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The end of the Arab-Israeli conflict

It’s only taken a hundred and one years to correct one scribbled note

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

In January 1919, nearly three decades before the creation of the state of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, who would become the first president of the Jewish state signed an agreement with Amir Faisal, who would rule Syria and Iraq. The Weizmann-Faisal Agreement pledged Arab support for the establishment of a new Jewish homeland in Palestine nearly two millennia after the conquest and exile of the Jews from the land by the Romans. The Agreement was signed on the eve of the Paris Peace Conference at which the victors of World War I would determine how to administer the former colonies of the Ottoman Empire until such time as their native peoples could form viable independent states.

As he signed the Agreement, Faisal appended a hand-written note in Arabic that stipulated that his entering into the Agreement and support for Zionist aspirations was entirely conditional on the Allied Powers granting the Arabs the new states they craved across the region. Faisal’s agreement with Weizmann is significant for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it is a crucial recognition by an Arab leader of the legitimacy of Jewish claims to a state in Palestine. Faisal’s father, the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein had earlier called Palestine ‘the sacred and beloved homeland of its original sons (the Jews),’ and welcomed the return of the Jewish exiles.

Secondly, it showed that far from being a prize in the Islamic world, Palestine could be conceded to the Jews so long as far greater territorial aspirations in the region were met.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the Weizmann-Faisal Agreement, and more precisely, Faisal’s hand-written afterthought, bound up the future of a Jewish state in Palestine in broader regional affairs. Whereas the original agreement dealt with Palestine as a discrete issue, the edited version explicitly connected any recognition of a Jewish state to the fulfilment of Arab demands elsewhere.

This framing of the Palestinian issue not as a dispute over a small, long-neglected tract of land but as something inseparable from wider regional interests would remain a permanent, seemingly immutable reality for over a century.

As the spectre of the second world war loomed, Arab leaders were able to skilfully use the growing strategic importance of the Middle East to extract concessions from the British on Palestine that effectively reversed British promises to facilitate Jewish migration and independence in Palestine. Again demonstrating how Palestine was no longer treated as the localised clash of Arabs and Jews in the land that it truly was and had taken on an overblown role in global strategic considerations, British PM Neville Chamberlain told his cabinet in April 1939, ‘we are now compelled to consider the Palestine problem mainly from the point of view of its effect on the international situation… if we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs.’

This internationalisation of the Palestinian issue of course suited the Palestinian leadership. The conversion of a local feud into a matter of pan-Arab pride and Islamic duty, enhanced the global standing of the Palestinian cause, rallied the Arab world to impose boycotts of companies that traded with Israel, led to the invasion of the Jewish state in 1948, 1967 and 1973 in the name of Palestinian liberation, and united the Arab world into a formidable voting bloc in multinational forums to seek Israel’s isolation. But this has merely exacerbated the conflict, strengthened Israel through its ensuing victories and hampered the development of Arab nations.

In more recent years, the Arab Peace Initiative, tabled in 2002 under Saudi patronage, offered normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for Israel meeting Palestinian territorial and political demands. While constituting a welcome softening of Arab opposition to Israel, the Initiative nonetheless reinforced the belief that peace between Israel and Arab states could only be achieved with Palestinian satisfaction.

The idea that normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab states was inseparable from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had become so entrenched that to challenge it raised immediate derision and scorn in foreign policy circles. Mara Rudman, a foreign policy advisor in the Clinton and Obama administrations dismissed Trump’s approach to regional peacemaking as ‘a textbook on how to fail on Middle East peace’, asserting that ‘the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis must be resolved to fully realize the cooperation possible between Israel and Arab states.’ John Kerry was even more explicit and cocksure that a wider Arab-Israeli peace was irrevocably bound up in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, saying in 2016: ‘There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world. I want to make that very clear to all of you. There will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that.’ Kerry hoped to reinforce a situation that he favoured through the sheer force of his assertions. The possibility that the Arab world might be fatigued with the Palestinian issue was not one Kerry was willing to entertain. To do so would upend conventional wisdom in the Washington and European foreign policy establishments that placed the Palestinian issue not only at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict but, for decades, considered it to be a leading source of Islamic radicalisation and terrorism throughout the world. In November 2015, after Isis terror attacks in Paris killed 130 people, the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström went so far as to attribute the attack to the plight of the Palestinians which, she asserted, compels Muslim sympathisers to ‘resort to violence.’

But the Abraham Accord has shown unequivocally that the Palestinian issue, while still meriting a solution for its own sake, can be severed from global and regional affairs. The failure of the Palestinians to extract a condemnation of the Abraham Accord by the Arab League has further evidenced the withdrawal of the Arab world from the conflict with Israel restoring it to an Israeli-Palestinian feud rather than an Arab-Israeli one.

The signing of the Abraham Accord and the reframing of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a localised dispute between Israelis and Palestinians has shattered a policy paralysis and a cycle of failed mediation and negotiations that has lasted for a century. Faisal had unwittingly bound the world into a hopeless paradigm that inflated the Palestinian issue by linking it to the fate of the Middle East as a whole. Now a new Jewish-Arab agreement has finally corrected Faisal’s amendment, detaching the Palestinian issue from wider regional interests by embarking on the peace between Jews and Arabs that Faisal and Weizmann originally envisaged.

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