The Arab world’s missed opportunities

By Khaled Diab

Early Arab rejectionism and division unwittingly helped to build and to lose Palestine, with the Palestinian people paying the heavy price.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

In my previous article, I highlighted the many opportunities that Israel has squandered over the decades to forge peace with the Palestinians and the wider and how this has jeopardised its  dream of creating a Jewish state.

But Israel does not possess a monopoly when it comes to harmful short-sightedness. In fact, one could argue that the Arab handling of the conflict has been so inept and self-defeating that Israel actually owes the Arabs a major debt of gratitude because, through their mis-steps, they have played a key supporting role in building the Jewish state, albeit unintentionally.

One key example of this is the Arab rejection of the 1947 United Nations for Palestine, as encapsulated in Resolution 181. Though there is no excuse for how the Israelis pushed out or caused hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee, and refused to allow the vast majority of the refugees to return after the war, one can only speculate about what might have occurred had the Arabs not gone to war with the proto-Israeli state and, instead, focused their energies on building a strong and vibrant independent Palestine on the areas left to them.

On reading the above passage, many Arabs will protest that the UN partition was essentially unjust – neither the UN nor the British before them had the right to act imperialistically and give one people's land to another – and unfair: under this deal, the Arabs would receive only 45% of the land even though they made up some two-thirds of the population in 1947.

But in rejecting the partition plan the Arabs ultimately cut off their nose to spite their face, especially since Arab leaders were well aware in private that they were not ready for war. Some might see in this a common characteristic both sides share, that the somehow creates in its inhabitants a kind of “Massada mentality”.

After all, now that the shoe is on the other foot and Israel enjoys the upper hand, its lack of appetite for compromise is comparable – or perhaps worse because it has military might to back it up – to that of the Arabs all those decades ago. And if the international community were to try to impose a similar carve up today, then there is a very strong likelihood that Israel would go to war, like the Arabs did back then.

However, this brand of rejectionism is quite common around the world and is quite consistent with human nature. Consider the decades-long conflict since the partition of India or how the European nations would have reacted had a Jewish state been established in their midst.

Though there are plenty of precedents of people taking up arms to defend the takeover of their land, the Arab rejection was so catastrophic that what seemed like a raw deal in the 1940s now seems like an almost unattainable paradise.

Despite the rejection of the UN partition plan, over 40 years later, in 1988, the PLO based the Palestinian declaration of independence on Resolution 181. Moreover, today the Palestinian leadership – whether Fatah or Hamas – is willing to accept a state on the less-generous 1967 lines – although the recent controversy over Abbas' interview on Israeli TV highlights the ongoing struggle between radicals and pragmatists, as well as the hardening of positions that has accompanied the failure of peace negotiations to reach a just settlement, leaving Palestinians with just settlements.

Of course, partition would not have magically ended the conflict, and could have led to civil war between the minorities and majorities in each state, and constant clashes between the two declared states, especially between expansionist Zionist and rejectionist Palestinian forces.  However, it is equally possible that partition would have provided a cooling-off period that would empower the realists on both sides. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that partition would have led to a more catastrophic outcome for the Palestinians than the mass dispossession and complete loss of Palestine that they have been left with.

Hindsight is a deceptive faculty, some might counter, because it tends to reveal things later that were not apparent at the time. How were the Arabs, who felt they had both right and might on their side, to know in 1947 that a year later they would be so decisively defeated, and that an even more comprehensive defeat was to follow in 1967?

Nevertheless, certain clear signs that pointed towards the urgent need to compromise were already very apparent in 1947. One clear pattern was that the longer the Arabs held out for a utopian dream, the greater the dystopian reality became.

In the interwar years, the inherent contradictions of conflicting, and largely expedient, wartime promises to both Zionist and Arab leaders were placing , the imperial midwife of this bitter conflict, in a tight bind. Faced with mounting popular unrest against both British rule and Zionist , the British establishment began to lean more towards the Arab side. This is illustrated in the “Churchill” White Paper of 1922 which tried to square Britain's conflicting promises, made partly for wartime expediency, by offering Jews the right to limited immigration to Palestine and to enjoy autonomy there, as well as equal rights, but, crucially, within an independent Arab Palestinian state.

Despite the presence of pragmatists in the Palestinian ranks, the radicals who had gained the upper hand in the leadership of the Palestinian struggle refused this framework and similar future proposals, out of a rejection of British rule, their distrust of the Zionist project, and opposition to large-scale Jewish immigration.

Some have interpreted this opposition to Jewish immigration as a sign of xenophobia and racism, and elements of this certainly existed. But this interpretation is exaggerated, since the very earliest waves of Jewish immigration were tolerated and hardly noticed in Palestine's rich ethno-religious tapestry.

However, subsequent immigration reached such a scale that it was radically and rapidly redefining the country's demographic make-up. In the mid-19th century, Jews comprised some 4-5% of the population;  by 1947, they were almost a third. And this immigration, the Palestinian Arabs feared, had the colonial goal of robbing them of the independence the British had not yet granted them.

Though Zionism certainly had colonial designs on Palestine, opinion was extremely divided between those who advocated a single nation of equals, Jewish autonomy or full independence. Moreover, this exclusive focus on Zionist overlooked the reality that these bedraggled Jews who arrived in Palestine were not just colonists but also refugees, oppressed natives fleeing persecution and murder in their homelands.

Palestinians justifiably ask why they should have had to pay the price for Europe's persecution of its Jewish population. But there is a much-overlooked flip side: the humanitarian imperative.

Even before the advent of modern international humanitarian law, the region had a long tradition of taking in refugees, including the Jews of Spain. More recently, Armenians fleeing genocide at the hands of the Turks found a safe haven in Palestine, and Palestinian refugees settled in such numbers across the river in neighbouring that they eventually far outnumbered the locals.

Politically, the inability to understand this element hurt the Palestinian cause because it led Arabs to believe that Zionism was a classical form of European colonialism, and so if they resisted it long enough and hard enough, the newcomers would eventually go home. But Zionism differed in at least one key respect: Jews who came to Palestine felt they had no “home” to return to, and that Palestine was the only home left to them.

So whether or not it was fair of the British to impose this burden on the Palestinians, Jewish immigration was a reality that was unlikely to stop or be reversed. An earlier recognition of this might have enabled the Arabs to accept a compromise favourable to their own interests – and even benefit from the diversity which immigration brings – while they still had the upper hand. Instead, the conflict escalated, with radicals on both sides stoking the flames of hatred and distrust, until the British started contemplating partition, such as in a 1939 white paper, and the newly minted UN decided fatefully and short-sightedly to impose this solution.

When the Arab armies entered Palestine in 1948 to intervene on the side of the Palestinians in the civil war that followed partition, Azzam Pasha, the first secretary-general of the said: “We are fighting for an Arab Palestine.”

But what did he mean by this? “Whatever the outcome the Arabs will stick to their offer of equal citizenship for Jews in Arab Palestine and let them be as Jewish as they like. In areas where they predominate, they will have complete autonomy,” the Egyptian diplomat insisted.

Had this been the general Arab position a quarter of a century earlier, the Palestinians may have gained their independence decades ago and Arabs and Jews may have today been living in a single democratic state of equality.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 4 November 2012.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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