By Adnan Abu Odeh, Minister to the Royal Court of Jordan
From time to time, the editorial staff of The Plain Truth endeavors to bring to the attention of its audience the views and opinions of leading personalities who have, or will have, a significant impact upon the world in the months and years ahead.
One such individual is Adnan Abu Odeh, former Minister of Information and now Minister to the Royal Court of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Mr. Abu Odeh is a frequent traveler with His Majesty King Hussein. The following vigorous address was presented in the Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena, California, before 1,200 assembled guests on the occasion of His Majesty King Hussein’s 1985 visit to the U.S.
In my talk I am going to address two historical aspects of the Middle East conflict, and one political.
The historical aspects are related to the questions: How did the Middle East conflict arise and how has it developed? While the political side is to deal with the situation as it is now.
Why should I go back to history? Because one cannot really understand the present complex situation without going back into history.
The 19th century, in the West, was the golden age of colonization. Great Britain was spreading all over the world. The French, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, later even the Germans and the Italians, spread abroad. All these countries were Christian.
There was a Muslim country at that time, which was an extension of the Middle Ages and maintained Islamic domination over some parts of the world. That was the Ottoman Empire. During that golden age of power, of colonization, strength and imperialism, the Ottoman Empire was called Old Turkey.
Turkey at that time was ruling all Arab Asia. What we know now as Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, parts of Saudi Arabia, North Yemen, were the limits of Turkey’s domination in Asia in terms of geography. In the previous century the Turks held North Africa. And, as you know, one of their sultan’s troops reached as far as Vienna.
Turkey in the 19th century faced Christian Europe, which had started the Industrial Revolution. The balance changed in this world with the Industrial Revolution and as a result the Ottoman Empire started to retreat in favor of Christian countries. Any major European country was able to put an end to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. But because of the rivalry among the Europeans, Ottoman Turkey continued to live until World War I. That’s when what is called Old Turkey ceased.
During her old age the European rivals did not choose to put an end to Turkey until it had been ripe. The European countries were competing among themselves over the legacy they would get from Turkey.
Among those who thought of getting their share of the legacy of Turkey were the Jews of Europe. In Christian Europe the Jews were not always treated well, especially in East Europe. That is a well known fact. In thinking of the future their leading intellectuals sought to find a place where they could build a Jewish national home.
The world was spread before them. Some suggested to them to go to Uganda in Africa, some to other places. But the leaders prevailed upon the others and insisted that the place should be Palestine. It was more attractive since there is a historical attachment to this part of the world. It is mentioned in the Bible as the promised land. The leaders of the Jews could mobilize them around this objective much better than to mobilize them around a national home in Africa or Latin America, for example.
So they started to work. Their leaders succeeded in establishing very good relationships with the British leadership at that time. During World War I, when Turkey was being defeated and retreating to Turkey proper, the Zionist leaders were capable of having the British give what is known in the history of the Palestinian conflict as the Balfour Declaration. That was on November 2, 1917.
The Balfour Declaration was tantamount to pledge on behalf of the British government at that time to help the Jews build their national home in Palestine. The British, with the French, divided the booty of the war. The British made the point that Palestine should be part of their share of the booty. So Palestine, Jordan and Iraq came under British mandate. Syria and Lebanon came under French mandate.
That’s again history. This division later on was legitimized by the League of Nations when they gave the British and the French this right of mandating these areas.
To make their promises to the Zionist leaders materialize, the first one whom the British appointed to be high commissioner in Palestine was a Briton named Herbert Samuel, who was a Jewish Zionist.
With his appointment the British policy of building a Jewish homeland in Palestine started. As a result of this foreign policy, a conflict started to develop between Arabs and Jews. The Jewish community in Palestine by the end of the war in 1918, constituted only 17 percent of the population — 83 percent being Arabs.
Jews and Arabs lived for ages together. And I must stress that the Jews lived with the Arab Muslims much better than they lived with Christians in Europe. The Jews contributed to our [Islamic Arabic] civilization in many places, simply because Islam takes more from Judaism than it takes from Christianity. A big percentage of our holy book is about Judaism.
The Jews were not our enemy when the Islamic Empire started to expand. Our enemies in the Middle Ages were Christian Europeans, Byzantines, and not Jews. So Jews were with us. And Jews suffered like we did in Spain when the Spaniards expelled the Arabs from Spain by the end of the 15th century. Both the Jews and the Arabs suffered because the Jews cooperated with the Arabs in occupying and in developing Spain. So there is, in history, a big area of cooperation between Arab Muslims and Jews.
