Gwynne Dyer: The next Arab-Israeli war

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      It’s time to think about the nature of the next Arab-Israeli war.

      The release by the Arab satellite network al-Jazeera of 16,000 leaked Palestinian documents covering the past 10 years of peace negotiations has driven a stake through the heart of the already moribund “peace process”. And we hear constant warnings that when the hope of a peace settlement is finally extinguished, the next step is a return to war. So what would that war be like?

      Okay, back up a bit. What the leaked documents show is that the Palestinian negotiators were willing to make huge concessions on territory and other issues in return for Israeli recognition of an independent Palestinian state. They were well-meaning people playing a very bad hand as best they could, but the publication of these documents will destroy them politically.

      The spirit in which they approached the talks is exemplified in the first document in the trove, a memo on Palestinian negotiating strategy dated September 1999. It urges the negotiators to heed the advice of the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find that you get what you need.”

      According to the documents, in the past three years the Palestinians have offered to accept all of Israel’s illegal settlements around Jerusalem except one (Har Homa) as permanent parts of the Jewish state. Israel annexed all of East Jerusalem after it conquered it in the 1967 war, but international law forbids that and no other country sees the annexation as legal.

      The negotiators also offered to restrict the “right of return” of the millions of Palestinians descended from those who were driven from their homes in what is now Israel in 1948 to a mere 100,000 returnees over 10 years. They even offered to put the most sacred site in Jerusalem, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, under the control of a joint committee. (It is currently administered by an Islamic foundation.)

      Even these concessions were not enough to persuade the Israelis to accept a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders of the West Bank (including those parts of East Jerusalem still inhabited by Palestinians) and the Gaza Strip. They were enough, however, to make the negotiators reviled in almost every Palestinian home if they were ever revealed—and now they have been.

      Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, and his predecessor Ahmed Qureia were just pragmatic men trying to cut the best deal possible in very difficult circumstances. They might even have been able to sell these concessions to the Palestinian people, if they had come as part of a comprehensive settlement leading to the end of the Israeli occupation and an independent Palestinian state.

      But, in fact, they got nothing for their concessions. The Israelis simply pocketed them and demanded more. Now that the details are known—leaked, almost certainly, by frustrated members of the negotiation support unit that provided technical and legal backup for the Palestinian negotiators—Abbas and his colleagues are finished.

      Even the Palestinian Authority itself, and the whole concept of an independent state for Palestinians in a fraction of pre-partition Palestine, may not survive this blow. Fatah, the faction that effectively rules the parts of the West Bank not yet taken for Israeli settlements, is well past its sell-by date as a national liberation movement, and may lose control of the area to the Islamist Hamas movement before we are very much older.

      Hamas, which already controls the Gaza Strip, rejects negotiations with Israel and the whole notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of a two-state future. We are continually told by various pundits that these developments can only lead to war, and they are probably right—but what kind of war?

      It would certainly not be like the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, in which regular armies fought stand-up battles with lots of heavy weapons.

      Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, the countries that fought those wars on behalf of the Arabs, have long since abandoned the goal of matching Israeli military power. They don’t even buy the right kind of weapons, in the right amounts, to stand a chance against Israel on the battlefield.

      We will doubtless see more Israeli punishment attacks in which a hundred Palestinians or Lebanese die for every Israeli, like the “wars” against Lebanon in 2006 and in the Gaza Strip in 2008-09. We may well see a “third intifada”, another popular uprising against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, probably accompanied by terrorist attacks in Israel itself. But we have seen all this before. It’s nothing to get excited about.

      In the long run, we may see some Arab states start working on nuclear weapons, to create some balance of forces between the two sides, but probably not for a while yet. In the meantime, the future for the Middle East is not mass destruction, but an unending series of Israeli military strikes that kill in the hundreds or thousands, not in the millions. Plus despair, of course.

      Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, Crawling from the Wreckage, has just been published in Canada by Random House.




