Israel and the Palestinians: A New Strategy

By Moshe Yaalon

The former IDF chief of staff proposes a different approach to dealing with an old conflict.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German priest executed by the Nazis, once wrote, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”1 Fifteen years ago, the signing of the Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) raised hopes that Israel had boarded the “peace train.”2 Over the years, however, it became clear that the train was not headed for the promised destination. Nevertheless, Israel’s leadership has been pointlessly running along the corridor ever since.
The shattered hopes left in Oslo’s wake have been the subject of numerous books, articles, and opinion columns.3 Most attempt to identify a single cause for the collapse of the peace process, be it the Hebron massacre, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, the lack of chemistry between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, Operation Defensive Shield, IDF roadblocks, or the expansion of the settlements, to name just a few. Such explanations naturally involve playing the blame game or—particularly in the case of many Israeli analysts—engaging in self-flagellation. The problem with these assessments is that any attempt to single out a particular point in time at which the “peace train” derailed usually betrays an unwillingness to face an uncomfortable yet undeniable fact: It was the wrong train to begin with.
If we truly seek to understand why the Oslo peace process failed, we must reevaluate the fundamental principles of the strategy employed by the architects of the agreement, one of which—arguably the most important—was the assumption that bold diplomacy is the driving force behind historical compromise between two nations. Accordingly, the logic that dominated the Oslo process was based on the idea that negotiations and agreements are a necessary prologue to the achievement of tangible change in security, economic, and social conditions. Put simply, Israeli statesmen hoped that diplomatic breakthroughs reached at the negotiating table would pave the way to ending the larger conflict. They believed that treaties, goodwill gestures, and territorial concessions would ease tensions and violence in the region, and, as a result, security and stability would return to Israel’s narrow strip of land.4
This doctrine had already begun to falter before the outbreak of the Palestinian war against Israel in September 2000, but the extent to which it was in truth a monumental mistake has since become abundantly clear. Over the past eight years, the gap between the aspirations of the peace process and the dismal reality on the ground has expanded ad absurdum. Ostentatious international summits and the celebrated declarations they produced—including the pretentious Annapolis summit in November 2007—have yielded nothing but broken promises. In the face of the Palestinian Authority’s descent into corruption and violent chaos, the “peace process” has turned out to be an empty delusion.
In light of this, Israel and the West have no choice but to revise their entire policy toward the Palestinians. This requires not merely cosmetic alterations, or still more intensive efforts to advance the old Oslo process, but an alternative strategy that will redefine our objectives and the means necessary for their realization.
In outlining such a strategy, we must learn from our bitter experience, and realize, once and for all, that even the most impressive treaties carry no weight if one of the signatories is unable—or unwilling—to fulfill its commitments. Therefore, we need to turn the Oslo approach on its head: Instead of trying to achieve historical change “from the top down,” exaggerating the importance of declarations handed down to the masses as if from the peak of a diplomatic Mount Olympus, we should adopt a new, more pragmatic policy that promotes change “from the bottom up.” Such a strategy should seek to establish stability and security first, to be followed only later—and perhaps after a great lapse of time—by peace.
In this essay, I will outline some of the ideas that I have formulated together with my colleagues at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, according to which the establishment of a stable Palestinian society ought to be seen as an indispensable condition for any significant diplomatic progress. It is, however, highly doubtful that such a society will be established unless we properly understand what has hindered it thus far, and what we can do to advance it in the future.
The path that led from the high point of Oslo to our current predicament was paved by mistakes on both sides. There are very good reasons for Israelis to reevaluate their past actions: Their statesmen and military commanders often made rash and thoughtless decisions, making matters worse for everyone involved. Nevertheless, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are not equally responsible for Oslo’s failure, for the simple reason that the former had the true and honest intention of reaching a sustainable peace and actively pursued that goal; the latter, on the other hand, did everything within their power—both intentionally and unintentionally—to undermine it.
