Israel Seeks Peace

Key Facts

  • The search for peace through negotiation has been a defining feature of Israel predating the 1948 founding of the state.
  • Arab rejectionism was clear after Israel’s victory in the 1967 “Six-Day War” when Israel’s efforts to bring peace were answered by the famous “Three Nos” of the Khartoum Arab League Summit: no recognition, no peace, and no negotiations with Israel.
  • Exceptions are after the 1973 war, when Egyptian President Sadat bravely negotiated peace with Israel and, in October 1994, when Israel and Jordan signed a comprehensive peace treaty.
  • Despite progress during the Oslo talks in the 1990s, PA President Yasser Arafat rejected generous and internationally supported offers for Palestinian statehood, including one proposed by US President Clinton in December 2000, and he failed to present any counter-proposal to maintain the negotiations.
  • Clinton, who had worked hard to find a formula for a deal, attributed its failure directly to Arafat. US negotiator Dennis Ross noted that, while Israelis and Palestinians were busy discussing peace, “Arafat either let the Intifada begin or, as some argue, actually gave orders for it.”
  • The violence that Arafat launched resulted in nearly four years of terror, hundreds of civilians killed and thousands wounded. It also undermined the “peace camp” in Israel.
  • To reinvigorate the peace process, then-U.S. President George W. Bush laid out a 2002 “roadmap” for a two-state resolution adopted by the ‘Quartet’ (US, EU, Russia and the UN), endorsed by then-Israeli Prime Minister Sharon in 2003, and accepted by the PA.
  • Despite this initiative, Palestinian violence continued, creating a perception that Israel did not have a good-faith negotiating partner.
  • In 2005, Sharon decided to break the logjam by withdrawing all Israelis (armed forces and approximately 9,000 settlers) from Gaza.
  • Instead of reciprocating with peace, Palestinian leaders in Gaza continued to launch missiles into Israel and took no steps to develop the Gaza economy, instead stripping greenhouses and other Israeli infrastructure of their metal for more missile production.
  • This violent response to Israel’s voluntary withdrawal from Gaza proved to Israelis that what motivates Palestinian “resistance” is not occupation and settlements – since both ended with Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza – but Israel’s very existence.
  • Israeli apprehension was further heightened by Hamas’ 2007 violent takeover of Gaza in a bloody coup, during which Israel facilitated the escape of Palestinian political refugees to the West Bank.
  • Israel entered into new negotiations with Abbas at Annapolis, Maryland in 2007.  Abbas did not reply to Olmert’s offer of far-ranging compromises for a viable, contiguous Palestinian state and a shared sovereignty arrangement for Jerusalem.
  • In June 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace based on the principle of two states for two peoples and called upon the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table without preconditions.
  • Abbas insisted, in a new pre-condition, that all settlement activity cease. Testing Palestinian intentions, Netanyahu announced that Israel would impose a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.
  • Abbas delayed nine months before coming to the negotiating table; no progress was made.
  • In September 2011, Netanyahu declined to order an extension to the moratorium, saying that Abbas was using the settlement issue as an excuse to avoid serious negotiations.
  • In 2012, Abbas unilaterally secured at the UN General Assembly a resolution upgrading the status of the Palestinian delegation to that of “non-member state.”
  • Despite such bitter hostility from the Islamic extremists ruling Gaza and previous failures to conclude a peace agreement with the Fatah-led PA, a majority of Israelis still support the principle of negotiating a peace on the basis of two states for two peoples.
  • However, Israelis fear there is no reliable Palestinian negotiating partner willing to reach a genuine two-state agreement based on compromise, the acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state and the end of the conflict.
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The search for peace has been an unceasing and defining feature of Israel predating the 1948 founding of the state.  As far back as 1937, when Britain proposed the Peel Commission plan for the partition of Palestine, the Yishuv (Jewish leadership) accepted it and the Arabs rejected it.  When the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181 on November 29th 1947 calling for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, the Yishuv accepted the plan while the Arab states and the Palestinian leadership, once again – and violently – rejected it.

