REVIEW: Article

Israel, The Settlements, Terrorism and Peace: A Current Perspective

It has regrettably become established wisdom in important quarters that all the parties are equally to blame for the failure of the Middle East peace process and the violence that has since prevailed. That perception significantly contributes to the inability to negotiate an end to the current impasse. It is fortunate that President Bush is not blind to that reality.

The Arabs in the area have “homelands” in more than 20 countries with an estimated population of 250 million in an area of roughly 13 million square kilometers.  There is one Jewish “homeland,” Israel, with a population of 5.8 million in an area of 20,770 square kilometers. This disparity, coupled with persistent continued hostility by the Arab world, contributes to a profound sense of siege within Israel. The fact that in much of the Arab world, the press and even the books used to teach children are filled with hate toward Israel and Jews in general has led to the not unreasonable conclusion that much of the power structure in the Arab world would like to remove the Jewish homeland from the Middle East. Pressed by President Bush, and aware that continued support of Palestinian terrorism may even threaten their own stability, Saudi Arabia and some of its neighbors show encouraging signs of joining Egypt and Jordan in recognizing that Israel’s stability is essential to Middle East stability.

Archaeologists tell us that the land of Canaan, occupied on and off between the twelfth and ninth centuries B.C.E. by the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south, a natural land bridge between the two great civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, served as a homeland for Hebrew tribes, although the area was occupied by many different tribes.  In spite of the ebb and flow of migrations and wars between the various tribes, at no time to this very day was that land free of the descendents of the Hebrew tribes, even through the Crusades and the Ottoman Empire. Arabs and Jews both have historic roots in the area.

At the end of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire lost its control over the area.  The League of Nations in 1922 provided Great Britain with the mandate to control what was then called Palestine, with the understanding that the area was to become a renewed Jewish national homeland.  The presence of Jews had been respected by the Turks and the term “Palestine” encompassed the entire area of Israel, the West Bank, the Kingdom of Jordan, and the Golan Heights. Although the British officially declared Palestine to be the Jewish National Homeland, they later severed that part of Palestine, which was east of the Jordan River in order to create the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as a reward for that family’s assistance in the First World War. It was understood, at the time, that Jordan was to be a homeland for the Arabs then living in Palestine. This severance reduced the area designated for a Jewish National Homeland by about 75 percent, essentially redefining it as the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Ocean, including the West Bank.

The United Nations (UN) reaffirmed the principle of the Jewish National Homeland when it recognized Israel as a state in 1948, but it further reduced the scope of that homeland by providing that it would be divided into Jewish and Arab controlled territories. That limitation was accepted by Israel but resisted by the surrounding Arab nations, who joined together to make war against Israel in an effort to destroy it. Israel successfully protected itself, and the armistice lines that were established at the end of that war became the de facto, but not the legal, boundaries of Israel. Jordan took over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, thereby dividing that ancient city. Other subsequent military attempts by Arab states to destroy Israel also failed, and in 1967 Israel succeeded in recapturing the area between the Jordan River and its de facto boundaries, i.e., the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem. In effect, new armistice lines were established. It is important here to note that, historically, no independent Palestinian state has ever existed on any part of this territory, nor did the Palestinians under Jordanian rule ask for such a state.

There can be no appreciation of how best to achieve peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors without understanding this brief history. The developments of today cannot be separated from the realities of yesterday. Given the historical facts, it is ludicrous to read in the world press and in simplistic comments from diplomats that Israel’s “settlements” in the West Bank are the crucial barrier to peace. Legal borders are to be arrived at by negotiations, as required by the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 242, and are to be “safe and recognized.” Until that time, Jews have as much legal and historical right to live in the West Bank as Arabs. It is particularly ludicrous to describe the West Bank as “occupied,” a highly pejorative description implying an illegality or immor­ality about its status. It is, rather, a disputed area recaptured by Israel during armed conflicts initiated by its hostile Arab neighbors. The armistice lines were never legalized or recognized under international law. It is also interesting to note that other disputed areas in the world, such as Kashmir and Cyprus, are not referred to as “occupied.”