It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the partner in whom the Jewish state placed all of its hopes for a historic reconciliation was Yasser Arafat. Such hopes engendered a profound change in the way Israelis perceived the Palestinian leader. For many years, after all, they had viewed him as their worst enemy, and not without good reason: From the 1960s on, Arafat engineered some of the most despicable terrorist attacks of the modern era, which claimed the lives of thousands of innocents, including women, children, and the elderly. Then the Oslo accords gave Arafat an opportunity to reinvent himself. Not only did they rescue his organization from one of the most dire periods since its inception, they also offered him international legitimacy. No one could possibly have imagined, during the 1970s and 1980s, that the arch-terrorist who had declared an unrelenting war against Zionism and the Jewish people would one day stand beside Israel’s prime minister and foreign minister to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, as if he were following in the footsteps of Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa.
But, as we now know, Arafat never for a moment abandoned his dream of bringing about the elimination of the Jewish state. Under his leadership, the Palestinians supposedly recognized “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.”5 But they entirely rejected Israel’s Zionist self-definition. In their view, the Jews simply had no right to establish a national homeland in Palestine. Rabin was therefore forced to completely forgo demands for such recognition in the Oslo accords, and settled for Arafat’s commitment to remove the clauses that reject Israel’s right to exist from the Palestinian National Charter. These clauses, however, were never removed.6 Still today, Palestinian speakers—even the most dovish among them—refrain from expressing support for a “two states for two peoples” solution.7 At most, they advocate the establishment of two states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea: a Palestinian state and a “binational” state—in other words, one without a distinct Jewish identity. This fact emphasizes the extent to which the commonplace view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as centered on a territorial dispute is a misconception. The real tragedy, so far as the Palestinians are concerned, is not the “occupation” of 1967, but rather that of 1948, which brought about the establishment of the State of Israel and turned many of them into refugees. For this reason, they staunchly refuse to renounce the “right of return”—that is, the repatriation of millions of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper—which would lead, they know full well, to the dismembering of the Zionist entity and would be, they believe, the correction of the historical injustice inflicted upon them.
Arafat’s views on this issue reflected a consensus among the Palestinian leadership. For them, the Oslo accords were merely the starting point for the next stage in the struggle against Israel. Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theoretician, famously stated that “war is a mere continuation of policy by other means.”8 Palestinian policy was, and continues to be, the continuation of war by other means. After all, Oslo offered the PLO quasi-sovereignty in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—a strategic benefit the organization could never have hoped to achieve had it confined itself exclusively to armed struggle. Such an accomplishment, they reasoned, justified certain reconciliatory gestures toward the Zionist enemy, although most of them remained rather vacuous. “One foothold on the land of Palestine is more precious, and a thousand times more important to me, than words on paper,” Arafat explicitly declared at the opening session of the Palestinian National Council in April 1996.9 The idea behind this pronouncement was particularly well stated by Faisal Husseini, who enjoyed a reputation as a moderate Palestinian leader and was a favorite of the Israeli left. Shortly before his death in May of 2001, Husseini gave an interview to the Egyptian weekly Al-Arabi in which he stated, “Our final goal is to liberate all of historical Palestine from the river to the sea,” and confirmed that the Oslo accords were a “Trojan horse” intended to induce Israel and the United States to open their “barricaded walls” to the PLO.10
Only in light of this two-faced strategy, in which diplomacy was harnessed in the service of the armed struggle against the Jewish state, is it possible to understand why Arafat and his deputies refused to forgo the use of violence once they had achieved the desired foothold in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Instead of dedicating themselves to building a state, the Palestinians preferred to create a semi-organized terrorist entity in the territories handed over to them. Arafat might have made every effort to uphold his image as a peace-seeking leader in the eyes of the world, but he never ceased to support—both implicitly and explicitly—the continuation of the armed struggle against Israel. Proffering endless excuses to Israel and the United States, Arafat shirked his responsibility for confronting Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He enlisted tens of thousands of armed men into his “security forces” and created the Tanzim, his Fatah party’s militia. These paramilitary groups later spawned the Al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades, responsible for some of the deadliest terror attacks of the last decade.

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