May always conjures up memories associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict. On 15 May the Israeli independence declaration marks the Nakba, or the expulsion of the Palestinian people from their land and their deprivation of the right to self-determination and an independent state. For decades since 1948, this month has occasioned demonstrations in support of the liberation of Palestine, as well as of Algeria, before its independence.
Among Arabs of my generation and the next, there was enthusiastic support for the Palestinian resistance, which had derived great inspiration from the Algerian experience and the Vietnamese resistance after that. We acted with a certitude that right and justice would prevail. We had no doubt that the Palestinian national liberation struggle would end with independence and the establishment of an independent state as was occurring with nearly all other third world countries that had fallen to colonialist occupation.
May always occasioned grave events for the Palestinian and Arab side, while the Israelis rejoiced because they added another year in which to enumerate their achievements. Whatever the case, history was never static. There were junctures in which Isreal expanded until it became something of a petty empire, after which followed phases of warfare and negotiations that led it to gradually shrink. However, it still continues to occupy the whole of the Palestinian territories and the Syrian Golan Heights.
As for the Palestinians, after about 70 years of resistance, intifadas and negotiations, they obtained a political entity called the Palestinian National Authority (PA) which, in theory, had a branch in the West Bank and another in Gaza. In practical terms, the Palestinian question remains unresolved because the parties have not yet agreed on “final status” issues. No less importantly, the Palestinian political entity has split into two, one in the West Bank led by Fatah and the other in Gaza led by Hamas. The latter has engaged in four wars with Israel. So, in short, in May, Isreal can celebrate its independence while the Palestinians still commemorate the Nakba, aware that the catastrophe is ongoing.
A lot of water has passed beneath the bridges of war, peace and negotiations between the Arabs and Israel during the past 74 years. The basic law of confrontation along the way was the ability to change or impose de facto realities. Israel built a modern state that absorbed increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At present, there are very few Jews capable of emigrating who have not already done so, with the possible exception of some Jewish refugees from Ukraine.
The Palestinians, for their part, have demonstrated an amazing capacity for survival within the boundaries of historical Palestine, whether within the current boundaries of Israel where they live as second-class citizens or in the territories that comprise the West Bank and Gaza. This is not to deny that there is a large Palestinian diaspora, but those who have remained in Palestine and what is present day Israel have achieved a kind of demographic parity that functions in continual security, economic and political interaction with the Israelis. Manifestations of this interaction are to be found in the security coordination in the West Bank, the use of a single currency (the shekel), the passage of Palestinian labour through Israeli walls, the production of water from humid air in Gaza using Israeli solar powered technology, and other such instances necessitated by geopolitical proximity.
Arab/Palestinian-Israeli relations have undergone several important developments during the past three decades. Firstly, the Oslo Accords furnished a legal frame-of-reference for Palestinian-Israeli relations and an explicit call for a two-state solution in the framework of the pre-June 1967 boundaries. Secondly, the aforementioned Palestinian-Israeli interplay has laid a foundation for a single state. The sole impediment is the inequality between Israelis and the Palestinians residing in the Palestinian territories and Israel. Such inequality is of a nature that has sometimes been described as apartheid, on the lines of the system that existed in South Africa until the 1990s.
Thirdly, the regional climate surrounding the “central Palestinian-Israeli question” has changed fundamentally due to the peace agreements between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. These agreements have created a large realm for regional cooperation in security affairs, the economy and technology. Fourthly, this improved regional climate has not had a positive impact on the political elites, whether in Palestine where the Hamas-Fatah political rift persists, or in Israel which has lost its capacity for domestic political cohesion. In Palestine, too, the elites perpetually complain that the Arabs are neglecting the Palestinian cause while in Israel the elite are worried by the growing rates of antisemitism in Western countries and in Russia recently.
The foregoing developments do not mean that the coming decades have to be like the preceding ones. Indeed, they could open the doors to unprecedented changes in the history of the conflict. For one, the one-state solution now appears to have much more going for it than the two-state solution. In this context, the “Israeli Arabs” represent a bridge the first segment of which is to be found in the formation of the current Israeli government. In practical terms, Israeli settlement expansion has made the two-state solution unfeasible even if it appeals to some sectors of the Israeli public.
In the coming period, perhaps in the current decade, the cause of equality may become more pressing for the Palestinians than the cause of liberation. The former borrows more from the lexicon of social peace. The new regional cooperation in energy, as in the Eastern Mediterranean gas forum, and in technology offers more to bring the Israelis and Arabs/Palestinians together than the challenges of terrorism and Iranian interventions. Food and water scarcity, for example, opens the doors to opportunities in which Israel has things to offer and the Arabs need to cooperate.
Perhaps these cooperative frameworks will open up new horizons for a Palestinian-Israeli peace, especially if a maritime border agreement between Egypt and Palestine can unlock the vaults of Palestinian offshore gas fields and the Israelis and Lebanese can reach a similar agreement. Such developments would greatly expand the regional natural gas market, along with associated transportation mechanisms, processing operations and mutual interests, at a critical time in Europe when Russian gas has not only become scarce but also a part of the intractable conflict.
Recent Arab-Israeli developments have not unfolded in isolation, but rather against the backdrop of positive regional developments of no less importance, namely the various exploratory talks and negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey and Egypt and Turkey. All such efforts are contributing to reducing Middle Eastern temperatures which had risen since the so-called Arab Spring set in motion waves of instability, civil strife, and regional proxy wars which have wreaked so much attrition on these countries and wasted their political energies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.