The conflict with the Arabs has cast a long shadow over Israel’s history. In the Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, on 14 May 1948, the founding fathers extended their hand in peace to all the neighbouring states and their peoples. Today, Israel is still at war with Syria and Lebanon and locked into a bitter conflict with the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank. The explanation that Israelis usually give for the failure to achieve peace in the Middle East can be summed up in two words: Arab intransigence. Israel’s image of itself is that of a decent, rational, peace-loving nation that resorts to military power in self-defence only. The image of the Arabs, on the other hand, is that of a fanatical, hostile enemy that understands only the language of force. The reality is more complex.
The general picture that emerges of Israeli statecraft in the first 60 years of statehood is one of routine, often unthinking reliance on military force and a reluctance to engage in meaningful diplomacy to resolve the conflict with its neighbours. Another trait, common to Labour and Likud leaders alike, is a blind spot when it comes to the Palestinian people and a desire to bypass them by concluding bilateral deals with the rulers of the neighbouring Arab states.
Of all Israel’s bilateral relationships, the most far-reaching in its consequences and the most endlessly fascinating is the one with the Hashemite rulers of Jordan. Jordan and Israel have been aptly described as “the best of enemies”. Twenty years ago I published a book that established my credentials as a “new” or revisionist Israeli historian: Collusion Across the Jordan. I challenged many of the myths that have come to surround the birth of the State of Israel and the First Arab- Israeli War, most notably that Arab intransigence was alone responsible for the political deadlock that persisted for three decades. In contrast to the conventional view of the Arab- Israeli conflict as a simple bipolar affair, I dwelt on the special relationship between King Abdullah I of Jordan (grandfather of King Hussein and great-grandfather of King Abdullah II) and the Zionist movement, and on the interest that the Hashemites and the Zionists shared in containing Palestinian nationalism. The central thesis is that, in November 1947, the Hashemite ruler of Transjordan and the Jewish Agency reached a tacit agreement to divide up mandatory Palestine between themselves and that this agreement laid the foundations not only for mutual restraint during the war but for continuing collaboration in its aftermath – until Abdullah I’s assassination by a Palestinian nationalist in 1951.
Abdullah left behind a legacy of moderation and realism that continues to inform Jordanian foreign policy down to the present day. Hussein bin Talal, like his grandfather, was the king of realism. Israel, for its part, sought lines of communication to the “plucky little king”, who was at odds with the radical Palestinians and with the Arab nationalists led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. In September 1963, the young king took the initiative in starting his own secret dialogue across the battle lines. He had a realistic assessment of the military balance, he knew that the Arabs had no chance of defeating Israel on the battlefield, and he wanted to meet the enemy face-to-face to find a path to peaceful coexistence. His secret contacts with the enemy continued right up until the conclusion of the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel in October 1994.
The June 1967 war marked the lowest ever point in Jordanian-Israeli relations. Hussein made the mistake of his life by jumping on Nasser’s bandwagon and the price he paid was the loss of half of his kingdom, including the jewel in the crown – the Old City of Jerusalem. He spent the rest of his life in a tireless effort to recover the occupied Arab territories. Secret diplomacy was resumed and intensified after the war. The list of prominent Israeli politicians who met secretly with Hussein included Golda Meir, Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir.
Thick veil of secrecy
While researching my biography of Hussein, and with the help of official Israeli documents and interviews with some of the principal participants, including the king himself, I tried to reconstruct the parleys that were held behind a thick veil of secrecy. The list of the secret meetings, with dates, names of participants and venues, reveals that most took place in St John’s Wood in London at the home of Dr Emanuel Herbert, the king’s Jewish physician. But there were also meetings in Paris, Strasbourg, Eilat, Coral Island, the royal yacht in the Gulf of Aqaba, an air-conditioned caravan in Wadi Araba, and one meeting at the Mossad headquarters north of Tel Aviv. My list is probably incomplete but it conveys the scope and intensity of the covert relationship between the ostensible enemies.
