NOTE: I have been working on this entry since Israel greenlighted military operations in Gaza. But was unsure of the intended message until today when I learned that China, which now chairs the UN Security Council, plans to introduce a resolution calling for a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
I trust you are familiar with the adage, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” But what about those instances when we are fooled a third time. Yet, that is what a large segment of the international community is asking of Israel. The calls for a ceasefire in the current war on Hamas ignore the fact there were two previous opportunities for permanent ceasefires, and each time, Palestinians walked away.
The Oslo Accord
The first effort at a permanent ceasefire spanned seven years beginning with the signing of the Oslo Accord by then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasir Arafat at a White House ceremony on September 13 1993. Under the agreement, Israel accepted the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. In return the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist and denounced terrorism. Both parties agreed to the formation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) which would become the governing body for the West Bank and Gaza Strip within five years. In the meantime “permanent status” negotiations would address the remaining issues of borders, refugees and Jerusalem.
Progress toward implementation of the Accord ended with Rabin’s assassination by an opponent of the agreement and new terrorist attacks by Hamas. Both contributed to the 1996 Israeli election which resulted in a Likud majority and Bibi Netanyahu as prime minister, a staunch opponent of Palestinian statehood and Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories. In hopes of reviving the chance of a permanent peace, President Clinton invited Netanyahu and Arafat to a summit in Wye River, Maryland in October 1998. The resulting memorandum addressed both Israeli and Palestinian security, economic development in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, acceptance of international human rights and legal standards, resumption of negotiations to determine permanent borders and governance and a timetable for implementation. The PLO also agreed to amend its charter to eliminate any clause which was inconsistent with the agreement.
Despite opposition by members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, the agreement had the support of 74 percent of Israelis according to a November, 1998 poll. Based on the internal dissension within his own party, Netanyahu delayed cabinet approval of the Wye Memorandum. This resulted in a vote of no-confidence, leading to a general election in May, 1999 which produced a Labor Party victory and a new prime minister Ehud Barak.
Knowing Clinton had just over a year left in office, Barak urged the U.S. president to make implementation of the Wye Memorandum a priority. In response, Clinton convened a summit with Barak and Arafat at Camp David in July, 2000. The summit produced no additional agreement on issues related to borders, the status of Jerusalem and refugee right of return despite Israeli concessions. In a statement reflecting on the failed summit, Clinton said, “I regret that in 2000 Arafat missed the opportunity to bring that nation into being and pray for the day when the dreams of the Palestinian people for a state and a better life will be realized in a just and lasting peace.” Furthermore, Arafat’s unwillingness to make concessions in return for an independent Palestinian state fueled an uprising–“the Second Intifada”–on the West Bank. There were important political implications from the failed summit. Arafat’s approval rating climbed while Barak’s decreased, eventually leading to a Likud victory in May 2001 and new Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Unwilling to give up, even as a lame duck occupant of the Oval Office after the November 2000 election of George W. Bush, Clinton launched what can only be called a “Hail Moses” or “Hail Muhammad” play (depending on your perspective). Based on his personal assessment of a fair compromise between the interests of both parties, Clinton presented a “take it or leave it” proposal on December 23, 2000. What became known as the “Clinton Parameters” included the following.
- A Palestinian state consisting of 94-96 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of the Gaza Strip. Israel would compensate the Palestinians for the remaining 4-6 percent, to be annexed, through land swaps.
- Jerusalem would be divided along ethnic lines with Palestinian control over Arab neighborhoods. Palestinians would have sovereignty over the Temple Mount with shared responsibility for excavations.
- Palestinians would waive their demand for unlimited “right of return” to Israel proper. In return, Israel had no say in decisions to relocate refugees in the new Palestinian state.
- Within 36 months, Israel Defense Forces would withdraw from the occupied territories to be replaced by an international peace keeping force.
- Palestine would be a “non-militarized” state, but allowed to create its own internal security force.
- Both parties would agree to end all hostilities and waive additional claims against the other.
Both sides accepted the proposal with “reservations.” Among them was Arafat’s declaration that unlimited “right of return” was non-negotiable and Israel’s objection to Palestinian control of the Temple Mount for fear access to the Western Wall would be denied as it had been before the Six Day War in 1967. Although there are disagreements about who was ultimately responsible for the failure of the Clinton initiative, most observers agree the parameters were the best deal the Palestinians were likely to ever get and Arafat’s refusal to negotiate further extended the conflict and more violence. In David Landau’s 2014 biography of Ariel Sharon, Saudi prince and diplomat Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud assessed the Clinton Parameters. “If Arafat does not accept what is available now, it won’t be a tragedy; it will be a crime.”
Politically, a majority of Israelis, with renewed concern about security, again turned to the hawkish Likud Party and its new leader former IDF general Ariel Sharon. Surprisingly, Sharon’s ascension to leadership would lead to the second opportunity for a permanent ceasefire. In a move that has been described as analogous to staunch anti-communist Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, Sharon declared that continued engagement in the Gaza Strip had negative economic impact without adding to Israel’s security. In February 2005, the Israeli Knesset passed the Disengagement Plan Implementation Law which included:
- Palestinian Authority control over exits and entrances to the Gaza Strip.
- Ability to move freely between Gaza and the West Bank.
- A Palestinian seaport and airport.
- Evacuation of 21 Jewish settlements within 6 months of enactment.
To affirm Israel’s commitment to disengagement, Sharon ordered physical removal of Jewish settlers who defied the August 2005 deadline.
Following accusations of corruption and administrative incompetence, Fatah, the political party founded by Yasir Arafat and led by Mahmoud Abbas since Arafat’s death in 2004, lost support of Gaza Strip residents. This resulted in a January 2006 surprise electoral victory by Hamas, a militant off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood which opposed any agreement for Israeli-Palestinian co-existence. In 2017, Yahya Sinwar became leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and declared, “Gone is the time in which Hamas discussed recognition of Israel. The discussion now is about when we will wipe out Israel.” This pronouncement fueled new attacks against Israelis including rockets and suicide bombings, culminating in the October 7 terrorist attack.
So when China proposes a new ceasefire without any tangible guarantees for Israeli security or the return of hostages, it does not take a rocket scientist to understand why Israel would oppose the measure. What is equally distressing is that so many people do not appreciate the extent to which moderate Israelis have risked their political careers–and in the case of Yitzhak Rabin, his life–to reach a peaceful accommodation with the Palestinian people. To those critics who oppose the policies of the current Israeli government and prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, you are not alone. Many Israelis share your opinion and will likely hold Netanyahu accountable for October 7. However, Netanyahu and Likud remain in power due to the fact on those occasions when Israel has offered the Palestinians close to everything they asked for, the response has been rockets, suicide bombers and terrorists attacks of an unimaginable nature and scale.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Individuals and governments who support those who try to fool me a third time, shame on them.
For what it’s worth.