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On September 18, 1978, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the so-called Camp David Accords, cementing the notion that land for peace would become the basis for a resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict. Their agreement led to a peace treaty the following year between Israel and Egypt. However the current fighting between Israel and Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip proves one thing is certain: the era of land-for-peace is over.
At first, Jimmy Carter’s land-for-peace formula looked promising. One in three Arabs lived in Egypt. Within the White House and at Foggy Bottom, presidents and diplomats believed that where Egypt went, so would go the Arab world. Hence, the precedent of trading the Sinai for peace became a source of hope.
It was this example that Bill Clinton sought to capitalize upon in the 1993 Oslo Accords. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) agreed to recognize Israel and work toward peace in exchange for land in historical Palestine. I was in Bahrain in 1994 when PLO chairman Yasser Arafat entered the Gaza Strip to establish the Palestinian Authority. Enthusiasm was palpable across the region. Within weeks, Jordan had signed its own peace accord with Israel, and Persian Gulf emirates, Tunisia, and Morocco looked like they might follow suit.
The logic of land for peace became the basis for Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. The formula of trading land for peace had already begun to unravel. Israel expected if not peace, then quiet. They had removed the last remaining dispute between Israel and Lebanon. Alas, Israel’s withdrawal foreshadowed greater conflict. Even though the United Nations certified Israel’s withdrawal as complete, Hezbollah laid claim not only to the Shebaa Farms – an Israeli occupied area which historically is part of Syria – but also seven villages in the Galilee, a region well within Israel’s recognized borders.
Peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was also rapidly deteriorating. Certainly, when it comes to the Arab-Israel conflict, there are always mutual recriminations. What is clear, however, is that Arafat had voided his pledge to resolve future conflict with Israel at the negotiating table. Many commentators mark the beginning of the “Second Intifada” as Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s Sept. 28, 2000, visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. But this is dishonest. On Aug. 24, 2000, several weeks before Sharon’s visit, Palestinian Justice Minister Freih Abu Middein threatened, “Violence is near, and the Palestinian people are willing to sacrifice even 5,000 casualties.” Communications Minister Imad al-Faluji reportedly admitted to Palestinian radio that “Arafat ordered preparations for the current intifada immediately after the Camp David summit, as part of the negotiating process with Israel.” The Oslo Process and the land-for-peace formula that underlay it had begun to breakdown.
Many warriors transform themselves into peacemakers in the twilight of their lives, and Sharon was no different. In 2005, Israel undertook a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Palestinians and Israelis might argue about Jerusalem, right of return, and other final status issues, but there were no longer land disputes in Gaza. What followed was a disaster: Whereas southern Israel was once free of violence, suddenly towns like Sderot became targets for hundreds of rockets and missiles. Southern Lebanon, too, became a forward staging base for ever more advanced weaponry, as Hezbollah would demonstrate in 2006. The more land Israel ceded, the more insecure it became and the more violence her citizenry suffered. Sharon did not gamble that Gaza would become the launching ground from which Israel’s enemies could strike Tel Aviv for the first time since Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks in 1991.
The current violence will be the last straw for land-for-peace. Egypt’s withdrawal of its envoy convinces even Israeli doves that Arab countries see treaties as little more than truces. That the new Egyptian government appears complicit in smuggling weaponry to Hamas in violation of its commitment to police territory returned to it underlines this conclusion.
Palestinians hope for an independent state with the bulk if not the entirety of the West Bank as its core. But Israelis know that their country is less than 10 miles wide at its narrowest point. Forget heat-seeking missiles; withdrawal from the West Bank would put planes landing at Ben Gurion Airport within a terrorist’s rifle range. Most Israelis view their experience of land-for-peace in the same fashion that Native Americans consider their experience with the concept.
Diplomats may scramble for a ceasefire, but any quiet will be deceptive. Hamas’ decision to turn Gaza into a forward missile base rather than the engine for an independent Palestine condemns 35 years of peacemaking to history’s garbage bin and sets the stage for a conflict far more disruptive than anyone in the region has seen in a half century.
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