Israel 101

As Israel faces a continuing crisis, people who reach different conclusions about what course the country should take seem to agree on one point: not enough people, Jews and non-Jews, know the basics about Israel, the Palestinians, and the conflict in which they are locked. For answers, The Journal turned to Steven L. Spiegel, a professor of political science and associate director of the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA. He is also chair of the policy advisors to the Israel Policy Forum and chief research consultant for the Center for Policy Options of the University of Judaism.

We hope you save his answers to the following questions and use them in understanding and debating the situation. They will be posted online at We know that some of his answers will displease many — the world of hard facts is itself subject to interpretation — but in a world of passionate disagreement, Spiegel’s has always been a calm and insightful voice.

1. Let’s start with the past. On Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations offered a partition plan that would have created an Arab and a Jewish state in what was then British-controlled Palestine. The Jewish agency accepted partition, the Arabs rejected it. Why?

Spiegel: They wanted the whole territory for themselves. Many saw Zionism as a tool of European imperialism. They viewed themselves as the native inhabitants, the majority. As immigrants and interlopers, the Jews had no right to Palestine. They thought the Jews should return to Europe or, at most, they could live as a minority within an Arab Palestinian state.

2. Jews and Palestinians each claim long-standing historic ties to Israel/Palestinian. Who is right?

S: Each side can make a convincing case in its own right. The Arabs claim they were the original residents, who had lived there for generations, and were displaced by the Jews. The Israelis claim this land is the historic home of the Jewish people, there is nowhere else that can be a Jewish refuge (the absence of which was made so tragically evident by the Holocaust) and it is Jewish immigration, development and capital which actually increased Arab immigration into Palestine during the mandate and even the development of Palestine throughout the last century.

But whichever case one prefers, the question is irrelevant. Today there are more than 5 million Jews in Israel and almost 1 million Arabs; there are another 3 million Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. Whichever case is better, there are practical problems which must be addressed to solve the problem of two peoples living on the same land.

2. If Palestinians and Israelis can’t even agree on the history of what really happened, how can they agree on a solution?

S: History is the last, not the first, thing that nations ending conflict agree on. Nations have their myths and their histories, and they do not have to be compatible to live as neighbors without conflict. Britain and France, France and Germany, even Sweden and Norway have different views of history. So what? If both sides accept a suitable compromise and commit themselves to living peacefully together, it doesn’t matter if they see history differently so long as they do not incite their respective populations to correct history.

4. A major component of President Bill Clinton’s peace proposal was the refugee problem. How did the refugee problem come to be?

S: In the 1948 war many Arab refugees left in fear, often urged by their leaders to do so, in order that they would not be harmed when Arab armies swept through Israel as they expected them to do. Once the war began, Israeli forces did encourage Arabs to leave and in some cases expelled them as a means of creating a Jewish state with more viable borders and population.

The Arab side believes that the refugees deserve to return to their homes and property because they were innocent victims caught up in a war zone or physically expelled by the Israelis. The Israelis generally argue that if there had been no war initiated by the Arabs and they had instead accepted the UN partition plan, there would have been no refugee problem in the first place. According to this position, the refugee problem is the responsibility of the Arab governments that either encouraged refugee departure or created the conditions in which it occurred. Israeli officials also often argue that the refugee problem still exists today over 50 years later because Arab governments kept people in camps with false hopes of returning to their land as a means of keeping the conflict alive.

5. If the right of return applies to all Jews, whether they ever lived in Israel or not, why shouldn’t it apply to Palestinians who actually lived there before 1948?

S: This is precisely the position taken by the Arab side. The problem is a practical one. Israel was created as a Jewish state. If all Palestinians (or even a substantial number) are allowed to return, it would undermine the raison d’etre of a Jewish state, Jewish self-determination. The Jewish majority would diminish and even soon disappear because of the difference in birth rates. The consequence would be a binational Arab-Jewish state in what is now Israel and an Arab-Palestinian state in what is now the West Bank and Gaza. Or if Israel continues to be run by Jews, and there were to be an Arab majority, it would no longer be a democratic state.

