The Evolution of Israeli Policy on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all of the proposals, plans, indirect and even direct talks that have taken place over the 60 years. Generally Israel's preference was for direct, bilateral talks with the Arab states-direct, which might carry the implication of recognition, and bilateral so as not to have to deal with all the Arab states at once-believing that separate deals could be struck if negotiated directly and bilaterally. Bilateral talks via third parties were held mainly after 1967, and there was occasional but reluctant agreement to international conferences. The only international conference prior to 1967 was the Lausanne Conference in the wake of the 1948 war,1 which was more a series of third-party talks held separately with Israel and with the Arab states rather than direct negotiations. Subsequently, there were the Geneva Conference in December 1973, the Madrid Conference in October 1991, and Annapolis in November 2007. Secret talks were also held via mediators and directly, e.g., with Jordan. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, for example, sought face-to-face talks with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat- which Sadat, of course, provided himself. We may never know the number of direct and indirect secret talks that were conducted, not only with states, but with organizations such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)-notably but not only for the 1981 PLO-Israel ceasefire, well before Oslo-nor who all the mediators were or even what was agreed.

The Armistice Agreements of 1949 reflected the general-not only Israeli-attitude that the conflict was one between states and that the Palestinians did not need to be seen as a people with national rights, but were to be treated only as a refugee problem. The Armistice Agreements, therefore, virtually ignored resolution 181.2 While these agreements included some land swaps and minor adjustments of the ceasefire lines, the Israeli position under Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion might best be characterized as "peace for peace." Ben-Gurion rejected Egyptian territorial demands and, on the whole, believed that the status quo established by the Armistice lines would ultimately be internationally accepted. This position did not rule out minor "adjustments" in Israel's favor through border skirmishes or creeping annexation-for example, in the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria or along the border with Jordan-nor mutual agreement with Jordan in the early 1960s regarding, for example, part of the village of Beit Safafa. But there was total rejection of anything even resembling a return to the Partition Plan lines-an Arab demand supported in 1949 by the Lausanne conveners: the United States, Britain and Turkey-or any territorial concessions.

West Jerusalem was within this territorial status quo, as Israel simply ignored the articles in UN Resolutions 181 and 194 referring to the international status of Jerusalem. Israel's post-1948 position was that the invasion of the Arab states and the war rendered the Partition Plan irrelevant.

This iron-clad position on territory was also adopted on the refugee issue in the early years of the war. On June 16, 1948 the decision was taken not to permit the return of any refugees. At the end of the war, Israel's official position was the refugee issue could only be raised in conjunction with a final peace agreement with the Arab states. Yet, at the Lausanne Conference there was an Israeli proposal-apparently a trial balloon-to annex Gaza with its approximately 200,000 refugees. When this idea was rejected by Egypt, the Israeli government authorized its representative to the talks, Moshe Sharett, to try another proposal for the absorption by Israel of 65,000 to 100,000 refugees and the remaining 600,000 by the Arab states, in exchange for peace. This too found no support from the Arab states and, in any case, it was withdrawn by Israel.3 In 1950, at the revived Palestine Conciliation Committee (PCC) talks, Israel returned to its now familiar position rejecting any return-aside from very limited family reunification taking place quietly over the years-denying any responsibility for the refugee problem, and arguing that Resolution 194 does not constitute a "right" of return.4


The occupation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights along with the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip in the June 1967 War introduced the possibility of the "land for peace" concept of the Labor-led government-although the term itself was not adopted until some years later. Immediately after the war, on June 19, the government agreed to return the Sinai and the Golan Heights, in exchange for peace; Gaza was to be annexed, but held, first, as occupied territory until the refugees there could be relocated; the West Bank was to become an autonomous region, possibly even an independent state, but Israel's permanent border was to be the Jordan River, i.e., the Jordan Rift Valley. Following the Arab League conference in Khartoum in August, 1967 and its rejection of negotiations or peace with Israel,5 the Israeli government took another decision on October 30 of that year against any return to the 1967 lines, the borders to be determined by Israel's security needs. Gaza was still to be retained, along with a strip of coastline from Eilat to Sharm el-Sheikh.

Jerusalem was handled in separate decisions. The most important was the government's decision of June 26, 1967, to annex East Jerusalem and the surrounding villages, thereby expanding the municipal borders of Jerusalem by 71,000 dunums (1 dunum = 1,000 m2), tripling the size of what had been West Jerusalem. Jordanian overtures during the summer for peace in exchange for the return of all of the West Bank were rejected, apparently because of an unwillingness to return East Jerusalem. Israel, reportedly, was not interested in dealing with Jordan. Autonomy or even limited Palestinian statehood -what has been called the first Alon Plan-was still considered and, apparently, abandoned only after talks with local Palestinian families brought no results.6 By the end of 1968, the "Jordanian Option" became Labor policy in the form of a second Alon Plan. According to this idea, part of the West Bank would be returned to Jordan, with Israel holding on to large areas, especially the Jordan Rift Valley. For the most part, this position was dictated by pragmatic, security concerns, although there were "sentimental" and nationalistic motivations with regard to such areas as Gush Etzion.

