The next Arab-Israeli war

2011-01-27 00:00

IT'S time to think about the nature of the next Arab-Israeli war. The release by the Arab satellite network al-Jazeera of 16 000 leaked Palestinian documents covering the past 10 years of peace negotiations has driven a stake through the heart of the already moribund "peace process", and we hear constant warnings that when the hope of a peace settlement is finally extinguished, the next step is a return to war. So what would that war be like?

Okay, back up a bit. What the leaked documents show is that the Palestinian negotiators were willing to make huge concessions on territory and other issues in return for Israeli recognition of an independent Palestinian state. They were well-meaning people playing a very bad hand as best they could, but the publication of these documents will destroy them politically.

The spirit in which they approached the talks is exemplified in the first document in the trove, a memo on Palestinian negotiating strategy dated September 1999. It urges the negotiators to heed the advice of the Rolling Stones: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find that you get what you need."

According to the documents, in the past three years the Palestinians have offered to accept all of Israel's illegal settlements around Jerusalem except one (Har Homa) as permanent parts of the Jewish state. Israel annexed all of East Jerusalem after it conquered it in the 1967 war, but international law forbids that and no other country sees the annexation as legal.

The negotiators also offered to restrict the "right of return" of the millions of Palestinians descended from those who were driven from their homes in what is now Israel in 1948 to a mere 100 000 returnees over 10 years. They even offered to put the most sacred site in Jerusalem, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, under the control of a joint committee. (It is currently administered by an Islamic foundation.)

Even these concessions were not enough to persuade the Israelis to accept a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders of the West Bank (including those parts of East Jerusalem still inhabited by Palestinians) and the Gaza Strip. They were enough, however, to make the negotiators reviled in almost every Palestinian home if they were ever revealed — and now they have been.

Even the Palestinian Authority itself, and the whole concept of an independent state for Palestinians in a fraction of pre-partition Palestine, may not survive this blow. Fatah, the faction that effectively rules the parts of the West Bank not yet taken for Israeli settlements, is well past its sell-by date as a national liberation movement, and may lose control of the area to the Islamist Hamas movement before we are very much older.

Hamas, which already controls the Gaza Strip, rejects negotiations with Israel and the whole notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of a two-state future. We are continually told by various pundits that these developments can only lead to war, and they are probably right — but what kind of war?

It would certainly not be like the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, in which regular armies fought stand-up battles with lots of heavy weapons. Egypt, Syria and Jordan, the countries that fought those wars on behalf of the Arabs, have long since abandoned the goal of matching Israeli military power. They don't even buy the right kind of weapons, in the right amounts, to stand a chance against Israel on the battlefield.

We will doubtless see more Israeli punishment attacks in which 100 Palestinians or Lebanese die for every Israeli, like the "wars" against Lebanon in 2006 and in the Gaza Strip in 2008-09. We may well see a "third intifada", another popular uprising against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, probably accompanied by terrorist attacks in Israel itself. But we have seen all this before. It's nothing to get excited about.

In the long run, we may see some Arab states start working on nuclear weapons, to create some balance of forces between the two sides, but probably not for a while yet. In the meantime, the future for the Middle East is not mass destruction, but an unending series of Israeli military strikes that kill in the hundreds or thousands, not in the millions. Plus despair, of course.

• Gwynne Dyer's latest book, Climate Wars, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

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