Israel at 60 - yet there is still no Palestinian state

This week Israel celebrated the 60th anniversary of its birth, certainly a success story when one considers the continuous hostility it has had to face from its neighbours ever since its creation. At the same time, however, the Palestinians commemorate the nakba, or catastrophe, which saw the mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their towns and villages, most of who still live scattered in refugee camps in Arab countries today.

Israel today is a vibrant democracy and an economic and military powerhouse in the Middle East. It has fought four wars with its Arab neighbours since 1948, three wars in Lebanon, has encountered numerous clashes with Palestinian insurgents, it has been the victim of suicide attacks, most Arab and Muslim states have not recognised its existence, and the President of Iran has called for its destruction.

In spite of all the odds, Israel has not only survived but prospered. Its determination to do this is admirable. Considering that the Jewish race was almost eliminated in the Holocaust during World War II, Israel's fighting spirit is certainly understandable. The fact remains, however, that Israel's success story is coupled with a mass injustice committed against the Palestinian people, whose plight remains wretched, and who are still stateless 60 years after Israel's creation. And there can be no doubt that Israel's long-term future remains dependent on a solution to the Palestinian question.

There are numerous arguments on both sides of the divide as to who should be blamed for the very unfortunate situation the Palestinians find themselves in. Israel says it did not force the Palestinians to leave in 1948 and that the Arab states, which attacked Israel as soon as it was created, did nothing to help the Palestinian refugees over the years. The Palestinians say that they were forced to leave their homes at gunpoint when Israel was created, and that Israel's promise to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank - which Israel occupied from Jordan in the 1967 six-day war - are just empty words.

The fact remains that although the Palestinians were promised a state under the UN partition plan of 1947 (which was rejected by the Arab countries) and despite the fact that today every country supports the creation of such a state - including the US and Israel - such a likelihood seems a long way off.

If there is one issue which fuels jihadism and exhilarates and radicalises millions of Muslims it is the plight of the Palestinians. A solution to the Palestinian question would definitely reduce the attraction of Muslims to jihadism, although it would not end it. Al-Qaeda and its followers would still exist and have the same aims if a Palestinian state was created, but they would have one less issue to exploit.

In any case, giving the Palestinians a state of their own is simply the right thing to do because they deserve it and because they have suffered for too long. Of course, the Palestinians have made a number of mistakes over the years. They took too long to recognise Israel and one can argue that Yasser Arafat should have agreed to a peace deal at Camp David in 2000 in the final days of the Clinton presidency.

Israel has also made mistakes, and it is no exaggeration to say that its hard-line attitude towards the Palestinians over the years and its refusal to freeze the building of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank was largely responsible for the creation of Hamas, the Islamic Palestinian movement which today controls Gaza.

The United States, Israel's closest friend, has long been involved in the Middle East peace process and did manage to broker a number of peace accords.

The Madrid peace conference of 1991, jointly sponsored by the US and USSR, laid the foundations for the Oslo peace accord of 1993, which was a milestone in Israeli-Palestinian relations and which created a Palestinian National Authority that would be responsible for the territory under its control. The Oslo peace accord also called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank (except from the Jewish settlements) and Gaza. Since then, the situation has deteriorated. The election of Hamas in January 2006 certainly made the situation worse.

The US is the only country with real leverage over Israel, yet President Bush has done little to persuade Israel to adopt more of a compromising attitude towards the Palestinians or to stop the illegal building of settlements in the West Bank. Certainly Iraq has been the main Middle East focus of Mr Bush's presidency.

The next US President will have to focus extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and Israel must come to terms with the fact that a two-state solution is the only hope for its long-term future.


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