The roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
The ongoing Arab denial of Israelís legitimacy

Published: 10 December 2009
Briefing Number 249

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Summary:  To much of the world, the root of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians involves two parties arguing over a piece of land.  The Israelis, so it is claimed, ‘occupy Palestinian land unlawfully’, build settlements in the West Bank and around Jerusalem, and deny the Palestinians justice.  Israel is either entirely to blame for the conflict, or largely to blame.  However, the Palestinians are not without fault, either. They are seen as divided and quarrelsome. They are too committed to violence, and deny Israelis personal security.  What, therefore, is the solution?  The West needs to “engage” in a peace process, “knock heads together” and force each party to compromise, and reach peace.

Suppose this model for understanding the conflict, and how it can be resolved, is simply wrong?  This new Beyond Images Briefing provides just such an analysis.  We highlight recent work by three well-known Israeli commentators who challenge the above widely-held paradigm, and suggest that it misunderstands the root of the conflict.

Instead, they suggest that the root of the conflict lies in the ongoing denial by both the Palestinians and the wider Arab world of the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.  If that acceptance was forthcoming, then there could be a peace agreement and a long-term solution.  But if that acceptance is not forthcoming, then no amount of “engagement” and “knocking heads together” is going to be enough.    

The articles are by the editor of the Jerusalem Post David Horovitz, and Jerusalem Post commentators Saul Singer and Sarah Honig. The pieces each appeared in recent months in the Jerusalem Post newspaper (


David Horovitz: how the Palestinians say “it’s not enough”

Background to Horovitz’s piece:  For decades, much of the world has assumed that Israel’s settlements and Israel’s territorial ambitions are the core obstacle to peace.  And during 2009, Israel came under huge international pressure to freeze settlement construction in existing West Bank settlements.   Indeed, the Palestinian Authority refused to re-enter negotiations with Israel until a settlement freeze had been implemented. 

In response to this situation, on 25 November 2009 Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a 10-month “settlement freeze”.  His main stated goal was to give the peace process with the Palestinians a chance to restart.  And he aimed also to demonstrate to the wider world that the onus should now be on the Palestinians to resume negotiations.  

However, the Palestinian leadership immediately rejected the settlement freeze, claiming it was “not enough” because it did not include a freeze on Israeli construction in the eastern parts of Jerusalem.  They refused to restart talks.     

These events prompted the following comments by David Horovitz in the Jerusalem Post, under an editorial titled ‘It’s not enough’, which appeared on 27 November 2009.  

“The dispute between Palestinians and Israelis is not about settlements.  It hinges on whether the Arabs are willing to recognise the legitimacy of Israel as the state of the Jewish people within any boundaries. Some find it convenient to imagine that the clash between the Zionist and Arab causes has transitioned to a non-zero sum game.  That is hardly the dominant view in Israel.

In 1920, the international community gave Britain the responsibility of establishing a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.  But a year later London turned over eastern Palestine to Emir Abdullah and Transjordan was born.  The Arab response? “It’s not enough”.

In 1937 the Peel Commission recommended dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.  The Zionists consented.  The Arabs…. said no.

In 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.  Again, the Jews agreed. The Arab response was “it’s not enough” and they tried to throttle the newborn Jewish state.  Israel survived while the Arabs took the West Bank and Gaza.  Did they then form a Palestinian state? Of course not, because these territories alone were “not enough”.

In 1967, the Arabs failed to push an Israel living within the 1949 Armistice lines into the sea, and the West Bank came into Israeli possession.  Magnanimous in victory, Israel offered peace. The Arab response: “no peace, no recognition, no negotiation”. [Beyond Images – this is a reference to the Arab League’s Khartoum declaration of November 1967]           

In 1977 Egypt’s Anwar Sadat courageously embarked on the path of peace.  Israel withdrew from all territory claimed by Egypt, and Menachem Begin, moreover, offered the Palestinians something they had never enjoyed – autonomy.  Israeli forces would have been redeployed as a prelude to final status negotiations.  [Beyond Images – the autonomy was to last for a maximum five year transitional period, with unconditional negotiations on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza to begin at that time]. The Arab response? “It’s not enough”.
As a result of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the PLO leadership was invited to return from Tunis and set up a Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza.  But a double-dealing Yasser Arafat never genuinely embraced this historic opportunity for reconciliation.  Hamas intensified its terror campaign which claimed dozens of Israeli lives (well before the Baruch Goldstein Hebron massacre in February 1994).  [Beyond Images – according to our figures, over 400 Israeli civilians have in fact been killed in Hamas suicide bombings since 1993] 