Immediately following the establishment of Israel in 1948, five Arab armies launched a war to eradicate the nascent Jewish state. Nonetheless, Israel consistently sought peace through direct negotiations with its Arab neighbours.  Unfortunately, more often than not, this approach has been met by hostility and rejection. This rejectionist stance was starkly manifested after Israel’s victory in the “Six-Day War” of June 1967 when, in the war’s aftermath, Israel’s effort to extend the hand of peace was answered by the famous “Three Nos” of the Khartoum Arab League Summit: no recognition, no peace, and no negotiations with Israel.

It was only in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War that Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made a bold and courageous decision to break ranks with his fellow Arab leaders and accept Israel’s longstanding offer of direct talks.  Sadat’s breakthrough in 1977 led to the Camp David summit the following year and direct talks with then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.  This paved the way for the first Arab-Israeli peace agreement, the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.  It was based on the “land-for-peace” formula of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which is the internationally accepted bedrock of all peace-making efforts between Israel and its Arab neighbours. In return for Israel’s relinquishing the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian land Israeli captured in the 1967 war, Egypt provided Israel with peace, recognition and internationally supervised security arrangements including a demilitarized Sinai. Also greatly significant, and unprecedented was that, prior to the peace agreement, Sadat not only visited Israel, but he also addressed a session of the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament), a move that signaled acceptance and recognition of Israel’s sovereign right to statehood.  This remarkable gesture allowed Israelis to feel confident about taking the necessary risks for peace, to cede territory and uproot settlements in Sinai.

Following the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq was forced to withdraw from Kuwait following its 1990 invasion, a major shake-up in the region again provided an opportunity for Arab states to reconsider their relations with Israel.  The result was the Madrid peace conference of October 1991.  Bilateral negotiations were conducted between Israel and Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians. In addition, multilateral talks were held on key regional issues such as refugees, water and the environment. The multilateral phase involved the participation of Gulf States like Saudi Arabia along with several Western countries.  Canada served as the chair of the multilateral working group on refugees. While the bilateral talks between Israel and Syria did not prove successful, in October 1994, Israel and Jordan signed a comprehensive peace treaty.

In the summer of 1993, following secret negotiations, of which even the United States was unaware, Israel and the Palestinians signed a Declaration of Principles inaugurating the “Oslo” process to achieve a negotiated resolution of their dispute in line with UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.  The creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, the Gaza-Jericho agreement and the 1995 “Oslo II” agreement, which saw the PA take full control of major Palestinian cities, were all part of this process.  Unfortunately, the second Camp David Summit in the summer of 2000, under the auspices of U.S. President Bill Clinton, failed to achieve a peace agreement. PA President Yasser Arafat rejected offers for Palestinian statehood, including one proposed by Clinton in December, and failed to present any counter-proposal to maintain the negotiations.

Details of what was offered are notable and have been recounted by Dennis Ross, the U.S. chief peace negotiator at the time. On Dec. 23, 2000, Clinton proposed “bridging” ideas to both Barak and Arafat that would sweeten Barak’s July offer to yield 91% of the West Bank with an additional 1% land swap, an offer Arafat had rejected.  Clinton now proposed that Israel yield 100 per cent of Gaza, 94-96 per cent of the West Bank with a land swaps of 1-3 per cent. Jerusalem would not be physically divided but “what is Arab in the City should be Palestinian and what is Jewish should be Israeli” and this would apply to the Old City as well along with a possible solution for sovereignty over the Temple Mount and other religious sites. With respect to Palestinian refugees, consistent with a two-state solution, there would be no “right of return” to Israel but only to the Palestinian state, though Israel would absorb some refugees “consistent with Israel’s sovereign decision” (i.e. on an individual humanitarian basis). Finally, the agreement would “clearly mark the end of the conflict and its implementation [would] put an end to all claims” as per UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

Both parties were given five days to reply with the understanding that a non-reply would be taken as rejection. Barak accepted the plan, but Arafat equivocated and missed the deadline. Still, Clinton invited Arafat to a meeting in Washington on January 2nd for one last try.  It was to no avail. Ross summarizes Arafat’s reaction as follows:

Alas, Arafat was not up to peacemaking.  After the meeting with President Clinton, it was clear: he was not up to ending the conflict, and already had effectively rejected the President’s ideas.  His reservations were deal-killers, involving his actual rejection of the Western Wall part of the formula on the Haram [Temple Mount], his rejection of the most basic elements of the Israeli security needs, and his dismissal of our refugee formula.  All were deal killers.

