In May, a six-ship flotilla originating in Turkey headed toward the Gaza Strip in an attempt to break the Israeli blockade of the area. The ships ignored Israel's demands to inspect the cargo they carried, and Israeli navy commandos boarded the vessels before the boats pulled into Gaza waters. Nine passengers affiliated with the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief were killed in an altercation that again brought the world's attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and heightened international tensions.
The Gaza imbroglio has been the latest flashpoint in what seems an ongoing and never ending set of disputes, conflicts, aggressive actions, and violent clashes. It is also the most recent backdrop to current attempts to breathe new life into the Middle East peace process.
This month, the Obama Administration has restarted its efforts to broker a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians through a series of regular meetings, scheduled to begin September 14-15 in Egypt. As in previous efforts at peace, arriving at a peaceful solution will not be an easy task.
The conflict's causes are (it almost goes without saying) complex, combining conflicting land claims of rival nationalist movements, religious emotion, international strategic factors, and basic disagreements over the narrative of history.
Over the years, the geography of the conflict has shifted, never staying in one place for too long, and involving ever-shifting antagonists.
After Israel's establishment, as a result of a war in 1948, the country's dispute for the next quarter century was regional in character, and is best described simply as the "Israeli-Arab" conflict. The bewildering and embittering character of the dispute is reflected in the fact that from 1948 to 1973 Israel and Egypt fought four wars, and the Israel-Egypt fighting was just one of several theaters of the conflict.
Since 1973, it is most accurate to refer to the topic as the "Israeli-Palestinian" dispute, since all-out warfare between Israel and other Arab states abated, but violence between Israelis and Palestinians has at times reached agonizing levels. This was particularly true during the two Palestinian uprisings (Intifadas, 1987-1993 and 2000-2005) in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (territories conquered by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War).
Ostensibly a conflict between two nations, Jewish Israelis and Christian and Muslim Palestinians, for control of one land, the 1973-2010 phase of the conflict has sprawled north and south, from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip, and involved an array of secular and religious groups on the Arab side, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
Although the causes and character of the recent, tragic clash involving the Gaza-bound flotilla remain in dispute, this much seems agreed upon:
In late summer 2005, Israel dismantled its settlements and withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Political control in this densely populated Palestinian area was subsequently won by Hamas, an Islamic movement beholden to a declared policy of opposing the existence of a Jewish state.
After Israel's withdrawal, militant groups used the Gaza Strip as a base to launch dozens of missile attacks against towns in Israel's southern Negev region. In retaliation, Israel launched its anti-terror "Cast Lead" military operation in winter 2008-09.
Its security concerns far from being allayed, Israel has enforced a blockade on the Gaza Strip for months. Middle East and European groups contend that this siege has precipitated a humanitarian crisis. And some activists, banded together in a "Free Gaza" movement, have organized ships in an effort to run Israel's blockade and bring supplies into the Gaza Strip. And then came the fatal shipboard altercation.
As Washington tries to bring the current antagonists together, they will face many obstacles to their efforts to hammer out to some sort of peace agreement: Israeli border security, the right of Palestinian return, the fate of Jerusalem, Israeli settlement in the Occupied Territories, the role of Hamas, and international pressures, among many others.
Yet, a central question facing the world as the Obama administration's talks begin is whether the "two-state" and "land-for-peace" solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which have been at the heart of so many previous efforts at peace, remain viable approaches.
A Prehistory of the Current Conflict
Most historians date the origins of the Israel-Palestine controversy to the era preceding World War I. It was then that a politicized Jewish national movement, Zionism, began to build an infrastructure for a Jewish state in the then Ottoman-controlled Palestinian lands.
What was the Middle East like before Zionism joined the neighborhood? The extent to which Jews and Muslims—and Judaism and Islam—coexisted in conflict or cooperation prior to the rise of Jewish and Arab national consciousness at the end of the 19th century remains an intriguing subject of historical discussion. But, a clear majority of Israeli and Palestinian historians agree that the fighting in the country for the past century or so is a new sort of historical phenomenon.