Having opted for the Jordanian rather than Palestinian option, Israel under Labor made every effort to weaken Palestinian nationalist stirrings, jailing or deporting-or worse-PLO figures in the territories, along with the early proponents of the two-state solution, e.g., the Palestine National Front created in 1973. Yet numerous secret meetings with Jordan failed to produce an agreement. Even talks for a partial agreement such as the Jericho Plan, proposed as part of the disengagement of forces initiated by the Geneva Conference following the Yom Kippur War, failed to achieve a breakthrough. The major obstacle was Israel's insistence on holding on to the Jordan Rift area.

It would appear that, during this period under the Labor government, Israel believed that a solution to the conflict was possible, but on Israeli terms, namely, with the retention of East Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank. Moreover, aside from a brief period after the war when the government considered dealing with the Palestinians, Israel saw Jordan as the partner. However, given the fact that the Palestinian issue lies at the core of the conflict, this may have been the fatal flaw in Labor's policy.

When the Likud gained power in 1977, ideology-primarily nationalistic but allied with religion-replaced pragmatism. This was an ideology that saw no possibility of solution to the conflict. "Land for peace" was abandoned; "peace for peace" became the Likud slogan, and the massive settlement enterprise pursued throughout the occupied territories conformed to a notion of "Greater Israel" (Eretz Yisrael Hashlema). The only measure that appeared to contradict this policy was the agreement with the Egyptians at Camp David in 1978 to a plan for autonomy in Gaza and the West Bank. This plan called for gradual Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, and it also included a provision for joint Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian talks to decide on the repatriation of the displaced from the 1967 war, and procedures for resolving the problem of the 1948 refugees. Nonetheless, the idea of autonomy went beyond the usual Israeli view of the Palestinian issue as one solely of refugees. While Begin used the Hebrew term "Arabs of Eretz Yisrael," the plan dealt with the Palestinians as Palestinians, with the right to determine their own affairs. Sadat attached a letter stating that Egypt viewed "Arab [East] Jerusalem as part of the West Bank," and Begin attached a letter citing the Israeli government's decree of 1967 declaring Jerusalem "the undividable capital of Israel." It is far from clear whether Begin intended to implement this plan, strikingly similar to the later Oslo Declaration of Principles (DOP). Autonomy talks were undertaken only between Israel, Egypt and the U.S., and these petered out in 1980 with no achievement whatsoever.

While the Labor Party and others continued to pursue unofficial meetings and proposals with Jordan over the years, the last attempt to activate the Jordanian Option came when the party shared power with Likud in the mid-1980s. In 1987, following the failure of the Arafat-Hussein Agreement for peace talks with Israel, then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and King Hussein negotiated the London Agreement. Basically, a call for an international conference with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, the plan was rejected by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and, with it, what was left of the Jordanian Option. The following summer King Hussein relinquished his claim to the West Bank in favor of the PLO.

Oslo and After7

Once back in power in 1992, Labor restored the "land for peace" concept as the underlying principle for its policy, reviving the autonomy plan-as suggested in 1989 by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin prior to his election-that became the basis of the Oslo Accords. The difference now, however, was that Israel viewed autonomy as an interim stage on the way to a final agreement. Moreover, the partner was the "Palestinian people"8 represented by their national movement the PLO. This was possible, given the 1988 PLO decision to accept UN Resolution 242 and the two-state solution. Similarly, the Israeli public had been undergoing a shift with regard to the desirability of ending the conflict, in part because of the [first] intifada and its demonstration that holding on to the territories was beginning to exact a price from Israelis, including in the area of personal security.

Rabin was, in fact, skeptical of the chances of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians and, perhaps due to his military orientation, preferred talks with states, specifically Syria, which he considered a greater threat to Israel's existence. Nevertheless, he was anxious to exploit the opportunity opened by the changes on the international scene: the demise of the U.S.S.R.; the emergence of the new world order [with U.S. hegemony]; the Arab regimes' concerns over rising fundamentalism and their interest in the U.S; the dangers of a nuclear Iran; and the weakened state of the PLO after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of Saudi backing after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

The Oslo Accords were similar to the step-by-step approach that Rabin had taken with regard to Egypt-partial agreements with gradual withdrawal-whether out of a reluctance to present the public with too drastic a change, to have a period in which to test the other side, to build up trust between the two sides, or all of these together. Thus the Oslo Accords, because of their temporary nature, did not deal with the core issues of borders, settlements, security, refugees, Jerusalem, and so forth. There was much to criticize in this approach, and one can only speculate as to Israel's intentions in its haggling over the interim measures.

