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Why ‘Land For Peace’ Doesn’t Work


In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, Israelis were convinced that peace with the Arabs was finally at hand. That thinking was based on the notion that the war had proven Israel’s invincible presence in the region. If Israel was unbeatable, they reasoned, what choice would the Arabs have other than to make peace?

The Arabs, however, did not exactly adopt that line of thinking. Meeting in Khartoum on September 1, 1967, eight Arab heads of state adopted a resolution that was summed up as “the three no’s”: No peace with Israel. No recognition of Israel. No negotiations with Israel.

It was against this backdrop that the UN Security Council adopted controversial Resolution 242, which called for “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” In accepting the resolution, the Arab states let it be known that it meant Israel had to withdraw from all of the territories, while Israeli leaders insisted that since the word “all” was not present in the wording, Israel was, by accepting the resolution, only obliging itself to withdraw from some of the territories.

Both “all” and “some” are common English words. If the diplomats who passed the resolution wanted it to say “all,” it would have said “all of the territories” and if they wanted it to say “some,” it would have said “some of the territories.” In fact, the omission of the words in question was deliberate, as the diplomats endeavored to come up with a formula acceptable to both sides.

As each side continued to cling to its interpretation, the international media, always on the lookout for quick sound bites, concluded that what the UN was offering was a new panacea for the Middle East that could be neatly summed up as “land for peace.” That slogan may have been new, but the underlying principle had been around for a long, long time.

Throughout the course of history, wars between nations have been settled on the basis of land for peace. The U.S.-Mexican War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Spanish-American War, and both world wars are just a few of the many armed conflicts that were resolved in this manner.

In every case prior to 1967, however, it was the losing side that had to relinquish land in return for peace. Once the loser had been defeated on the battlefield, it feared the winner inflicting further damage. And so peace was seen as something the loser needed more than the winner, and giving up land was the price the loser had to pay.

Then, in the twentieth century, an additional dimension was added to this concept. In both world wars it was the aggressor nations – those that started a war – that ended up having to give up land for peace. Germany, Austria and Hungary, as well as the Ottoman Empire, all lost considerable land after the First World War, and Germany, Japan and Italy did likewise after the Second. And so land for peace came to be seen as something that happened not just because the winner won and the loser lost, but also as a means for punishing the aggressor.

Even in the aftermath of their huge military victory in 1967, Israelis were so desperate for peace that they did not stop to consider the implications of Resolution 242. Under international law a country has a right to keep any or all territory it captures fighting a war of self-defense. In accepting the notion that it should be the one to give up land for peace (regardless of whether 242 meant “all” or “some”), Israel unwittingly accepted the notion that it should be treated as both the loser and the aggressor.

When, years later, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat entered into negotiations with Israel for the return of the Sinai, he clung to the Arab interpretation of 242 and demanded all of it. Israel gave up towns and smaller communities along with infrastructure it had built and major oil fields it had discovered. Also just within Sinai was the site of Kadesh Barnea, said by many to mark the biblical boundary of the Land of Israel. Finally, all that was left was Taba, a tiny area of some 900 square meters just west of Eilat, where the Israelis had built a luxury hotel on a site where there had been nothing but sand before, save for an occasional Bedouin encampment. Israel claimed that Taba was on its side of the original 1906 international boundary that first delineated Sinai from the Negev, while Egypt claimed it was not.

But Taba itself was not the real point of the dispute so much as whether Israel should be allowed to keep even a square inch of the territory it gained in 1967. If Israel were allowed to keep anything, it would serve to confirm that Israel had indeed fought in self-defense and that it therefore had a right to some territorial gains.

It is, however, precisely the notion that Israel fought in self-defense that the Arabs are unable to accept. They have always said the creation of Israel in 1948 was in itself an act of aggression against the Arabs and nothing an “aggressor” does can be seen as legitimate self-defense. In the end, Egypt got Taba. Sadat, assassinated in 1981, was declared a “martyr for peace” by the Western media, which preferred to ignore the fact that the killing occurred at a parade where Sadat was celebrating Egypt’s 1973 Yom Kippur attack on Israel.

To this day, Arab policy insists on the return of all territories gained by Israel in 1967 – including East Jerusalem with Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall, as well as its traditional Jewish Quarter. After 40 years, the likelihood of any Arab regime agreeing to anything less remains slim to none.

With Israel having accepted for so long to the idea of giving up land for (a questionable) peace, it is no surprise that more and more of the world has come to view it as an occupying aggressor.

Now Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who not long ago called Golan “an inseparable part of the state of Israel,” is sending out feelers to Syria, offering to give up all of the Golan – despite the vast majority of Israelis being opposed to such a move. What is more, it would mean uprooting at least 20,000 Israelis from their homes, giving up a third of Israel’s fresh water, relinquishing the military advantage of being close to Damascus, and putting the Syrians back on the heights overlooking eastern Galilee.

Not only does Syria demand the entire Golan, but the Syrians also insist on the return of certain bits of land (below the Golan) they held from 1948-1967 that were originally excluded from Syria according to the international boundary drawn by Britain and France in 1923. That would put the Syrians on the northeastern shore of Lake Kinneret, Israel’s main source of fresh water.

Whereas Menachem Begin was pressured by Jimmy Carter into giving up all of Sinai, the Bush administration has indicated it would prefer that Israel not negotiate with Syria at this time since the Syrian government has close ties with a number of terrorist groups as well as Iran. But Olmert shows no sign of being deterred. With his approval rating in the single digits for months now, he has already let it be known he feels fully justified in defying the will of the majority.

Relinquishing the Golan would also be different because the region, officially annexed by Israel in 1981, is an integral part of the country. In order to legally negotiate giving up Golan, one would think the government would first have to ask the Knesset to repeal or otherwise cancel the annexation. But, as we saw when the Rabin-Peres government negotiated with the PLO in Oslo in defiance of what was then Israeli law, Israeli governments tend to see themselves as above the law.

Olmert seems to believe (without any real evidence) that the Golan can be used to lure Syria out of its close ties with Iran, whose government is publicly pledged to Israel’s destruction. Syria’s Assad regime is a dictatorship, with the government largely run by members of the tiny Alawite minority, themselves a spin-off of Shia Islam. The large majority of Syrians are Sunnis, who are bound to eventually regain power in some form. Interestingly, Farid Ghadry, leader of the pro-democracy Syrian Reform Party, recently visited Israel and urged the government not to negotiate with Assad, saying that would only serve to strengthen his dictatorship.

And there is also the possibility, not only in Syria but in Egypt as well, of the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Hamas is an offshoot) eventually coming to power and renouncing any and all agreements with Israel.

In any “land for peace” scenario, any territory Israel gives up is gone and can’t be easily recovered, whereas the Arabs are free to renounce a peace agreement at any time. If an Arab country signed on to an agreement allowing Israel to keep even a tiny bit of the land it won in 1967, that would be tantamount to recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself – which is in effect the same as recognizing Israel’s right to exist.

The fact the Arabs cannot accept Israel’s right to self-defense shows they are still a long way from accepting Israel’s right to exist. Why Israel does not cling to its interpretation of Resolution 242 with the same determination as the Arabs cling to theirs is hard to fathom.

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