The Beleaguered Middle East

Located at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, the Middle East has been beset with danger since the beginning of time. It has been the battleground between Arabs and Jews no fewer than four times since the inception of the state of Israel. War raged in 1948-1949, 1956, 1967, and 1973. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991 Israel was bombed regularly by Iraqi missiles. The wars did not bring peace; they generated ever more hatred which breeds more wars. The United States, the ally and benefactor of both Arabs and Jews, seeks to mediate and find a common ground. But both sides persist in their bloody ways. Israeli leaders will not compromise on what they deem true and vital security interests, and the Palestinians refuse any proposal other than the "right of return" to the land they lost in 1967. They appeal to history, demanding restoration of the status quo of 1967.

The "right of return" is the right to relive and remake history, to give value and justification to anything imaginable. History contains everything and gives examples and precedents of everything. It may validate aggression or peace, citing similar actions and conditions in the past. Pointing to World War II and the territories they lost, the Germans and Japanese may demand their return. Hinting at the Spanish-American War the Spaniards may want to return to Puerto Rico. The Mexicans remembering the war of 1846-48 and the loss of two-fifths of their territory may insist in restoring the borders of 1846 and returning to New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Similarly, the Palestinians encouraged by militant Muslims around the world demand a return to pre-1967 conditions. When these are met, the pre-1948 situation may even be preferable. Of course, the Jews, too, may press their historical claims. They conquered the country in 1272 B.C., had dominion over the land for more than 1000 years, with a continuous presence in the land for the past 3300 years. Jerusalem, which was founded by King David, has been the Jewish capital ever since.

No matter how we look upon history, it has served and continues to serve as justification for aggression, crime, and folly. The history of the Middle East is no exception. There can be no peace unless reason rules the mind and present interest keeps the peace. Only the present which is the product of the past is our own. We may shape it to our liking, avoiding the blunders and crimes of the past, and prepare for the future. Peace is a current task, gradually changing public opinion and removing old barriers on the road to it. In the Middle East both mortal enemies must learn from each other, learn to live with each other, and end the reign of violence.

The clock of history cannot be turned back. There is no "right of return" as it is commonly understood, no natural right of all Arab refugees and their descendants to return to their homeland and reclaim their property. Restoration of property as it existed in 1967, of course, would amount to a summary dispossession of Jewish public and private property as it has developed since 1967. Half a million Jews in numerous settlements throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem would have to be forcibly removed from their homes to make way for some four million Arab refugees. It would set ablaze the entire Middle East and lead to war without end.

The "right of return" itself is an ambiguous catch phrase susceptible to multiple interpretations. It immediately raises the basic question of who should have the right of return. Except for some septuagenarians and octogenarians, most refugees are descendants of the original 1967 refugees, now running into the third generation. They live in neighboring Arab countries, kept separate from the native populations and assisted meagerly by the host countries and the UN Relief and Works Agency. According to Israel's November 1948 census, the Arabs in occupied areas numbered about 65,000; some 700,000 had fled during the fighting. By 1950 there were about 165,000 due to the legal return of some who had fled, to illegal crossing of the border, and the incorporation of various areas inhabited by Palestinians. In 1955 the number of refugees living in temporary camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip had risen to 900,000 and the number of Arabs in Israel to 250,000 of whom some two-thirds were Muslims. Twenty years later it was estimated that the number of refugees had risen to approximately 1.4 million; some 700,000 lived in Jordan, about 300,000 in the Gaza Strip, and smaller numbers in Syria and Lebanon. Today, in 2002, their numbers are estimated to be somewhere between 3.5 million and 4.5 million.

It is natural for man to seek temporary refuge from war and violence. But it is rather extraordinary and inconsistent with natural behavior to become refugee for life and to bequeath the status to one's children and grandchildren. There have been some 100 million refugees throughout the world since World War II. Some managed to return to their homeland; many soon settled permanently in another and merged with the host population. The Palestinian refugees apparently are the only refugees on earth who do not integrate, but manage to multiply and endure their lot from generation to generation. They are encouraged and supported by Muslim organizations, housed and sustained in camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and the Gaza Strip. Prevented from joining the native population, they serve as a permanent indictment of Israel.

