137 years of Arab rejection of Jewish self-determination

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell after their meeting in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, on September 14, 2010. (U.S. State Department photo/ Public Domain)

The history of Arab rejection of Zionism, which is the concept of Jewish self-determination on the land of Israel, a land where Jews have had continuous presence for over 3000 years, is as long as the history of Zionism itself. The following are the main moments of that history.

1883-1917: Zionism in its infancy

In 1883, Nathan Birnbaum founded Kadimah, the first Zionist student association in Vienna. Early Arab opposition to Zionism came in 1880’s from the Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Tahir al-Husseini, father of Haj Amin al-Husseini.

1917: Balfour Declaration

The Balfour Declaration called for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people. The Arab world rejected it, and the Palestinian Ministry of Information now calls it “the greatest political crime in the history of mankind.”

1919: Faisal-Weizmann Plan

On January 3, 1919, Chaim Weizmann, head of the British Zionist Federation, and the Emir Faisal ibn Hussein, head of the Arab delegation to the Versailles peace conference, signed an agreement of cooperation between their two peoples. The agreement permitted massive Jewish immigration into Palestine but did not explicitly support Jewish self-determination. The agreement fell apart after the Versailles peace conference failed to grant independence to the Arabs, which was Faisal’s condition for the agreement.

1920: San Remo Conference and League of Nations mandate for Palestine

The San Remo Conference decided on April 24, 1920 under the League of Nations to support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”, and to assign to Britain the Mandate for Palestine.

1937: Peel Commission Partition Plan

In 1936, the British government appointed a commission, headed by the Earl of Peel, to investigate the situation in Palestine and to make recommendations. The commission issued its report on July 7, 1937, which included a plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. While the Jews accepted the plan in principle, the Arabs rejected any form of partition.

1939: British White Paper

The British White Paper of 1939 called for the establishment of a Palestinian state to which Jews would only have a very limited right of immigration (75,000 Jews for 5 years), with further Jewish immigration to be decided by the Arab majority. Not surprisingly, the Jews rejected it, but the Arabs rejected it too even though it gave practically nothing to Jews, especially not self-determination.

1947-1948: 1947 UN partition plan

While the Jews reluctantly accepted the plan, the Arab world rejected it and attacked the Jews. Azzam Pasha, General Secretary of the Arab League, said in May 1948, “This will be a war of extermination, a momentous massacre, which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”

1949: Lausanne Conference

The UN-sponsored Lausanne Conference of 1949 included Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Arab Higher Committee, and refugee delegations. Its objective was to resolve disputes arising from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. During the conference, Israel made a peace offer that included taking 100,000 Palestinian refugees (which was 15% of the Palestinian refugees at that time), but the Arabs rejected it.

1960: Jordanian peace initiative

The Jordanian government prepared a peace proposal for resolving the Israel-Arab conflict that included a demilitarized Israel, modifications of the armistice lines in favor of the Arabs, and negotiations over the refugees. Jordan was set to present its proposal to the Arab League in Cairo on February 8, 1960, but after sending out feelers to assess the chances of approval by other Arab states, the Jordanian government withdrew the proposal.

1965: The peace proposal of Levi Eshkol

In a speech to the Knesset, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol proposed a peace plan with the Arab world. The Arabs ignored his proposal.

1967: Israel’s offer to negotiate peace after the Six-Day War

After the Six-Day War which Israel won decisively, Israel offered to negotiate peace with the Arab world, suggesting that it would give land for peace. In response, the Arab League issued the Khartoum Resolutions, declaring “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel”.

1978-1979: Egypt-Israel peace treaty

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty between their two countries on March 26, 1979. The treaty included the return to Egypt of the Sinai Peninsula which is three times the size of Israel.

1982: Reagan’s peace plan

U.S. President Ronald Regan proposed a plan that involved a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, linking the West Bank and Gaza with Jordan, self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza, and allowing Arab residents of East Jerusalem to participate in the election of a self-governing authority in the West Bank. The Israeli government under Prime Minister Menachem Begin rejected the plan despite the protests of opposition leader Shimon Peres, but the plan was also rejected by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and by Jordan.