6. Weren’t many Jews refugees from the Arab countries in which they lived? What about their rights?

S: Jews were expelled from many Arab countries after the 1948 war, or their lives were made so miserable they chose to leave. They have been absorbed by several countries, including Israel. Speaking on their behalf, the Israeli government has traditionally claimed that their rights must be addressed and their property losses also considered as part of any comprehensive settlement.

7. Why is Israel even negotiating away territory it won fair and square in the Six-Day War? After all, it was a war Israel launched following Arab aggression.

S: Israel is negotiating because it cannot realistically keep all the territory and still have any hope of peaceful accommodation with its Arab neighbors. The basic compromise envisioned after the war in 1967 is still valid: Israel and the Arabs trade captured land for normalization and peace and security. With its high-tech economy and its strategic challenges represented by the growth of weapons of mass destruction in the region and the means of delivering them, most Israelis believe (according to the polls) that their state will be stronger if they make acceptable agreements with their Arab neighbors before the conflict goes nuclear.

8. Why can’t Israel just take over the West Bank and Gaza?

S: If Israel annexes the West Bank and Gaza, it will have to confront continuing violence on the part of the indigenous population, increased terrorism at home, the morally debilitating occupation of another people, foreign opprobrium, regional Arab hostility and economic crisis. If it makes the Arab population citizens in an attempt to uphold democratic values, Israel would become a binational state that would soon have an Arab majority. Annexation would force upon Israel an unacceptable choice between remaining a Jewish state or a democratic state.

9. Why is Israel negotiating with Yasser Arafat? Didn’t he found the PLO for the purpose of destroying Israel?

S: Actually, the PLO was founded by the Arab League under the influence of Egypt’s Nasser in 1964. The declared purpose of the PLO was to destroy Israel, but that was explicitly rejected in the Oslo accords and in the renunciation of the Palestine Covenant in both 1996 and 1998. Arafat was elected by the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza in early 1996 as their leader. If Israel seeks accommodation with the Palestinians, there is no one else available and no one else who can deliver.

10. Since the beginning of the peace talks, has there been any sign of Palestinian moderation or acceptance of Israel?

S: In the agreements of September 1993, the Palestinians explicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist, an act reconfirmed in 1996 and 1998 when they renounced the sections of their covenant which called for Israel’s destruction. Opinion polls consistently have shown that the Palestinian people do accept Israel’s existence and the more radical Hamas rarely receives more that 10 percent support. Most importantly, perhaps, between the Wye agreements in late 1998 and the current intifada which began in late September 2000 there was dramatic security cooperation between the two sides, under CIA supervision, which resulted in Palestinian terrorism against Israel practically disappearing. In the recent round of negotiations, the Palestinians were prepared to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and they were prepared to accept annexation of settlement blocs and Jewish neighborhoods in and around Jerusalem. Anti-Israel rhetoric and the current violence notwithstanding, it would not be accurate to suggest that Palestinians have demonstrated no moderation.

11. Is it true that no Palestinian textbook displays a map of the Middle East that includes Israel?

S: The major Palestinian map-making exercise so far, the “Atlas of Palestine,” does indeed include Israel within its 1967 borders. This exercise was pursued, like so many others among the Palestinians, by a Palestinian non-governmental organization. The introduction is by Abu Alla, the prominent speaker of the Palestine Council, and one of those most often mentioned as a possible replacement to Yasser Arafat. The Palestinians have just begun to employ some of their own textbooks, since in the West Bank they have used Jordanian books because they controlled the area before 1967, and in Gaza they used Egyptian books for the same reason.