If the plight, alienation, and anger of millions of Arab refugees are the root cause of much violence in Palestine, some responsibility for the bloodshed obviously belongs to all individuals, organizations, and governments that raised and continue to support the army of refugees. If U.S. foreign aid funds flow to sustain the refugee camps, they contribute to the evil. The UN General Assembly, in which third-world countries constitute a large majority, never tires of pouring fuel on the fire, passing resolutions that encourage the refugees and condemn one aspect or another of Israel's policy. Again and again it calls on Israel to dismantle all settlements established since 1967, to withdraw from the occupied territories so that all Palestinian refugees may return to their homes. In 1988 the General Assembly even invited Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasir Arafat to address the body and enunciate his demands. Soon thereafter rioting broke out in some 50 of the 600 towns and villages of the occupied territories.

It is not surprising that the endless violence throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the international disapproval of Israeli policies led Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to seek peace through talking, negotiating and making concessions. After lengthy clandestine negotiations with the PLO in Oslo, Norway in 1993, he signed and the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, approved an agreement that called for mutual recognition and a gradual extension of self-government to the Palestinian inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank beginning in the town of Jericho. The Palestinian Authority was given executive and legislative powers and provided with a Palestinian police force to replace the Israeli army. The Israeli government thus embarked upon a road of "peace for concession" that has continued to the present. By 1998 Israel had yielded some 40% of the West Bank to Palestinian control. In 2000 this rose to 42.9%. Prime Minister Ehud Barak, observing U.S. President Bill Clinton's "parameters," even offered 94-96% of the West Bank to the Palestinians with an exchange of land in Israel proper to compensate for the remaining 4-6%. But Chairman Arafat would not compromise, holding steadfast to the old demand of unconditional withdrawal of all Israeli armed forces from the territory occupied in the 1967 war. Although he declared another cease-fire in the bloody confrontation, the violence continued and reached a new crescendo. According to Israeli army reports, there were some 8000 serious Palestinian attacks in just twelve months, 84 of them in Israel proper. 176 Israelis lost their lives and 1,742 were injured. The number of Palestinians killed was given at 604 and injured at some 9,000. The escalation of violence at a time when Israel yielded more and more occupied land to the Palestinians obviously raises the frightening question of a direct causal connection between Israeli concession and the increase in the number of Palestinian attacks. Did every territorial concession by Israel serve to strengthen the Arab resolve to launch new attacks on Israel?

It is unlikely that Israel will soon be drawn into an open war with its Arab neighbors as it was in 1967. As the sole nuclear power in the Middle East it surely would use its nuclear might if its survival should come into question. Despair has the motivational power to kill and wreak nuclear devastation on enemy capitals, of which the Arab leaders in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Cairo, and Riyadh are fully aware. The only war they can launch against Israel is the war of organized terror, using Palestinian volunteers to wage it.

Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that peace must be won. The number of volunteers willing to join the fundamentalist Hamas "martyrs" and sacrifice their lives in the intifada, the Muslim holy war for the liberation of their brothers, is infinitely small. Their hatred probably is undying and cannot be cured. But the vast majority who would never hurt another individual suffer grievously as a result of the deadly violence by the few. They may lose their homes and possessions, suffer hunger, want and disease, and even lose their lives. They are the silent victims of the violence, yearning for peace which would allow them to resume their daily tasks and cares. All hope of peace rests with them. They and they alone are the potential peace-makers who can draw in the reins of violence.

Israel, the greatest military power in the Middle East, needs to show and lead the way. To hunt and fight the terrorists is an unending bloody task, but to make peace with the vast majority of suffering Palestinians is even more important. It undoubtedly is the crucial part of any peace process. All talks and negotiations with Arab leaders are bound to be utterly futile if the people should prefer the intifada and idealize martyrdom. The true peace process must begin with information, education, and public relations explaining Israeli policy and intent, cultivating relationships with authors and editors receptive to peace. Its ultimate objective must be the improvement of the Arab-Muslim way of looking at Israel.

The Israeli policy of striking at Hamas terrorism by sealing off Palestinian towns and villages not only is inflicting great hardship on all Palestinians but also is hurting Israel's economy. Designed and conducted by military minds, it reflects the military way of problem solution; it is utterly counterproductive to finding peace. If there is to be any peace, the Israeli government must abstain from any exacerbation of economic hardship and instead open all Palestinian areas previously closed off and allow free and unhampered economic intercourse. It must refrain from further unilateral action like the expropriation of Arab land and the construction of settlements. In fact, it must privatize not only all present settlements, giving the new owners the right to market them as they please, but also all public land seized from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 war. It must honor and defend all private property rights, Jewish as well as Palestinian, in Israel proper and the occupied territory. It must respect the civil rights which people enjoy in all peaceful societies. In particular, it must respect the freedom of speech and the press as well as the rights of due process of law and equal protection of all. The road to peace is the assurance of justice for all.