Ross relates that, even after this rejection, Clinton tried yet another idea – to have Arafat meet with Shimon Peres.  Barak agreed, but even this failed when Arafat wanted only his chief negotiator to meet with Peres.  This was the last straw.  Arafat had refused multiple opportunities to reach a peace agreement and provide his people with a state of their own.  Ross concludes that:

in the end [Arafat was] unwilling to even appear to be conceding anything.

A frustrated Clinton, who had worked so hard to find a formula for a deal, attributed its failure directly to Arafat.

While negotiations had been going on through the summer and early fall of 2000, what is commonly referred to as “the second intifada” broke out at the end of September.  Dennis Ross notes the irony that, while Israelis and Palestinians were busy discussing peace, “Arafat either let the Intifada begin or, as some argue, actually gave orders for it.”

In December 2012, Yasser Arafat’s widow, Suha, stated in an interview with Dubai TV that:

Yasser Arafat had made a decision to launch the Intifada. Immediately after the failure of the Camp David [negotiations], I met him in Paris upon his return, in July 2001 [sic]. Camp David has failed, and he said to me: ‘You should remain in Paris.’ I asked him why, and he said: ‘Because I am going to start an Intifada. They want me to betray the Palestinian cause. They want me to give up on our principles, and I will not do so. I do not want [our son] Zahwa’s friends in the future to say that Yasser Arafat abandoned the Palestinian cause and principles. I might be martyred, but I shall bequeath our historical heritage to Zahwa and to the children of Palestine.’

The violence that Yasser Arafat launched resulted in nearly four years of terror, which killed hundreds and wounded thousands of Israeli civilians. It greatly undermined the “peace camp” in Israel, which has been unable to recover from the skepticism regarding Palestinian commitment to peace that has since permeated Israeli society.

In an effort to reinvigorate the peace process, in a speech in June, 2002, then-U.S. President George W. Bush laid out a “roadmap” for a two-state resolution of the conflict. The plan was adopted by the ‘Quartet’ comprising the US, the EU, Russia and the UN.  Officially titled “A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” the plan was endorsed, with reservations and proposed amendments, by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2003 and was also accepted by the PA. It is important to recall the vision of the outcome of these negotiations according to the Roadmap:

Parties reach final and comprehensive permanent status agreement that ends the Israel-Palestinian conflict in 2005, through a settlement negotiated between the parties based on UNSCR 242, 338, and 1397, that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and includes an agreed, just, fair, and realistic solution to the refugee issue, and a negotiated resolution on the status of Jerusalem that takes into account the political and religious concerns of both sides, and protects the religious interests of Jews, Christians, and Muslims worldwide, and fulfills the vision of two states, Israel and sovereign, independent, democratic and viable Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security.

“Arab state acceptance of full normal relations with Israel and security for all the states of the region in the context of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

Despite this initiative, Palestinian violence continued apace, creating a widely held perception that Israel simply did not have a good-faith negotiating partner.

In 2005, Sharon decided to break the logjam by withdrawing all Israelis (armed forces and approximately 9,000 settlers) from Gaza.  Instead of reciprocating with peace, the Palestinians in Gaza – especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad – continued to launch missiles and mortars into southern Israel. The Palestinians had an opportunity to develop the Gaza economy but, instead, to give just one prominent example, chose to strip the greenhouses and other Israeli facilities left behind of their metal and used it in the production of more missiles. Rather than turn Gaza into the Hong Kong of the Middle East, a shining example of what the Palestinians could achieve, Palestinian leaders were, to the lasting detriment of their own people, interested only in continuing to pursue a campaign of violent “resistance” against Israel.  This violent response to Israel’s voluntary withdrawal from Gaza also had the effect of proving to Israelis that what motivates Palestinian “resistance” is not, as they claim, occupation and settlements – since both ended with Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza – but rather Israel’s very existence within any borders whatsoever.

Israeli apprehension was further heightened by Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in a bloody 2007 coup, during which Israel facilitated the escape of Palestinian political refugees to the West Bank. With Hamas’ takeover, not only did the coup place Gaza under the exclusive control of a terrorist organization fundamentally dedicated to Israel’s destruction, but also it fractured Palestinian administration casting doubt on the prospects for implementing a peace agreement, should one be reached.

