Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Diplomacy and the Prospects for Peace

It is rare to hear of a nation willingly cede land obtained during war. Think back on the Mexican American War. The U.S. more than doubled its land holding with the Mexican Cession, and then manipulated the Mexican government into agreeing to the Gadsden Purchase. It took a comprehensive defeat of the Nazis for Europe to emerge from fascist expansionism after World War II. The list of examples goes on forever, but my point is the following: land almost always must be taken from the “occupier,” and is rarely, if ever, given back willingly.

Now let’s turn back the clock to 1978. Anwar Sadat is the leader of Egypt. Menachem Begin is the Israeli Prime Minister. The two men meet at Camp David and hang out with Jimmy Carter for a while. They drink some tea, do some diplomacy, and there you have it, Israeli-Egyptian peace, also known as The Camp David Accords.

We jump forward a few months to 1979, and Sadat and Begin are signing a treaty known as the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. Excuse me, what? These are the same two countries that have been quarrelling since 1948? Didn’t Israel preemptively strike in 1967 and hose the Egyptian military? Wasn’t it former Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser who initiated the creation of the PLO? So now they’re friends, but on a certain condition. That Israel return control of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.

This condition was not a gift of land, it was a land cession. Israel decided that controlling the Sinai Peninsula was less gratifying that forging peace with the most influential state in the Arab world. Remember I mentioned the 1967 war? That was the war that allowed Israel to control the Sinai Peninsula in the first place. In addition, Israel won the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Let’s also not forget the Israeli capital of Jerusalem, which was previously controlled by Jordan.

My first point is that Israel made an unprecedented move in giving back land that came out of a hostile encounter. Put the United States in Israel’s place. I’m sure most American presidents would throw a couple fingers in the direction of Egypt if they wanted their land back. Israel, however, made a concession, and did so in the name of peace.

The next point is more of a criticism of Israel’s decision making than a commendation; why not give Gaza back too? I wasn’t alive at that point in time, and I’m obviously not able to speak from an Israeli perspective, but I think that Israel had illusions of grandeur, a type of Manifest Destiny if you will. A common phrase espoused by some Palestinian nationalists is “From the river to the sea,” a reference to the land that stretches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This area includes the West Bank, Israel and Gaza. I guess the Israelis at that point in time had a similarly philosophy regarding territory.

Jump forward to 2005, Israel removes all Jewish settlements from Gaza and cedes the entirety of that land to the Palestinian people. Again, a rare occurrence where land obtained through war is willfully given up (granted, I acknowledge that the Palestinians did not control Gaza prior to 1967, although Egypt wasn’t going to take Gaza back at this point). This is not a result of any Camp David Accords. Israel is not promised peace in return. Some criticize Ariel Sharon’s decision to evacuate Gaza, but it seemed to be a genuine step in the direction of peace. The only thing that the Gaza pull-out accomplished, however, was the facilitation of a closer range of fire for rockets entering Israeli towns like S’derot and Ashdod.

This brings us to 2008. Israel devastates the Gaza strip with a 22-day siege as a response to Gazan rocket fire on Israeli towns. I will be the first to admit that the siege was a radically disproportionate response to the typically ineffective attacks from Gaza. However, to understand the Israeli perspective on the issue is a very complex matter. Place yourself in S’derot, a town continually brutalized by rockets. You wake up in the middle of the night to rockets exploding on your streets. People you know are injured or killed. You cannot live a comfortable, peaceful life for fear of being struck by a rocket at any given moment.

Thus, Israel attacks Gaza. Some may blame Sharon for his lack of foresight. Some may blame Israel in general for overreacting. Some may blame Hamas for turning a gesture of peace into an opportunity to exploit closer range on Israeli towns. Those who should not be blamed, however, are the civilians in Gaza, who now live in conditions more destitute than before the siege. The poverty rate in Gaza is a striking 80%, and the unemployment rate is near 50% (both figures come from the UN OCHA). The worst part is that there is no capacity to rebuild Gaza. For fear of smuggling weapons into the strip, Israel has placed significant restrictions on materials entering Gaza. These restrictions include but are not limited to construction materials. There is no rebuilding is Gaza.

A quick tangent about the lack of materials in Gaza; I am proud to say that the organization for which I work has implemented an emergency relief response program in Gaza to accomplish several goals. The program deals with the recycling of plastic used in the process of farming. This plastic is generally discarded, but with the dearth of raw materials entering Gaza, ANERA employs locals to collect plastic for purposes of recycling. Not only are these unemployed Gazans receiving temporary employment, ANERA is stimulating the economy by infusing money into the populace, and also giving work to a local plastic recycling plant that is nearly shut down for lack of purpose. A side note: our organization, as a recipient of USAID money, is obligated to work outside of the municipal governments which are often controlled by Hamas. We do not collaborate with Hamas.