      Jan 24, 2011 at 12:36pm

      The Palestinian Authority (PA) is finished, which is good. The PA has for a long time now been an unpopular US/Israeli supported faux government of a colonized people. The Guardian is reporting today that these same Palestinian Papers document "The intimate level of covert co-operation between Israeli security forces and the PA" and that the PA "were privately tipped off about Israel's 2008-09 war (read: massacre) in Gaza". Dwyer shows a lot of sympathy for the PA though the PA showed no compunction in oppressing and selling out its own people.

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      Jan 24, 2011 at 12:43pm

      Most voters on want to "boycott, Divest, and Sanction" Apartheid Israel until a secular state is created, where Jews and non-Jews, residents of all the former Palestinian land, have equal human rights.
      Nuclear weapons are illegal, according to an old U.N. resolution to disarm.

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      Jan 24, 2011 at 2:02pm

      Just maybe the Israeli people will see the proposal as a good deal and vote in a government that will accept it, or something similar. Both sides should know by now that going back terrorizing each other won't accomplish anything.

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      Jan 24, 2011 at 4:13pm

      RE: doconnor "going back to terrorizing each other" etc. Nonsense. Israel has not stopped terrorizing, starving and killing Palestinians since 1967 right to today. Each day another one or dozen Palestinians are murdered at the hands of Israel, never mind the starvation diet they're put on. You expose your prejudices by trying to present an occupied and defenceless people on an equal basis with the world's fourth largest army backed by the full might of the US.

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      Steven M.

      Jan 24, 2011 at 9:55pm

      That's a pretty pessimistic premise. What if lasting peace deal manages to happen? It's not as crazy as it sounds. Whoever thought France and Germany would ever stop fighting one another? You always have to have hope and work towards that goal.

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      Jan 25, 2011 at 7:24am

      It's possible that Fatah might be able to score a PR coup from this - i.e., don't blame us for not being able to negotiate a peace, we gave the Israelis everything the said they wanted and more, and it wasn't enough. Blame them. We're now going to be taking a harder line, etc., etc.

      What I will find interesting is the reaction of Israelis to their government. Mr. Dyer has been saying that successive Israeli governments have had no interest in a legitimate peace deal, and now this proves it. Will there be any kind of backlash in Israel?

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      Kathleen Christison

      Jan 25, 2011 at 12:27pm

      From an article by ex-CIA analyst and well known author on Palestine, Kathleen Christison:
      "Palestinians, the documents show, offered compromises that verge on total capitulation. At a time in 2008 when talks with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were coming to a head and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was pushing hard, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and his colleagues offered Israel the 1967 borders, the Palestinians’ right of return, and Israeli settlements on a silver platter. The Palestinians would have agreed to let Israel keep all settlements in East Jerusalem except Har Homa; allowed Israel to annex more settlements in the West Bank (altogether totaling over 400,000 settlers); agreed to an inequitable territorial swap in return for giving Israel prime West Bank real estate, and settled for the return of only 5,000 Palestinian refugees (out of more than four million) over a five-year period. And still Israel rejected the package of compromises, which they said “does not meet our demands” -- presumably because their principal desire is that the Palestinians simply disappear."

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      j harper

      Jan 26, 2011 at 6:26am

      Peace has always been Israels enemy. Land aquisition and peace cannot co-exist. I haven't heard much of anything in the US media about these leaks I guess it doesn't fit the propagandic coverage that they have been feeding to the sheep i.e. its all the Palestinians Fault!!!!!! It will be interesting to see how the Israeli propaganda machine will handle this. I'm getting my barfbag ready.

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      petr aardvark

      Jan 26, 2011 at 1:37pm

      if the Arab population of Israel becomes the majority - due to the higher birthrate. What then.
      I'm surprised the negotiators were willing to recognize Israel as a specifically Jewish state.

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      Jan 26, 2011 at 8:44pm

      It seems to me that the wild card in Gwyn's scenario is the improved range and power of ground to ground missiles, such as the type that Hezbollah in Lebanon has been getting from Iran. Would Hezbollah support Hamas? Would Hamas obtain and use better missiles? Would the Israeli response to such missiles still be 100:1 retribution?

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