Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict: 100 years of regional relevance and international failure
By Karim Makdisi (Dec 2018)
Karim Makdisi is Associate Professor of International Politics in the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut (AUB).
This paper asserts that the Arab–Israeli conﬂict, and in particular the question of Palestine, has been the major issue of regional concern across the Middle East for over a century. It claims that the failure to resolve the question of Palestine will continue to impact on the region’s stability and its geopolitical dynamics and to shape popular opinion while limiting Arab leaders’ options. It ﬁrst situates the Arab–Israeli conﬂict as a core regional issue in historical context — which is crucial for understanding where we are today — before critically reviewing the Oslo “peace process” and its failure to deliver a just and sustainable peace within the framework of a “two-state solution”. It suggests that this failure has resulted in the ramping up of lingering regional problems (e.g.southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights, refugees and in Palestine itself) and the rise of new challenges and frameworks (e.g. the Resistance Axis and the BDS movement). It concludes that the time has come for the international community — including the European Union, which has contributed to the failure of the two-state solution — to consider alternative paradigms and actions.
The violence with which the Israeli armed forces treated Palestinian protestors in Gaza during the “Great March of Return” from March to May 2018 refocused international and regional attention on the question of Palestine. Despite various recent attempts to cast the Palestinian struggle as no longer of popular interest or political signiﬁcance in the Middle East, over the past two decades –especially following the Arab uprisings — protests in support of the Palestinians continued to breakout as far away as war-torn Yemen to Egypt, Jordan and in Israel itself. By contrast, the carnage in nearby Syria has failed to register much in terms of popular protests in the Arab world over the past seven years.
It is signiﬁcant that popular concern for Palestine continues in spite of the clear shift in regional geopolitics whereby many Gulf Arab governments, led by Saudi Arabia, have now joined countries such as Egypt and Jordan in having openly friendly relations with the right-wing government of Israel, and in viewing Iran, not Israel, as the main enemy. It was notable that every Arab and Muslim UN member state supported twin resolutions in June 2018 at the Security Council and General Assembly condemning Israel and calling for international protection for Palestinians,despite strong pressure from the USA (UN News 2018, UNGA 2018). It seems clear that these Arab Governments, loosely organized under the terms of US hegemony, cannot justify formalizing an alliance with Israel — or fully normalizing relations with them, long a theme in US policy in terms of an Arab–Israeli settlement — as long as the question of Palestine is unresolved politically meaningful terms.
The US-led Oslo “peace process” of the 1990s failed as Jewish settlements proliferated, occupation persisted amid renewed violence and radicalization on both sides, and the socio-economic conditions for Palestinians, especially in besieged Gaza, deteriorated signiﬁcantly. Oslo’s successor framework, the Roadmap to Peace, ﬁrst proposed by US President George W. Bush in 2002 following on the heels of the Arab League’s comprehensive (though controversial in some circles, including in Lebanon) Arab Peace Initiative, similarly failed despite the ill-fated legitimation by the Quartet — the European Union, the USA, Russia and the UN. Former US President Barack Obama Ultimately failed to meaningfully address the Palestine question in terms of a “peace process”, particularly after the start of the Arab uprisings in late 2010 and due to his poor relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the light of the latter’s extremist policies. However,current US President Donald Trump has taken the unprecedented step of recognizing Jerusalem As Israel’s capital in the face of global criticism, and he is now preparing what he terms the “deal of the century” which, if ever actually articulated, will surely fail just like its predecessors given the draconian conditions it seeks to impose on the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, the premise of Trump’s “deal” is that the question of Palestine needs to be “resolved” before a larger Arab–Israeli alliance — the USA has ﬂoated the idea of an “Arab NATO” — against Iran can be formalized. That this “deal” is considered dead on arrival among Palestinians isreﬂected both in the renewed protests in Gaza and in the normally pliant Palestinian Authority Leadership refusal to even meet with the main US envoy, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — a close personal friend of Netanyahu and a political ally of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (Kuttab 2018b). In the meantime, and signiﬁcantly, the successive political failures in negotiating a durable and just solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conﬂict have continued to destabilize the Middle East and led to the increasingly powerful presence of Hizbullah in Lebanon,which in turn has boosted Iran’s status and reach regionally.
Accordingly, this paper asserts that the Arab–Israeli conﬂict — and in particular the question of Palestine — has been the major issue of regional concern across the Middle East for over a century. It claims that the failure to resolve the question of Palestine as mandated by scores of UN resolutions and Arab League declarations, and even the US-led “Roadmap”, will continue to impact on the region’s stability and its geopolitical dynamics.
