“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” Alexander Pope wrote in 1733, as if presaging the seemingly endless search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
On this issue, hope springs to life especially with the change of political seasons in Washington, Jerusalem and other key capitals. New leaders assume office, promising to apply new energy and new approaches to a conflict that has dogged the Middle East and bedeviled the world for decades.
And so it is with President Obama, who vows a renewed U.S. engagement in the Middle East, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently announced his conditions for supporting the so-called “two-state solution” – Israel and a new state of Palestine living side-byside in peace.
But, alas, the hope of today blinds us to the historical reality that, on this issue, “what’s old is new again.” Simply put, what underlies the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and makes peace elusive has not changed in any real way since Zionists first sought to turn the promise of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – that Jews should have a national home in Palestine – into a State of Israel.
As Obama and his team seek success where earlier administrations failed, they would do well to 1) read two new books about the roots of today’s conflict – One State, Two States, by Middle East scholar Benny Morris, and A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, by historians Allis and Ronald Radosh; and 2) then compare today’s Palestinian leadership with that of its predecessors.
For in their hopes and aspirations, their rhetoric and activities, today’s Palestinian leaders mirror their predecessors. They reject Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, and they seek to control the full area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
Benny Morris’s tale is surely the more depressing. He argues that, in the early 20th Century, Zionist and Palestinian leaders both sought to control the full area of Palestine after the British mandate expired. But whereas the Zionists eventually bowed to political reality and sought compromise in a two-state solution, Palestinian leaders never made this transition, rejecting any notion of a Jewish state within their midst.
“The Palestinian national movement started life with a vision and goal of a Palestinian Muslim Arab-majority state in all of Palestine – a one-state ‘solution’ – and continues to espouse and aim to establish such a state down to the present day,” Morris writes.
The historical evidence is compelling. For how different is the rejectionism of the Arab states’ “point man” in the 1930s, Iraqi Prime Minister Hikmat Sulaiman, from that of today’s Palestinian leaders?
After Britain’s Peel Commission in 1937 recommended two states in Palestine – one for Jews, one for Arabs – Sulaiman declared, “Any person venturing to agree to act as Head of such a (partial Palestinian) State would be regarded as an outcast throughout the Arab world, and would incur the wrath of Moslems all over the East.”
Today, even “moderate” leaders like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reject the idea of a Jewish-majority Israel (as do, according to polls, most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza). After Netanyahu called last month for a two-state solution that would guarantee Israel’s Jewish character, the PLO Executive Committee secretary labeled him “a liar and a crook.”
Allis and Ronald Radosh tell a far more uplifting tale, for they chronicle the political courage of President Truman as he fought the British and his own State Department first to push for a twostate solution and then to quickly recognize Israel almost immediately after its official founding in 1948.
Arab rejectionism is a pervasive theme of their story as well. Palestinian and Arab leaders pressured British leaders and the State Department to not allow the creation of a Jewish-majority state in Palestine.
With the United Nations poised in late 1946 to decide the fate of Palestine, the authors write, “the Arab states remained steadfast in their position: Palestine must be an Arab state in which Jews could live as a minority.”
More than a half-century later, the problem remains: For a two-state solution to work, each state must accept the reality of the other.
With mutual respect, peace is achievable. Without it, not even the most creative and energetic U.S. president will succeed.