Despite the erosion of confidence among Israelis in the peaceful intentions and capabilities of the Palestinian leadership, following the Roadmap vision, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert entered into negotiations with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Annapolis, Maryland in 2007.  To Olmert’s offer of far-ranging compromises for a viable, contiguous Palestinian state and a shared sovereignty arrangement for Jerusalem, Abbas did not even reply, let alone submit a counter-proposal.  As Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, two prominent experts on the peace process sympathetic to the Palestinians, noted in the New York Review of Books:

After months of talks, Abbas declined a far more concessive Israeli proposal—on the size of the territory for Palestinians, for example—than the one Yasser Arafat turned down [in 2000].

Just how concessive was Olmert’s offer? As Newsweek’s Kevin Perino recounted:

Olmert told me he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in September 2008 and unfurled a map of Israel and the Palestinian territories. He says he offered Abbas 93.5 to 93.7 percent of the Palestinian territories, along with a land swap of 5.8 percent and a safe-passage corridor from Gaza to the West Bank that he says would make up the rest. The Holy Basin of Jerusalem would be under no sovereignty at all and administered by a consortium of Saudis, Jordanians, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans. Regarding refugees, Olmert says he rejected the right of return and instead offered, as a ‘humanitarian gesture,’ a small number of returnees, although ‘smaller than the Palestinians wanted—a very, very limited number…Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, confirmed that Olmert had made the offer. ‘It’s very sad,’ Erekat said. ‘He was serious, I have to say.’

In June 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace based on the principle of two states for two peoples – the very idea endorsed in the 1947 UN General Assembly partition resolution.  While Netanyahu has repeatedly called upon the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table without preconditions, Abbas has insisted on a new pre-condition, one that was never part of previous talks: that all settlement activity cease. Nevertheless, in a move that tested Palestinian intentions, Netanyahu announced that Israel would impose a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.  Abbas then waited nine months before deciding at last to come back to the negotiating table and, even then, his efforts to re-engage with the Israelis were meagre, and no progress was made.  In September 2011, Netanyahu declined to order an extension to the housing moratorium, saying that Abbas was simply using the settlement issue as an excuse to avoid negotiations.  Indeed, Abbas had other plans.

In November, 2012, in violation of the internationally accepted framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Abbas undertook a unilateral action:  he approached and secured at the UN General Assembly a resolution upgrading the status of the Palestinian delegation to that of “non-member state.”  Rather than advancing peace, this unilateral move has effectively set it back.  The only meaningful changes that can come about on the ground must be achieved through direct bilateral negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in accordance with UNSC resolutions 242 and 338.

The fact that the Palestinians are divided between the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza has further complicated peace-making. Hamas rejects the Quartet conditions – renouncing violence, accepting previous Israel-Palestinian agreements and recognizing Israel – for entering into talks and remains defiantly opposed to Israel’s existence.  In November 2012, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh declared in Tehran, at an event marking the 33rd anniversary of the Iranian revolution, that Hamas would never acknowledge Israel and vowed to use “resistance” so that “all occupied [Palestinian] lands will eventually be liberated from Israeli occupation.” In December 2012 exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashal reiterated this uncompromising rejection:

Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land…We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take.

From time to time various Hamas leaders have indicated that they might be prepared for a long-term “hudna” (truce) and might even be prepared to accept, at least temporarily, Israel within the “1967 borders.” Yet even this suggestion is qualified by the insistence that Israel withdraw to the precise ’67 lines and accept all Palestinian “rights,” foremost the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to present-day Israel.  As Israelis know, this is just another way of bringing about the destruction of the Jewish state.  What appears to some analysts in the West as signs of possible “moderation” from Hamas is understood by the vast majority of Israelis to be the opposite.

Despite such bitter hostility from the Islamic extremists ruling Gaza and previous failures to conclude a peace agreement with the Fatah-led PA, a majority of Israelis still support the principle of negotiating a peace on the basis of two states for two peoples.

The problem, however, is that Israelis overwhelmingly do not believe that there exists today a reliable Palestinian negotiating partner who is willing to reach a genuine two-state agreement based on compromise, the acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state and the end of the conflict.  Such a partner remains a distant vision and a longed-for hope.

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