Obviously, the power of Arab oil has blinded much of the world. Israel realistically believes a significant segment of current Palestinian Arab leadership, supported by the rogue states in the Middle East and stimulated by an anti-Israel hatred which permeates their culture, has as its objective the removal of Israel and its replacement with a Palestine Arab State reaching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Ocean (and possibly including Jordan). It is quite likely that this aspiration is shared by Mr. Arafat, even though former Prime Minister Rabin and current Foreign Minister Peres were prepared to test that question. What is evident is that Arafat is either unable or unwilling to put a stop to the acts of terrorism perpetrated by organizations ostensibly under his control. This may be why Dennis Ross, our long time and very capable envoy, recently declared that Arafat is not “capable of negotiating an end to the conflict.”Arafat has been a source of constant turmoil and violence. Jordan in 1970 concluded that it could not tolerate the destructive presence of Arafat and his 20,000 Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) troops in its midst. He was driven out of Jordan and fled to Cairo from which he was also ousted. He took his headquarters to Lebanon where he and his troops persecuted Christians and caused havoc leading to a virtual revolution in that country. During that period his terrorist forces killed Jews in northern Israel; persecuted Christians in Lebanon; blew up electrical and other plants in West Germany, Holland, and Italy; massacred eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics; and murdered two American diplomats in Sudan. (It is reliably reported that United States (US) security files record Arafat’s voice ordering these murders in Khartoum.)In 1976, PLO terrorists murdered Francis Melloy, our American Ambassador to Lebanon, and Robert Waring, his Economic Counselor. By 1982, Lebanon’s civil war became intolerable and, with Syrian military assistance (Syrian troops are still in Beirut), Arafat and his forces were expelled from Beirut. Arafat appealed to the Arab League, but that appeal was ignored and Lebanon insisted on his deportation. He first moved his headquarters to Tunis, and then later, with Israel’s regrettable approval, to Palestine, where it remains.

Arafat agreed to the Oslo accords with Israel, but shortly after the White House signing, he made a speech in a Johannesburg mosque in 1995 comparing Oslo to a ceasefire the prophet Mohammed signed with an Arabian tribe he later destroyed.  In a 1996 speech to Arab diplomats in Stockholm, he brazenly declared his intention to undo the Jewish majority in Israel by bringing in refugees and causing demoralized Jews to leave the area, thereby bringing about Israel’s collapse. The late Faisal Husseini, an important Arafat lieutenant, who ironically was described at the time of his death as an advocate of peace, defined the Oslo process, in an interview with a major Egyptian newspaper, as a “Trojan horse.”  It means, he said, “that we are ambushing the Israelis and cheating them,” because the accord is only “temporary.” The goal, he stated, was “the liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea.”

It is today probable that it is in Israel’s best interest, should the current terrorism end, to recognize a separate Arab Palestinian State and move or remove all or a number of its settlements in order to achieve the peace it seeks. It is, however, reasonable for Israel to insist that it first wants to be firmly assured of friendly neighbors before it agrees to risk undermining its defenses. This makes the recent Saudi proposal particularly relevant. It is also reasonable for Israel to doubt whether it can ever achieve peace through negotiations with Arafat.

Unless this perspective is understood and appreciated by those in our government and others who would mediate the dispute, these efforts will not succeed. Regrettably, the power of Arab oil has blinded much of the western world to this reality. Even the refusal of President Clinton and President Bush to follow the urging of our Congress and transfer the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, is a form of submission to the influence of Arab oil—a regrettable and sad commentary when we consider that Israel is the only democracy in the area, our friend, and the only country in the world where our Embassy is not at the seat of government.

In this connection, it is relevant to note that friends of Israel have long felt there has been a steady “tilt” toward the Arab position in the State Department (with the exception of George Shultz’s tenure). We saw this early in Secretary of State George Marshall’s unsuccessful attempt to persuade President Truman not to recognize Israel as a state.  American dependence on Arab oil undoubtedly persuades our Middle East experts that it is in our national best interests to refrain from any foreign policy that might alienate our more numerous Arab friends, regardless of their form of government. This is understandable when we note that our diplomats spend much more time serving in and relating to the large number of Arab countries in the Middle East than they do relating to the single Israel.  They are influenced by that experience, by the force of the arguments they hear, and by the persuasiveness of the Arab friends and colleagues they develop. This observation is not to denigrate their motives and conclusions as to what is in our national interest, but their view is myopic.

Our diplomats and foreign policy experts play a vital role in informing our policy-makers and executing their decisions, but they themselves should not make policy. Our elected officials have that responsibility. That is why we elect Presidents to make American foreign policy and not “experts,” no matter how well trained or well intentioned they may be. Harry Truman understood this. There is hope that President George W. Bush understands this as well.

The task ahead is to forge a peace under which the Arabs can declare a victory by virtue of the creation of an independent Palestinian State, and the Israelis can live within “safe and recognized” boundaries, surrounded by neighbor states that respect its integrity and role as a Jewish National Homeland.

Issue Date


Chairman Emeritus, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy;
Counselor of the State Department, 1987-1989;
Arms Reduction Negotiator on Nuclear and Space Arms, 1985-1989;
United States Ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), 1980-1983