The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has waxed and waned for several decades. The roots of it stem far beyond the most recent clashes in May that once again brought death and disaster to the region. The question arises: How far back do we look for an explanation of the current violence?
Do we start with the 1967 conflict that resulted inoccupying , the and East Jerusalem, along with the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula? Or do we go back to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War — what the Israelis call the War of Independence and the Palestinians the , or catastrophe? Or do we need to rewind further back to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, a British letter of intent for “the establishment in of a national home for the Jewish people”? Or do we go all the way to the First Zionist Congress, convened in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897 amidst a wave of anti-Semitism rising across Europe?
The debate about the origins of the conflict goes on to this day. Regardless of the debate, the current situation inand the has become unsustainable.
continues its crippling blockade of and the occupation of the and East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the capital of their future state. When Hamas, the Palestinian faction that controls , fires rockets into , the Israelis retaliate with what has been described by many as a “disproportionate” use of force. The human rights abuses perpetrated against Palestinians living under Israeli control have led to accusations of apartheid by organizations like B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch.
The construction of Jewish settlements on occupied, which is considered illegal under international law, has made a Palestinian state effectively impossible. At the same time, an estimated half of the Palestinian population lives outside Palestine. Millions of refugees and their descendants — most of whom were exiled in 1948 — are stuck stateless in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The wider Palestinian diaspora is scattered around the world.
With the peace process at a stalemate following years of failure, the end to this conflict is nowhere in sight.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to, professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Oxford and author of “The Iron Wall: and the Arab World.” He explains what lies at the core of the conflict, the problem with the peace process, apartheid, US support for and more.
Abul-Hasanat Siddique: At some media outlets, there is often a lack of historical context when it comes toand . Some readers may think that the conflict began in 2021 with the recent clashes or in 1967 with the . If you had to explain the origin of the conflict, what would you say? Where do the roots lie?
: The core and the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the Zionist-Palestinian conflict. This conflict has been going on for over a century. There was one land and two national movements: the Palestinian national movement and the Jewish national movement, or the Zionist movement. Two peoples, two nations and one land. This is what the conflict is about.
In the late 1930s, the neighboring Arab states intervened in this conflict on the side of the Palestinians. They remained engaged in varying degrees until President Sadat of Egypt visited Jerusalem in 1977, signed a peace treaty withand led the trend towards Arab disengagement from the conflict. So, there are two levels to this conflict, two dimensions: the local one, the Jewish-Palestinian, and the interstate level of the conflict.
The great turning point of the conflict was 1948, which Israelis call the “War of Independence” and Palestinians call the, or the catastrophe. The outcome of this war was that three-quarters of a million Palestinians — more than half of the population — became refugees and was wiped off the map. These are the real roots of the conflict.
The next turning point was thein June 1967. In the course of that war, trebled its territory. It captured the Golan Heights from Syria, the from Jordan and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. From now on, the Arab states had a direct stake in this conflict. They wanted to recover their occupied territories. In 1979, gave back the Sinai Peninsula as the price for the peace treaty with Egypt. In 1993, the Liberation Organization (PLO) and signed the Oslo Accord. The Oslo Accord did three things: the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist, recognized the PLO as a representative of the Palestinian people, and the two sides agreed to resolve all their outstanding differences by peaceful means.
Edward Said was the first Palestinian to launch an all-out attack on the Oslo Accord. The reason for this was that the Oslo Accord addressed the 1967 file but not the 1948 file. It was an agreement betweenand the PLO about the captured by in 1967. It did not deal with the roots of the conflict: the rights of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and the collective right of the Palestinian people to national self-determination.
Siddique: There is a long-running debate over whether the solution lies in two states — one Jewish, one Arab — or one democratic state for both peoples. I know your view has changed over time from a two-state to a one-state solution. What led to that?
Shlaim: For most of my adult years, I supported the two-state solution. The two-state solution did not offer the Palestinians absolute justice, but in world affairs, it is very rare to get absolute justice. It offered them relative justice or the most minimal national rights. It took the 1967 borders as the basis for a settlement between, on the one hand, and an independent Palestinian state in , the , with the capital city in East Jerusalem. This would have left with 78% of Mandatory and the Palestinians would have only 22%. So, by signing the Oslo Accord, the PLO made a far-reaching concession and agreed to settle the conflict in return for a very small state alongside .
