Optimism and Realism in the Holy Land

As President Barack Obama prepares to visit Israel, what should he say about prospects for peace in the Middle East?

Most commentators are pessimistic: they believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is unsolvable: The two-state solution is at an impasse. Israel refuses to dismantle its West Bank settlements. The Palestinians refuse to renounce the right of return. Hamas refuses to renounce violence. Syria continues to demand the return of the Golan Heights.

Yet, in the face of all this, I still think there is room for cautious optimism. Notwithstanding their mutual hostility, Arab-Israeli relations have largely improved over the years.

Consider where Israel stood four decades ago, and where it stands today.

In the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel was occupying five disputed territories: the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. In turn, no Arab nation recognized Israel, and no Arab nation dared to be the first.

Forty years later in 2013, Israel only occupies three disputed territories: the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. In turn, Israel is recognized by three Arab neighbors, including the PLO. Under the table, Israel also engages in commerce with other Arab states. Thus, the territorial problem has shrunk while diplomatic ties have grown.

Recall: In 1979, Egypt agreed to recognize Israel, in exchange for U.S. aid and the return of the Sinai. Similarly, in 1994, Jordan agreed to recognize Israel, in exchange for 120 square miles of territory, including the Island of Peace. The PLO has recognized Israel since the 1993 Oslo Accords. And Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Thus, Israel and the Palestinians today face a much smaller territorial dispute, mainly over East Jerusalem and perhaps five percent of the West Bank, to be resolved by mutually-agreed land swaps.

All this is remarkable progress, achieved despite decades of anti-Semitism, terrorist attacks, tragic wars, and settler activity. Given the depth of mutual distrust and hatred, enormous progress has been made towards peace.

None of this is to say that the peace process has been easy. On the contrary, it has involved painful problems and tough tradeoffs. For instance, Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw Israeli settlers from Gaza corresponded with concessions to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank. While eliminating one problem (Gaza) from the territorial equation, Sharon made another problem (West Bank settlements) worse. But perhaps such tradeoffs are inevitable, especially since politics often involves horse-trading.

And undoubtedly, the Palestinians too have had to contend with their own internal factions. Mahmoud Abbas has navigated a tightrope to mediate between moderate and extremist PLO factions, slowly nudging Palestinians away from suicide bombings and towards nonviolent diplomacy, such as their historic 2012 attempt to become a non-member U.N. state. Such unilateral Palestinian actions, although disliked by the Israeli government, are nevertheless an improvement over the rampant bombings of decades past.

Will the two-state solution fully materialize within the next twelve months? Probably not. In a conflict as deeply-rooted as the Arab-Israeli conflict, mutual distrust and hatred will persist for a long time. This is a multi-generational conflict that may require the handing out of many more Nobel Peace Prizes before a workable solution takes effect. Peace will not break out in a spontaneous Kumbaya moment.

Nonetheless, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, one should ask Israelis and Palestinians: “Are you better off than you were forty years ago?”

And the answer, despite all the current problems, must surely be yes.

Chris Seck is a 3L.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.

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