1983: Israel-Lebanon security agreement

Under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Lebanese President Amine Gemayel, Israel and Lebanon signed a security agreement on May 18, 1983 (although the agreement is known as the May 13 agreement), but its implementation was delayed because Syria refused to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, a key element of the agreement. Within a year, under domestic and regional pressure, Lebanon formally cancelled the agreement. Soon after the cancellation, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad phoned Gemayel and praised the cancellation as a ”victory for the Lebanese people, Syrian people, and the Arab nation.”

1987: Peres-Hussein peace deal

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Jordan’s King Hussein negotiated an agreement with the support of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but the agreement fell apart when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refused to sign on. This could be considered an opportunity missed by Israel, but Hebrew University Professor Elie Podeh, author of the book “Chances for Peace: Missed Opportunities in the Arab-Israeli Conflict”, estimated that Hussein (who was always far more accepting of Israel than other Arab leaders except for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat) “did not enjoy an Arab mandate to represent the Palestinians”. Podeh’s assessment and the fact that Palestinians were not involved in the deal indicate that the deal would likely have fallen through anyway.

1993-1994: Oslo I and Gaza-Jericho agreements between Israel and the Palestinians

Israel under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO under Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo I agreement on September 13, 1993. A follow-on agreement, the Gaza-Jericho agreement was signed on May 14,1994. Under the agreements, the Palestinian Authority was recognized by Israel as the governing body of the Palestinians in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist and renounced its intent to attack and destroy it, and economic cooperation was established. Other issues such as refugees, borders, and Israeli settlements were not resolved.

1994: Israel-Jordan peace treaty

Israel under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan under King Hussein signed the Israel-Jordan peace treaty on October 26, 1994.

1995: Oslo II agreement between Israel and the Palestinians

Israel under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO under Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo II agreement which superseded the Olso I agreement. It established a schedule for Israeli withdrawals from the Palestinian population centres and created a system of zones that were divided into areas A, B, and C. While the agreement was supposed to end Palestinian attacks on Israel and lead to the creation of a Palestinian state, neither has occurred. Twenty years after the signing of Oslo I, Richard Ferrer estimated that 1,600 more Israelis had been murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

2000: Ehud Barak’s offer to return most of the Golan Heights

In US-sponsored peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to return most of the Golan Heights to Syria, but the talks failed because Syria insisted on having the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is Israel’s main source of fresh water.

2000: Ehud Barak’s peace offer

Israel and the Palestinians negotiated a peace agreement at the Camp David Summit which was convened by U.S. President Bill Clinton, during which Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to a Palestinian state in Gaza and 95% of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and even Temple Mount, but Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat walked away. Hillary Clinton said in 2016, “if Yasser Arafat had agreed with my husband at Camp David in the late 1990s to the offer that prime minister Barak put on the table, we would have had a Palestinian state for 15 years already.”

2002: Ariel Sharon’s offer to discuss Arab League’s peace initiative

In May 2002, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon offered to attend the Arab League Summit in Beirut to discuss the Arab League’s peace initiative, but he was turned down.

2006-2008: Ehud Olmert’s peace offer

From December 2006 to September 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas met 36 times, then Olmert made a comprehensive offer to Abbas on Sept. 16, 2008, which Abbas rejected, as he admitted in 2015.

2009: Ehud Olmert’s offer to return all of the Golan Heights

Early in 2009, it became known that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was ready to return all of the Golan Heights to Syria as part of a peace agreement, but this process fell through when Olmert was replaced by Benjamin Netanyahu. In March 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and Netanyahu pledged never to give it up.

2009-2010: Netanyahu’s 10-month settlements freeze

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze settlements for ten months starting in November 2009  in an attempt to entice the Palestinians into peace negotiations, but Abbas agreed to enter negotiations only near the end of that 10-month period. When the freeze ended, Abbas refused to continue negotiations despite Netanyahu’s plea: “Stay in the talks and, with me, continue on the road towards peace. I say to President Abbas: For the future of both our peoples, let us focus on what is really important. Let us proceed in accelerated, sincere and continuous talks in order to bring about an historic peace framework agreement within one year.”