This paper ﬁrst situates the Arab–Israeli conﬂict as a core regional issue in historical context –which is crucial for understanding where we are today — before critically reviewing the “peace process” and its failure to deliver a just and sustainable peace. It suggests that this failure has resulted in the ramping up of lingering regional problems, including southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights, refugees and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This in turn has led to the rise of new challenges and frameworks (e.g. the Resistance Axis and the boycott, divestment and sanctions — BDS — movement). It concludes that the time has come for the international community– including the United Nations and the European Union, which have contributed to the failure of the two-state solution — to consider alternative paradigms and actions.
This paper has highlighted the continuing relevance and importance of the Arab–Israeli conﬂict,and particularly the question of Palestine, as a core problem in the Middle East. It claims that the history of violence, diplomatic failures and betrayals over the course of a century — since the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, which eventually led to the partition of Palestine — has been at the heart of key regional problems throughout the Cold and Post-Cold war periods. It has argued that the failure of the Oslo process during the 1990s essentially showed that the two-state solution (based on UNSC Resolution 242), the very basis of the “peace process”, has perpetuated the historically single most important impediment to stability and peace in the Middle East, or at least in the Levant region.A quick look at a map of the carved-up, non-contiguous occupied West Bank — surrounded as it isby illegal Jewish settlement blocs, military outposts and zones, and Jewish-only roads — exposes the hollowness behind the idea of creating a meaningful “state” in even part of the internationally recognized territory of Palestine, namely the West Bank. This has been the case for over a decade now. The 2018 recognition by the USA of occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the attempt by senior ﬁgures in the Trump administration to strip Palestinians of their refugee status and their right of return, and reinforce Jewish colonies in contravention of international law, UN resolutions and even the Oslo and Roadmap agreements, simply makes the situation in Palestine More explicit. The situation in Gaza, which has been under an horriﬁc siege and regular Israeli Invasions for over a decade, and suffers some of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes, poverty and de-development globally, will continue to fuel Palestinian resistance.Perhaps most signiﬁcantly, the conﬂicts in Gaza, southern Lebanon and Syria (particularly the occupied Golan Heights) now serve as a central locus of the larger, more dynamic Iranian and Hezbollah-led Resistance Axis’s regional conﬂict with an Israeli–Saudi-led informal alliance, aconﬂict that has evolved from the Arab–Israeli impasse. This conﬂict is certainly over material gains — who has greater inﬂuence in Syria, for instance — but equally over ideational ones too:while the Resistance Axis places the question of Palestine at its core, in rhetoric at least, the Israeli bloc is at pains to declare Palestine and Palestinians irrelevant.On a more global scale, Israel’s actions, particularly over the past decade in Gaza but also more recently in its role in overturning US negotiations with Iran — and its passage of the dangerous Jewish Nationality law that enshrines the apartheid-like situation inside Israel itself — has provoked an international backlash, with, for instance and most recently, both the UN Security Council and General Assembly voting overwhelmingly against the US decision to recognize occupied Jerusalem As Israel’s capital (UNGA 2018, UN News 2018). This backlash is even more prominent within the global civil society movements. The most high-proﬁle such movement is the BDS movement,which borrows from the similar movement against White South African apartheid regime. It Exposes, particularly to those in the West, the large gap between Israel’s apparent democratic credentials and the reality of its apartheid-like policy of treating Jewish nationals differently from its non-Jewish citizens, to say nothing of its occupation of Palestinian territories. In the words of Nathan Thrall, the BDS has been turning the Israeli government into a “leper among liberals and progressives” (Thrall 2018).
Such international trends and global movements add an extra layer to the regional situation, and until the question of Palestine is resolved in a meaningful and just way, such tension and violence will continue. The evolution of the Arab–Israeli conﬂict into an increasingly resilient Resistance Axis–Israel conﬂict suggests that the European Union, and the larger international community,should move on from their own policies of the past two decades and seek more expansive solutions that both recognize this conﬂict’s larger regional consequences.The European states must also be more self-critical about their role in perpetuating the Israeli Occupation of Palestine despite their declared commitment to the two-state solution. The reality is that the EU has deepened its economic, cultural and security ties with Israel, and merely propped up a weak Palestinian Authority and an assortment of NGOs in the name of “peacebuilding” (Turner 2017). As ever, their policies towards Palestine will be the litmus test for their commitment to a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conﬂict, and to the core principle of human rights and international law.
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