I would now like to speculate on the trend that Israel has established in ceding these parcels of land in exchange for peace. Bibi’s speech on June 14th acknowledged the right to a sovereign, yet demilitarized, Palestinian state. However, he also noted that settlements in the West Bank would continue normal activities, which likely includes further expansion into the territory.

Bibi does not want to be the new Ariel Sharon by pulling out of “Judea and Samaria.” He doesn’t want his concessions for peace to come bite him in the ass the way the Gaza pull-out did to Sharon, prompting a siege on the scale of “Cast-Lead.” Israel cannot afford to destroy West Bank infrastructure in the vein of the recent attack on Gaza. It would ruin any possibility for future peace.

This prospect also prompts the thought, if Jordan still controlled the West Bank, how willing would they be to give up that land to the Palestinian people? Jordan has the largest population of Palestinians outside of the West Bank. At one point, King Hussein was recognized by many as the leader of the Palestinians. However, Palestinians are abused in Jordanian society. Palestinians are unable to rise above a certain rank within the Jordanian army. They are treated as second class citizens. I highly doubt that Jordan would make such concessions for the sake of establishing an independent Palestine. I’m no expert on Jordanian politics, but as I said, Israel’s cession of land is a very rare historical occurrence.

To wrap all of these musings up into one big conclusion, I would like to say that Israel is clearly not opposed to making peace. The government, on more than one occasion, has make concessions to its “enemies” for the sake of forging some fruitful dialogue, but what Israel has learned is that such concessions can be counterproductive. I am in full support of the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and I think that state should include the entirety of the West Bank. I haven’t made my mind up about Jerusalem, but before Israel is to ever evacuate Jews from the West Bank, there must be a peace agreed upon by both Israel and the Palestinian people. For now, Israel must control its settlers and make sure that there is nothing to prompt a third Intifada.


  1. gaza was not given back because it has been deemed by military strategists that doing so would severely endanger Israeli lives since the region, despite being densely populated by innocent Palestinan civilians, is nonetheless controlled and commanded by fervently militant jihadists
    as for jerusalem, the muslim community already has exclusive access to the Dome, and too many Israelis have died in defense of the nation's capital to cede the holiest city in the world to anyone. anyone who wants to visit jerusalem is more than welcome to simply because the Israel is a democracy, and that is the best compromise.
    what the us/israel really needs to do is to “pour” money into gaza to increase education and the standard of living for Palestinians. doing so will undermine the fundamentalists by deterring recruitment, and will also lead to stability in the area. that will ultimately allow for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state free from Islamic radicalism.

  2. Adam,

    I see your point, and I am do not wholly disagree with you. I must first point out, however, that Israel's "disengagement" from Gaza occurred 2 years before Hamas' election as the ruling party.

    I never advocated for a cession of the entirety of Jerusalem. I do, however, feel that any form of peace must adhere to the pre-1967 borders with the exception of West Jerusalem. East Jerusalem is another question entirely, and it leaves Israel in limbo. If Israel is to maintain control of East Jerusalem, the government must cease the razing of Palestinian homes in favor of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.

    Also, the reality of the situation is that most Palestinians do NOT have access to Jerusalem except on permit basis. A legitimate entity like ANERA or a university can advocate for a West Bank Palestinian to gain permission to cross into Jerusalem, but Palestinians do not have that capacity as a "right." As far as Gazan Palestinians, are concerned, they are not even allowed to leave the strip.

    I agree with your stance on education. I think that education is important in any society, although a curriculum should be established prior to the influx of funds that you described. Hamas cannot have any part in creating that curriculum, because it would indefinitely undermine that end goal that you also described.

    Jerusalem is a sensitive topic, and I have not reached a personal conclusion on the issue. Thank you for responding to my posts. I appreciate your insight.

    -Steve "I dominate Adam Greenblatt on the rugby pitch and make him wheeze into the morning hours because he can't breathe due to the fact that I hit him oh so hard" Robinson

  3. How much does the"gesture" that is the evacuation of gaza mean to the Palestinians, when after the settlers were removed from the area, more than double moved to the west bank? I suppose if I were a palestinian I wouldn't necessarily view the Israelis' disengagement as too genuine. What does leaving Gaza mean if you're just reaching further across the west bank.