The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues against a backdrop of resurgent violence elsewhere in the Middle East. Americans reacted with anger and horror to the recent grisly spectacle of the beheadings of two American journalists by the Islamic State, the Sunni extremist group that seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
There also was confusion. ISIS got its start in opposition to the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, a government that the United States also opposes.
In trying to comprehend an area where rulers and boundaries for a long time came from elsewhere — and where religious, tribal, and family loyalties often trump national identity — confusion and anger are understandable.
Weary after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, many Americans want to turn away from what seems to be an intractable and unsolvable mess. Others want to do just the opposite — to unleash more American military power in an effort to quell the seeming chaos.
Conflicts in the Middle East are many and overlapping: Arabs and Jews; Israelis and Palestinians; Persians and Arabs; Sunni and Shiite Muslims; fundamentalists and moderates; Sunni-led governments and Sunni opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. In this highly complex and volatile region, what should the United States do? What can we do?
The reality, of course, is that the United States’ ability to control events in the world is limited. But though we may not be able to fully control events, we do have unequalled power to influence them.
All of the conflicts of the Middle East are products of history. We cannot change that history. But we may be able to alter its future course. It is in our national interest to help resolve conflicts and reduce instability in the Middle East to the extent possible, especially where we can do so by means other than military force. Nonetheless, we also must be prepared to use force when necessary and appropriate.
In particular, we should continue the active pursuit of an agreement to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. While there are many reasons to be pessimistic in the wake of the latest flare-up of violence in Gaza, successful peace negotiations could end the suffering of those war-weary peoples. It could dramatically improve America’s credibility in the region and could make it possible for Israel and the Sunni-dominated monarchies to work together to combat their common foe, and ours: the extremist forces now menacing the entire region.
Any such peace effort requires understanding how the conflict started. I begin not in the Middle East itself but in London and Paris, where decisions made a century ago reverberate today.
After Britain and France suffered huge losses in the killing fields of Belgium and France in World War I, battle lines hardened and a long and destructive period of trench warfare began. From the beginning, the British and French governments sought help wherever they could find it; they saw opportunity in the Middle East. For four centuries the region had been part of the Ottoman Empire, which was based in Turkey. Persuading Arabs to revolt against the Ottomans, who were allied with Germany, became an important military objective for Britain. In addition, the prospect of carving up and grabbing a piece of the decaying Ottoman Empire was enticing to each of the major participants in World War I.
In pursuit of these goals, the British high commissioner in Egypt, Henry McMahon, in 1915 engaged in negotiations with emir Hussein bin Ali, the Arab tribal and religious leader in the area of western Arabia that includes the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Although there is much dispute among historians about the nature and significance of these negotiations, the emir and his Arab allies thought they were getting a British commitment of support for an independent Arab nation, extending from what is now Iraq through Syria and the Arabian peninsula (with some exclusions), in exchange for an Arab revolt against the Turks.
Beginning well before the onset of war, Zionist leaders had sought support from Britain, then still regarded as the dominant world power. The British government’s interest rose as its losses mounted in the war. The prime minister, David Lloyd George, later testified that in these discussions he was motivated by a desire to encourage support for Britain from the United States and Russia, both with large Jewish populations.
The culmination of all of this came in the form of a letter from the British foreign secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour, to Baron Walter Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community in Britain, in 1917. The letter expressed support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” subject to “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may 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.”
Few documents have been subjected to the microscopic analysis accorded the Balfour Declaration in the 97 years since it was published. The obvious questions — What does “a national home” mean? How could this be accomplished without “prejudice [to] the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine?” — were followed by many others, some of which continue to be the subject of interpretation. The Zionists, however, believed they had received a commitment of British support for a Jewish state in Palestine.
The apparent contradiction in the positions taken by the British government in the McMahon-Hussein negotiations and in the Balfour Declaration were further complicated by an agreement reached in 1916 (the Sykes-Picot Agreement, named after the British and French diplomats who negotiated it). Under the treaty’s terms, Britain, France, and later Russia agreed to divide among themselves control of the lands of the Ottoman Empire after the war. Palestine was to be under international administration. Although the agreement itself was subsequently repudiated, in 1922 Britain and France received mandates from the League of Nations to govern most of the region.
While Sykes and Picot — and their colleagues — no doubt believed they were serving their respective national interests, neither did their countries any favor. Britain especially suffered through nearly three decades of hostility, violence, and enormous expense, as both Jews and Arabs came to regard their mandate rulers as biased, or incompetent, or both.