There has always been, and there still is today, broad international support for a two-state solution. But that doesn’t take account of Israeli actions since 1967.did not stand still after the victory. Since July 1967, has been building settlements in and the . It withdrew unilaterally from in 2005, but it continues to expand Jewish settlements on the even as we speak. If had been serious about a two-state solution, at the very least it would have imposed a freeze on settlements to give negotiations a chance. But continued to expand settlements. Settlements are about land-grabbing. Land-grabbing and peace-making don’t go together — it’s one or the other. By its actions since 1967, indicated clearly its preference for land over peace with the Palestinians.
Another problem is that the Israeli so-called security barrier on the. The wall is not complete yet, but it’s already 650 kilometers long. The Palestinians call it the apartheid wall. The International Court of Justice has ruled that the wall is illegal. would have been perfectly within its rights to build the wall on its side of the 1967 border, but most of this wall is on the Palestinian side. They say that good fences make good neighbors, but not when the fence goes down the middle of your neighbor’s garden! The wall annexes between 8% and 10% of territory to and the wall goes around East Jerusalem and cuts it off from the . East Jerusalem has been annexed by . The Palestinians in East Jerusalem don’t have citizenship, they have permanent residence, which is fragile and vulnerable and can be terminated at any moment by .
To sum up, there is no longer the physical and geographical possibility of a viable Palestinian state. All that is left is an archipelago of Palestinian enclaves surrounded by Israeli settlements and Israeli military bases. In other words,, by its actions on the ground, has killed the two-state solution, which was the solution that I used to favor.
Sinceeliminated this option, what is the alternative? The best alternative I can think of is one democratic state, with equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of religion, gender or ethnicity. I do not regret the shift towards the one-state solution. What is wrong with a one-state solution with equal rights? It is a democratic solution. And what could be a nobler vision than a state that does not discriminate against any group and in which all citizens enjoy the same rights?
Siddique: Marwan Bishara, the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera, has spoken of whether the Palestinians need a Nelson Mandela-like figure. In such a scenario, an Israeli leader would also need to extend an arm. Yet this view doesn’t take into account the friction and opposition in both Israeli and Palestinian societies, nor does it address the influence of US politics and lobby groups. What would need to change for there to even be talk of a one-state solution — a democratic state for Arabs and Jews?
Shlaim: Palestinian leadership has always been a problem. Abu Mazen is a very weak leader: inarticulate, lacking in charisma, and lacking in legitimacy. So, he’s not a very convincing proponent of Palestinian national rights. Sadly, throughout their history, the Palestinians have had poor leadership, starting with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, then Yasser Arafat and then Abu Mazen. So, that is a problem: poor leadership on the Palestinian side.
But that is not the principal problem, because Abu Mazen is a moderate and the great majority of Palestinians are for a two-state solution — or at least they used to be. After the Oslo Accord was signed, roughly 70% of Palestinians and 70% of Israelis supported a two-state solution. But Oslo failed the Palestinians. The situation now is worse for the Palestinians than it was before Oslo.
What is the obstacle to one, democratic state? The main obstacle is the Israeli government: the Likud and parties further right than the Likud, led by Benjamin. Under American pressure, in the Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, said he would accept a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israeli. Since then, he has gone back on it and he has stated repeatedly that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch — he will oppose a Palestinian state all the way. More importantly, the Likud platform rejects a Palestinian state. The Likud has never accepted the need for a Palestinian state.
Further to the right is Naftali Bennett, the leader of Yamina, who replacedas prime minister in June 2021 at the head of a hybrid coalition. Bennett used to be the head of Yesha, the settlers’ council. He’s a religious-nationalist who fiercely opposes an independent Palestinian state in any shape or form. He used to advocate the outright annexation of Area C, which is 60% of the .
In the present Knesset, 72 out of 120 members are right-wingers. This reflects a long-term trend. Israeli society has been moving steadily towards the right ever since thein 2000. Today, not just the government, not just the political elite, but Israeli society in general are strongly opposed to a one-state.
Siddique: You talked about Benjaminand Naftali Bennett, which leads me on to my next question. In 2013, you wrote that is “the double-faced prime minister who pretends to negotiate the partition of the pizza while continuing to gobble it up.” You have talked today about the problems with Oslo, including Edward Said and his criticism of the accord. Since the failure of Oslo, has ever been interested in a peace deal, or has it been focused on eating that pizza and making a Palestinian state impossible?
Shlaim: Netanyahu never concealed his deep hostility to the Oslo Accords. After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Likud came back to power in 1996 under the leadership of, who set about dismantling, freezing and subverting the Oslo Accord and building more settlements and strengthening Israel’s military power in order to continue to subdue the Palestinians indefinitely. In the last few years, ’s message to the Israeli public has been that Palestinian nationalism has been effectively contained and neutralized and that the Palestinians are powerless, divided — with Hamas in charge of and the Palestinian Authority in charge of the — and therefore, there is no need to trade land for peace with them. His formula is peace for peace: to offer the Arabs peace in return for peace, without paying any territorial price.