12. If annexation is not an option, what are Israel’s alternatives?

S:: Israel can continue to try to negotiate a comprehensive accord with the Palestinians. It can attempt to return to a phased, interim process if all issues cannot be settled at once. It can try to separate unilaterally from the Palestinians by withdrawing from most of the West Bank and Gaza, accepting a state, and then negotiating with that state concerning all other issues in dispute. Theoretically, at least, it could try to bring the Jordanians back in control of the West Bank, but there is no indication that the Amman government would cooperate with such an initiative.

13. Won’t a Palestinian state be a security threat to Israel?

S: As recent events have demonstrated clearly, Israel’s safety ultimately depends on the power of the IDF. It is precisely because of Israel’s military strength that Israel can afford to agree to treaties and enforce them, which is why the large majority of the top IDF officers have long favored concluding peace agreements as a means of enhancing security. Even after a Palestinian state were to be established, Israel would still be the most powerful military power in the Middle East, backed by the premier world superpower — the United States. With peace would come greater foreign investment, which would make Israel stronger economically and even more powerful militarily. Under these conditions, it is difficult to see how a Palestinian state could become a security threat to Israel, especially given the fact that the current turmoil in the West Bank and Gaza themselves represent a security threat to Israel.

No Israeli government will agree to a Palestinian state that is not committed by international agreement to preventing terrorism against Israel, which is basically demilitarized, and which is prevented by treaty from making alliances with regimes hostile to the Jewish state. Israel would also have permission under the treaty to act unilaterally if need be in the case of a ground attack against Jordan (presumably troops from Iraq headed toward Israel) and would act even if the Palestinians hesitated in this case. The treaty will also necessarily include provisions for immediate rectification were Palestine to violate pre-existing arrangements.

14. Why do Israeli leaders even talk about negotiating the Temple Mount? Isn’t that sacred to all Jews?

S: The Temple Mount is an issue that has only evolved in an attempt to settle all outstanding issues as part of a comprehensive accord. The essence of this approach is a series of grand tradeoffs. The biggest issues of all that have emerged are the concern in the Arab and Muslim world over Arab sovereignty over Arab parts of Jerusalem, especially the mosques on the Temple Mount, and the concern of Israelis to block the Palestinian refugee right of return. So negotiators began to talk about a tradeoff between the two, especially because the Palestinians have recognized the importance of Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall.
In this light, the Clinton Administration proposed giving the Palestinians sovereignty over the plateau itself (since Muslim religious authorities have effectively and successfully controlled it since 1967) and Israelis control over the area underneath the plateau where the remains of the two Jewish Temples are located. According to the plan, Jewish access to the Mount would be guaranteed and Jewish interests recognized.
The Barak government at one point appeared ready to accept this compromise; the Palestinians did not.

15. Israeli leaders have long said that Jerusalem will never again be divided. Why are they negotiating over that?

S: When you reach final status talks, there are no nevers. Barak discovered at Camp David that he could not hope for a comprehensive deal without dealing with the Jerusalem issue, especially if he wanted to settle the refugee question as well on terms favorable to Israel. His suggestions and those refined since Camp David would still give Israel the largest Jewish Jerusalem in history with all Jewish inhabitants within Israel. Moreover, technically, according to where proposals in negotiations reportedly now stand, Jerusalem would not be divided. It would be the capital of both the Israeli and Palestinian state, but it would be an open city with its own special regime.

At the time of Camp David last summer, the Israeli public responded with surprising acquiescence to the essence of Barak’s proposals concerning Jerusalem, in part because they accepted the logic of getting rid of the burden of ruling over more Arab neighborhoods and making Jerusalem more “Jewish.”

However, skepticism has increased since the beginning of the intifada on security grounds. In any case, with a new administration in the United States and a likely new Israeli leader, the future of the effort to achieve a comprehensive agreement, which would necessarily cover Jerusalem, is uncertain.