Jordan accepted UN Resolution 242 of November 1967 and the principle of land for peace. This resolution became the cornerstone of Jordan’s postwar diplomacy. At a deeper level, however, Hussein understood the importance of giving Israel the sense of security needed to make concessions for the sake of peace. Hussein’s terms never changed. From the beginning he offered his Israeli interlocutors full, contractual peace in exchange for the occupied territories, with only minor border modifications. His aim was not a separate peace with Israel, but a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Nor was he alone in striving for peace on the Arab side. Nasser knew and approved of Hussein’s secret talks provided they did not lead to a separate peace. Despite Nasser’s tacit support, it took great courage on Hussein’s part to pursue this solo diplomacy, as it violated the greatest Arab taboo.
The quest for a land-for-peace deal was frustrated more by Israeli than by Arab intransigence. By its actions, the victor showed that it preferred land to peace with its neighbours. Soon after the end of the war Israel began to build settlements in the occupied territories. Building civilian settlements on occupied territory was not just illegal under international law, but a major obstacle to peace. There were some early signs of flexibility on the part of the Israeli cabinet in relation to the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights but none towards the West Bank. All the major parties in the 1967-70 national unity government were united in their determination to keep at least a substantial part of the West Bank, permanently.
There were proponents of the “Jordanian option” and proponents of the “Palestinian option”, but in practical terms the debate was between those who did not want to return the West Bank to Jordan and those who did not want to return it to the Palestinians who lived there. Despite Hussein’s best efforts the diplomatic deadlock persisted for another decade, until Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977. Sadat did what Hussein had studiously avoided, namely, a bilateral deal with Israel that left the Palestinian problem unresolved. The two countries changed places: Egypt was drummed out of the Arab League while Jordan joined the Arab mainstream.
There was only one leader in Israel’s history with the courage to grasp the nettle and negotiate directly with the Palestinians about their rights and status in Palestine, and that was Yitzhak Rabin. Secret negotiations in the Norwegian capital culminated in the signing of the Oslo Accords on 13 September 1993. For all their shortcomings, the Oslo Accords represented a historic breakthrough in the hundred-year-old conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. The PLO recognised Israel; Israel recognised the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people; and the two sides agreed to resolve all their outstanding differences by peaceful means. The historic compromise was clinched on the White House lawn. For his courage, Rabin paid with his life – two years later, he was assassinated by a Jewish fanatic. The assassination achieved its objective: it derailed the Oslo peace process.
Contrary to the widely held view in Israel, the Oslo Accords were not doomed to failure from the start. The Oslo peace process broke down because Rabin’s hardline Likud successors reneged on their country’s side of the original deal. They not only continued but intensified the building of settlements in the occupied territories. Settlement expansion continues even as these lines are being written. It is tantamount to stealing the land and the water resources that belong to another people. Occupation is the opposite of peace. It is oppression; it is the abuse of human rights; it is in-your-face violence. There can be no genuine or viable peace between Israel and the Palestinians without an end to the occupation. Peace-making and land-grabbing simply do not go together. Consequently, 40 years after its spectacular victory in the Six-Day War, Israel still faces the same fundamental choice: it can have land or it can have peace; it cannot have both.
Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford and the author of “Lion of Jordan: the Life of King Hussein in War and Peace” (Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, £30)
60 years of struggle
- 14 May 1948 State of Israel established
- May 1964 PLO founded, declaring Israel “illegal, null and void”
- June 1967 Israel launches Six-Day War against Egypt, Jordan and Syria
- 6 October 1973 Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement): Egypt and Syria declare war on Israel
- 1977-1979 Egypt and Israel negotiate peace deal
- 17 September 1978 Camp David Accords are signed
- June 1982 Israel invades Lebanon
- 13 September 1993 Oslo Accords signed
- 4 November 1995 Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s PM, is assassinated
- August 2005 Israel disengages from Gaza
- 12 July 2006 Lebanon invaded after Israeli soldier abducted
- 27 November 2007 Annapolis peace summit articulates two-state solution for Israel-Palestine
Research by Katie Wake