The Quest for Peace in the Middle East

This is a guest post by David M Abrahamson

In the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and its neighbouring countries, Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban, arguably the world’s most eloquent statesman of the time, expressed the view that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity, to miss an opportunity”. Today this statement is often misquoted in the media by replacing “Arabs” with “Palestinians”, and used by many political observers to explain (and sometimes justify) the lack of progress in the peace process. Palestinians are portrayed as being incapable of reaching an agreement, and Israel claims to lack a sincere partner in the quest for peace in the Middle East.

Rhetoric aside, the single most important question to be answered is why is this the case. And sadly the underlying reason behind the impasse is all too frequently glossed over by outside observers to the conflict. On a daily basis each side accuses the world’s media of unbalanced reporting due to a lack of knowledge or understanding of the background to the problem; to a (natural) tendency to compare events in the area to similar local issues (for example, comparing the conflict in the Middle East to the troubles in Northern Ireland); or to bias—either wilful, or well-meaning based on support for a perceived underdog. So what is the root cause of the ongoing conflict and how might it be resolved?

In 1948, following the establishment of the State of Israel, the surrounding Arab nations went to war in an attempt to destroy the fledgling state, promising to “push the Jews into the [Mediterranean] Sea”. Although history shows that they failed to achieve this objective, in some quarters this aspiration still persists as evidenced by wording in the 1988 Hamas Covenant and recent statements made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, etc.

Unfortunately, for a wide variety of reasons including fear, persuasion and misinformation, a large percentage of the indigenous population left their homes in 1948 and, ever since the war ended, have cynically been left languishing in so called refugee camps by their Arab brethren. But this did not have to be the case. One comparison, often overlooked, is that of another group of refugees in the area—the forgotten one million Jews who were forced into exile from their homes in a large number of Muslim countries across the region. These people also ended up in refugee camps, but in Israel—and here the similarity of treatment between the two groups of refugees ends.

Over the past 63 years the Jewish refugees have been absorbed as citizens of Israel, but none of the other countries in the Middle East have copied this example by doing anything similar for the people from Palestine living on their soil. As a result these refugees have been left stateless, as if in limbo, leading to the desire for the formation of a Palestinian state of their own.

In 1949 the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution calling for the formation of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, charged with overseeing direct relief and works programmes for refugees from Palestine. However, instead of encouraging the neighbouring Arab countries to absorb the refugees from Palestine, UNRWA has been complicit in perpetuating the hope that one day these people (and all of their descendants) will be able to return to lands that have become part of the State of Israel.

So has the Palestinians leadership been inadvertently missing opportunities for making peace with Israel? Surely the answer here is no—they have done so deliberately in the mistaken belief that, by waiting, they will eventually get everything they want. And has Israel been lacking a sincere partner for peace? Only time will tell.

Thus, rather than voting at the UN’s General Assembly in September for the establishment of an independent Palestinian State inside borders that existed before the start of the 1967 war, Western governments would do more to foster peace in the region by encouraging the Palestinian leadership to sit down with Israel—in the absence of preconditions and without further delay—to negotiate a just settlement to what is surely the longest running conflict of modern times.