Determining the real threat to peace in the Middle East

Paul Liben Contributor
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As Israel marked its 62nd anniversary, a familiar rift was occurring with a U.S. administration over the settlements issue. This time, the matter involved Jerusalem, specifically Israel’s expansion of existing settlement in the Old City.

Most Americans may be forgiven for wondering why Israel’s people should be told where they can or cannot build in their own ancient capital. They would also be surprised to learn that Washington doesn’t recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s modern capital. While the U.S. has long been Israel’s most steadfast ally, when it comes to Jerusalem, America stands with other nations in declining to locate its embassy there.

The rationale for this refrain is this: East Jerusalem was part of the real estate taken by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. Like other territory gained in that conflict, it is viewed as an obstacle to peace so long as Israel holds it.

Is it?

One way to find out is to look at the pre-1967 Middle East. Even a cursory examination suggests that the problem isn’t Israel’s reluctance to relinquish land, but her enemies’ refusal to recognize a Jewish state on any land, no matter how minuscule.

Unfortunately, this was true from the beginning. In 1917, Britain’s Balfour Declaration declared the right of the Jews to a homeland in what was then called Palestine. When the Arabs protested, London considered abandoning the Declaration. In 1922, it broke off nearly 80 percent of Palestine, setting it aside as a new Arab homeland called Transjordan. Jewish settlement there was banned.

This left the Jews with only 20 percent of original Palestine. Yet they accepted this outcome, while the Arabs did not. The massacre of Jewish civilians in Hebron in 1929 was a grisly display of the refusal to countenance Zionist settlement in what was left of Palestine. This readiness to endorse mass violence was embodied by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, an Arab Muslim leader in Palestine who spent World War II in Nazi Germany cheerleading the Holocaust and urging its extension into the Middle East.

After World War II, in 1947, the United Nations voted for a Partition Plan that took part of the 20 percent and gave it to the Arabs. Once again, the Jews embraced the plan, while the Arabs rejected it.

In his book, “The Cause for Peace,” Trygve Lie, the UN Secretary General, wrote that having opposed the Partition Plan, the Arabs “seemed determined to drive that point home by assaults upon the Jewish community of Palestine.” Some of these assaults included bombing apartment buildings in Jerusalem, killing students at Hebrew University near Jerusalem, and massacring 78 Jewish doctors, scientists, and nurses on the road to Hadassah Hospital.

Arab leaders did not dispute this charge. In April 1948, Jamal Husseini told the U.N. Security Council that in response to the charge that the Arabs had begun the fighting, “we did not deny this. We told the whole world we were going to fight.”

On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was declared. The Arabs’ response was to try to strangle it in its cradle. Armies from six Arab nations invaded. That same day, Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League, proclaimed, “This will be a war of extermination…”

It wasn’t. Israel prevailed, repelling the invasions.

This was the first of many times in which the Jewish state’s foes launched a “heads-we-win-tails-you lose” campaign. From direct wars on Israel to terrorist strikes against its populace, Israel’s enemies knew that if they won, Israel would be destroyed but that if Israel prevailed, the international community would make sure there would be no price to pay.

That changed with the 1967 war.

On May 15, 1967, the forces of Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser moved into the Sinai. On May 17, Cairo Radio’s Voice of the Arabs proclaimed, “All Egypt is now prepared to plunge into total war which will put an end to Israel.” The following day, it promised “the extermination of Zionist existence.” On May 20, Syria’s Defense Minister and its future leader, Hafez Assad, proclaimed that “the time has come to enter into the battle of liberation.” On May 27, Nasser proclaimed, “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.” The following day, he said there would be no “co-existence with Israel.” adding that “the war with Israel has been in effect since 1948.” Then on May 30, Jordan, formerly Transjordan, signed a military pact with Nasser.

Rather than wait to absorb the impending attack, Israel struck first, defeating its would-be invaders. This time, a cost was extracted from her enemies. Israel took territory, including the Golan Heights from Syria, which had been used to fire on Israelis, the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan.

Both Egypt and Jordan eventually decided to recognize Israel and received land back in return. Moreover, Israel has unilaterally left Gaza.

As for the long-standing issue of Arabs displaced during the 1948 war, Israel offered Yasir Arafat a Palestinian state in 2000 in return for full recognition of its right to exist. Arafat responded by launching a multi-year terror campaign against Israel’s civilians.

In short, history dispels the notion that Israel’s occupation of additional land since the 1967 war is the cause of Arab/Israel hostilities. Rather, it is the refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist that drives the conflict. Were it not so, there would have been no conflict before 1967.

Indeed, it is ironic that as the world remains fixated on a mythical obstacle to peace, the prospect of real and unprecedented war looms as Iran, another foe of Israel and opponent of the West, moves closer to realizing its nuclear ambitions. This would be the culmination of nearly three decades of its regime’s fanning terrorism’s flames, from its role in the creation and support of Hezbollah in Lebanon to its actively aiding Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza.

Which is the real threat to peace: Israelis building houses or Iranian mullahs building a bomb? That is the question for today.

Paul Liben has worked in New York City and Washington, DC as a speechwriter for the past 15 years.   He served as a speechwriter for New York Governor George Pataki and then as director of speechwriting for U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.   A published writer, he has written op-eds for more than 100 publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer and Houston Chronicle.