The growing conflagration in the Middle East has more dimensions than any of us can count, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on the history, politics and culture of that region. But while watching the latest developments unfold like the worst of recurring nightmares, I was drawn to re-read the ominous Washington Post op-ed by Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, published on July 11. Here’s the key passage:
If Israel will not allow Palestinians to live in peace, dignity and national integrity, Israelis themselves will not be able to enjoy those same rights…. If Israel is prepared to negotiate seriously and fairly, and resolve the core 1948 issues, rather than the secondary ones from 1967, a fair and permanent peace is possible.
Haniyeh could not have made it much plainer that the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank–the “secondary” issue created by the Six-Day War of 1967–is not the main Palestinian grievance with Israel. Thus, the particular way in which Israel has sought, unilaterally, to end this occupation–exactly which Jewish settlements remain, and exactly where the famous “fence” will run–is not really the cause of the latest attacks on Israel from Gaza. And the central “1948 issue” isn’t even so much where a Palestinian capital will be established, and how much territory it will possess: it’s the so-called “Right of Return” of displaced Palestinians and their successors, which is fundamentally incompatible with the existence of a Jewish State. Keep in mind that the refusal to compromise on the “Right of Return” was the primary argument Yasir Arafat advanced for his fateful rejection in 2000 of a territorial settlement far more generous than any Israeli government will ever again offer. It remains a fundamental tenet of the Fatah Movement’s “peace” platform. In that light, all the rhetorical differences between Fatah and Hamas on recognizing Israel may not much matter in the end. There seems to be an unspoken assumption among American policymakers that all the talk about the “Right of Return” is little more than a bid by Palestinians for huge sacks of money–presumably offered up by the U.S. and European countries–to permanently settle refugees and offer some sort of compensation to the families of former landowners who left or were expelled from Israel during the 1947-48 war. I hope there is some truth to that, but sometimes you have to believe that people mean what they say and say what they mean. Remember that the event that precipitated Arafat’s rejection of the last peace deal, and his launching of the Second Intifada, was Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, hailed as a military victory by Hezbollah and widely interpreted by Palestinians as an object-lesson in how to defeat the Jews instead of negotiating with them. The central delusion of the Arab Middle East, then, is that Israel can somehow be forced to concede what her enemies have failed to wrest from her in three separate wars dating back more than a half-century. No one sane really believes any combination of Arab or even Iranian conventional forces or terrorist cadres can defeat Israel militarily. No one sane should really believe an unconditional Right of Return can be achieved through any other path. So it all does come back to those “1948 issues,” and it’s not suprising that more and more people on both sides of the Israeli-Arab divide are reaching the conclusion that Israel’s War of Independence has never ended, and may now be breaking out anew.