What are the core issues in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians? Why hasn't anyone been able to solve the struggle between the two groups that has lasted for over 60 years, despite concerted efforts to reach a compromise?
To listen to the media, one would assume the key obstacle is Jewish settlements. But that is a very simplistic answer. I believe there are at least five key issues at the core of the debate. To achieve peace, both sides would need to reach agreement on all five.
1. Israel's demand to exist as a Jewish state
In 1947 the UN voted to partition Palestine into two states--one Jewish and one Arab. Israel accepted the vote, but the Palestinians--and all the surrounding Arab countries--rejected it. Egypt and Jordan are the only two countries in the region that later accepted the existence of Israel. Does Israel have a right to exist as a Jewish state surrounded by Arabs? Mahmoud Abbas, current President of the Palestinian Authority says no...and this is a major stumbling block to peace. (If I were Israel I would be reluctant to make any agreement with someone who can't publicly acknowledge my right to exist.)
The key to this issue is whether or not land once conquered for Allah can ever be controlled by non-Muslims. Both Hamas and Hezbollah have declared that this cannot be. Anwar Saddat, the President of Egypt who made peace with Israel, paid for his courageous decision with his life. To me, this is the most difficult of all the issues, because it is grounded in Islam's belief that the land belongs to Allah.
2. The Palestinian demand for a "right of return" for all Palestinians
In 1948 and again in 1967 the UN passed resolutions calling on the Arab countries to acknowledge Israel's right to exist, and calling on Israel to allow Arab refugees to return to their homes. Because the Arab nations refused to accept Israel's right to exist, the refugee problem has been allowed to fester for over 60 years. The Middle East conflict produced hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides. Almost the same number of Jews were forced from their homes in Arab countries as there were Arab refugees who fled their homes in areas that were later controlled by Israel. The main difference between the two groups is how they treated their refugees. The Jewish refugees became Israeli citizens and started over in their new homeland. But the surrounding Arab countries refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees. Instead they were forced to live in refugee camps as political pawns.
The Palestinian Authority claims that the original 600,000-800,000 refugees have now grown into a refugee population of over 7 million...and they demand that all 7 million be allowed to return to Israel. Were that to happen, the Jewish state would disappear overnight, overwhelmed by this sea of refugees. Israel will not allow this to happen.
3. Israel's demand for security and trust
Israel has been forced to fight for its very existence for over 60 years. One demand in any peace agreement is that Israel must obtain real peace. Yasser Arafat renounced violence, but history shows that it was an empty promise. Israel gave back Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, but Hamas took over and used Gaza as a launchpad for rockets and mortars. As a result, Israel is reluctant to make any additional sacrifices unless the Palestinian Authority can demonstrate that they can form a stable government that will stop terrorism. Some of the Palestinian Authority's recent threats to end cooperation with Israel and to renounce their earlier agreements makes Israel less likely to trust them in the future.
4. The debate over final borders
The 1948 Armistice Agreement established temporary borders between Israel and the Arab countries that had attacked her. Permanent borders were to be negotiated. Israel is demanding that a peace treaty provide permanent defensible borders, which will include Israel keeping some of the land she captured in 1967. The Palestinians are demanding that Israel return all land captured in the Six-Day War. Israel will not agree to such a demand. And the hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers in portions of the West Bank are "facts" that Israel has created to bolster her position.
In one sense Jerusalem is a subset of the previous point. In the 1948 War of Independence Israel lost access to the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall. The Jewish presence in the Old City had extended back for hundreds, if not thousands, of years; but the Jewish inhabitants were forced out. When Israel recaptured the Old City in 1967, she annexed Jerusalem as her eternal capital. Jerusalem is the heart and soul of the nation, extending back to the time of King David. At the same time Jerusalem contains the Al Aksa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. The Jewish temple sat on the mount where the Dome of the Rock now rests. Jerusalem is more than just real estate. It represents the spiritual reality of two competing religions, both claiming to descend from the same father.
To me, these are the five issues forming the chasm that separates Israel and the Palestinians. As the U.S. tries to restart the peace process yet again, look beyond the hype and rhetoric...and listen carefully for substantive discussion of these five issues.
I'm not optimistic.