How the Israel-Palestine Problem Came to Pass

History doesn't solve problems, but it explains them, including the evolution of the intractable Israel—Palestine problem.

The idea of revived sovereignty in their ancient homeland has excited Jews for millennia. Until the nineteenth century that excitement was expressed only in religious and poetic terms. Thus the 137th Psalm recalls the mourning of the Babylonian Jews as follows:

'By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and there we wept, as we remembered Zion. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I do not prefer Jerusalem above my chief joy.'

Even after the Babylonians and later the Romans expelled the Jews from the Holy Land, Jews lived there. Often, there were more Jews there than other inhabitants, particularly in Jerusalem. However, in the 1880s the combination of European nationalism and European anti—Semitism, especially in Czarist Russia, gave birth to Zionism, which is the political expression of Jewish attachment to the Holy Land. In contemporary  parlance Zionism is the Jewish people's movement for national liberation. The 1880s also produced the first modern organized efforts to settle Jews in Palestine, which then comprised all of what we now call Israel, Jordan, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank of the Jordan River.

Until 1948 all inhabitants of Palestine — Jews, Muslims, Christians, Circassians, Druzes, Bahais, and others — were called Palestinians. When they went abroad, they carried Palestinian passports, issued first by the Turks and later by the British, who conquered Palestine in 1917. And when, in 1922, the British and the League of Nations, the United Nations' predecessor, established an official body to represent the Jews of that land, it was called not the Jewish Agency or the Jewish Agency for Israel, but the Jewish Agency for Palestine. 

In 1896 Dr. Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian Jewish journalist who had covered the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French Army framed with a false charge of espionage and treason, published his book Der Judenstaat in which he urged the creation of a Jewish state, though not necessarily in the Middle East. The following year, at a meeting in Switzerland, Herzl and other Jews from around the world created the World Zionist Organization, which proclaimed that

'Zionism seeks a publicly recognized, legally secured home . . . in Palestine for the Jewish people.'

Since 1897, Zionist Congresses have met regularly in order to garner moral, political, and financial support for both pre— and post—state Israel.

Great Britain was the first country to support the Zionist cause. On November 2, 1917 its Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issued this declaration:

'His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non—Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.'

Shortly thereafter, France, Italy, America, and other nations indicated their agreement with the Balfour Declaration.

In July 1922 the League of Nations recognized

'the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine'

and incorporated the Balfour Declaration into the League's Mandate for Palestine, the document which gave Britain the legal right to govern the Holy Land as well as the responsibility

'for placing the country under such political, administrative, and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home.'

Until the early 1920s, what is today the Kingdom of Jordan was part of Palestine. But in 1921 Britain split it off from the rest of Palestine and gave it as a fief to Abdullah I, the grandfather of the present Jordanian king. The Emirate of Trans—Jordan came into being officially on May 25, 1923.

Many Zionists argue that Jordan, where Jews were not allowed to settle, was and is the independent Palestinian Arab state.

In any case, Jews came to British Palestine in great numbers between the first and second world wars. In 1919 the country contained some 515,000 Arabs and about 65,000 Jews, who comprised 12 percent of its population. By 1938 the Jews were 29 percent and by 1944 they were 33 percent.

As time passed, the Zionist movement stopped calling for a Jewish home and started demanding a Jewish state. But the trouble was that the Arabs had also become enamored with nationalism. The irreconcilability of these two vibrant nationalisms in one tiny piece of land became apparent almost as soon as the British began to rule Palestine.

The Palestinian Jews wanted ever—increasing immigration so that they could eventually become the majority. And the Palestinian Arabs, aware that the number and percentage of Jews were increasing rapidly, demanded that the British stop Jewish immigration, despite the rise of Adolf Hitler and the ensuing Holocaust. Trying to force Britain to convert Palestine immediately into an Arab state, some Arabs engaged in frequent violence and massacres of Jews, for example in 1929 and between 1936 and 1939.

As  a result of the 1936 unrest, London sent out to Jerusalem a Royal Commission usually called the Peel Commission after  its chairman, Earl Peel.  It reported that

'there  is no common ground between . . .  [the two communities] . . . . Neither Arab nor Jew has any sense of service to a single state, ' and the commission concluded that 'the disease [from which Palestine is suffering] is so deep rooted that, in our firm conviction, the only hope of a cure lies in a surgical operation.'

The Peel Commission recommended a three—way partition of Palestine into an Arab state,  a Jewish state, and an area under British control. Nothing came of it. It received only limited support from the League of Nations, the British Parliament, and Palestine's Jews and absolutely no support from Palestine's Arabs, who responded with new riots and new attacks upon the Jews.

As the clouds of war gathered over Europe, Britain, in May 1939, radically changed its Palestine policy. In a so—called White Paper it declared that its new objective was 'the establishment within ten years of an independent Palestine state.' To accomplish this, it was going to take the following steps:

— enact constitutional reforms to give the Arabs 'an increasing part in the government of their country.'

— Jewish immigration into Palestine was going to be limited to a total of 75,000 persons between 1939 and 1944, after which time 'no further Jewish immigration will be permitted unless the Arabs of Palestine are prepared to acquiesce in it.'

— the British Palestine government would be granted 'powers to prohibit and regulate [further] transfer of land [from Palestinian Arabs to Palestinian Jews].'

World War II forced Britain to postpone the pro—Arab constitutional reforms, but its restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchase were strictly enforced.