16. What guarantees are there that if the Palestinians get their own state, they will ever accept Israel?

S: The Palestinians have formally accepted Israel’s right to exist since the Oslo accords of September 1993, but we have repeatedly seen that this acceptance has not been sufficient to prevent violence and bloodshed. That must be accomplished by intensified security measures and accommodation moves. However, a Palestinian state which emerges as a consequence of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement creates an entirely new situation from the one which exists now. There would be formal treaties and agreements recognized by the international community and involving formal obligations on both sides. These would involve diplomatic relations, trade commissions, security liaisons. While some of this already exists, it would now take on new ceremonial and psychological dimensions. Issues such as incitement in Palestinian media and anti-Semitic rhetoric and education would not only be covered by the agreement, but would also be matters of discussion between two states.

Besides all these factors, there is an air of unreality about this question. It could as easily be applied to Egypt and Jordan, which have made peace with Israel, and to other Arab states such as Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, Qatar, which have had contacts, some of them quite open. The building of a different kind of Middle East in which Israel plays an integral part is a task of decades, and it is a mistake to think of one glorious day when Israel will suddenly be “accepted.” However, if there is one Arab party which has had the most intimate dealings with Israelis, and which therefore is the closest to accepting Israel as a fact, it is ironically the Palestinians because of their close interconnection with Israel since 1967.

17. What will happen to the Jewish settlers in Gaza and the West Bank?

S: Based on current discussions, it appears that 80 percent of the settlers will stay where they are and will reside on territory (all now on the West Bank or in Jerusalem) which will be in Israel. The other settlements will have to be dismantled.

18. Will a peace deal that dismantles settlements or redefines Jerusalem’s status tear Israel apart and lead to civil violence?

S:There will undoubtedly be protests, most heated and some even potentially accompanied by a measure of violence, if any Israeli government takes these moves. However, polling evidence and reactions to past deals suggest that the Israeli people want a peace deal. Indeed, there was more opposition to Camp David in the Knesset than in the populace at large. The intifada since September has made the Israeli populace skeptical, so the degree of opposition will depend on the nature of the deal, how it is packaged and marketed, who is doing the marketing on the Israeli side, and how the Palestinians react to the deal and what they say. But given past reactions to peace arrangements, it is most likely that the Israeli public will accept a deal by a substantial majority, causing the opponents to be marginalized and their protests made to appear progressively quixotic. Even many residents of settlements which are likely to be dismantled have said they would leave voluntarily if a peace deal were to be reached.

19. If Israel just walks away from peace talks and refuses to negotiate, what’s the harm?

S: The question assumes a situation in which the clear onus for the breakdown of talks would be on Israel. The consequence would be increased instability in the region and on Israel’s borders, the intensified possibility of war and the certain growth of violent incidents. It would also mean a decline in relations with other Arab countries, Europeans, Asia and even the United States. Not only would Israel’s short-term diplomatic and security situations deteriorate, but its long-term security would be jeopardized because its actions would facilitate the reintegration of Iraq in the Arab world and even the possibility of more Arab cooperation with Iran as well as increased excuses for countries like Russia, China and North Korea to provide neighboring states with advanced weaponry. In this context, the prospects for Israel’s economic growth would also surely decline.

20. Do Arabs in Israel feel the same way as Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza?

S: Polls and studies suggest that Israeli Arab identification with and sympathy for the Palestinian cause has increased in recent years. They increasingly define themselves as “Palestinian Israelis.” However, the overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs (over 80 percent) see themselves as loyal Israeli citizens who wish to remain part of Israel. Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, by contrast, seek an independent Palestinian state in which they are not subject to Israeli occupation.

21. Are the media biased against Israel?

S: Some journalists or groups of journalists may be partial to one side or the other of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Probably more are sympathetic to Israel than are opposed. In general, the American media are more sympathetic to Israel than the European, reflecting a difference in both popular and official attitudes. It is generally agreed that recent reporting has been far more sympathetic to Israel than coverage of the previous intifada, which began at the end of 1987.

