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West of the West Bank

The Limits of the Land. How the Struggle for the West Bank Shaped the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Forfatter: Avshalom Rubin
Forlag: Indiana University Press (USA)
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is more difficult to resolve than ever, states a Middle East researcher in a new book. 


When the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993, there were 111.600 Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, the number was 281.800.

Today, the number of Israelis living in occupied territory has long since reached the 600.000. The Oslo Accords, which optimistically described the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within a five-year timeframe, are considered by most to be a piece of past failure, and it is difficult to see how a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be turned into reality.

Jammed conflict. The many settlers are a tangible example of how stuck the conflict is. Another is the roughly 6 million Palestinian refugees who continue to demand their right to return home. Elements such as these paint the picture of a conflict about a country that is becoming harder and harder to share because two people are fighting for the same country and because faith and hard-core ideology play an increasingly important role.

You feel tempted to assume that it was once easier to find out. That a compromise might be achievable. From the first Middle East war in the wake of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 to the fate of 1967, the West Bank was there. The area, slightly larger than Akershus County, was well under Jordanian occupation, but there was not a single settler, and that is, in fact, what we have in mind when we talk about a future Palestinian state today.

Today, the number of Israelis living in occupied territory has long since reached 600 000.

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Palestinian extras. In his new book, Avshalom Rubin, a Middle East analyst at the US Department of Foreign Affairs, describes how the conflict over the West Bank during these early 19 helped shape the conflict. The starting point is the local population, the Palestinians. Right from the start, they were more or less assigned to the role of extras. The PLO and the Palestinian national movement first saw the light of day late in the process, when the West Bank was throwing balls at the game of completely different interests.

It was a time when the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, went into national communion with Syria and sought to assert its regional influence at all. As a backdrop, the Cold War raged, with both the United States and the Soviet Union fighting for dominion in the region, which is why everyone played against each other. In the midst of this battle, Jordan was an impoverished kingdom that could be run over by an expansionist Iraq at any time, yet managed to keep its tongue in its mouth.

The Six Day War – A Redemption? The Israelis wavered. They entered into tacit non-aggression agreements with King Hussein of Amman, which in turn secured peace in the West Bank. But the idea that Jordan could fall into the hands of the Iraqis, or the Egyptian-Syrian alliance, spoke in the eyes of several politicians for a West Bank conquest, to counter this strategic threat. It was also in the service of this case that in those years Israel piled its nuclear programs on its feet. The war in 1967 therefore came as a kind of redemption – at the same time as the beginning of Israel's current tragedy. What now?

The country's political leadership was strongly divided. One wing held that the country had at last acquired strategic depth and therefore had to retain the West Bank. Or, in each case, parts of the area. And on the other hand, they were warned about the consequences of the occupation and of subjugating a large Palestinian population.

The Oslo agreements stand as a diplomatic show with good intentions that ran for good.

No new problem. What is interesting, however, is that this was not a new issue. For several years prior to 1967, this dilemma had been part of Israel's political debate. Therefore, attitudes were already cemented, and in many ways, the Israeli leadership was paralyzed. The right wing's Menachem Begin feared that annexation of the West Bank would isolate Israel internationally, while the Labor Party's Yigal Allon insisted that at least the Jordan Valley be stuck in order to have a buffer zone against future attacks from the East.

This gave leeway for forces that wanted something else. No one had the political spirit to stop the first settlers as they set out to create facts in the landscape. For in many ways they were the only ones who had no doubt. They had a clear goal.

Complicated conflict with historical roots. For the vast majority, the West Bank was not the main issue at all. You saw the moral dilemma of the occupation and you saw the strategic challenges, but it was basically about the country west of the West Bank – that is, Israel itself. It still does. However, the shared opinions of the past and the resulting indecision created the basis for the conflict today becoming even more insoluble. From that perspective, the Oslo Accords will therefore stand as a diplomatic display with beautiful intentions that ran aground because the problem consists of much more than the result of six days of war in 1967. And one must also keep that in mind when talking today about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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