Why has “The Occupation” lasted for 49 years?

By Rabbi Alan Silverstein

Israelis long for a comprehensive and final agreement negotiated directly by the parties to the conflict and resulting in A Jewish State and Arab State living side-by-side in peace. In the absence of success, frustration continues to mount on all sides. For example, last Spring, Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff, addressed J Street and affirmed the administration’s dismay with “nearly 50 years of Israeli occupation.” Regrettably, he placed all of the blame for the stalemate upon the Jewish state’s alleged unwillingness to compromise. He threatened that the Administration would “need to re-evaluate our position” when it comes to Israel. Omitted was the assigning of any fault within the diplomatic shortfall to the Palestinian side. Such an omission is contradicted by the facts revealed during the past half-century of diplomacy.

In June 1967, Israel fought a just war, gaining control of the Sinai, the Golan Heights, Gaza, and the West Bank. This was a war of self-defense against multiple Arab armies seeking to “push the Jews into the sea.” UN Resolution 242 subsequently called upon Israel to relinquish acquired “territory” (not “all” territory nor the identical territory) in exchange for a comprehensive peace with defensible borders. Israel responded in the affirmative and sought to negotiate treaties. The Arab League responded with its infamous“3 No’s” — no negotiations, no recognition, no peace.

Nevertheless, a breakthrough occurred 10 years later. In 1977 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat paid a surprise visit to the Knesset, shattering the wall of distrust. He then partnered with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and concluded a peace treaty two years later. Israel withdrew from 100 percent of the Sinai, three-quarters of all the land Israel had justly acquired in June 1967.

A second milestone took place in the mid-1990s. Under the diplomatic cover provided by the Oslo Peace Process, King Hussein crafted a peace treaty with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Once again Israel relinquished disputed border territory (11.5 square miles) as claimed by a neighbor in exchange for peace with an “end of all Jordanian claims” against the Jewish State.

On the Syrian front, President Bill Clinton’s negotiating team brought peace within reach. In his memoir, the United States’ lead negotiator, Dennis Ross, affirmed that Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to relinquish all Golan Heights territory taken in 1967. Ross assumed that a peace agreement was imminent. To his dismay, Ross recollected that, “Assad was dismissive — and for the first time in the history of the process, he stated that [in addition to the Golan Heights] ‘the [Sea of Galilee] has always been our lake; it was never theirs.’” Once Assad demanded that Syria be given a portion of the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s primary source of water, negotiations collapsed.

In 2005, encouraged by President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon authorized a risky unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. He uprooted 8,000-plus Israeli settlers and withstood vociferous opposition by the Religious Zionist camp. President Bush’s argument was two-fold: presented with a territory and an economy to administer, the Gazans would moderate their behavior; Additionally, Bush assumed that a magnanimous Israeli gesture would evoke sustainable good will throughout the world. Regrettably, any initial good will rapidly dissipated, and Gaza became more hostile than ever.

As for the West Bank, back-channel Oslo negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in 1992 led to eight years of diplomacy. Israel accepted the parameters of the final 2000 Clinton Plan for Peace. Yasser Arafat did not. Arafat refused to surrender his demand that millions of Palestinian refugees be resettled inside pre-1967 Israel. As Clinton reflected in his memoir, “Arafat never said no [to peace]; he just couldn’t bring himself to say yes.”

The Israeli effort to diplomatically resolve the dispute resurfaced in 2008. Condoleezza Rice’s memoir confirms that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas rejected Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s bold territorial proposed concessions. These recommendations were even more generous to the Arab side than the Clinton plan had been. Rice was amazed by how far the Israeli leader was willing to go. Olmert was prepared to give up nearly the entire West Bank, with equivalent land swaps, and to divide Jerusalem. Rice brought Olmert’s proposal to Abbas in Ramallah. Unfortunately, Abbas rejected it, telling Rice that the PA could not agree to a deal that prevented nearly four million Palestinians from being able to “go home” into pre-1967 Israel.

Diplomatic efforts resumed in earnest in March 2014. Secretary of State John Kerry formulated a “memorandum of agreement” outlining US parameters of a final peace. In early 2015, while campaigning for election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dovish electoral rival, Tzipi Livni, chair of the Israeli negotiating team of 2014, offered her assessment to journalist Roger Cohen. While she “acknowledged that dealing with Netanyahu on the talks had always been difficult,” Cohen wrote, “from her [Livni’s] perspective, the Palestinians caused the failure at a critical moment. On March 17, [2014], in a meeting in Washington, President Obama presented Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, with a long-awaited American framework for an agreement that set out the administration’s views on major issues, including borders, security, settlements, Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem. [On behalf of Israel] Livni considered it a fair framework. Netanyahu had indicated willingness to proceed on the basis of it while saying he had reservations. But Abbas declined to give an answer in what his senior negotiator, Saeb Erekat, later described as a ‘difficult’ meeting with Obama. Abbas remained evasive on the Kerry framework, which was never made public.”

The past 50 years have witnessed Israeli complete withdrawal from the Sinai, from border areas near Jordan and from all of Gaza, as well as Israeli agreements to viable peace proposals for the West Bank and for the Golan Heights. Like the rest of the world and the vast majority of Israelis, Denis McDonough is troubled that a comprehensive diplomatic solution remains elusive. However, blame for the decades of stalemate ought not to be placed upon the Jewish state alone.

At numerous points in time, Israel has been the proactive partner, awaiting reciprocity from Palestinian leadership. It is time to directly identify and address the objections raised by Arafat and by Abbas. Why do they seek to by-pass negotiations and to force a UN Security Council resolution forcing Israel to unilaterally cede the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a first State of Palestine, without an “end to all claims” against Israel? Why? It is because after this “first stage” in their view of a peace process, the next phase would be the settlement of millions of Palestinian refugees into pre-1967 Israel, creating a second Palestinian state.

Peace requires a diplomatic process yielding two states, one Arab and one Jewish, living side-by-side in peace. Regrettably, the Palestinian leadership continually demonstrates its refusal to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish State irrespective of borders. That refusal obstructs any viable peace plan. It remains as the core obstacle. It represents the primary answer to the question as to “Why Has `The Occupation’ lasted So long?”

Rabbi Alan Silverstein is religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell and President of Mercaz Olami