22. What will happen if Ariel Sharon is elected?

S: Sharon has been consistent in saying that Israel should not give up much, if any, more territory to the Palestinians and not remove any settlements. He has stated that he favors a long-term interim agreement, in which the Palestinians have so far shown no interest because they already feel they were misled by past endless interim agreements, which were not always fulfilled.

In any case, the conventional wisdom is that he will not be able to form a government in the 42 days allotted and new elections will have to be held or that even if he does form a government, it will not last more than a few months at most. These analysts think this next Israeli election will probably feature Knesset elections as well and that the two leading candidates for prime minister will be Benjamin Netanyahu and Avrum Burg, the current speaker of the Knesset and Labor critic of Barak.

23. Why does the press always talk about Israeli leaders “forming a government?” How does it work?

S:: Under the current Israeli system (much criticized for its unworkability), the prime minister is elected by the people and must piece together a governing coalition that consists of at least 61 out of the 120 Knesset seats. Under the current “reform” system in effect since 1996, voters in traditional elections cast two ballots: one for a party in the Knesset, and the other for a candidate for prime minister. The reforms have been a disaster for the large parties, because having selected a Likud or Labor candidate for prime minister, voters are tempted to select more ideological or single issue parties to reflect their own particular preferences.

As a consequence, the Knesset has fragmented. For example, a right-wing coalition under Sharon would require the representation of seven parties just to get to 61 seats. Any one of these parties could bring down the government if it were dissatisfied on some issue of domestic or foreign policy. If Sharon tried to expand the coalition, he would face threats of withdrawal from even more parties and personalities.

24. Will the relations between Israel and the Palestinians calcify and turn into a centuries-long conflict like that of the British in Ireland or Spain and the Basques?

S: We have already had over a century of Arab-Jewish conflict, so we are well along the way to this type of confrontation. The peace process since the breakthrough in Egyptian-Israeli relations in the 1970s has been designed to end the deep hostility and transform the relationship. To gain some perspective, a Rip Van Winkle awakening from a 25-year slumber would be astonished at Israel’s peace with Egypt and Jordan (warts and all), its relations with other Arab states, and — most of all — its negotiations with Yasser Arafat. But this is not a process that can be accomplished during one news cycle, or one presidential term, or even the life of one Arab leader. It is an extended process, which requires patience and a willingness to maintain faith and commitment during setbacks.

25. Where do you see the best hope for a peaceful solution?

S: Despite both sides’ reluctance, it may be necessary to return to interim arrangements on the way to comprehensiveness if the peace process is to be revived. Both peoples must have a sign that the process is back on track, and therefore even routine confidence-building measures are more important than ever.
The pursuit of the following four principles is therefore essential to de-escalation: commitment to compliance with all agreements that have been reached in the past; some kind of moratorium on violence either unilaterally initiated or a consequence of parallel actions; confidence-building measures and even interim steps during the months while a comprehensive agreement is being negotiated; and greater attention to informing and educating “the street” on both sides.

If these four policies are pursued, it is still not too late to reverse course and revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Indeed, the prospects of success are enhanced because both parties are so clearly interlocked that they have no viable alternatives. Without the peace process, the Palestinians will never reach independence or rid themselves of the Israeli military occupation. Without the process, the Israelis will be doomed to constant conflicts. Because neither side can achieve its national goals except through negotiations, the talks will undoubtedly resume sooner or later, and more or less where they left off. The only question is when, and how many Palestinians and Israelis will die in the meantime.

Extra Credit

The following are suggestions for further reading on Israel. You can purchase books or access links on The Jewish Journal’s Web site at

“Israel’s Fateful Hour” by Yehoshafat Harkabi (Harper Collins, 1989)

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“The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East” by Chaim Herzog (Random House, 1984)

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“The Israel-Arab Reader” by Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin (Penguin, 1995)

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“A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time” by Howard M. Sachar (Knopf, 1996)>

Buy Here

Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies

Washington Institute for Near East Policy