With the help of Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — who is very close to— was able to implement this policy and it took the form of the Abraham Accords: peace deals between and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. These were great foreign policy triumphs for , and he said to the Israeli public: You see, I don’t have to pay any price — there is nothing the Palestinians can do and we are achieving normalization with the Arab world.
But with the escalation of violence inand in May, this whole conception of peace has collapsed. The Palestinians did not remain passive. They put up robust resistance to the Israeli provocations in Al-Aqsa and the ethnic cleansing in Sheikh Jarrah, the Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem.
These provocations eventually led Hamas to respond with rocket attacks. The last round of fighting was not confined to. There was a sense of outrage by Palestinians everywhere. There were also protests on the , in East Jerusalem, in , in the diaspora and, most importantly, within itself.
Since 1948, an Arab minority remained inside. Today, they constitute 20% of Israel’s population. These Palestinian citizens of have the right to vote, but they are treated as second-class citizens. In the past, violent clashes only occurred in the occupied territories. Now, for the first time, clashes occurred inside , particularly in the mixed cities of Jews and Arabs like Lydda. This is a kind of incipient civil war. As a result of Israel’s provocations, we got something like a unity intifada in which all Palestinians, wherever they are, are united in the determination to resist Israel’s occupation.
Siddique: Considering that clashes took place inside, the and East Jerusalem, and was the main focal point, does that mean the peace-for-peace policy is unsustainable?
Shlaim: When he was prime minister,didn’t have a peace policy. does not believe in a peaceful solution to the conflict between and the Palestinians. He has never believed in a peaceful settlement. He is the proponent of permanent conflict and he is a unilateralist. He thinks that has to remain militarily strong, has to retain the full support of the United States, and then the Palestinians would be impotent to do anything; the international community can criticize as much as it likes, but there will be no practical consequences — no price for the occupation.
That’s his view. He doesn’t have an endgame, he doesn’t have a solution. His solution is Jewish supremacy based on Jewish military force. This is apartheid, because between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there is one regime: the Israeli regime, which is all-powerful. And one ethnic group dominates the other. This is not a democracy; it’s an ethnocracy. Another word for ethnocracy is apartheid.
So, that is the position today. Both B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights NGO, and Human Rights Watch issued reports recently with that conclusion: thatis an apartheid state. To my mind, apartheid in the 21st century is not sustainable. The focus in world politics has shifted from borders and sovereignty to human rights. That’s what people feel strongly about. If continues to violate on a daily basis the human rights of the Palestinians, and to oppress them, it will gradually lose international support. This is already happening and it’s been happening for some time.
Israel’s savage bombardment ofin May was a real turning point. It provoked protests around the world against the Israeli occupation and it has led to popular public reframing of the conflict. Before it was seen as a dispute between two parties over territory. Now it is seen as a case of racial injustice. The Palestinian cause became strongly linked to Black Lives Matter. In the demonstrations, people carried banners that said, “Palestinian Lives Matter.” There were posters that said, “ Cannot Breathe.” Americans are beginning to see this conflict as similar to the racial injustice at home, where white policemen shoot and kill black people. That’s the way more and more people see the situation between and the Palestinians.
There is also BDS — the boycott, divestment and sanctions — a global, grassroots, nonviolent movement against the Israeli occupation, which has been gathering more and more support and gaining more traction.is really afraid of BDS and it has led a campaign to discredit BDS and its supporters as anti-Semites, which is rubbish. It is important to stress that BDS is a nonviolent movement and that all its main demands are ground in international law: an end to the occupation, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of . Far from being an anti-Semitic movement, BDS is an anti-racist movement that espouses universal values of freedom and equality.
I have been talking so far about the tide of popular opinion that is turning rapidly against. But the position of Western governments has not changed. The position of the United States, Canada and the European Union is still completely biased in favor of . The European Union, in particular, is really hypocritical because, officially, it supports a two-state solution and is committed to Palestinian rights, but in practice, it gives all sorts of trading privileges and advantages. It does nothing to sanction for its illegal settlements or its abuse of Palestinian human rights.
The policies of these Western governments are not going to change in the near future. Twelve European parliaments have recognizedas a state but only one government, that of Sweden. The Irish parliament recently passed a resolution condemning Israel’s de facto annexation of the . The Irish foreign minister stated that the de facto annexation is just as bad and just as illegal as formal annexation. Ireland may well end up proposing EU sanctions against . Let me point out this: Ireland was the first country to impose sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Today, Ireland is ahead of most other Western governments in its support for Palestinian rights. Today, the Irish flag is flying in Ramallah.