Ehud Barak twice – at Camp David (in July 2000) and at Taba (February 2001) – offered Arafat a Palestinian state accompanied by extraordinary territorial and political concessions.  The Arab response? “It’s not enough”.

When Israel unilaterally pulled its settlers and soldiers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, the Arabs again said: “It’s not enough”.

In 2008, Ehud Olmert offered Mahmoud Abbas 93% of the West Bank, plus additional territory from Israel proper.  Abbas did not even deign to say “It’s not enough” – he just walked away.

Then in June this year, Netanyahu, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, unequivocally accepted a demilitarized Palestinian state.  The Arab response? “It’s not enough”.

Generation after generation, decade after decade, Israeli concession after concession, the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to say “It’s not enough”….

… The discouraging message that comes across to Israelis who want an agreement is that no matter what we do it will always “fall short” ….. and never be “enough” for the Arabs.  

Saul Singer: what is at the root of the conflict?
Jerusalem Post commentator Saul Singer also highlights Arab rejectionism, and like Horovitz challenges the prevailing logic which Western peace-seekers and diplomats apply. 

Singer challenges the assumption within the Obama administration and among most Western policy-makers that Israel and its neighbours are involved in a battle akin to “scorpions in a bottle”, and that their role is to bring the warring parties together, actively “engage” in peace diplomacy, and bring pressure to bear on them make reciprocal compromises.  

Like Horovitz, he argues that this ignores the underlying root of the conflict: the ongoing denial of Israel’s legitimacy.    

Singer’s comments appeared in a column called ‘The power of truth’ which appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 14 August 2009.  He writes as follows:

“To be fair, it is not just the Obama administration which sees the Arab-Israeli conflict in symmetrical terms.  Perhaps to different degrees both Republican and Democrat administrations have seen the job of peacemaking as dragging the parties into a room and pressing them to do what they both understand to be in their interest.

Alternatively, they believed that the parties were not ready for a deal, so all that could be done was wait for a more propitious moment for the eventual head-banging session.

The problem is that the Arab-Israel conflict is not based on a misunderstanding.  Arabs and Israelis are not interchangeable “scorpions in a bottle”. 

The conflict has a source, and it is the refusal to acknowledge the source – rather than any failure to engage – that is the main reason for the failure of decades of peacemaking.   

Under the conflict-as-misunderstanding model, the more one side takes “confidence building measures” the more the other side will reciprocate.  Israel has been going along with this idea for years, most dramatically by unilaterally withdrawing from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005.  Yet instead of reciprocating, the Arab side became more belligerent, filling the respective vacuums with Hizbullah and Hamas.

This pattern has been especially evident over the past few weeks.  In short order, Obama started a fight with Israel over settlements, gave a conciliatory speech to the Arab world in Cairo and Prime Minister Netanyahu endorsed the two-state solution for the first time.  All this should have produced a marked softening on the Arab side, according to the engagement theory.
Instead, even the moderates like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas have come out swinging, the former saying that the Arabs will never recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and the latter claiming all of Jerusalem and talking about reviving terrorism.

There should be no mystery here.  The pattern is clear: the more Israel is blamed and acts as if it is responsible for the conflict, the more radicalised the Arab side becomes.
The engagement school sometimes notices that Israeli concessions do not bring Arab reciprocation, but they think that they just need to be pushed harder.  The idea that pressing both sides is how you make peace has become so ingrained that no alternative is ever considered.  Indeed, many seem to think that Israel needs to be pressed harder because it is the “occupier” and therefore the obstacle to a two-state solution.          

There is, however, an alternative paradigm that has never been tried, either by Democrats or by Republicans.  The alternative is to recognise, intellectually and publicly, that the engine of the conflict is the Arab refusal to accept Jewish history, peoplehood or sovereignty anywhere in the Land of Israel.

