by: Ilse Strauss, News Bureau Chief
You could hear a pin drop as the two judokas stepped onto the mat. Tensions had been mounting for days before the match as Egyptian Islam El Shahaby faced a floodgate of criticism from fans for failing to withdraw from the first round of the heavyweight judo tournament in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics against Israeli Or Sasson.
Despite the hype, the bout was over in minutes. Sasson emerged victorious—yet the real confrontation was only beginning. As the two judokas faced each other for the traditional bow, Sasson stepped forward, hand extended. El Shahaby backed away, leaving Sasson’s hand dangling in midair.
Cameras flashed, committing the moment to cyber memory. Hours later a meme of El Shahaby shunning Sasson’s outstretched hand flooded social media. “Hundred years history of the Middle East—in one picture,” the caption proclaimed.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push to apply Israeli sovereignty over Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria elicited worldwide outrage. A chorus of voices bayed for Israel to retreat from “occupied land” and desist from encroaching on the future sovereignty of a Palestinian state. The subtext behind the accusations? If Israel would compromise and give the Palestinians what they want—a sovereign state in Judea and Samaria with east Jerusalem as capital—decades of strife would come to a peaceful close.
However, these accusations reduce the conflict to a dispute over territory and cast Israel in the role of unyielding land grabber. More importantly, they gloss over the countless efforts to resolve the conflict where Israel said yes to land for peace negotiations, while the Arabs respond with a resounding no.
In fact, the past century shows a cycle of Israel approaching the Arabs with an outstretched hand of peace and the Arabs backing away, leaving Israel’s hand dangling in midair.
The cycle of “no” started before the Palestinians identified as a people, when “Palestine” was still a geographical throwback to Rome’s attempt to erase Jewish traces from the land.
The 1937 Peel Commission proposed dividing the Promised Land into two states for Jewish and Arab populations. The Jews agreed. The Arabs did not.
Ten years later saw a near repeat of the sequence of events. This time the 1947 UN Partition Plan proposed two states for two peoples. Again, Jewish leaders said yes. And again, the Arabs said no, instead starting a war to obliterate any hope of a Jewish state.
Israel won the 1948 War of Independence. However, the Jordanian army captured Israel’s biblical heartland—Judea and Samaria—and renamed it the West Bank. Nineteen years later, Israel again miraculously beat back the invading armies in the Six Day War, gaining control of, among others, Judea and Samaria.
Once the battle died down, Israel offered to give up the land gained in exchange for peace. Arab leaders responded to Israel’s outstretched hand of peace with the “Three No’s”: no to peace, negotiations and recognizing Israel.
Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have since changed their minds and signed a peace treaty with their Jewish neighbor. However, the Palestinians continue leaving Israel’s hand dangling in midair.
The Oslo Accords stand as a watershed in the Israel–Palestinian conflict. Following clandestine peace talks and a promise from the Palestinian Liberation Organization, headed by Yasser Arafat, to recognize Israel’s right to exist, Oslo I—a timetable for Mideast peace—was inked in 1993. Oslo II, or the Israeli–Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza, followed two years later.
Ambassador Alan Baker, former legal counsel of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and head of the International Law program at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, remembers the moment. “We stood in the hotel, kissing and hugging…including Arafat. There was genuine elation that we’ve overcome the obstacles. Now it was just a question of going through the stages of negotiations to cover all the points.”
The elation proved premature as it became clear that Arafat had no intention of keeping his promises. Days after embracing his Israeli brethren, he made statements “that the whole aim is to go through stages, the ultimate stage being that there won’t be a Jewish entity,” Baker explains. Moreover, violence erupted across Israel with a series of Palestinian terror attacks, a harbinger of terrible days ahead.
Over the next five years, Israel and the Palestinians implemented various interim agreement milestones and embarked on permanent status negotiations. However, what started out promising reached a catastrophic crescendo in the 2000 Camp David summit. US President Bill Clinton reportedly proposed the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and 97% of Judea and Samaria, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Again, Israel said yes. And again, the Palestinians said no. Clinton later lamented the “no” as a “colossal historic blunder.” With the hopes of peace dashed, the broiling Palestinian violence erupted in the Second Intifada (uprising), Baker recalls.
The next seven years saw a few more failed trips around the peaceful coexistence mountain. Then came the 2007 Annapolis conference, where Israel and the Palestinians committed to negotiate a peace deal. After a number of meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert offered Abbas 93.7% of Judea and Samaria as a Palestinian entity with east Jerusalem as its capital. Abbas never responded.
The last push for peace came in 2014 with the Kerry Framework Agreement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently said yes to the proposition and offered a number of concessions. But true to form, Abbas said no.
According to Baker, the historic chorus of “no’s” informed the philosophy behind President Donald Trump’s Peace for Prosperity plan and marks a shift in tactics. It accepts that the international community “can no longer wait for the Palestinians to agree because the chances…are virtually nil…The idea was to shock them [the Palestinians] into coming back to the negotiating table…This could happen. However…it looks highly unlikely.”
“Since 2000, there’s been a huge element of fanaticism in the Palestinian psyche,” Baker holds. “The Islamic philosophy, one that stands at the basis of their present existence, absolutely rejects any idea of an Israeli state…Their mindset is far more extreme than it ever was.”
The implication? The Palestinian leadership is no longer able to accept any kind of offer that includes the existence of Israel.
In June, Abbas magnanimously offered to resuscitate peace talks with Israel—with the preconditions that Israel withdraws to pre-1967 borders and the Trump peace plan remains off the table. “This is empty talk,” says Baker. “Abbas knows if he talks the language of peace—at least in English—the Europeans will accept him as the ultimate statesman. Basically, he doesn’t have the authority or capability…”
If the past is a prologue for the future, the prospect of the Palestinians clasping Israel’s outstretched hand and returning to the negotiation table willing to settle for anything but 100% is not a viable one. Any push for peace that fails to acknowledge this truth and reduces the conflict to a territorial dispute—with Israel as the unyielding land grabber—is akin to flogging a dead horse and blaming Israel when the lifeless creature fails to gallop into the sunset.
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