History is usually a cruel mistress to its losers, particularly in the case of peoples attempting to create new nations who failed in their aspirations.
Not much is heard today of the Republic of Biafra, for example, an attempt led largely by the Igbo people to create an independent state carved out of Nigeria’s eastern provinces between 1967 and 1970 which ended in defeat. Nor is the memory of the Katangese secession of 1960–1963 from what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo easily recalled.
History’s losers have largely faded into irrelevance. The international community at large has accepted that time cannot stand still while old arguments wait to be resolved. On the contrary, we have realised that history is dynamic. Circumstances change, and it is almost always understood that people must change with them.
Except, it appears, in one glaring case: that of the Palestinians.
Since 1948, and the United Nations creation of a Jewish and Arab state in the former British Mandate of Palestine, a unique international fixation has emerged with the Arab part of that equation.
The beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict is too torturous to fully recount but it can be summed up thus: the Jews of Israel — having spent 2,000 years as part of history’s losers’ club — grabbed the UN decision to re-establish a Jewish homeland, despite the territory offered being minimalist in nature. Their Arab neighbours did not, and set out to destroy them. They failed, and we have lived with the legacy of that Arab rejectionism since.
In more recent years, the Palestinians — whose territorial ambitions were dampened by Egyptian and Jordanian control between 1949 and 1967, before they were awakened by the political needs of Arab states to champion Palestinian nationhood — and the Israelis attempted to negotiate peace with one another.
But old habits die hard. The Palestinians claim to want a state. But they are the first people in history who have not grasped every and any opportunity to create one when it has been presented on a plate to them.
Since the Oslo Accords in 1993, the entire trajectory of the peace process has been one of greater Israeli concessions, followed by Palestinian rejectionism. This reached its apogee with Mahmoud Abbas’s turning down of the Olmert Plan in 2008 which promised 94.2 per cent of the West Bank to Palestine, Jerusalem as a joint capital, a symbolic Right of Return of Palestinian refugees, and international control of the holy places.
There has also been a pronounced ratchet effect, whereby Palestinians have come to expect that the next round of negotiations would not start from the status quo ante prior to the failed peace plan in question, but from the final rejected offer. History, they thought, was inexorably moving in the direction of one of its losers. Until now.
Because for the first time, a peace plan has been presented — this time by US President Donald Trump — that offers the Palestinians less, rather than more. A two-state solution remains, but one with greater Israeli territory, and with Jerusalem and refugees off the agenda.
Amid Palestinian howls of outrage, something equally extraordinary has happened. Arab states including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Egypt have welcomed the unveiling of Trump’s plan, even if they have not entirely agreed with its content.
The time since the start of the peace process has revealed to them that the greatest threat to their security is not Israel, but — in common with Israel — Iran. Palestinian maximalist demands are therefore of less interest to them than a workable deal to end the conflict.
Even the UK has clambered aboard the Trump train, breaking with the EU’s predictable opposition, as befits a newly independent nation making its own strategic decisions.
All this matters because one of the reasons that previous peace plans foundered was that the Palestinians were allowed to think that history would stand still until their old fantasy of a Palestine “from the river to the sea” became achievable. Arab states and western powers imposed no penalties for rejectionism, encouraging the conflict to drag on.
The Palestinians have other problems to be sure — a political division between the Fatah and Hamas movements preventing unity, and a lamentable failure to present credible leadership foremost among them. But we cannot escape our culpability for their predicament — not because of western support for Israel, but as a consequence of the failure of the west to encourage Palestinian leaders to bring a Palestinian state into existence.
Trump’s peace plan is a good start in reminding the Palestinians that history waits for nobody, and that if they choose to absent themselves from deliberations, they can expect decisions to be made by others — and not to their liking.
What would be even better is if the international community now seizes the opportunity that Trump’s plan represents to force the Palestinians to end their rejectionism of the Palestinian state they claim to want, and for Palestinian leaders to finally take responsibility for Palestinian futures.
Main image credit: Getty