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Israeli and Palestinian Fantasies Block the Way to Peace

by Robert Brent Toplin on Apr 17, 2002

Robert Brent Toplin

As any viewer of television news knows, those who comment on the
Arab-Israeli crisis offer many different explanations for the current
outbreaks of violence. Rarely mentioned, though, are the unrealistic
expectations that keep hostilities going. Both Palestinians and Israelis
cling to fantasies about settling their peoples in the territory of their
adversaries. As long as each group continues to indulge in these fantasies,
significant compromise will be difficult to achieve.
 
The principal fantasy of the Palestinians finds expression in
demands that their families uprooted in Israel's 1948 war for independence
have a "right of return." Israelis, in turn, are committed to the fantasy
of maintaining settlements in the Israeli-controlled Palestinian
territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
 
Palestinians ask for resettlement in Israel of their nearly five
million refugees and descendants. Arab leaders agree with this request, for
they cheered the peace plan suggested recently by Crown Prince Abdullah of
Saudi Arabia that included a right of return.
 
Mindful of the Jewish people's historic experience with
persecution, Israelis consider proposals for massive Palestinian
resettlement totally unacceptable. The genocidal Nazi policies that
destroyed six million European Jews followed three millennia of repression,
intimidation and slaughter of Jews. Modern Israel grew out of a
determination to create a safe homeland for Jews. Israel's settlers vowed
never again to live as a persecuted minority under the thumb of a hostile
majority.
 
Placing millions of additional Palestinians within the tiny nation
of Israel could lead, eventually, to an Arab majority in the country. (The
high birth rate of Palestinians presently living in Israel is, in itself,
alarming to the Israelis.) The continuing violence involving Palestinians
and Israelis suggests that a large infusion of Palestinian settlers would
create a volatile mix of cultures. Resettlement would also allow terrorists
to take up residence in or near all Israeli communities.
 
Not surprisingly, Jews consider peace proposals that include plans
for resettlement grossly flawed. They will not accept arrangements that
could make them vulnerable to a second Holocaust. Therefore, if Yasser
Arafat, the Saudi crown prince and other Arab leaders wish to advance the
cause of peace, they will have to remove this emotion-laden proposal from
their plan.
 
While the idea of resettlement is a Palestinian fantasy that
greatly complicates efforts to resolve the crisis, Israelis, too, indulge
in a fantasy that is an obstacle to peace. The Israelis have constructed
numerous cities and villages in the West Bank and Gaza since the 1967 war.
They have answered the Palestinian fantasy of resettlement in Israel with
their own fantasy of settlement in Palestine.
 
More than 200,000 Israeli settlers currently live in the West Bank.
Jewish settlers travel regularly over highways connecting their
communities, and soldiers in the Israeli army guard the routes and stop
Palestinians at checkpoints. These practices, appropriately criticized by
the Palestinians as forms of "occupation," fuel Palestinian resentment.
Israel's proposals for Palestinian nationhood contrast glaringly with the
global trend since World War II of giving peoples absolute control over
their own contiguous territory.
 
The Israelis have created a unique map for Palestine that is unlike
the design of any independent state in the world. Imagine if Mexico
controlled California and then promised to turn the area over to the
Californians but demanded continued Mexican control of "settlements" in Los
Angeles, San Francisco and other cities as well as military control of
numerous highways connecting these urban centers.
 
Would the Californians calmly accept such a strange approach to
nationhood? No doubt, they would cry out against foreign occupation, much
as the Palestinians do today with reference to the Jewish settlements in
the West Bank and Gaza.
 
In view of Israel's disregard for the modern concept of nationhood,
it is not surprising that the Palestinians have been cold toward all recent
Israeli proposals, including Ehud Barak's generous offer during the last
days of the Clinton administration, because Barak's plan included retention
of some Israeli settlements. As long as the Israelis demand that Jewish
communities remain within Palestinian territory, they will find their
opponents unreceptive. Palestinian leaders, Yasser Arafat included, cannot
accept such a compromise and retain political support among their people.
 
If Israelis continue to indulge their fantasy about holding onto
these communities, they are likely to face growing problems with violence
in the years to come. Israel's commitment to the settlements also angers
international friends whose sympathy and moral support were essential
during the country's first half-century of struggle for recognition and
respect.
 
Suggestions for solving the current crisis are doomed to failure if
they do not challenge both Palestinians and Israelis to turn away from the
fantasies of resettlement in Israel and settlement in the Palestinian
territories. Politics, including the kind associated with international
negotiations, is the art of the possible.


Robert Brent Toplin, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published books on popular culture and politics, and is a writer for the History News Service.