CAIRO – Everything depends on where you start your history.
Thats one of the wisest observations Ive ever heard. It came from my eighth grade history teacher.
So where do we start the history of Israel and the Palestinians?
Nov. 29, 1947, when the U.N. voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state? The Jews accepted it. The Arabs rejected it, but despite the war they declared on the Jews, with the stated object of throwing them into the sea, the Jewish state survived. But the Arab state was never born. Jordan swallowed up its territory. Yet that is the date todays Palestinians have chosen to ask the same U.N. to recognize their state. The irony is too bitter.
How about June 1967? Thats when Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai desert. Its army crossed the cease-fire lines drawn in 1949 at the end of the above war. In other words, the border of the West Bank, now accepted by practically everyone as a sacred frontier, was in fact just a cease-fire line that held for 18 years of the 4,000-year recorded history of the Mideast.
Or maybe July 2000, when Israels prime minister offered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a state in more than 90 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, parts of Jerusalem and a corridor between the West Bank and Gaza – something that has never existed, certainly not within the holy pre-1967 borders. To the dismay of the host, President Bill Clinton, Arafat turned down the offer, walked out of Camp David and slammed the door. A violent uprising broke out two months later, and 6,000 people died, most of them Palestinians.
Certainly Israel has done stupid things – such as settlements, acts of cruelty and some bad leaders. None of those are decisive, though the world usually focuses on those aspects.
And all the above is well known historical fact. So lets start somewhere that isnt so well known.
A year of negotiations between high-level teams of Palestinians and Israelis has come to an end. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shows a map to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It delineates a Palestinian state in 93.5 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, ceding Israeli land to make up the 6.5 percent, including that corridor between the two territories, the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, shared control of the holy sites in the Old City. Olmert said, Sign this. Otherwise he would not give Abbas the map, knowing from bitter experience that any proposal handed to the Palestinians simply becomes the starting point of the next round of demands. This was Israels final offer. Abbas knew that.
So he emulated his predecessor, left the room and never met Olmert again. The chance was lost for good within a month when Israel invaded Gaza to try to put a stop to incessant rocket attacks, something that might sound familiar – and the motivation for me to finally write about this now, four years later.
Olmerts offer was never properly reported at the time. Olmert didnt make it public then. He didnt have to. The Palestinians did.
On March 27, 2009, the chief Palestinian negotiator, my old friend Saeb Erekat, a fellow night owl who was always ready with a comment on current events at 2 a.m., went on Al-Jazeera and spelled it out. He said then that Abbas could have accepted a proposal that talked about Jerusalem and almost 100 percent of the West Bank.
Then he quoted the response Abbas gave:
I am not in a marketplace or a bazaar. I came to demarcate the borders of Palestine – the June 4, 1967 borders – without detracting a single inch, and without detracting a single stone from Jerusalem, or from the holy Christian and Muslim places. This is why the Palestinian negotiators did not sign.
Chances are the real reason for his timidity was the refugees. About 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes by Jewish soldiers in the war that followed Israels creation. They were housed in camps along Israels borders, in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. They have been kept there by Palestinian and Arab leaders, with the willing and continuing cooperation of the U.N., to be a festering sore, bolstered by the promise that they would one day return to their homes in Israel. After four generations, their numbers have reached about 5 million, and all are considered refugees from Palestine. All have been promised the right to return home.
Yet Arafat and now Abbas say they want a state in the West Bank and Gaza. Pulling these two threads together, it means they want a Palestinian state, and they also want most of their people to go live in someone elses state. There are winks and nods in the direction of some sort of other arrangement, but no Palestinian leader has ever told his people, sorry, you will not be going back to that village that is now under the runway of Israels international airport, you will be fortunate to live in a free Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. If Arafat couldnt do it, no one can.
So why am I writing about this now? I was unable to write about it then, and we will have to leave it at that. Im writing about it now because we have just had a conflict in Gaza that brought many journalists from all over the world who landed at that same airport, went straight to Gaza and began reporting on the suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israelis.
But history did not start when they got off the plane. The downward slope into insoluble stalemate, despair and violence started in July 2000 and got its last fatal push in November 2008. Between those two dates, Israel withdrew from Gaza. Palestinians tired of the corruption and nepotism of the party headed by Abbas, voted for Hamas, and when Abbas refused to yield to the verdict of his own people, Hamas pitched his forces out of Gaza.
That was two years after Israel pulled out of Gaza. The Palestinians had a chance for independence and glory. Instead they chose rockets and war.
And so we arrive at today. There is a cease-fire. It will last a month, a year, a few years. An understanding of the background will help us all realize that the peace process reached its logical conclusion, and it did not produce peace. Twice.
An understanding of where this all comes from, and especially the sorry events of November 2008, gives an entirely new perspective to the problem.
Because everything depends on where you start your history.
Abbas forgot to mention this.