Once the Second World War was over, the struggle between the British, the Jews, and the Arabs resumed and accelerated. To their earlier demands for a Jewish state, the Zionist movement added the demand that the survivors of the Holocaust be taken to Palestine immediately, As you might remember from he book and the movie Exodus, the British refused. The Zionists brought Jews to Palestine illegally. With equal tenacity, the British stopped them whenever they could, sending them back to Europe or to Cyprus. In that famous corny phrase, the situation in  Palestine went from bad to worse.

So in 1946 Britain proposed to President Harry S. Truman the formation of an Anglo—American Committee of Inquiry on the Palestine Problem. Visiting both Europe and Palestine, its members made two recommendations: The first one was

'that 100,000  [immigration] certificates be authorized immediately for the admission into Palestine of Jews who have been the victims of Nazi and Fascist persecution . . . and that those certificates be awarded as far as possible in 1946.'

The second recommendation was that 'Palestine be neither a Jewish state nor an Arab state.'

The Anglo—American report satisfied neither community. And the 100,000 immigration certificates were not distributed because Prime Minister Clement Atlee made their issuance contingent upon the immediate voluntary disarmament of both Jews and Arabs in Palestine, as well as American acceptance of a share of the 'additional military and financial responsibilities' involved in bringing the Jewish immigrants over.

Since Truman refused to accept Atlee's conditions, Britain continued to restrict further Jewish immigration.

In February 1947 the British proposed to the Jews and Arabs that

'His Majesty's Government should administer a five—year trusteeship over Palestine, with the declared object of preparing the country for [binational] independence.'

This, too, was rejected by the two communities. So after thirty years of trying to implement the constantly reinterpreted Balfour Declaration, and to solve the constantly convoluted Arab—Jewish problem of Palestine, Britain, on April 2, 1947, took the matter to the United Nations, And on November 29, 1947 the General Assembly recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state.

The Jews accepted the recommendation, even though it gave them no control over the Holy City of Jerusalem, which was to be governed by the United Nations as a separate entity. The Arabs did not, despite the fact that Israel's Declaration of Independence, proclaimed on May 14, 1948, after the British left Palestine, contained these clauses:

'WE APPEAL — in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months — to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.'

'WE EXTEND our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.'

Although the Israeli Army beat back the attacks of Arab armies during Israel's War of Independence, it was not able to seize what became known as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. From 1948 to 1967 Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip, and Jordan controlled East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In these nineteen years they made no attempt to give independence to the Palestinians. It was only after Israel conquered these territories in the famous Six Day War of 1967 that the Arab, Muslim, and European worlds agitated for Israeli withdrawal and for Palestinian independence.

Now why is it that the Arabs and other Muslims have rejected every opportunity to have a sovereign and peaceful Palestinian state next to the State of Israel? Why, in 2000, did Palestine Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat reject Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer to return to the Palestinians 95 percent of the Israeli—occupied territories, including a portion of East Jerusalem to be used as their capital? And why did Arafat respond by launching a  suicide—bombing intifada?

Why did the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who knows very well that in 538 BC King Cyrus of Persia let the Jews leave Babylon and return to Judah, vow to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth? And why did Hamas leader Khalid Mish'al write in Britain's Guardian newspaper soon after his party won the Gaza Strip election that 'We shall never recognize the legitimacy of a Zionist state'?

'By wide margins,'reported a 2003 Pew Research Center poll, 'Muslim populations doubt that a way can be found for the state of Israel to exist so that the rights and needs of the Palestinian people are met. Eight—in—ten residents of the Palestinian Authority express this opinion.'

In other words, despite the 137th Psalm and the support by the League of Nations in the 1920s and by the UN in the 1940s of a renascent Jewish state in the Middle East, contemporary Muslims, like their brethren before them, deny that the Jews have any legitimate historical and religious ties to the City of David and to the Holy Land — before, during, and after the Holocaust.

Muslims want Israel to disappear because of the geopolitics of their religion. Islam emerged in Arabia. In a short time it enveloped peoples and places as far away as Indonesia. So Islam developed the notion that once a non—Muslim land is conquered, it belongs to the Ummah, the universal community of Islam, forever. Should the Infidel retake his land, such as the Christian reconquest of Spain in 1492, the reconquest is temporary until Islam conquers the Infidel's land again.

This is a corollary to another Muslim notion, expressed most clearly by the late Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini, the religious leader who overthrew the Shah of Iran and founded the present Iranian Revolutionary regime:

'Holy war means the conquest of all non—Muslim territories.' The 'final aim . . . is to put Koranic law in power from one end of the Earth to the other.'

For those who reject Israel's right to exist, the issue is not the size of the Jewish state or the boundaries of the Jewish state. It is the existence of the Jewish state.

The rejectionists cannot abide in their midst Infidel Unbelievers who also possess the attributes of sovereignty: a country, a flag, a language, an army, an anthem, and a culture. Even Israeli Arabs, like Ibrahim Sansour, a leader of the Islamic Movement, reject the Jewish state and the other Infidel states in the world.

'We wish to see the establishment of the Islamic caliphate without borders, and that is what scares the West.'

It should scare Israel and the entire Western world.

In 1978, when I mentioned the history of Tel Aviv in a lecture I gave at Oxford University, a Palestinian in the audience said:

'I know the Jews began building the city on the sands of neighboring Jaffa, in the early 1900s, with the personal consent of the Turkish Sultan. But they built it on my sand, and I want my sand back.'

When will there be peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

Long before the Palestinians began using suicide bombers and long before Palestinian mothers began to encourage their offspring to become suicide bombers, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir answered the question this way:

'There will be peace between us and our neighbors when they love their children more than they hate ours.'

Edward Bernard Glick is the author of Peaceful Conflict and Soldiers, Scholars, and Society.