With the British in Palestine, with their policies starting to materialize on the ground, Palestine Arabs began to realize that they were facing something new. The British government was trying to impose upon them the other community with which they had been coexisting for a long time.
As a result of that, in the ’20s and the ’30s many clashes took place between Arabs and the British. In 1936 an Arab rebellion erupted in Palestine, and it continued for three years till the beginning of World War II. The British in 1939 were smart enough to know how to put an end to this revolution by various means: by giving promises to the Arabs on one hand, and by dividing them on the other hand. So the rebellion was quelled. And we witnessed in the region World War II. The war was not fought on our land [on Arab soil], but we received some of its effects and its impact in our land.
Now we come to more recent events in history, the pogroms and the Holocaust of World War II. Nazism was cruel, inhuman. Nazis killed many civilians in Europe, and in particular, the Jewish community. That was bound to create a very human sympathy and attachment to the Jewish cause in Europe and in the world.
But nobody thought of who was going to pay the price at that time. The Zionist leaders were, as always, very smart and they made use of sympathy. “You see our plight in Europe. You see how the Jews are suffering,” they said. With that they started to promote the urgency for building a Jewish state in Palestine.
To do that during the war, the Allies, who were fighting the Nazis, helped Jews in Eastern Europe and Western Europe to escape to Palestine. So during the early ’40s, we witnessed in Palestine the illegal immigration of Jews from Europe.
In 1948, when the British mandate came to an end, Palestine had two big communities: Arabs, who were one million, and Jews, who at that time were about 600,000. Once again the Jews and their friends in the world pushed their cause and asked for the establishment of a national Jewish home. The world believed the Jewish people suffered enough. Their suffering should be stopped. The answer: a state.
The war ended in 1945. In 1947 the United Nations took, or adopted, what is known in the history of the Palestinian question as the partitioning plan which envisaged two states: a Jewish state and an Arab state, with Jerusalem and the area around it corpus separatum. That is a Latin phrase meaning something separate, or having its own status.
Another problem started. In 1947, when the United Nations adopted the partitioning plan, the Jews in Palestine owned only 5.6 percent of Palestinian territory. The Palestinian Arabs owned between 92-93 percent. And the other property was owned by foreigners — the Church of Russia, for example. Just imagine two communities. One is one million, and the other is 600,000. The one million own 92 percent of the territory; the others own 5.6 percent of the territory. Yet the partitioning plan allocated the Jews 54 percent of Palestine, and the rest was allocated for the Arabs!
That, by itself, created a very imbalanced position, a very unfair position, which drove the Arabs to refuse this partitioning plan. It was a very unfair deal. They couldn’t bear it. They thought that they should hold to their territory to secure their rights even if they had to fight for that.
When they went to fighting, the Arab states sided with the Palestinians. That was the war of 1948, the result of which was the establishment of the state of Israel on a land much larger than what the partitioning plan gave the Jews in Palestine. As a result of the war they got 76 percent of the land. So in almost nine months the Jewish community in Palestine, previously having 5.6 percent of the land, got 76 percent of the land.
And here the conflict takes another turn. The state of Israel is established. The Arabs are unhappy with this fact. The Palestinians are now in the diaspora! For the first time we have Palestinians switching places with Jews — Jews coming from the diaspora to a state, Palestinians getting out of their country to the diaspora. As a result of the war an armistice agreement was reached between the belligerents.
Then the conflict took another turn. The Israelis adopted a position of calling for peace with the Arabs in the ’50s. The Arabs said, “No, because you have taken our land. Give us back our land, then we accept peace.” The Arabs, being believers in hell and paradise, couldn’t see gray. They insisted that unless they get back their territory, there could be no peace. Of course, in such a situation, Israel, created in an Arab environment, was besieged. The Arab states were larger in number, wealthier, but weaker in terms of politics and armament. Under such a situation war was bound to erupt someday.
And this war came in 1967. In June 1967 the Israelis occupied all mandatory Palestine. They added to it Sinai and the Golan Heights. The result of the 1967 war was enormously important. After the war the Arabs got disillusioned for the first time. They started to believe that Israel really does exist. Until then they did not want to believe that it existed. The Israelis were now seen as a strong people.