From the beginning of the mandate to its end in 1948, the British struggled unsuccessfully to contain the tensions between the Arabs and Jews. As Jewish immigration rose, Arab resentment grew and erupted into riots and outbreaks of violence in 1933 and, more widespread and intense, from 1936 to 1939. In response the British were militarily aggressive; there were many arrests and some executions. Politically, however, Britain made a significant gesture to the Arabs in 1939 by issuing a white paper which renounced its commitment to a Jewish national home in Palestine and restricted immigration of Jews to the area to 75,000 over five years. This, of course, angered the Jewish inhabitants, who turned increasingly toward political and military self-governing institutions. A militia called Haganah (Hebrew for “defense”) was created, initially to protect Jewish settlements. Later, it played a major role in the 1948 war.
World War II was a turning point, not just in Europe but also in the Middle East. The Jewish community, known as the Yishuv, supported the Allies. The Arabs were split: Some supported the Allies and a few thousand even fought with the British, but more supported the Axis powers, most notably the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who spent the war years in Germany. The earlier British decision to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine later resulted in the rejection of many Jews who were trying to flee the Holocaust. This generated widespread international criticism of British policy and added to discontent in Britain over the mandate.
At its peak the British military force in Palestine exceeded 100,000 troops — a huge expense for a country reeling from the cost and other burdens of World War II. Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir — both of whom would later be elected prime minister of Israel — became the leaders of two of several Jewish paramilitary factions that had been organized in response to the earlier Arab uprisings.
These groups began a campaign of violence to force the British to withdraw. The most publicized event was the 1946 bombing of the British military headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, in which 91 people died. The government of Israel increased its efforts to suppress the paramilitary groups, even as those groups continued their violent attacks. In Britain, the desire to withdraw intensified. The British government in 1947 announced that it would leave Palestine the next year and asked the United Nations General Assembly to assume control there.
On Nov. 29, 1947, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proposing that Britain’s mandate be replaced by a plan of partition under which there would be an independent Arab state, an independent Jewish state, and the city of Jerusalem would be placed under an international regime administered by the United Nations. The agreement triggered a new round of violence, resulting in thousands killed and many more injured. Ultimately the Israelis accepted the plan, but the Arabs did not. By early 1948 the sporadic violence coalesced into organized military operations. The Haganah became the Israel Defense Force, and the paramilitary groups were forced to disband and join the IDF. They were opposed by what came to be known as the Arab Liberation Army.
The British gradually withdrew their forces, a process completed on May 14. On that same day David Ben-Gurion publicly proclaimed the establishment of the state of Israel. Almost immediately President Harry Truman announced US recognition.
Several Arab countries then entered the fray, but their efforts were not effectively coordinated. In response to a question about why he seemed so confident, Ben-Gurion said it was because Israel had a secret weapon: “the Arabs.” By the following spring, Israel had prevailed on all fronts, the fighting wound down, and a series of armistices were signed.
Amid the strife, however, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians left or were driven from their homes and communities, some of which were destroyed. Most ended up in refugee camps in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere. There they have remained for 65 years. At the same time, many Jews living in Arab countries were expelled.
The Palestinians’ right of return to their homes — through their descendants — remains one of the several contested issues between Israel and the Palestinians.
Wars between Israel and neighboring Arab states broke out in 1967 and 1973. Israel prevailed in both, expanding its military superiority and its territory to include the Gaza strip and the West Bank.
In 1977, the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, made a surprise, historic visit to Jerusalem where he met with Begin, the then Israeli prime minister. A year later Sadat and Begin accepted President Jimmy Carter’s invitation to Camp David where they reached agreement on a framework for peace. A formal treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed on March 26, 1979. Sadat’s decision to do so angered some in Egypt, and he was assassinated two years later. President Bill Clinton later encouraged negotiations between Israel and Jordan, and the leaders of those two countries signed a peace treaty on Oct. 26, 1994.
Yet, as the two parties appeared to be making strides toward a peaceful existence, internal differences began to cloud any progress.
In 1964 the Palestine Liberation Organization was established in opposition to Israel’s existence. For the next quarter century, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, it waged yet another campaign of violence. One of the most publicized was the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich by a PLO faction called Black September.
