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Land for peace initiatives are non-starters for Israel

March 30, 2023 at 9:50 am

People carrying Israeli flags and banners gather outside to protest against regulations of Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu’s government restricting the powers of the judiciary in Tel Aviv, Israel [Saeed Qaq / Anadolu Agency]

Israel has burnt every olive branch offered by the Palestinians, starting with the late Yasser Arafat’s famous 1974 speech at the UN when he told the occupation state, “I came with the olive branch in one hand and the freedom fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let the green branch fall from my hand.”

In 2002, another olive branch was presented to Israel by the Arab League, the nominal representative of the whole Arab world, which offered its first official and comprehensive peace plan to Tel Aviv. When its summit concluded in Beirut, the league adopted the Beirut Declaration. This Arab Peace Initiative, as it came to be known, was the most comprehensive peace plan ever put forward to end the Arab-Israeli conflict and usher in a new era for the Middle East, whereby Israel would be accepted and even integrated into the region with normalised relations with its Arab neighbours. The plan asked of Israel one simple thing: end the occupation and set the Palestinians free to create an independent state alongside Israel through a negotiated deal worked out between the two sides.

Dozens of peace proposals were put forward between the creation of Israel in 1948 and 2002. Most were supported by the majority of UN members, but none worked, and none seemed to interest Israel more than continuing its occupation and subjecting millions of Palestinians to its apartheid policies every single day.

Every time any peace proposal is suggested, Israel responds with an iron fist and yet more inhumane treatment of the Palestinians, more arrogance and more threats. In recent years, Israeli Jewish settlers, most of them migrants from overseas, have been terrorising the local Palestinians. At the same time, Israel itself has been bombing and threatening other regional countries and claiming that it only acts in “self-defence”. Attacks on Iran and Syria are examples of this aggressive policy.

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How did Israel respond to the Beirut Declaration? It was already preparing its response in advance of the initiative, and in early March 2002 Israel launched what it called Operation Defensive Shield in the occupied West Bank. The aim of the operation was to eradicate Palestinian resistance across the occupied territory.

It was launched during the second Palestinian Intifada and years after the Oslo Accord that was supposed to have given the Palestinians limited self-rule on a few bits and pieces of their land. Arafat was in Ramallah and the Israeli army laid siege to his presidential headquarters and started to bulldoze the compound. At the same time the Israeli army invaded Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Bethlehem, Jenin and Nablus. Alongside the usual restrictions, strict curfews were imposed on Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. In many cases, the personnel of humanitarian and medical organisations had their movements restricted, and humanitarian aid for the biggest cities in the West Bank were banned or hindered, compounding the suffering of the Palestinians.

In June 2002 Israel started building its Separation (“Apartheid”) Wall, citing “security” concerns. The the easiest and most cost-effective solution to such concerns would, of course, have been to end the occupation. That is what the Arab Peace Initiative had proposed three months before the construction of the wall began. The principle of the Arab plan was “land for peace” but Israel has, consistently, showed that it is only interested in peace if it means more land for nothing, with the Palestinians keeping quiet, in return for which Israel would let them live “peacefully” under its ongoing occupation. Land for nothing is the new Israeli idea of peace cherished by the current Israeli government with help from Washington, which brought about the Abraham Accords signed by four Arab League members which agreed to normalise relations with the occupation state. The UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan totally ignored their commitment to the Beirut Declaration.

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Each year and in almost every Israeli election a major talking point is how the incoming government will react to the Arab Peace Initiative, and what progress will be made in negotiations with the Palestinians. And every Israeli election tends to produce an even more right-wing government which is even more intent on stealing even more Palestinian than before.

It appears that Israeli society, not just the politicians, is not interested in peace. Nothing else explains how the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history of extreme governments can be in power. How could any Israeli with a desire for peace vote for someone like Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich or even Benjamin Netanyahu? More Israelis increasingly refer to the trio as criminals yet they voted them in last year. How could this be explained without accepting that the Israeli electorate is in favour of the illegal settlers grabbing more Palestinian land year after year?

Ironically, all the gains made by Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 have been all but lost 21 years later, as we can see in the city of Jenin. Israel has not only failed to end the resistance there, but is also reaping what it sowed all those years ago. In fact, Jenin is the centre of the new Palestinian resistance largely independent of the factions, despite Israel’s brutality and illegal practices.

The biggest lesson for the Arabs, the Arab League included, from the 2002 Peace Initiative is simple: the more concessions you make to Israel, the more it will ask for the very next day. For Israel, the lesson is also simple: occupation will never bring security, nor will another hundred Separation Walls.

Israel was created as a settler-colonial state with expansionist aims; a state that is militarily stronger than its neighbours, with citizens who believe that they are inherently superior to all others. How could anyone having such a mentality understand the very idea of peace or coexistence? As long as it has access to billions of dollars in US aid, though, it will never accept being a peaceful entity within internationally recognised borders. Occupation pays as far as Israel is concerned. Hence, any land for peace initiative is a non-starter in Israeli eyes.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.