For many people earnestly committed, in the case of Israel, to the noble cause of social justice, there is today perhaps no greater misconception than believing that it’s entirely up to Israelis to “end the occupation.”
Heard repeatedly, and often with heightened emotion, this call betrays a lack of historical awareness about steps Israel has taken in the not-too-distant past to try to achieve peace with the Palestinians, only to have those efforts rejected. It also betrays a profound naiveté about what is required in the first place to reach that goal.
It’s essential to understand that “ending occupation” is not something Israel alone can do, nor is it required by what many advocates of Palestinian statehood claim, with reference to the United Nations, is stipulated in “international law.” (Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza does not change this fact.)
To appreciate why this is so, it’s necessary to return to basics, which, unfortunately, have been largely forgotten. Following Israel’s 1967 war of self-defence, the UN Security Council, in November of that year, passed Resolution 242 outlining a road map for a “just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” At its core are two essential principles: Israel was called upon to withdraw its armed forces “from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” but that withdrawal (the extent of which was undefined) was not to be unilateral but was premised on Arab states extending to Israel recognition of its “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries, free from threats or acts of force.”
Moreover, 242 was clear that peace meant the “termination of all claims” – in short, the end of conflict.
Resolution 242 provides significant safeguards for Israel. As Abba Eban, Israel’s brilliant and dovish former foreign minister and diplomat (who favoured a two-state solution before this idea gained traction), wrote in the early 1990s in a New York Times op-ed, 242 amounted to “legitimizing Israel’s presence in the territories pending a peace agreement.”
This resolution has been the bedrock of all Arab-Israeli (and, since the inception of the Oslo agreement in 1993, Palestinian-Israeli) peace-making. It’s the basis upon which, in the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula. The same goes for territorial and other adjustments made between Jordan and Israel in their 1994 peace agreement.
During the Oslo process between Israel and the PLO, 242 was the basis for Israel’s territorial withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. Further planned withdrawals were stymied when then-PLO chairman Yasser Arafat failed to live up to his part of the agreement to provide peace and security to Israel. Tragically, Arafat never made the transition from “revolutionary” leader to statesman and, following his rejection of the 2000 Camp David process, pursued violence and terrorism instead.
While the Oslo process didn’t explicitly call for a two-state solution, that was the direction things were taking. This was the case with the Camp David and Taba talks in 2000 and 2001 and, eight years later, with the Annapolis talks involving Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, who also rejected a chance for Palestinian statehood. In both instances, the rejection was caused, not by the complicated but resolvable issue of Israeli settlements, but by the persistent Palestinian refusal (since the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine calling for the creation of “Jewish” and “Arab” states) to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People.
In addition, the Palestinian insistence on the (non-existent) “right of return” to Israel of what are now millions of Palestinian refugees, thereby turning it into another Arab-majority state, means the letter and spirit of 242 – the termination of all claims for the sake of genuine peace – are violated.
Unless the Palestinians compromise along with the Israelis to bring about an “end the occupation,” peaceful reconciliation will inevitably remain an unfulfilled vision.
Paul Michaels is research director at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.