I believe that eventually, governments would follow their publics and modify their attitude towards. America, in particular, may come to reassess its blind and unconditional support for .
Siddique: Can all of these factors — Black Lives Matter, looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a case of racial injustice, the apartheid label, the BDS movement, international public support, the public reframing of the conflict and political shifts like with Ireland — have an impact for Palestinian self-determination?
Shlaim: Growing popular support worldwide is not going to enable Palestinians to achieve independence and statehood. It is governments who make the decisions and the United Nations, which has overall responsibility for resolving international conflicts. But the actor that counts most in this conflict is the United States. Unless America shows real commitment to, it is not going to come about.
Since 1967, the Americans have arrogated to themselves a monopoly over the so-called peace process. They have excluded the Soviet Union and then Russia, the EU and the United Nations. They arrogated to themselves a monopoly over peacemaking. But they never delivered peace, they never pushedinto a settlement. The so-called peace process was all process and no peace, yielding no concrete results. It was a charade. In fact, it was worse than a charade because peace talks gave just the cover it needs to continue to pursue its aggressive colonial project in the .
Americans like to think of themselves as honest brokers, but they are dishonest brokers. They are Israel’s lawyer, and you can’t be both Israel’s lawyer and a mediator. More than this, America is the enabler of the Israeli occupation. Without American support, American money, American military hardware,would not be able to sustain the occupation. America gives money, arms and diplomatic support. In the last 40 years, America has used the veto on the Security Council 42 times to defeat resolutions that are not to Israel’s liking. In effect, has the power of veto on the Security Council. It doesn’t exercise it directly but through a proxy, its little friend, the United States of America. The Palestinians are not going to achieve statehood unless America moves from words about the two-state solution to deeds, to condition its support to on real Israeli moves towards a settlement.
Siddique: Is it time for other nations, such as Arab and European, to join those efforts — so as to not give the United States a monopoly? Would they have an impact if they were part of the talks?
Shlaim: The European Union should be a player in bringing about a settlement, because the EU has real leverage with both parties. The EU is the main source of foreign aid for the Palestinian Authority, anddoes 35% of its trade with the European Union. Last year alone, the total amount of trade between and the EU was £31 billion [$42.7 billion].
The EU undoubtedly has this leverage with, but it has never exercised it because it is not a unitary actor. It has 27 member countries, some of them are very pro-Israeli like Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. These countries would most probably veto any resolution to impose sanctions on . The EU has been ineffectual both because of its internal structure and because America has sidelined it. For the foreseeable future, it is likely to remain a payer, not a player.
The Arab world should be an important actor in all this because it has a direct stake in what happens in. Arab states also have a religious stake because Jerusalem is the third holiest city in Islam. But the Arab states have been pretty passive and totally ineffective when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
In fairness to the Arab states, it has to be pointed out that they have got a clear and unified position on thequestion. It was formulated in the Arab League summit in Beirut in March 2002, when a Saudi proposal was adopted unanimously and became the . The offered formal peace and full normalization with all 22 member states of the Arab League, in return for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory and the establishment of a Palestinian state in and the with a capital city in East Jerusalem. This was the real deal of the century, not Trump’s phony deal. It gave everything it had previously asked for, but had to pay with land for peace. completely ignored the .
Yet the Arab consensus on the Palestinian issue did not hold. There used to be a pretty general commitment to the Palestinian cause, but since the Oslo Accord when the Palestinians acted independently and signed a peace accord with, the Arab states feel less bound to support the Palestinians. Particularly in the last four years, during the presidency of Donald Trump, the Arabs came under pressure to abandon the Palestinians. Trump’s idea was to have a united front of the US, , Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Iran. The price that the Gulf Arabs were expected to pay America in return for support against Iran was to ditch the Palestinians. This is what the countries that signed the Abraham Accords have done. They did bilateral deals with , which was a stab in the back to the Palestinians.
Siddique: Have the Abraham Accords killed the Arab Peace Initiative indefinitely — even a tweaked version of it?
Shlaim: No, definitely not. The Abraham Accords have not killed and not modified in any way the Arab Peace Initiative. It remains on the table and the big prize is Saudi Arabia.and President Trump hoped that Saudi Arabia would sign a peace accord with , and that would have effectively been the end of the Arab Peace Initiative. Saudi Arabia, however, did not pronounce on the peace deal between and the United Arab Emirates. It did not support it publicly nor did it follow suit. The Saudi foreign minister stated that Saudi Arabia remains committed to the Arab Peace Initiative and support for the Palestinians. And the Arab Peace Initiative is still the official position of the Arab League.
