Israeli-Arab Peace – Chances and Risks

The current period is defined by the after-effects of what has come to be known as the “Arab Spring”. Surprisingly, this tumultuous period has actually created a greater possibility of advancing Israeli-Arab negotiations towards peace than previous eras. The Arab Spring cannot be defined as a success. In fact, the opposite is true, as each of the states that underwent upheaval is in a worse situation today than when under the leadership of the deposed dictator.

Possibly, due to this weakness, today, a greater chance for reaching understandings exists in our region. Various processes in our region, including the growing nuclear threat, inter-tribal warfare between Shiites and Sunni Muslims across the region, and the ongoing chaos in Syria, requires each state to consider anew its strategic alliances and posture in the face of various threats, and in the face of an increasingly unclear global situation. In the new quest for regional and global hegemony, in the face of the crumbling powers of old, and new players desire stability.

It would appear that various states are attempting to apply the rules of game theory in their quest for a new regional order. While it is odd that the rise of fundamentalist Islam has, in fact, resulted in a new readiness for compromise, as illustrated by the new position of the Arab League, the chances for peace will never be realized if the inherent risks are ignored.

First of all, we must recall that the Arab-Israeli conflict was never merely a conflict over borders, but also over rights, history, religion and faith, and over ideology. The Jewish People, after 2500 years, was hungry to return to its ancient homeland, based on historical, religions claims as well as on global support. The Jewish people created a homeland upon the ruins of British colonialism, which, following the end of World War II, reached its end across the world. Several groups were granted national rights, as the British empire came to a close.

The Balfour declaration was a one-of-a-kind document, in which the British granted rights to a national group within its empire. Following the declaration, several Arab groups decided to create tools that would prevent a compromise, that negate the possibility to recognize the Jewish state. Following the 1948 War, Arab states took the strategy of attempting to destroy the Jewish state by perpetuating a new phenomenon – the Palestinian refugees. They claimed that the conflict would only be ended when the refugees implemented their “right of return” to Israel. However, the right of return was a concept invented in order to destroy the Jewish state.

Throughout the history of conflict and warfare, never have refugees remained under the status of refugees for five generations, as Palestinian refugees have. The inventors of the refugee issue believed that this issue could be manipulated to destroy the “Zionist entity”. It was created to prevent compromise – and as many within the radical stream of Islam, call Israel “The Little Satan”, one cannot reach compromise with Satan. Since the onset of the Palestinian refugee problem, UNWRA acts as if time has stood still, asthe refugees are in the same temporary situation as they were following the 1948 War. Never has an organization such as UNWRA been set up to deal with any other refugee problem. Arab states did their utmost to prevent solving the refugee problem, and the Palestinians used the refugee issue as a central feature of their strategy to mobilize global opinion against Israel. But the real needs of the refugees remained neglected.

The State of Israel also faced a Jewish refugee problem, mainly from Jews who left Arab states. However, within a number of years, these refugees no longer lived in transit camps, and were able to engage in normal existence. While Israel gave the refugees it absorbed hope for a better future, Arab states only contributed to their refugees’ poverty, hatred, and growing extremism, fundamentalism, and violence. This phenomenon has prevented progress towards a solution. In addition, within the context of a future agreement a new refugee problem cannot be created. The Jewish refugee problem following the Disengagement from Gaza only harmed the peace process and disrupted Israeli society.

Thus, any solution cannot involve the creation of new refugees. In conclusion, in order to take advantage of the new changes for a regional arrangement, while mitigating risks, we require the following two actions:

First, solutions to the Palestinian refugee issue must be implemented by transforming the refugee camps into prestigous residential neighborhoods, including residential towers, industrial zones and workplaces, with the support of international players that will encourage development. This will alter the status of refugees and turn them into citizens.

Second, we must avoid the mistakes of the past and ensure that no new refugee problem is created, as the region as a whole is dealing with massive refugee issues in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and other states, a phenomenon that has added to the Palestinian refugee problem that started in 1948. It is essential that a new refugee problem be averted through a territorial exchange, which would create possibilities for new cooperation and good-neighborliness. As we know that the settlements comprise only 3% of the land in the West Bank, these areas could serve as sources for fruitful economic activities, and a solution for these areas can be found through goodwill.

Ignoring the issue will never bring about a solution, as we know that any solution must take into account both sides of the equation.

About the Author
Dr David Altman is senior vice-president at the Netanya Academic College and vice-chair of the college's Strategic Dialogue Center