Israel's Missed Opportunities

Israelis have long accused Arabs of squandering every chance for peace, but has Israel itself squandered so many opportunities that its very identity as a Jewish state is now in jeopardy?

It is 39 years since the 6th October/Yom Kippur war of 1973. After the peace talks in Geneva following the war, Israel’s then-foreign minister, Abba Eban, the ever-articulate founding father of Israeli diplomacy, quipped that, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

While there is indeed truth in Eban’s famous assertion, the Israeli fixation on this hypothesis, with its implication that there is no Arab “partner for peace,” and that the situation today is somehow inevitable, clearly overlooks the long annals of opportunities missed by...Israel.

Eban seems to have wilfully turned a blind eye to one glaring example of this lack of engagement, which occurred on his watch: Israel's failure to avert that same all-out war in 1973, shattering the prospects for forging a lasting peace that its victory six years earlier had opened up.

Although that 1967 war 'officially' lasted just six days, it in reality continued in various forms for a further six years – until the next war of 1973. This period could have been an important window of opportunity, but the Israeli government, drunk on victory and convinced that it could have its cake and eat it, rejected peace plan after peace plan. Had Israel taken action back then to return the Arab territories conquered in 1967 in accordance with UN Resolution 242 and the Rogers Plan, it could have avoided the drift to the current impasse in which hundreds of thousands of settlers live in occupied territory and millions of Palestinians live unhappily and in segregation under Israeli military rule.

Back to 1967. Those who subscribe to the received Israeli narrative will argue that Israel was dragged quivering into a fight for its very survival in June 1967, the state had no territorial designs at the time, and would have ceded the conquered territories had there been a true partner for peace.

There is no doubt that the Israeli public, exposed to a continuous barrage of bombastic radio broadcasts from Cairo promising to “put an end to the entire Zionist existence”, was terrified in the run up to the war – as those on the ground, including the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, observed. However, the Israeli military establishment, which had been meticulously preparing for just such a confrontation since at least 1956, was confident it could defeat the bellicose Arab paper tiger, whose roar was definitely worse than its bite.

Indeed, I disagree with those who believe that Israel was acting in self-defence. Evidence of this can, for example, be found in how Israel cold-shouldered an Egyptian invitation in 1965 for then Mossad chief Meir Amit to go to Cairo for a clandestine meeting with none other than Abdel-Hakim Amer, Nasser’s vice-president and confidante who unbeknownst to himself stood on the threshold of infamy with his subsequent mishandling of the 1967 war.

Regardless of whether Israel’s conquest was premeditated or accidental, the fact remains that the appetite to hold on to conquered land has been stronger than the urge to exchange it for peace ever since, despite early warnings of the dire consequences of this for the Zionist enterprise from the likes of Uri Avnery and Amos Oz.

The ultimate irony implicit in such warnings against Israeli intransigence, or perhaps inertia, is the possibility, with the direction things are heading, that Israel may 'succeed' where the Arabs have failed: destroying the Zionist dream of a Jewish-majority state by its own hand, especially with the recent revelation that there are now more Arabs living under Israeli control than Jews.

Although it was Israel which initiated peace overtures with Egypt soon after the 1952 Free Officers coup, it was Gamal Abdul Nasser, who was then prime minister, who sustained and nurtured, along with then-Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, the secret channels which eventually led to a blueprint for a peaceful resolution. Nasser had early on showed remarkable restraint in his public pronouncements and admitted in private that eventual peace with Israel was inevitable – but this early willingness to seek out an accommodation fell prey to the pincer movement of Israel’s predatory hawks and Nasser’s disastrous ambition to lead the Arab world by following the loudest and most radical voices on the “Arab street”.

Nasser’s clandestine partner for peace, Sharett, was ousted by David Ben-Gurion, also in 1955, who believed that Sharett, this Israeli dove – who, far more than any other Israeli leader, understood his Arab adversaries – was “raising a generation of cowards”.

Ben-Gurion’s fears provide significant insight into a major psychological barrier on the Israeli side. The long history of persecution endured by Jews had not only created a deep and painful trauma, it also helped fuel Israel’s obsession with might and courage as ends in their own right.

But it is not just a question of psychology. Israel’s failure to reach a resolution with the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians, has deep ideological roots. The elephant in the room which classical Zionism has ignored or dealt with myopically is the Palestinian people.

Theodor Herzl himself seemed to expect the local Arabs would embrace the Zionist newcomers with open arms, because they would bring the gifts of science and progress with them. In the egalitarian, multicultural Utopia Herzl imagined in his novel Altneuland (The Old New Land), an Arab character, Reshid Bey, expresses his gratitude that Jewish immigrants have helped modernize Arab villages and boost the value of Arab property.

Despite his early talk of Jewish-Arab class solidarity, Ben-Gurion was more realistic. “A people which fights against the usurpation of its land will not tire so easily,” he admitted to colleagues in the Mapai Political Committee in 1938. This could only be addressed, he believed, through a show of strength that would persuade Arabs to submit to Zionist hegemony.

Like Zionist leaders before and after him, including Herzl, Ben-Gurion was also convinced that the support of the great powers, or a great power, was more important than reaching any kind of agreement or accommodation with the local Palestinian population.

That can help explain Israel’s long refusal to recognize or deal with the PLO, despite Egyptian attempts dating back to the 1970s to persuade Israel to enter into talks and despite the Palestinian National Council (PNC) shifting the focus of its national charter away from armed struggle and towards a phased political solution. In fact, Yitzhak Rabin, who was prime minister at the time, expressed his desire to keep the Palestinian question in “the refrigerator” – and by the time he took it out of the fridge, it was perhaps already too late to thaw it, as Israel did not possess the willpower to reverse the too many facts on the ground it had established in the meantime.

Even after having reached peace with Egypt and despite the Camp David accords stipulating that “Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the representatives of the Palestinian people should participate in negotiations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects”, Israel still refused to countenance dealing with Arafat and his comrades.

Even after Yasser Arafat had, during the first intifada, persuaded the PNC to recognise Israel’s legitimacy, at least implicitly, and to accept all relevant UN resolutions dating back to the 1947 UN partition plan, Israel still refused to play ball. “The PNC declaration is an additional attempt at disinformation, a jumble of illusions, meant to mislead world public opinion,” was the Israeli cabinet’s harsh verdict of the historic 1988 declaration. But as the faulty Oslo Accords a few years later clearly demonstrated, the PLO’s willingness to recognise Israel was not an illusion but very real.

Israel is repeating a similar series of errors with its refusal to deal with Hamas and its inhumane blockade on Gaza, which is bound to fuel grievances for long years to come and is clearly against Israel’s own self-interest. Even PA president Mahmoud Abbas, one of the architects of the two-state solution, is seen as beyond the pale in many Israeli circles today.

And so the endless, impossible, rhetorical search for a “suitable” partner for peace continues fruitlessly.

Although Eban’s assertion about missed opportunities is the one that has lodged in the Israeli popular psyche, another of his quotes is a far more apt description of Israel and Zionism’s approach to the Palestinians and wider Arab context: “History teaches us that men and nations only behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”

Sadly, we do not seem to have reached this vital juncture in history yet.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger - www.chronikler.com - and writer, currently living in Jerusalem, who has spent about half his life in the Middle East and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea

In Khaled Diab's next piece, he will examine the opportunities missed by the Arab side and how their handling of the conflict, especially in the early years, failed not only to defend the Palestinian cause but also unwittingly helped to build Israel.