The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the 21st Century

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 19-Jul-04 | Author: Babak Khalatbari

Babak Khalatbari, M.A., Konrad-Adenauer-Scholar, University of Münster, Germany
Babak Khalatbari, M.A., Konrad-Adenauer-Scholar, University of Münster, Germany
Attack helicopters and suicide bombers -- a modern tale of an Arab David and a Jewish Goliath

The founding of Fatah (Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filastin) in 1959 and its choice of a strategy of armed conflict can be described as a Palestinian reaction to the failure of Arab governments to take action on the Palestine question. Five years later, the Palestine Liberation Organization (Munazzamat al-Tahrir al-Filastiniyya) was founded in Jerusalem at the request of the Arab League to represent Palestinian rights and interests, since 1969 under Arafat's leadership.

Utopianism versus realism

During the first Intifada that erupted in 1987, first secret negotiations began. Following the Madrid conference in 1991, the so called Oslo process was established in late 1993. The resulting joint statement and common insight of both parties paved the way for peace and won the Nobel Peace Prize for Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat in 1994. The most important element of the compromise was the two-state model, with step-by-step implementation of Palestinian authority. Utopianism seemed to have trumped realism, but problematical topics such as the Jerusalem question, the status of refugees and the issue of Jewish settlements had been pushed aside.

Traps and gaps of the peace process

The Arab-Israeli peace process stalled with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, the ascendancy of a new Likud government in Israel and the increasing ineffectiveness of Yasser Arafat. The aftermath of these events has brought daunting years for Israel and Palestine. The Camp David conference in June 2000 ended without result, and all new initiatives, such as the Taba conference, came too late because the Middle Eastern helix of violence was revived in late 2000 in the form of the second Intifada.

The year 2002 began with the most violent confrontation between Jews and Arabs in Palestine since the territory west of the Jordan River was partitioned in 1947. Indeed, the collapse of the peace process and the outbreak of the second Intifada have caused the Jewish-Israeli population to shift sharply to the right. 98 percent of Israelis supported the reoccupation of parts of the West Bank in Operation Defensive Shield in late March 2002. Many Israelis now believe that the majority of Palestinians do not anymore want a state of their own next to Israel, but rather one state in historical Palestine that includes Israel. The Palestinians have contributed to Israel's strong degree of suspicion and deep mistrust, particularly with regard to the separation fence. The escalating conflict has taken a heavy toll on lives, with more than 900 Israeli and about 2700 Palestinian victims of armed hostilities by late 2003.

The economic boomerang: War does not pay

It is a general rule that wars are not profitable in the long term. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this rule seems to apply to the short term as well. The Israeli balance of trade is negative, and unemployment has increased to 10 percent. 63 percent of residents in the West Bank and Gaza live below the poverty line of $2 a day. Even if the amount of humanitarian aid were increased from one to two billion dollars per year, this would only reduce the poverty rate to 54 percent. Humanitarian aid cannot be a solution to the deteriorating economy. Moreover, according to a report published in late 2002 by the Israeli Central Bank, the Al-Aqsa Intifada caused excess expenditure of $2.77 billion since the end of 2001. One can estimate that the sum of all excessive expenditures and losses amounted to some $13 billion since 2003.

Attack helicopters and suicide bombers

The initiative "land pro peace" was an opening for a new era of give and take for both parties. Building on UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, a stable base for more peace and security for the whole region could have been established. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and it came as it perhaps had to come. The current asymmetrical conflict between an Arab David and a Jewish Goliath, with a preference for power politics by suicide bombers and attack helicopters, has the effect that the Gordian knot can no longer be untied. The parties will sooner or later face Morton's Fork. On the one side, there are the bloody arenas of tragedy and terror such as the Park Hotel in Netanya, the Delfinarium in Tel Aviv, Pizzeria Sbarro, Cafeteria Sinatra, bus 189 to Samaria and bus 823 to Nazareth. On the other side, there are the civilian victims of so-called targeted killings and the incomprehensibly oppressive occupation.