In modern welfare states much political and economic conflict stems from government policies that benefit some people and harm others. In polyglot countries such as Israel and its occupied territory the conflict is bound to be extraordinarily divisive and confrontational as it may benefit or harm various racial and ethnic groups. Lest the conflict turn ugly and bloody and endanger the union, government must limit itself to its basic function: the protection of life and property from foreign and domestic aggression. The state of Israel, as it presently is constituted, unfortunately is a welfare state par excellence in which nearly every economic law and regulation breeds social conflict. Labor legislation, promoted and enacted by a powerful Labor Party, exudes the spirit of Karl Marx rather than that of Adam Smith. Labor unions have economic power to call crippling strikes, reducing labor productivity and raising production costs. Some ten percent of workers are condemned to chronic unemployment. Countless economic laws and regulations distort economic life and create social conflict which the government then seeks to alleviate through generous spending, that is, deficit spending. It continuously depreciates the shekel, causing double- and triple-digit inflation, throwing economic life into disarray, and breeding ever more conflict.

There is only one way to a peaceful and prosperous Israel: the way of unhampered economic freedom and unconditional equality under law. In freedom the country would soon become an emporium for trade and commerce throughout the Middle East, the center of finance and banking with access to all capital markets of the world, and a bustling industrial workshop utilizing an abundant supply of labor. Instead of marching in the footsteps of ancient Sparta, the Greek armed camp which cultivated the military arts, Israel would thrive and grow with an American-like system which welcomes people driven from every other corner of the earth.

The Palestinian people must not be judged by the fanatics who are driven by a burning desire to kill Jewish people nor by their political leaders who are making the daily headlines. The Palestine Liberation Organization which was founded in 1964 – three years before Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza – views all of Israel as "occupied territory", and the object of recapture. While the Palestinian people may dream about such intentions, it is unlikely that they are willing to risk their lives and possessions to realize them by force. It is significant that there was no Palestinian movement for the creation of an independent state during the 19 years of Jordanian and Egyptian rule from 1948 to 1967, nor did the governments of Jordan and Egypt make any effort to establish one. To create it now is to invite war without end. Arabs who can live freely throughout Israel, even as citizens and members of the Knesset, must allow Jews to live among them in the West Bank and in Gaza. Jews lived there throughout the ages before being massacred or driven out by Arab armies in 1948-49. But above all, Palestinians must cast off the odious anti-Semitism which has become much worse in Palestine and the surrounding Arab countries throughout the years of the "peace process." Their Prophet himself expressed the essential unity of the monotheistic creeds in many verses of the Koran. "We have faith in that which has been revealed to us and in that which has been revealed unto you. Our God and your God are one and unto him we are resigned (xxix,46)."

During the "peace process" the Palestinian situation has degenerated into a deadly struggle in which both sides feel that their national survival is at stake. Both are looking anxiously to the superpower to find and impose a solution. President George Bush obviously needs a plan; he may decide to push ahead with the process as it was projected by the Oslo Peace Accord. Mindful of the danger to America's own interests in the Muslim world, he may accept the Palestinian interpretation of the Accord and endorse the vision of an independent Palestinian state. Toward that end, he may call an international conference and propose a rebuilding and reform of the Palestinian Authority. But this road has been increasingly violent and the scene of much carnage and destruction since Oslo. Moreover, mindful of its ominous implication for Israel, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed resolutions supporting Israel's right to defend itself, as the United States has since September ll.

In political fashion President Bush may also choose to place the Palestinian situation on America's "back-burner", sharing and spinning out the diplomacy, consulting friendly Arab governments, and thus hopefully reducing the violence. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia may be able to influence Palestinian behavior. But the back-burner provides no signal of direction; it avoids errors but may ignore new dangers.

The United States may also leave the road of carnage and destruction and move in a new direction. It may call on Israel to reopen all economic barriers to economic intercourse, to cease expropriating Palestinian private property and instead privatize all its holdings in the West Bank and Gaza, and restore all civil rights and assure equal protection for all. Israel must give moderate Palestinians some incentive to cooperate by restoring their belief in the possibility of a peaceful and prosperous future. In short, Israel must allow a natural economic order, undisturbed by national or ethnic regulation, to secure peace and prosperity for every individual and therefore for the community as a whole.