After World War I, the British took over the Palestinian lands under the neo-colonial "Mandate" system. And for three decades before 1948, when Israel became an independent state, Zionists had a measure of international support for their pioneering efforts, via the 1917 Balfour Declaration in favor of a Jewish "national home."
Arabs pointed to other promises and assurances given by the British during World War One; and they resisted Zionist state-building efforts in the country, perceiving them as outright colonial intrusion.
Though not uniformly organized, such Arab opposition became increasingly assertive. Uprisings in 1929 and 1936-39 were unmistakable indications of the depth and passion of the crisis in Mandate Palestine.
We will focus here on just one aspect of this fascinating pre-1948 period, due to its pertinence to current discussions of Israel and the Palestinian Authority: the origins of the "two-state" formula.
A two-state proposal was formally submitted by a 1937 British panel, in the "Peel" report. This specific plan for dividing the land among the two peoples was prefaced by a remarkably incisive prefatory analysis of the nationalist, religious, political, and economic causes of the dispute.
Thus, the idea of a compromise, splitting Israel/Palestine into two states for two peoples (and three religions) is far from a recent idea. Instead, it has been on the table for 75 years.
And, quite significantly, the Zionists agreed to the idea in principle both in 1937, and again a decade later when the United Nations endorsed a two-state partition plan (in both these instances, the Arab side flatly rejected the two-state formula).
Today, most Israelis would say that these past two-state proposals failed because of Arab intransigence, and this interpretation finds support in close studies of the diplomacy of the late British Mandate period. To this, Palestinians reply indignantly, "why is it 'intransigent' to oppose the partition of something that is already yours?" Equally true.
And here we come to the main point of comparison between the pre-1948 period and contemporary dilemmas—neither side, neither the Zionists nor the Palestinians, were happy with the specific details of the 1937 or 1947 proposal.
The 1937 Peel two-state plan, for instance, endorsed removing a quarter of a million Arabs from areas designated for an extremely small Jewish state. The fact that this would not have been the largest population transfer enacted on the globe during the interwar period hardly mitigates the humanitarian dilemmas posed by the specific contents of this serious peace plan.
Three quarters of a century ago the devil was in the details of a two-state solution. That adage holds true today.
1948 and the Stories People Tell
Then came the war of 1948.
How the different sides refer to the war is tremendously revealing. Israelis speak of the 1948 fighting as the War of Independence. They celebrate the victory as a miraculous underdog triumph of an embattled, small community warding off invading Arab armies, and ending 2000 years of Jewish powerlessness, the most gruesome manifestation of which was the Holocaust.
Indeed, for Israelis, the "War of Independence" conceptualization serves as moral and historical redress for the Holocaust. This basic perception of 1948 as near-miraculous redemption from the ruins of the Holocaust remains the way almost all Israelis see the war today.
For Palestinians, on the other hand, 1948 is referred to as "Naqba," meaning outright catastrophe, the dispossession of some 700,000 persons from their homes, and exile to refugee camps in Jordan, the Gaza Strip and elsewhere.
For decades, mainstream Israeli historiography interpreted this exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees primarily in terms of internal Arab politics, Arab leadership, and Arab communal structure. Israeli histories either implicitly or explicitly denied that the new Jewish state bore any substantive culpability for the refugee issue1.
The "Land for Peace" Formula: 1967 to the Oslo Accords
Together with the British Mandate pre-history and the 1948 war, the 1967 Six Day War is considered the third historical occurrence which "changed everything" in the Israeli-Arab dispute.
Perhaps the most important result of the 1967 war was the bringing of all of Jerusalem under Israeli control. After Israel's establishment as a result of the 1948 war, no event galvanized national feeling in Israel more than the unification of Jerusalem. It is an event that remains celebrated in songs, stories, and visual images known to any Israeli from the time he or she is first conscious of public events.
In the aftermath of its sweeping 1967 victory, Israel continues to be challenged by the question of how to deal with lands it conquered (including the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Golan Heights).
Some lands won in the 1967 war have been returned to Arab sides. Most significantly, the Sinai Peninsula was given back to Egypt, under the late 1970s Camp David accords. The logic of these concessions came to be known as the "land for peace" formula.