This development laid the grounds for the Arabs to change gradually their attitudes over the last years. So Israel is there. Israel does exist.
On the eve of the 1967 war, the Israelis were calling for reaching a peaceful settlement, within their borders. That was before they got the West Bank and Gaza and the other Arab areas. After the war when the Arabs said, “OK, let’s sit down and talk,” the Israelis said, “No, we have other views now.”
This victory created in the Israeli psyche what I might call the rhythm of victory. They won the first war. They won the second war. (It is demonstrated in a territory in their hands.) They changed their minds. “Why should we reach peace on the previous terms after taking all the land of Palestine? After all, this is the promised land.”
Thus began the mixing of historical allusions and religious aspirations with realpolitik and human dimensions. The Palestinian national rights were blurred. Then confusion in Tel Aviv started to emerge, the result of which is that the religious right in Israel began to emerge. To make their ideas materialize in Palestine — in the promised land — they started to build settlements. At the beginning they researched the Bible for locations of religious significance. They went there to build a settlement and to bring Israelis to live there. That was at the beginning, a religious movement.
This religious movement was soon supported by political parties. Settlements were first built in the name of security. Other settlements were built on economic grounds. As a result the West Bank became an open area for the well-organized efforts of the settlers.
On our side we were warning, shouting out, going to the United Nations, going to the United States. Many U.N. resolutions have been taken to condemn this movement as being illegal, as another form of aggression, but nobody would listen.
When we presented the question of settlements to the American people, very few of them could understand our position. Most of the Americans cannot understand our position simply because of the cultural parallel between the settlements in Israel and the foundation of the United States of America. After all, the United States was built the same way. People came to America to settle.
This affinity between the Israeli mind and the American cultural heritage made you Americans a very hard target to talk to. You couldn’t understand what we are saying. To you, “It is a good sign that people can settle and develop. After all, our founding fathers did the same.”
Another area which made it difficult for us to present our case to you is the Judeo-Christian heritage, which is a part of your culture. Islam to you is something strange, except perhaps for scholars who care to know about Islam. After the oil embargo in 1973, some people other than scholars started to look into Islam, not out of trying to know the common heritage between nations, but out of new economic considerations resulting from the oil embargo.
In the last decade the Arabs became weaker; the Israelis became stronger. Their grip on the territories became tighter. They now have 160 settlements on the West Bank alone. The ex-Vice Mayor of Jerusalem wrote a book, published in 1984. In his book The West Bank Data Project, Mr. Benvenesti suggests that it is too late to talk about a West Bank. It has become part of the state of Israel. He was, however, criticizing that situation because he had other ideas.
In Israel, as a result of not reaching peace, as a result of maintaining their occupation on the West Bank and building settlements, Israelis are facing now a big question. “What kind of Israel do we want? Is this the Israel we had conceived of? Is this the Israel which our Zionist fathers thought of?”
The answer to these questions is no, because Israel on all mandatory Palestine is not and cannot be a purely Jewish state. In mandatory Palestine, there are around five million people, two million Arabs and three million Israelis. On the basis of the current growth rate, of the Arabs and the Israelis, the Arabs will be equal to the Jews in 10 to 15 years’ time.
Now this is a dilemma in Israel itself. Those who are raising this question in Israel are asking, “What kind of state do we want? If we have to continue maintaining our occupation, it means either we have to become a bi-national state, which is against the basic ideas of Zionism, or we shall have an apartheid state, having Arabs as a community apart, third-rate citizens.”
In answer to this dilemma there are two schools of thought in Israel. One is on the right, represented mainly by the Likud Party, and the other is represented mainly by the Labor Party.
The Likud says the problem is simple: Now we have the land. We have on this land a foreign community. They are Palestinians who have been there for thousands of years. This foreign community we can handle. They are an extension of the Arab bulk in the east, on the south, on the north — especially the east. Jordan. If they can live with us, “and on our land,” they may. If they cannot live with us, they go eastward to their base.
Politically speaking, this implies the possibility of expelling 500,000 Palestinians at once. Why? Historically the mass exodus from Palestine among the Arabs took place only in wars. Once in 1948 and once in 1967. To squeeze them out by pressure, as the case is now, is not enough to get as many Palestinians out as possible. So if Israelis have to get them out, they have to resort to other measures.
