In October 2001, George W. Bush made history by publicly calling for the creation of a Palestinian state. Since the founding of Israel in 1948, not one American president had found the courage to make such a proclamation. Behind this change of heart was a fairly transparent ploy by the GOP to court the Arab-American vote. As so often happens, those in power made the right decision for the wrong reasons.
In its words and deeds since October, the Bush administration has proven to be a poor friend of Palestine. It has incessantly criticized Yassir Arafat, even as Israeli troops literally trapped him in his offices. It has both tacitly and expressly supported the Israeli occupation of the West Bank this year. One of its chief allies in Congress, Dick Armey, even called for Israel to annex the West Bank, and the Bush administration kept silent. Nonetheless, Bush and his administration have an opportunity to follow up on their October proclamation. The foundation to any lasting peace in Palestine will be two viable states, one Palestinian, and one Israeli. If the American government cannot bring itself to support a two-state solution, it cannot reasonably expect either Arab countries or Israel to support it.
One cannot equate the horror of suicide bombings of Israeli citizens with the effrontery of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. But both the bombings and the settlements are huge impediments to peace. Bush is right to ask Yasser Arafat to try to stop Palestinian militants, but wrong to imply that Arafat and the bombers are one and the same. Israeli control over much of Palestinian territory prevents Yassir Arafat—and would prevent any successor—from effectively controlling the West Bank. By contrast, Bush has erred in not asking Ariel Sharon from doing everything in his power to restrain and dismantle Israeli settlements. Without protection from the Israeli army, subsidies from the Israeli treasury, and support from the Israeli government, the settlements cannot last.
Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza strip have fragmented Palestine into an untenable set of disconnected enclaves. The maps at Le Monde-Diplomatique, especially this one illustrate just how pervasive the Israeli presence is. The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem recently reported that Israel now controls almost 42% of the land area in the West Bank, enough to expand settlements there manifold.
When Ariel Sharon praises the concept of a Palestinian state, as he did in February, his actions speak louder than his words. Today, Israel is one of the world's few colonial powers, and perhaps the only one that is actively colonizing territories that it controls. Imagine if the situation were reversed: a viable Palestinian state was occupying territory historically owned by Israelis, who lacked most of the trappings of a full-fledged state. Palestinians were controlling the passable roads, the best land, the water. Palestinians controlled whether Israelis could work in Palestine, where the best-paying jobs were. Israel, and its allies, would find the situation untenable. No one should be surprised that Palestinians and their allies find their real-world situation to be similarly untenable.
One pair of facts separate the issue of Palestine from other colonial issues in recent times, like Namibia or the Western Sahara. Both Palestinians and Israeli Jews have legitimate claims to territory beyond their current political boundaries. The historical Jewish state does indeed stretch into Judea and Samaria in the West Bank. But Palestine existed more recently in not just the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also in current-day Israel. Any full-fledged agreement between Palestine and Israel must take these competing claims into account.
Both Palestinian and Israeli leaders have made claims on the whole of Israel and Palestine for their own state. Each side freely uses maps that are anathema to the other, maps that claim the entire territory as theirs. Those claims are far from meritless, but they must bow to political reality. Neither Israeli nor Palestinians are going away. Palestinians will no sooner push Israel into the sea than Israel could expel millions of Palestinians.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization has, in recent years, made statements repudiating its call to eliminate the state of Israel, but those statements have never had much force. Likewise, while Israel has explored "land-for-peace" under Labor Party governments, the offers that it has made to Palestine have never been too good to pass up. Nonetheless, even as Israeli civilians have suffered from the horrors of suicide bombings, there has always been a sizable minority of Israeli Jews who have sought an end to the settlements as a means to ending the cycles of violence.
History proves that Israel and its enemies can make peace. Egypt and Israel, in 1978, less than five years after the end of a bitter war over the Sinai, agreed to give the Sinai back to Egypt, and to establish diplomatic relations with one another. Today, Egypt and Israel are far from friends, but they are unlikely adversaries. Lots of American money, about $5 billion per year, helps maintain the peace. It is money well spent. The issues that Israel and Palestine face are far tougher than the issues that Israel and Egypt faced a quarter-century ago. However, the enmity between Israel and Egypt goes back for millenia. That the Camp David peace has lasted should give both sides hope now.
The first principle in any peace settlement between Palestine and Israel must be the unequivocal idea that the nations can and should exist, side by side. Every other issue proceeds from this idea: exactly where the borders should be; how to handle the Palestinian right of return to Israeli lands; how to compensate Israeli settlers for their economic losses; how to foster Palestinian democracy; how to govern Jerusalem. Acceptance of a two-state solution means Israeli repudiation of settlements, and Palestinian repudiation of a Greater Palestine. But it also means realization by both sides that peace is worth compromise.
The United States is the logical country to mediate between Palestine and Israel. The United States has been an effective mediator before in the region, and it can seriously claim that its long-term security requires a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Palestine. But in order for its mediation to be effective, the United States must take a Palestinian state seriously. The United States needs to develop the trust of Palestinian leaders, and being wholeheartedly in support of a Palestinian state is the best and largest first step.
Recent events have shown that some issues are not as intractable as they might seem. For example, the peace plan floated by Saudi Arabia earlier this year included a key concession on the right of Palestinians to return to Israel. Also, what Israel offered to the Palestinian Authority at the Taba talks in January 2001 was extensive and worthwhile. Israel was willing to cede control of much of the Old City of Jerusalem to an international protectorate. It also proposed a pullback of Israeli settlements to near the 1967 borders between Israel and Palestine.
Israel and Palestine each have much to gain from a real Palestinian state. The advantages to Palestine are fairly obvious. But the advantages to Israel would be just as real. Israel would avoid the costs of running a continuing, low-intensity war along its eastern border, and of subsidizing and protecting isolated settlements. Normal relations with Palestine would benefit the economies of both countries by making cross-border employment normal once again. The most stalwart supporters of Israel should be among the loudest advocates for a viable, secure Palestinian state. Nowadays, when Palestinian bombers or guerrillas attack Israel, they do so under a colonial fog. The Palestinian Authority lacks much of the political infrastructure to keep paramilitaries in check. If Israel retaliates, it does so on what is essentially its own colony. If those same bombers or guerrillas do their deeds by invading from a Palestinian state, then Israel can take a number of actions, all justified by longstanding norms of international law.
Supporting Palestinian statehood does not require the American government to stop supporting Israel. It should, however, require the American government to reconsider its kneejerk support of whatever Israel does. When the Bush administration supports Israeli settlements and Israeli incursions into Palestinian refugee camps, it belies either the sincerity or the depth of its calls for a Palestinian state. It is time for the Bush administration to take its own pronouncements to heart.
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