Countless initiatives have been launched in the hope of solving what is perhaps the most complex conflict in the world: The Rogers plan in 1969, the Fahd plan in 1981, the Shultz initiative in 1988, the Baker plan in 1989, the Mitchell report, the Tenet plan and the Zinni paper have all tried to mediate and have all failed. Perhaps the Roadmap and the Geneva initiative will share this fate.

Asymmetric warfare: Stones against tanks
Asymmetric warfare: Stones against tanks
What will the future bring?

British statesman Benjamin Disraeli once said "what we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expected generally happens" (Benjamin Disraeli: Henrietta Temple, book II, chapter IV). In other words, no one can predict the unpredictable. In a nutshell, as to the future, all we know is that important but unpredictable events will happen. The following two scenarios do not attempt to predict the economic and social future of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, but instead describe what is at stake. Therefore, this article presents two very different tales of the region in the year 2020 as a heuristic device to illustrate the possible future outcomes for the region as a result of the policy choices made today.

One capital for two countries or does an isolated Jewish "South Africa" take it all?

SCENARIO I: In spite of lots of dissonance and difficulties, the unforgotten dream of a new state named Palestine came true. Two decades ago only one strategic option remained, due to the escalating conflict. Its solution not only served Jewish and Arab interests, but also those of the region and the world community. After thousands of people had fallen victim to the unresolved conflict, the impossible became possible: The Quartet, comprised of Russia, the US, the EU and the UN, submitted an interesting offer to both of the parties involved in the conflict that provided attractive political perspectives within a clear timeframe. Political mistakes as in Oslo I and II did not recur. In addition, a development aid program -- a Middle East Marshall Plan --, funded with 30 billion euros, was offered to the region. With the slogan "territory not terrorism", the Quartet arbitrated a reconciliation of interests, also supported by the NATO Response Force. The impetus of the new partnership encouraged south-south trade and most of the countries signed new association treaties with the EU or were organized in the Agadir process. Furthermore, the Gulf Cooperation Council, with new members such as Iran, Yemen and Iraq, was integrated in the newly established Euro-Middle East Partnership (EMEP) that replaced the Barcelona process. The Quartet and the conflict parties managed to overcome the conflict and made a new start. This was rewarded with more and more prosperity, security and stability.

SCENARIO II: In response to the Roadmap, the Israeli Prime Minister announced that "whatever seems to be illegal will be disposed of but what is necessary will remain unaffected". However, the Roadmap failed when Jewish settlements grew by 20 percent with hidden public subsidies. A terrible wave of frustration drowned all ambitions of peace. More and more disappointed Palestinians began to assist extremist groups. While the international community condemned Arab terror attacks and suicide bombings, European politicians missed Israel's willingness to enter negotiations. The world media ran stories about the separation fence and compared Israel to South Africa during apartheid. Zionism was again equated with racism like in the 1970s, and some states tried to renew the UN General Assembly's infamous Resolution 3151. In addition, even Israel's allies perceived a loss of democratic structures and started to keep a close eye on all suspicious incidents. An international outcry occurred in 2016, when Jewish Israelis (approximately 7.2 million people) became a minority in Israel. Bearing in mind that demography is one of history's greatest transformers, it is important to know that the Palestinian population, based on these calculations, will outrun the Israeli population by 2026 at the latest. Democracy and political self-determination are doomed to fail at that time. Democracy will come to an end in Israel. The point of no return will have been reached, making fair separation impossible for all times.

Demographic trends


This essay has painted two fairly extreme pictures of what the region could look like in the year 2020, but the ultimate outcome will be the product of a number of decisions that will be taken over the coming few years. In order to be in a position to set up more stable and efficient structures in the future, a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is needed very soon. The current reluctance and lack of confidence, however, handicap all existing initiatives and feed unilateral strategies. Trends indicate a grim future. Therefore the main goal of US and European political ambitions should be to prevent further deterioration. Hardliners on both sides should not forget what Yigal Allon said in 1948 after the Israeli war of independence: "We have won the war, but lost the peace" (Shield of David, Jerusalem 1970). One can find a time-tested piece of practical advice for restarting negotiations is in a speech by Willy Brandt, when he visited Israel in 1973 as German Chancellor: "Mankind, as a matter of fact, is doomed if there is no courage for a new beginning."