It is a legitimate question, the answer to which just might hold the key to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Why is there no independent Palestinian state? Though many demagogues are quick to proclaim Israel as the culprit, such an assertion flies in the face of the historical record.
For centuries prior to World War I, the Ottoman Turks–a Muslim empire–controlled a vast area of North Africa, Europe, and the Levant that included Palestine. The Arabs and Jews of Palestine lived there as subjects of Ottoman rule. The Ottomans did not establish an independent Palestinian state, or a Jewish one.
After the Ottomans fell in World War I, the French and British took control of the Levant and divided the region. The Arab states of Syria and Lebanon were created out of lands controlled by the French. Palestine was within the British sphere, and in 1917 the British, through Foreign Minister Lord Balfour, issued a declaration calling for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration did not call for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but in 1921 some 80% of the territory designated for the British Mandate of Palestine was carved out to create Transjordan (Jordan)–thereby excluding such lands from the plan for a Jewish state. Today, Palestinians comprise more than half of Jordan’s population.
The remaining 20% of the British Mandate was further divided by the UN, in its 1947 Partition Plan: part for a Jewish state, and part for a Palestinian Arab state. The opportunity for a peaceful “two state solution” was at hand. The Jews accepted the UN Partition Plan. The Palestinians did not. Palestinians can only blame their own leaders for rejecting the UN Plan. And, many Palestinian Arabs joined forces with Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon in a war to eradicate the nascent Israeli state, in 1948. Many on both sides lost their lives, and the war created an enormous refugee problem, but it did nothing to advance the cause of a Palestinian state.
Israel prevailed in the 1948 war, but for the next 19 years Jordan occupied the West Bank–the region now proposed as the heart of a Palestinian state, just as the UN had proposed in 1947. One might ask why Jordan did not establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Whatever the answer may be, the blame does not lie with Israel.
The status of the West Bank changed in 1967. Israel, again facing a war of extermination by its Arab neighbors, not only prevailed but pushed back its would-be conquerors, thereby taking control of the “occupied” territories. The UN called for “land for peace” in Resolution 242. Israel, having taken possession of new territories in a war it did not seek, now at least had tangible bargaining power.
In 1979 Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in a historic “land for peace” deal. The resulting peace treaty, which still holds today, proved that “land for peace” can work when Israel has a true partner in peace. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat was indeed such a partner, and far more: he was a courageous visionary willing to take bold steps to break the cycle of violence that has long plagued Arab-Israeli relations. Yet the reaction of his Arab neighbors was as revealing as it was appalling: they branded Sadat a traitor, and Egypt became a reviled outcast. The Arab League suspended Egypt and imposed economic sanctions against it. Egypt was ousted from the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries. Within two years, Sadat was assassinated by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
So too are powerful Palestinian factions anathema to peace with Israel. Significant progress was made in Oslo in 1993, with the PLO agreeing to renounce terrorism and to recognize Israel’s right to exist in peace. But Hamas–a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood–responded to Oslo with harsh opposition and ramped up suicide bombings in Israel. And in 2000, another opportunity for Palestinian statehood was squandered. About 95% of the West Bank was offered to the Palestinians in the Camp David peace talks (along with additional territory within pre-1967 Israel), with parts of East Jerusalem to serve as the capital of a Palestinian State, and Gaza was included as well, but that offer was rejected by the Palestinians.
So when you hear the call for a Palestinian state interwoven with anti-Israeli demagoguery, ask three questions: 1) what would have happened had the Palestinians accepted the UN Partition in 1947? 2) what would have happened had the Palestinians accepted the proposal for statehood at Camp David in 2000? 3) why did the Palestinian leadership reject these opportunities?
History has shown that the “problem” with these offers was that Palestinian leaders would have had to finally accept the existence of the Jewish state. Many moderate Palestinians have long been prepared to accept this, and enjoy the benefits of peace. But extremists such as Hamas–who too frequently either drive the agenda or stand in the way of an agreement–would rather die than coexist with Israel. Their founding charter plainly explains this. They would rather bomb Israeli buses and restaurants. They would rather launch thousands of rockets toward Israeli civilian population areas, using Palestinian women and children as human shields. They would rather misappropriate donated funds and building materials for the construction of terror tunnels than for schools or hospitals. Surely the quest for Palestinian statehood is not advanced by such intolerable agendas, any more than it could be advanced by groups such as Black September or Islamic Jihad.
Yet, the situation is not without hope. As was seen in the Egypt accord and again at Oslo, there are courageous voices of moderation and reason, who believe in peace and are prepared to take a stand for it. Indeed, although Egypt was initially ostracized for agreeing to peace with Israel, that was only temporary–and in the end Jordan also agreed to peace with Israel. If these nations and Israel can coexist peacefully, there is no reason to believe a lasting peace is cannot also be achieved between the Jews and Arab Palestinians. It can and must happen, but extremists on both sides must not be permitted to thwart the cause of peace. We cannot wait for extremists to reform their ideologies–if necessary they must be cast aside and isolated.
May the voices of peace and reason ring loud and clear, and prevail in the year to come.