On the occaision of Israel’s fiftieth anniversary, the Jewish state finally finds itself in full scale peace process, following formal peace treaties signed with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994). That is because of a surprising turn in Israeli public opinion, which now widely accepts 1974 Yariv-ShemTov formula of “territories for peace”, which at the time it was suggested was embraced by less than 15 members of Israel’s 120-member Knesset parliament. Yet by the 1996 Israeli elections, 118 members elected to Israel’s Knesset had run on platforms that favored and endorsed the concept of territories for peace, as embodied in the 1993 Oslo accords signed on the White House lawn by US President Bill Clinton, PLO leader Yassir Arafat and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
This most recent Israeli election occurred at a time of unprecedented Israeli-Arab cooperation in almost all fields of endeavor. Israel’s level of exports to Arab countries, some of whom are still in a formal state of war with Israel, has surpassed a billion dollars. Israel’s former Minister of Public Security, Attorney Moshe Shachal, who recently resigned the Knesset to resume his law practice, now represents Arab countries from the Gulf States. Israel’s former military liason to the west bank and the Palestine Authority, General Oren Shachor, now exports soft drinks to Kuwait, working with Palestinian partners, some of whom spent years in Israeli prisons.
Likud member of Knesset Gideon Ezra, a career Israeli intelligence officer, opened a firm together with Palestinian partners to locate stolen vehicles.
The examples of economic cooperation are matched by a new social milieu – No less than five hundred Arab-Jewish reconciliation organizations are now registered with Israel’s Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations, some of which have been initiated by Arabs.
Indeed, Palestinian Arab journalist Daoud Kuttab, Arafat’s press liason during the Intifada riots of the late eighties, intiated a private media firm that cooperates with Israeli and American tv companies to produce the first Middle East “Sesame Street” to encourage Israeli and Arab children to play together without stereotypes and hatred. You can ask the obvious question With all this cooperation, why are the peace talks between Israel and the new Palestine Authority so bogged down? Have Israelis lost their desire for peace. I would think not. Have Palestinian Arabs had second thoughts? Not in my judgement.
As a religious Jew and a social work professional, I have the opportunity to participate in timely dialogues with Palestinian Arabs from all walks of life. The Palestinian Arab people want peace. So what is holding up the works? Well, there is the institution known as the United Nations, which in Jerusalem is headquartered on what the New Testament refers to as the “Hill of Evil Counsel”. The UN, back in 1949, established UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, that now plays host to more than three million Palestinian Arab refugees who are descended from the 650,000 Arabs who left the area that became known as the new state of Israel, at a time that Israel absorbed more than 800,000 Jews who left the Arab countries. Such a population exchange is not rare in the twentieth century, except that the way that the UN chose to deal with the issue was exceptional – by confining the Arab refugees to the squalor of transient huts, where they have languished for almost fifty years, under the proscribed UN resolution #194 promise and premise of the “right of return” to homes and villages that no longer exist, with absolutely no UN right to compensation for the property that the Arabs lost in 1948.
The idea of a west bank/Gaza Palestinian entity may be acceptable to the one million Palestinians who see the west bank and Gaza as their home, but not to the vast majority of Palestinians who live in the UN refugee camps of the west bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Tragically, one of the first laws of the new Palestine Authority, established in 1994, was to forbid improvements on the UNRWA camps, based on the legislated UN promise and premise of the “right of return” to what Israel proper.
In the heart of Samaria, in an area under the Palestine Authority area of control, sits a mountain of 1,300 empty homes that were built to house Palestinian Arab refugees, constructed with generous funds provided by a Catholic charity with Israeli encouragement. However, United Nations retains a guard at the foot of the hill, ensuring that no Palestinian Arab refugee will move into these homes. According to a United Nations decsion in 1985, any such move into any such permanent housing would violate the “inalienable right of return ” of Palestinian Arabs. Many people are inclined to believe that Yassir Arafat’s willingness to sign a peace accord with Israel was based on new Arab willingness to accept what for them would be a historic compromise that would limit Palestinian Arab sovereignty to the west bank and Gaza, with some linkage to East Jerusalem. That was the basis on which Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a ceremony which I covered in Oslo. On that occasion, I asked Arafat whether he would indeed relinquish the greater Palestinian vision that demanded the “right of return” of three million Palestinian Arabs. Arafat would not answer my question. I also asked Arafat if he would disarm the Hamas. Arafat again would not answer. The answers to my questions were not long in coming. In May 1995, Arafat authorized weaponry for the Hamas. In December 1995, Arafat signed a pact with the Hamas, to include them in the Palestine Authority. And in April 1996, my TV crew covered the session of the Palestine National Council, which was supposed to cancel the PLO state of war against the state of Israel and agree to a “west bank/Gaza” entity. At that session, Arafat would only authorize the PNC to establish of a committee to consider “changes” in the PLO constitution.
And, most recently, on April 19, 1998, Arafat told Egyptian television, that, indeed, “all options are open before the Palestinian people”, and that, as an Arab Moslem leader, Arafat had signed the Oslo accords in the context of the historic Khudaibiya agreement that was made by Muhammad with the tribe of Koreish. The Khudaibiya agreement, slated to last for ten years, was broken within two years, when Muhammad’s forces – having used the peace pact to become stronger – massacred the Koreish tribe.
So much for the concept of “territories for peace”.
Shortly before his death, I interviewed Aharon Yariv, the Israeli general and former IDF intelligence chief who had first conceptualized the idea of territories for peace.
Yariv said to me that “people today misunderstand the Yariv-Shemtov formula. We offered `territories for peace’, not `territories before peace’…”, said Yariv.
That formula constitutes the risk that the government and people of Israel are ready to make.
All indications are that the Palestinian Arab people are ready for such a formula.
Tragically, the United Nations and the new Palestine Authority, under the leadership of Yassir Arafat, are not.
That remains the complex legacy of peace for Israel’s fiftieth birthday.