Policy Papers

The Palestine peace process: unlearned lessons of history

Ilan Pappe |

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Executive Summary

  • The United States' current attempts to promote a Middle-East peace process, like all those they have promoted since 1967, are based on three faulty principles.
  • Firstly, that a peace process should be based on the balance of power in the area, even though the imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians is now wider than ever before.
  • Secondly, that a peace process should start with the ability of the stronger party, Israel, to form a consensus within its own society, even though this will crucially limit the range of possibilities then available for negotiation with the Palestinians.
  • And thirdly, that each attempt at peace can be seen as beginning from scratch, as if nothing had been tried before. At best the issues are seen as dating back to the late 1960s and are limited to the disposal of the areas occupied by Israel after the June 1967 war.
  • But the roots of the problem go further back, to another less-recognised war in 1948 when the Israelis expelled 250,000 Palestinians from their homelands and asserted control over Jerusalem.
  • This is not to say that the current Palestinian position necessarily contains the exclusive ingredients for peace. But it is clearly impossible to talk of genuine negotiations without both sides being considered as equal partners and the roots of the conflict being at least acknowledged.
  • The failure to see the need for this has frustrated all previous US attempts to resolve the dispute, leading to the collapse of the Oslo initiative in the violence of 1995 and the renewed Intifada in 2000.
  • Unless the US can now begin to pay attention to the lessons of history, this new round of peace talks will not only end in failure, but the hopes currently aroused will turn once again into despair, fury and a renewed wave of violence and devastation.


This article draws contemporary conclusions from a historical survey, but these are of course tentative, suggestive and open for discussion. The subject matter, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is an on-going process and hence any historical evaluation of its causes and nature keeps changing with the fluctuations in the situation on the ground. Yet there is still something to be said for a historical appraisal of the principal attempts to end the conflict, especially at a time like ours when the media produces the impression that yet another new opportunity has been opened and peace may be just around the corner in this seemingly never-ending confrontation. A historical perspective can indeed help us understand better the present deadlock and may offer some hints about the future possibilities for peace in Palestine.

The British attempt

The peace process in Palestine began in earnest only when the people of the land and the powers interested in it realized that a conflict existed. This happened when centuries of Ottoman rule in Palestine came to an end and a new phase of British rule began in the final stages of the First World War. For the indigenous Arab population of Palestine, the British Balfour Declaration of 1917 - promising their country to the Zionist movement as a national homeland - was the first act of aggression against their interests. The assurance entailed in that declaration of protection for the rights of the native population within the future Jewish national home was regarded by the Palestinians as insincere and alarming. After all they were not only the established inhabitants of the country, they also constituted 90% of its total population. Moreover, by the time the Balfour Declaration was made, and more generally European indirect rule commenced in the area, the Palestinians, like the other Arab national movements, were developing hopes of independence from foreign rule and unity with the rest of the Arab world. Some of the Arab peoples were recognized by Britain and France in November 1918 as nations entitled in due course to have a state of their own. Had Britain, under the influence of a Jewish policy, not promised Palestine to the Zionist movement, the Palestinians would probably have been included in this list of new nation-states. But in the Balfour Declaration the Palestinians were erased as a national movement and reduced to the category of 'a non-Jewish' group that should be tolerated by the Zionist newcomers (who had first arrived in 1882). Zionism on the other hand was treated as a proper and modern national movement.

The British then helped to create a serious long-term conflict by allowing further immigration and the expansion of the Jewish settlement in Palestine. These policies were altered in 1939 when some restrictions were imposed on the Jewish community, but by that time the Jews were one third of the population. And although they only owned 5% of the land, they already possessed an infrastructure for an independent state. Peace efforts during the mandatory period (1920-1948) were essentially a British attempt to persuade the Palestinians to agree to this creeping take-over of the land. The Palestinians rejected these dictates and offers, and by 1947 Britain had had enough. In February of that year, His Majesty's Government transferred the problem to the United Nations, deciding to leave behind the country it had ruled for thirty years.

The United Nations' attempt

The United Nations was an inexperienced body under the influence of the United States, and had an even lesser chance than Britain of pushing forward reconciliation. It appointed a special committee to devise a solution and that body based its approach on the same logic as the Balfour Declaration. In 1947, the Jews still owned only 5.5% of the land but had grown in numbers to become 660,000 out of a population of nearly 2 million people. Most of the Jews had arrived within the previous five years, yet the UN decided that they had an equal right to the land of Palestine. The Palestinian and Arab leadership rejected that logic but the UN refused to register this rejection, nor was it willing to test it, as the Palestinians demanded, in an international court of justice. The UN insisted stubbornly on enforcing a solution on the indigenous population of Palestine, while it was about to begin negotiations with the Jewish community.