Nonetheless, the PLO agreed to a two-state solution in 1988, recognized Israel and its right to exist in peace and security in 1993, and, in 1996, repealed the provisions in its charter that called for armed resistance and the destruction of the state of Israel. Arafat died in 2004 and was succeeded by Mahmoud Abbas, who continues today as the president of the Palestinian Authority, the executive branch of the Palestinian government.
The division among Palestinians between those who favor retaining the right of armed resistance and those who oppose violence and favor peaceful negotiation is now manifested in the competition between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which is led by Fatah, its major political party.
The Palestinian Authority is a secular organization and is supported by the United States. Hamas, on the other hand, seeks to establish an Islamic state, and the United States has designated it a terrorist organization.
The first Palestinian intifada — or uprising — took place in 1987, during which Hamas was established as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. That conflict resulted in the PLO renouncing violence and accepting a two-state solution.
That resolve, however, was muddied in 2006 when, in an election promoted by the Americans, Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian parliament, with Abbas continuing on as president and chief executive. The following year, after a brief battle in Gaza, Hamas routed the PA’s military force and seized control there. As a result, the internal Palestinian split became geographic as well as political: The PA controls the West Bank with about 2.7 million residents, while Hamas controls Gaza, with a population of about 1.8 million, although the PA still has many loyalists in Gaza and Hamas has many in the West Bank.
After Hamas gained control of Gaza, the so-called quartet — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia — issued a statement of principles which called upon Hamas to commit to nonviolence, recognize the state of Israel, and accept previous peace agreements. To date Hamas has refused to do so.
The prior agreements include the Oslo Accords of 1993, which were the product of secret negotiations conducted in Norway’s capital. Under those accords, the Palestinians gained a limited degree of self-governance under the newly created Palestinian Authority. The signing of these accords — which promised a peace agreement to reach a two state solution — sparked intense debate within Israel. Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who negotiated and signed the accords, was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli who opposed them.
In 2000, Arafat and Israel’s then prime minister, Ehud Barak, met at Camp David with Clinton. After they were unable to reach agreement, the second intifada broke out. It continued for four years with the loss of more than 3,000 Palestinian and nearly 1,000 Israeli lives.
Ariel Sharon, who had defeated Barak in an election in 2000, unilaterally withdrew Israeli armed forces and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but tensions have remained high between Israel and Hamas along the border. Open conflict erupted in late 2008, in 2012, and, most recently, this summer, as Israel tried to eliminate rocket fire from Gaza and to destroy tunnels between Gaza and Israel, while Hamas sought the lifting of the blockade on Gaza that Israel and Egypt have imposed since 2007.
Where does this history leave us today? No doubt this severe condensation leaves out many important events, but I offer these because, along with my personal experience in the region, they lead me to the following conclusions about the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations:
1. The conflict has gone on for a very long time and has included a great deal of violence. As a result, hostility and mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians are at very high levels. Those strong negative attitudes are intensified by a profound sense of victimization in both societies; indeed, their disagreements include skepticism and even denial about some parts of the other’s narrative.
2. In the past, skepticism and disagreements were overcome by strong and committed leaders. Israel has had a peace treaty with Egypt for 35 years and with Jordan for 20 years. Yet mirroring attitudes in both societies, the personal level of mistrust between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas is high. Each appears to have no confidence in the other’s sincerity and seriousness of purpose and thus no confidence in the prospect of a successful outcome. As a result, each has been reluctant to take political risks that would subject him to intense domestic criticism.
3. Both societies are also divided internally. The PA has committed to recognizing Israel, to nonviolence, to seeking a state through peaceful negotiation, and to compliance with previous agreements. Hamas refuses to commit to these principles.
In Israel, many still favor a two-state solution. But many others — including several members of the cabinet — are outspokenly opposed to there ever being a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
4. The PA has little to show for its commitment to a two-state solution through nonviolence and peaceful negotiation over the 20 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords. The continued lack of progress toward a state will undermine the PA’s status and cause more Palestinians and other Arabs to support armed resistance.
5. There have been 12 American presidents and 20 secretaries of state since 1948. Each has tried to reconcile the differences between Israelis and Palestinians. In recent decades, there has been substantial continuity in their policies, which include a firm commitment to Israel’s security and to the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state.
Over the next two days, I will address whether and how, given these conclusions, the United States can help achieve reasonable and sustainable security for Israel and a viable, independent, and sovereign state for the Palestinians, and also advance its policies in the broader region.
George J. Mitchell is the former US special envoy to the Middle East and US Senate majority leader. He now serves as the chairman emeritus of the international law firm DLA Piper.