Siddique: You didn’t have much faith in Donald Trump’s ability to mediate a peace agreement. The Biden administration has faced criticism over its response to the latest conflict. Progressive politicians in the United States, such as Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, have spoken out. Do you see hope that Joe Biden’s team would get the Palestinians and Israelis to talk, which they haven’t in many years?
Shlaim: I don’t have much hope in Biden breaking away from the traditional mold of American foreign policy, which is pro-Israeli. The default position of American administrations is to appease. Biden has had a very long career in American politics, and he is one the strongest and most consistent supporters of . He once stated that if didn’t exist, America would help to invent it. He also said, on another occasion, that if he were a Jew, he would be a Zionist. He then corrected himself and said, “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist. I am a Zionist.” It is even worse than that because he is, by his own account, an unconditional Zionist.
Biden was vice-president for eight years under Barack Obama, which gavea huge amount of aid. Particularly at the end of the administration, they signed a military aid deal worth $38 billion over 10 years. This annual grant of $3.8 billion in military aid is unconditional. Biden was one of the people who always refused to tie American aid to to Israel’s respect for Palestinian human rights and international norms. That is still his position: his support for is unconditional.
One recent manifestation of this was International Criminal Court’s decision to investigate war crimes in the Occupied Territories. Trump had imposed sanctions on the ICC judges because they threatened to investigate. Biden has lifted the sanctions, but he’s still strongly opposed to any investigation of by the ICC. The most disturbing manifestation of Biden’s bias in favor of happened during the May crisis. Two things happened.
First, the Security Council, on three occasions, tried to issue a statement calling for an immediate ceasefire. Biden vetoed all three attempts. All three attempts were supported by the 14 other members of the Security Council. America alone stopped a declaration, a statement in favor of an immediate ceasefire. That tells you a lot. It tells you that Biden looked to Netanyahu, and Netanyahu wanted more time to do even more damage in Gaza. Biden gave him that extra time to do his worst.
Secondly, Biden authorized — without consulting Congress — when the fighting was going on, arms sales toworth nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars, mostly precision munitions to fire on Gaza. In this instance, Biden paralyzed UN diplomacy and empowered Israeli militarism against the Palestinians.
Israel’s latest assault on the people of Gaza, like all its previous wars, inflicted death and devastation on Gaza but left the underlying problems completely unsolved. The use of military force does nothing to resolve what is essentially a political problem. If America takes the lead in resuming peace talks, which is not at all certain, Biden is unlikely to come up with any new ideas.
Biden is no longer representative even of his own party. Progressive members of the Democratic Party are critical of him and his conduct. The congresswomen that you mentioned and Bernie Sanders are now calling for an American arms embargo on. This is unprecedented.
There is another factor at play in America: young, progressive Jews are increasingly disenchanted, even disgusted with. Peter Beinart, who is the leading expert on this, estimates that AIPAC represents maybe 30% of American Jews and J Street roughly 70%. A growing number of young, American Jews are openly critical of , critical of its human rights abuses, critical of the occupation, and they support a two-state solution. So, not only the American public has been turning against , but Jewish opinion in America is also turning against . Eventually, if not immediately, Biden would have to adjust to the new reality at home.
We have to remember that in America,is not a foreign policy issue, it’s a domestic politics issue. The fact that there is such strong support for throughout America, especially among Christian Evangelists, explains why America has been so biased in favor of . But if the landscape in America continues to shift against and in support of the Palestinians, official American foreign policy may eventually follow.
Siddique: That’s an interesting point you mention aboutbeing a domestic issue, not a foreign policy issue. One final question for you, professor. For our readers who are interested in learning more about the conflict, which books and/or authors would you recommend?
Shlaim: I warmly recommend Ian Black’s “Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews inand , 1917-2017” and Rashid Khalidi’s “The Hundred Years’ War on : A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017.” At the risk of sounding immodest, I would mention my own book, “The Iron Wall: and the Arab World,” a critique of Israeli policy towards the Arab world since 1948. But I should warn your readers that it is 900 pages long! In 1995, I published a Penguin book, a short paperback called, “War and Peace in the Middle East: A Concise History.” This is an easy introduction to the international politics of the Middle East, including the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The best book I know on America and the Arab-Israeli conflict is by William B. Quandt and it is called, “Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967.” On the Arab world in general, I warmly recommend a book by Fawaz A. Gerges: “Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East.” This book was published by Princeton University Press in 2018, and it deals with the two main trends in Arab politics: Arab nationalism represented by Gamal Abdel Nasser and political Islam represented by Sayyid Qutb.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.