The Jewish leadership gladly accepted the new situation. It suggested to the UN in May 1947 the building of a Jewish state over 80% of the land, while allowing a Palestinian state in the remaining 20% located in today's West Bank. The Jewish leadership hoped this 20% would be annexed to Jordan and for that purpose conducted secret negotiations with the Hashemite dynasty there. The UN 'succeeded' in reducing the Jewish demands and accorded them only 55% of the land. This map was accepted as a peace plan in November 1947 by the UN General Assembly, partly under American pressure, but it was totally rejected by the Arab world and the Palestinian leadership. The next months, as could have been expected, did not produce peace but rather destroyed the Palestinians and much of Palestine. The Americans to their credit were shocked enough to suggest a new strategy. In April 1948 they called for continued negotiations for another five years, but the Jewish lobby in America managed to foil this reversal. By the time the Americans debated what to do next, 250,000 Palestinians had already been expelled by Israel from their villages and towns in the first phase of a systematic ethnic-cleansing operation that would end with the uprooting of another half a million Palestinians and the destruction of 500 villages and a dozen urban neighbourhoods and towns.

Even before this 1948 war ended, the UN tried to rectify its previous failures. It convened a peace conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, in April 1949 proposing three tiers for a settlement in Palestine. The first was an unconditional repatriation of the refugees. The second was an international city in Jerusalem. The third was constructed after the Arab delegations, including the Palestinian one, had reluctantly accepted the principle of partition. Then the UN suggested the creation of two states - an Arab one and a Jewish one - more or less equal in size on the land of Palestine. The Israelis rejected the proposal, but unlike the previous junctures in history - the Balfour Declaration and the UN Partition Resolution - they were not forced, as the Palestinians had been, to accept the new plan. This meant that the Jewish state which now controlled almost 80% of the land, and granted Jordan the right to annex the West Bank and part of Jerusalem, was simply allowed to keep this territory and was not compelled to allow the return of the refugees or the internationalisation of Jerusalem.

The Palestinian villages and towns were turned either into recreation parks or newly-built Jewish settlements. The 750,000 refugees began to build a new national identity revolving around the right of return, which was recognized by 'the international community' and eventually manifested through the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964. There was a long lull in the peace efforts until the June 1967 war, but that war created a new situation as the whole of Mandatory Palestine fell under Israeli rule and immediately after hostilities ended, Israel began constructing settlements on the newly-acquired territory and annexing East Jerusalem.

The United States' attempts

The peace effort was taken over by the Americans in the post-1967 period mainly out of fear of Russian involvement. The American negotiators obeyed three principles in their approach to peace, all of which showed that nothing had been learned from the previous attempts.

The first principle was that the peace process would be based on the balance of power, and the needs of the stronger side in the equilibrium would therefore dictate the nature of the solution. This meant that Israeli perceptions of peace informed prospective settlements and Palestinian positions were at best sidelined, and quite often totally disregarded.

The second principle was that peace would depend on the ability of the stronger party to form a consensus within its own society for a prospective solution. This fitted very well with the internal debate that ensued in Israel after the June 1967 war. The political scene was torn between 'redeemers' and 'custodians'. The former believed that the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip were the heart of the ancient homeland and therefore could not be conceded even in return for peace. Against them stood the 'custodians' who asserted that these very territories could be a bargaining card in negotiations. The only possible consensus, which indeed emerged as the American peace efforts intensified, was that only parts of the area Israel had occupied in the 1967 war would be up for negotiation. This deal was offered to the Jordanians in 1972, through the services of the then American secretary of state Henry Kissinger, but the Jordanians wished to have all of the West Bank and were not satisfied with the Israeli proposal of allowing them either control over half of it plus the Gaza Strip, or a shared sovereignty over the entire occupied territories. By the time the 'custodians' - situated mainly in the Labour party, but later on including the more pragmatic sections of the Likkud party - offered the whole of the West Bank to King Hussein of Jordan in 1987, it turned out to be a futile diplomatic exercise. The Jordanians did not trust a divided Israeli government (based on an uneasy coalition between Labour and Likkud) to deliver the deal, and they were proved right in retrospect. The Palestinians, who had never liked the idea in the first place, refused to be partners in a plan that transferred to Jordan the only areas of Palestine Israel had not annexed.