2013-2014: Kerry-brokered peace negotiations

Under U.S. President Barak Obama, peace negotiations took place between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas, brokered by U.S. secretary of state John Kerry. Michael Herzog who was a member of the Israeli negotiating team wrote, “Things came to a head on February 19, 2014, when Kerry met Abu Mazen [Mahmood Abbas] in Paris. By then, the U.S.-Israel talks were progressing, but Abu Mazen had “shut down.” He rejected out of hand the proposed U.S. framework. The U.S. side now focused most of its efforts on moving Abbas. It was too little too late. Abbas appeared no longer interested or invested in the process.”

2016: Netanyahu’s offer to negotiate the Arab League’s peace initiative

In 2016, Netanyahu offered to, “Introduce changes into the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative in order to reinvigorate the Israel-Palestinian peace process”, but  Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi flatly turned him down: “We will not accept any changes or trade in the Arab Peace Initiative, which is the only linchpin on which we can normalize our relations with Israel.”

2020: Trump’s peace plan

In January 2020, US President Donald Trump proposed a vision for peace in the form of the 181-page “Peace to Prosperity” plan. Netanyahu stated to Trump during the announcement of the plan that, “if the Palestinians are […] genuinely prepared to make peace with the Jewish State, and if they agree to abide by all the conditions you have put forward in your plan, Israel will be there. Israel will be prepared to negotiate peace right away.” Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz also supported the plan. However, after Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE initially welcomed the peace plan, both the Arab League and the Palestinian Authority rejected it without even offering to discuss it.

Conclusions

While one might be tempted to believe that the latest Arab rejection of peace with the Jewish state is the fault of the U.S. Peace Plan, the fault of U.S. President Donald Trump, or even the fault of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the 137-year history of Arab rejection of Jewish self-determination paints a different picture.

There is no doubt that there were various reasons underpinning the Arab rejections, in some cases legitimate, and Israel too may have missed a small number of potential opportunities, but the overall pattern is that the Jews have almost always agreed to a solution of the Israel-Arab conflict, while the Arabs never agreed to one, with the exception of limited peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan that did not resolve the overall conflict. Another pattern that has emerged is that Israel’s negotiating position has become more rigid over time, partly because it has become stronger, and partly because of increased security threats from well-financed terrorist groups allied with Iran.

Arab rejection of Jewish self-determination has occurred even with left-wing governments in Israel, even with Democratic presidents in the White House, regardless of what was in the peace plan, and even when there was no peace plan at all but only a concept. Even Netanyahu, who leads the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history, has attempted four times already to make peace with the Palestinians.

However much one may dislike Trump or Netanyahu, the Arab and Palestinian refusal to even discuss the latest peace plan is not Trump’s or Netanyahu’s fault. It is due to the long-standing Arab inability to accept Jewish self-determination – and to some extent even Jewish presence altogether – in the Middle East under any circumstances.

The purpose of compiling this history is not to help Zionists play the blame game but to help Palestinians understand that 137 years of rejections has not helped them. Bret Stephens  wrote, “The Jewish state has thrived in part because, dayenu, it has always been prepared to make do with less. The Palestinian tragedy has been the direct result of taking the opposite approach: of insisting on the maximum rather than working toward the plausible. Things rarely go well for those who try to live history backward.”

Palestinians should understand that at some point, – and that point may have come already – they will run out of opportunities, so they better start realizing that they should take advantage of an opportunity when it comes, and there is one right now in front of them.

About the Author
Fred Maroun is a Canadian of Arab origin who lived in Lebanon until 1984, including during 10 years of civil war. Fred supports Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and he supports the Palestinians' right to self-determination in their own state. Fred supports a liberal and democratic Middle East where all religions and nationalities, including Palestinians, can co-exist in peace with each other and with Israel, and where human rights are respected. Fred is an atheist, a social liberal, and an advocate of equal rights for LGBT people everywhere.
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