land Israel had acquired in June 1967.
A second milestone took place in the mid-1990s. Under the diplomatic cover provided by the Oslo Peace Process, King Hussein crafted a peace treaty with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Once again Israel relinquished disputed border territory (11.5 square miles) as claimed by a neighbor.
On the Syrian front, President Bill Clinton’s negotiating team brought peace within reach. In his memoir, the United States’ lead negotiator, Dennis Ross, affirmed that Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to relinquish all the Golan Heights territory taken in 1967. Ross assumed that a peace agreement was imminent. To his dismay, Ross said, “Assad was dismissive — and for the first time in the history of the process, he stated that ‘the [Sea of Galilee] has always been our lake; it was never theirs.’” Once Assad demanded that Syria be given a portion of the Sea of Galilee, negotiations collapsed.
In 2005, encouraged by President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon authorized unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. He uprooted 8,000-plus Israeli settlers and withstood vociferous opposition by the Religious Zionist camp. President Bush’s argument was two-fold: presented with a territory and an economy to administer, the Gazans would moderate their behavior; and a magnanimous Israeli gesture would evoke good will throughout the world. Regrettably, the good will dissipated, and Gaza became more hostile than ever.
As for the West Bank, back-channel Oslo negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in 1992 led to eight years of diplomacy. Israel accepted the parameters of the final 2000 Clinton Plan for Peace. Yasser Arafat did not. He refused to surrender the demand that Palestinian refugees be resettled inside pre-1967 Israel. As Clinton reflected in his memoir, “Arafat never said no; he just couldn’t bring himself to say yes.”
The Israeli effort to resolve the dispute resurfaced in 2008. Condoleezza Rice’s memoir confirms that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas rejected Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s bold territorial concessions. These proposals were even more generous than the Clinton plan. Rice was amazed by how far the Israeli leader was willing to go. Olmert was prepared to give up nearly the entire West Bank, with equivalent land swaps, and to divide Jerusalem. Rice brought Olmert’s proposal to Abbas in Ramallah. But Abbas rejected it, telling Rice the PA could not agree to a deal that prevented nearly four million Palestinians from being able to “go home” to pre-1967 Israel.
Diplomatic efforts resumed in earnest in March 2014. Secretary of State John Kerry formulated a “memorandum of agreement” outlining the parameters of a final peace. In early 2015, while campaigning for election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rival, Tzipi Livni, chair of the Israeli negotiating team of 2014, offered her assessment to journalist Roger Cohen. While she “acknowledged that dealing with Netanyahu on the talks had always been difficult,” he wrote, “from her perspective, the Palestinians caused their failure at a critical moment. On March 17, , in a meeting in Washington, President Obama presented Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, with a long-awaited American framework for an agreement that set out the administration’s views on major issues, including borders, security, settlements, Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem. [On behalf of Israel] Livni considered it a fair framework. Netanyahu had indicated willingness to proceed on the basis of it while saying he had reservations. But Abbas declined to give an answer in what his senior negotiator, Saeb Erekat, later described as a ‘difficult’ meeting with Obama. Abbas remained evasive on the framework, which was never made public.”
The past 50 years have witnessed Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, from border areas near Jordan and from Gaza, and agreements to viable peace proposals for the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The Obama administration is troubled that a comprehensive diplomatic solution remains elusive.
However, blame for the decades of stalemate ought not to be placed upon the Jewish state alone. At numerous points in time, Israel has been the proactive partner, awaiting reciprocity from Palestinian leadership. It is time to address the objections raised by Arafat and by Abbas. Why do they seek a Security Council resolution forcing Israel to unilaterally cede the West Bank and East Jerusalem? After this “first stage,” they will insist upon the resettlement of millions of Palestinian refugees, transforming pre-1967 Israel into a second Palestinian state. Since the Palestinian leadership fundamentally refuses to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state irrespective of borders, it is time to re-evaluate how U.S. diplomacy approaches Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.