The third American principle was that a peace process need not have a history. Each fresh attempt was seen as beginning from scratch, as if nothing had been tried before. This disabled any process of learning so crucial for any activity that deals with human, rather than natural, problems. Because of their first two principles the Americans accepted the Israeli 'custodian' or 'peace-camp' approach to the conflict. This regarded 1967 as the beginning of the conflict and the future of the areas Israel had occupied in the 1967 war as the main agenda for a peace process. Similarly, the peace camp in Israel suggested that Jordan and not the Palestinians should be the partners for such negotiations.

As long as the PLO was too weak to resist Jordanian participation, American diplomats shuttled back and forth in the 1970s between Jerusalem and Amman vainly trying to secure a collusion between Israel and Jordan at the expanse of the Palestinians. But in 1976 the people of the West Bank voted out the pro-Jordanian leadership and elected one which identified with the PLO and its policies. The Americans still refused to include the PLO as a legitimate partner in the peace process, accepting the Israeli depiction of the liberation movement as a terrorist outfit and wrongly suspecting it of being a tool of Soviet policies in the Middle East.

This approach distanced the Americans from the Palestinian point of view and disconnected them from the historical experience of the UN attempt. As the Palestinians argued and declared, the conflict was not one which had begun in 1967: it was the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 that was the root of the conflict and it was the Palestinian demand of return that fuelled the Palestinian liberation movement. True, there was also a Palestinian wish - shared by a minority of Israeli peaceniks - to end the Israeli occupation and dismantle the settlements built on the areas taken in 1967. This wish might form a basis for negotiations, but it could not be enough to secure a comprehensive settlement of the conflict.

Only after the Jordanians declared openly in 1988 their disinterest in the West Bank, was the way open for an American rethinking of the peace process. The collapse of the Soviet Union also helped by dispersing some of the earlier misperceptions of the PLO as a mere Soviet proxy in the area. A dialogue commenced between the US and the PLO in that year: the first of its kind. This was also the first time the Americans took the initiative and found that when they did so, it could affect Israel in a constructive way. For some major forces in Israel were also beginning to contemplate direct contact with the PLO. However, this was to prove an exceptional chapter in the history of American involvement, which does not teach us much about the rule.

The rule was revealed when the Americans returned to the peace arena, with some force, during the Oslo days. This process began without an American involvement, in an attempt, probably genuine, to bridge over the two conflicting approaches to a solution. The Israeli negotiators succeeded in enlisting the PLO to an agreement that would be based on Israel's conception of peace, while promising the Palestinians that their concerns - such as the refugees and the settlements - would also be discussed as part of a final phase. But this promise was drowned in a sea of words decorating the primary document of the accord - the Declaration of Principles - signed by Yassir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993. Indeed it was a sub-clause that the Israeli generals, who took over the negotiations from the diplomats, never meant to implement.

The next years were not conducive for a continued peace efforts. They were characterized by violent opposition by militant groups on both sides that culminated in the assassination of Itzhak Rabin in 1995 and in Palestinian guerrilla attacks provoking a very harsh Israeli retaliation. But more importantly, the momentum was lost because Israel expanded its settlements in the areas promised to the Palestinians and maintained the same oppressive policies it had exercised in the previous years of occupation.

In 1999, the Americans were called in to salvage the disintegrating peace process. Under the leadership of President Bill Clinton the same old three rules were revived. Israel was asked to dictate how the peace plan should look in 2000. It was one that had to win at least a minimal Israeli consensus before it would be presented to the Palestinians as a 'take it or leave it' offer. And nothing was learned from the previous attempt to impose an Israeli solution on the Palestinians by threats and force. In all the former attempts this failure to learn from the past had resulted in a vicious cycle of bloodshed and destruction. The same happened again in 2000: 'Pax Americana' instead of reconciliation meant another tragic chapter of violence.

The stage was ready for the final act. In the summer of 2000, at Camp David, the Palestinian leader, Yassir Arafat was presented with a dictate by the Israeli prime Minster, Ehud Barak. With the help of President Clinton, Arafat was persuaded to join a thanksgiving dinner not as a guest of honour but rather as the turkey. He refused to accept the Barak vision of peace: a Bantustan over much of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, divided into endless cantons, with no independent foreign, economic or defence policies and with no return of the refugees. Arafat was asked to declare such a map as the end of the conflict. There was not the slightest American attempt to find out the reasons for Arafat's position, or negotiate more intensively with the Palestinian side. According to the American and Israeli PR campaign Arafat had been presented with 'the most generous offer ever' and had rejected it because he was a war monger.

