Israeli and Palestinian Fantasies Block the Way to Peace

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.