Two years ago one of the Likud ministers came up with a project in which he suggested that a new big camp or town be built in the Jordan Valley north of the Dead Sea, to bring there the Palestinian refugees now on the West Bank. “That would make Israeli planning easier in cities like Bethlehem and Ramallah, because present refugee camps are close to those cities. It would also be for security reasons.”
It was obvious that what he meant by that plan is to bring those Palestinians near the River Jordan, four or five kilometers from our cease-fire line, so one day, by scaring them out, these Palestinians will move — having each his bundle in his hand — to the river. It takes a maximum of one hour to reach the bank, and the refugees would be in Jordan. That’s one innovative way to get rid of the Palestinians.
We made a big noise about it in the United Nations, and in conferences here and there. The objective of this project is quite clear.
The Israeli government has undergone a change now. There is a unity government, with the prime minister presently from Labor. The answer of the Labor Party to this question is what the prime minister calls the territorial compromise. In other words, the West Bank is to be divided between Israel and Jordan as a result of direct negotiations between the two governments. Jordan refuses this.
The position of Jordan is that we cannot speak for the Palestinians because any negotiations imply, among other things, compromises. We cannot compromise any of the Palestinian rights, including their right of self-determination. If we do so, whatever peace we reach will be shaky. It will not be durable. It will give way to another dispute in the area.
The Palestinian leadership is the PLO. The Palestinians adhere to the PLO as their representative. The PLO has no competitor.
[In 1985] Arafat reached an accord with King Hussein. This accord says the PLO is prepared to go for a peaceful settlement on the basis of United Nations resolutions. For the first time in 20 years the PLO changes its previous position in public. With this position the PLO’s approach to solving the problem has drastically changed. It stands now for a negotiated settlement.
The PLO, after its military defeat in Lebanon, after the long-suffering of the Palestinian people in Lebanon and in the occupied territories, believes it has no option but the option of peace. Now the Arabs and the PLO stand for just peace; nevertheless, both Israel and the United States of America refuse to consider the PLO as the Palestinian interlocutor in whatever negotiations might take place.
Jordan now is trying to explain the sincerity of the position of the Palestinian representatives in the United States — that has been one of my tasks — on the basis that we believe in redeemability, not only in religion but also in politics. People can be redeemed. Yes, there are some of the Palestinians who — like General Ariel Sharon and Rabbi Kahane in Israel — don’t want peace. But 90 percent of the Palestinians want peace. Let’s remember that war can be made by one crazy man, but peace needs at least two wise men to sit down together.
So we are extending our hands for a peaceful settlement. The Israeli populace want peace, too. I believe in the sincerity of the majority of Israelis who call for peace, but the problem is what kind of peace? The competition among their political leaders makes some of them say, “No, we will take all of Palestine and then have peace.” We tell them, “Look, you cannot take my land and make peace with me. The principle is land for peace.” Many Israelis believe in this, and these Israelis in particular constitute our hope for the future.
In any case, when we talk about peace in the Middle East, with Israelis or their friends, let’s always remember the better prospects of the future, rather than the bitter hang-ups of the past. A conflict that goes on for 60 years must have precipitated bitterness and distrust. What we need is trust between us and the Israelis. Trust in the future and trust in our commitment to peace.
Whatever peaceful settlement we reach in the future should be such that can ensure a real, permanent, durable peace for the area.
Peace to be durable should be based on 1) a balanced resolution of the conflict; 2) justice; 3) the recognition of the national rights of the Palestinians for the right of Israel to exist in recognized and secure borders; 4) the participation of the representatives of the Palestinian people in the peace negotiations; 5) the recognition of the attachment of Arabs and Jews to Jerusalem without prejudicing the Arab sovereign right over Arab Jerusalem. I am a Palestinian myself, born in 1933. In 1939, the end of the Palestinian rebellion, I had a bad experience related to the Palestinian problem. It has continued to live with me since then. Since 6 years of age I can see that I have not been living my normal life. But I am not an exclusive case.
Like me, there are millions, both among Israelis and Palestinians, who don’t live a normal life. Normal life cannot be lived if people don’t live in peace. That’s not normal life. I look forward to the day when I, my family and myself, sit down together in our living room and talk about vacations, culture, books, drama, music, rather than about prisoners, bombs, killings, reprisals, deportees, arrests — these terms of nonsense — of suffering, of depicting life as meaningless and a source of devastation.
What we in the area, both Arabs and Israelis — Palestinians, Jordanians, Israelis and Lebanese now need most is peace in order to get back to the normal life we have been missing for 60 years.