As in 1947 so in 2000, 'peace' was a plan devised by Israel and endorsed by a powerful outside factor - imposed by force on the Palestinians. As in 1947 so in 2000, such policies led to the inevitable eruption of violence. But unlike 1949, when the UN understood what had gone wrong and tried a new approach, the US in 2005 refuses to accept it has erred in the past forty years by endorsing uncritically the Israeli perception of the conflict and its solution, and by rejecting totally the Palestinian position. The refusal to alter past assumptions may date back to the 9/11 attacks, but the terrorism that hit America in September 2001 is not the reason for the present policies in Palestine, only the excuse. Loyal to the same old three principles, President George Bush, in the various peace plans he has championed since the outbreak of the present Intifada in October 2000 - such as the Road Map, the Bush vision and the Sharon Disengagement plan - continues to repeat the mistakes of the past.


The balance of power cannot serve as a basis for peace any more. Today, the imbalance of power is the widest in the long history of the conflict: Israel possesses the strongest army in the area and the Palestinians the poorest and weakest para-military groups. Because of the first American principle, the Palestinians, having deteriorated to the lowest nadir in their history, are offered even less in terms of territory and authority than before. Because of this basic approach, the Americans have even abandoned the sham of finding out what a Palestinian position might be, and look only to the Israelis to produce a plan.

This plan, according to the second principle, will be based exclusively on a Jewish consensus within Israel. This consensus currently dictates that Israel can withdraw from the Gaza Strip and half of the West Bank, provided these two areas are encircled by a high wall and electric fences and bisected by Israeli bases and highroads. These enclaves can be called a Palestinian state as far as Israel is concerned, provided it is without a capital in Jerusalem and without the return of the refugees.

As the third rules tells us, this faulty formula has emerged once again because nothing has been learned from the failures of the past. The balance of power does not have the force to erase the fundamental Palestinian claim for a full sovereign state (including East Jerusalem) and their internationally-recognized right of return. Such an oblivious attitude has led to bloodshed before: it will probably generate violence once more. This is not to say that the Palestinian perception has the exclusive ingredients for peace. In fact, this writer would assert that only a one-state structure can provide the necessary solutions for the outstanding problems of the conflict. The point here is that a reasonable solution cannot even appear on the negotiating table without the relocation of the Palestinians as equal partners in the peace efforts.

One thing we have learned from the past is that the popular fury which ignites violent fires is often produced when hopes are artificially raised by peace makers: in the case of Palestine these have been exclusively American negotiators. The death of Arafat has generated just such talk of a new era and new hopes for peace. It is already clear as these words are being written that Arafat's successor, Abu Mazen, is going to be presented with yet another Israeli dictate, sponsored by the Americans, a dictate that due to the current balance of power will even offer less then in the past to the Palestinians. Thus hope will soon be replaced by anger and frustration, and the weapons of the weak in such situations are the usual desperate means that produce more havoc and destruction on the part of the stronger occupier and oppressor.

Historians appearing in popular talk shows like to state - in an artificially modest snobbery - that 'nothing can be learned from history'. But of course something can be, and should be, deduced from the past especially when human lives are involved. Without historical perspectives on such conflicts as the one still raging in Palestine, repetitive fruitless peace efforts leave behind them dead, wounded and uprooted people. This is not a natural disaster that cannot be predicted or avoided. This is human folly maintained for most of the time by cynical financial interests and fanatical religious and national ideologies. Moreover, a wider historical perspective tells us that when peace is not achieved because such policies persist, the end result is often the destruction of everyone involved: victims and victimizers, oppressed and oppressors, occupied and occupiers. They and their supporters are all swallowed up in a perpetual wave of violence and devastation.

Further Reading

Noam Chomsky, Powers and Prospects, London: Pluto Press, 1996.

Ilan Pappe, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951, London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1994.

Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine, One Land, Two Peoples, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Ilan Pappe, 'The Post-Zionist Critique: Part 1: The Academic Debate', Journal of Palestine Studies, 26/2 (Winter 1997), pp. 29-41.

Ilan Pappe, 'Why were they Expelled?: the History, Historiography and Relevance of the Refugee Problem' in Ghada Karmi and Eugene Cortan (eds.), The Palestinian Exodus, 1948-1988, London: Ithaca 1999, pp. 37-63.

Edward Said, The Politics of Dispossession, London: Chatto and Windus, 1994.


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