The reason this is important is not as part of a childish blame game.  It is important because the Arabs will not end the conflict that they started so long as they still have hopes that Israel will become delegitimized and will weaken and disappear.  When these hopes are dashed by unmasking the true nature of the conflict, then eventually the Arab world will see that there is no alternative to making real peace with Israel.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  As late as a year before that inspiring day, it was unimaginable, nor was the evaporation of the Soviet Union.  In retrospect, Ronald Reagan’s breakout out of the engagement paradigm and instead calling on the “evil empire” to “tear down this wall” was not just telling the truth, but contributed directly to the Soviet downfall.

The Arab-Israeli conflict desperately needs such truth-telling.  Someday, the United States and Europe will, for the first time without equivocation, call on the Arab states to lead the way towards ending their conflict with Israel.  When that happens clearly and consistently enough, and provided that radical Islam’s bid for an Iranian nuclear umbrella is defeated, real peace could come more quickly than anyone now imagines…..”    

Sarah Honig: focus on ongoing Arab intransigence concerning the Jewish peoples’ rights

Another analysis along these lines was provided by Jerusalem Post columnist Sarah Honig.  Her comments were prompted by a speech by former US president Bill Clinton delivered in Israel in November 2009 to mark the fourteenth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  In his speech Clinton claimed that had Rabin remained alive, Israel and the Palestinians would have made peace within three years, as a result of two-way concessions.  Honig challenges this claim as “conjecture”.  And she challenges Clinton’s claim that the absence of peace is because the Israelis have not wanted or sought it seriously enough.

Once again, she focuses on the underlying cause of the absence of peace: the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy.  Her comments appeared in the Jerusalem Post in an article called ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Hope (Arkansas)’ on 27 November 2009. Here is an extract:
“In a recent Jericho conference PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat divulged that at Camp David [in 2000] Clinton entreated Arafat “as a believer” to acknowledge a Jewish bond to Jerusalem and admit the great Jewish temple once stood where the Al-Aqsa mosque was subsequently constructed.  Arafat remained adamant: “I will never recognise that any temple existed.  If we don’t liberate Jerusalem from the Jewish presence now, there will be those who will do so in five years, or ten, even a hundred, if that is what it takes….”

It’s this ongoing and unabated intransigence which foiled and keeps foiling all attempts to broker peace.  Moreover, this intransigence is evident regarding all contentious issues, not merely Jerusalem.  While Israel has made risky concession after risky concession, the Palestinians simply haven’t budged from their starting standpoint.

Yet outsiders like Bill Clinton manage to make it appear as if the Israelis are culpable.   Clinton serially imparts the false impression that Israeli leaders – both before and after Rabin – just didn’t seek peace enough.   He underscores this by preaching that Israelis must make peace because “you cannot get a divorce and move to another planet”.  He scares us that “Palestinians have more babies” and, therefore, “if you want to be a democracy and a Jewish state you have to cut a deal….”

The abiding implication from these admonitions is that the problem begins and ends with Israeli attitudes. “You need to get this done and you do have partners” judges the infallible Clinton.  This is fake.
Related Beyond Images Briefings

Here are some Beyond Images Briefings which provide background on the issues covered by David Horovitz, Saul Singer and Sarah Honig

Briefing 226 – 8 December 2008
Recognising Israel as a Jewish state? Mainstream Palestinian leaders refuse to do so

Briefing 227 – 25 December 2008
‘Moderate Palestinian leaders believe in a two-state solution….’

Briefing 225 – 5 December 2008
2008: Israel offers to pull out of 93% of the West Bank plus give 7% more land – Palestinians say no

Briefing 45 – February 2005
Palestinian statehood: fifty years of rejected opportunities

Briefing 190 – 28 February 2007
Peace with Israel as ‘capitulation’: the root cause of the conflict

Briefing 21 – 14 May 2003
Camp David and Taba: what did Israel offer?

Briefing 34 – 24 October 2003
The Palestinian ‘Right of Return’
Briefing 196 – 4 June 2007
‘The Palestinians are victims of Israel. Discuss….’