The only way to determine if a significant change had really occurred in the Israeli approach to the Palestinian issue was to see the positions on the core issues in the post-Oslo proposals: Camp David II, Taba and the Clinton Parameters. Without stating it directly, it was clear that the goal Israel was now willing to accept was the creation of a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip. Despite Israel's refusal to return to the June 4, 1967 lines, and despite all the arguing with the PLO over percentages of land that would remain under Israeli control, the proposals that did get Israeli agreement-even at Camp David but especially with regard to the Clinton Parameters-were a far cry from the Alon Plan of the earlier years. The object was separation and the frame of reference was the June 4, 1967 lines. Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak reportedly agreed to proposals that called for 93%, and then less (88-90%) of the land to go to the Palestinians; while he ultimately agreed to the Clinton Parameters that accorded the Palestinians 97% of the West Bank, with equal land swaps to compensate for the remainder, the equivalent in square kilometers to the area occupied in 1967.

The Palestinians have argued that the security arrangements demanded by Israel at Camp David, in part also in the Clinton Parameters, would have left Israel in control of roads, air space and the Jordan Rift Valley-albeit with limitations in terms of time (six years for the Jordan Rift) or usage (for training or in emergencies). Actually there was a significant Israeli step forward in agreeing to the Clinton Parameters proposal for an "international presence" to gradually replace Israel on that border. The Taba talks and the Clinton Parameters also provided for the return-to Israel-of a limited number of refugees as part of a comprehensive resettlement plan. Israel was to decide on the number, rumored to be in the vicinity of 40,000. And the Clinton Parameters provided for a division of sovereignty in Jerusalem: the Jewish neighborhoods go to Israel, the Arab neighborhoods to the Palestinians. This definitely was not the full right of return sought by the Palestinians, and it also seemed to allow for Jewish settlements built in East Jerusalem after 1967 to remain. Labor still believed an agreement could be reached on its own terms, and one could argue that some of the terms were not absolutely essential, but they did represent a more realistic approach on the substantive issues of territory, Jerusalem, sovereignty, and even the refugees.

However, the Clinton Parameters came too late, regardless of Israel's response. The disappointment over the failure of Oslo and Camp David lead to the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada, the election of the Likud and a total collapse of the peace process. Back was the "no solution" approach because there is no partner willing to accept Israel's existence. Since this attitude did little to stem the violence or promise future security, particularly in view of the demographics of holding on to the territories, the Likud government under Sharon introduced a new concept into Israeli policy: unilateralism. This was not a measure for achieving a resolution of the conflict; it was not even a measure designed to provide conflict management, for neither could be achieved without some kind of agreement with the other side. Sharon's motivation in unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza is not entirely clear.

Cynics argued that the move was merely designed to divert attention from personal legal problems; others that he sought to delay the demographic problem by removing 1.3 million Palestinians from Israeli control. It may also have been part of earlier ideas of separating and splitting the Palestinian Authority to make it easier for Israel to rule, at least over the West Bank; or it may have been to placate domestic critics and, as Sharon himself explained, ward off the possibility of an unfavorable-in his eyes-settlement forced on Israel, like the Road Map or a plan similar to the Geneva Initiative. That his conception of unilateralism was not designed for conflict resolution was evident by his insistence on retaining a Gaza "envelope," namely, Israeli control of access by air, sea, and land to and from Gaza. The idea of such an envelope appeared in Oslo as well, under the heading of "external security" over areas evacuated by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), but Oslo withdrawals were based on mutual agreements and cooperation, and only temporary security arrangements. A potentially significant move, however, was Sharon's agreement to Egyptian and European supervision of the Gaza border with Egypt, rather than direct Israeli control-a precedent, perhaps, for the adoption of the Clinton Parameters proposal for an international presence on the future Jordan Rift border.

Whatever his motivation or ultimate goal, Sharon took the official Israeli position a giant step forward. As early as October 2001, well before his unilateral idea and still as head of the Likud, Sharon declared Israel's support for the creation of a Palestinian state. He may have envisaged only a very small area for such a state or merely a patchwork of enclaves or Bantustans throughout the West Bank, but the idea of two states became a declared policy objective for Israel.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, often credited with initiating the unilateralism idea, apparently sought to combine this new unilateral method with the newly declared objective under the title of "convergence," with the purpose of ending the Israeli presence in-almost all of-the occupied territories. While his idea was not entirely clear-how much territory would be evacuated? Would the IDF remain beyond new lines? What would be Israel's relationship with the area beyond these lines?-it was presented as a solution, without a partner. There was little opportunity to test the idea as the Second Lebanon War totally discredited the concept of unilateralism in the public eye. Olmert reverted to the Barak approach: seeking a final status agreement in direct talks with the PLO leadership, with the help of the United States. A possible difference was that regional developments had deteriorated to the point that the Arab League had produced an innovative peace initiative that promised an end to the conflict and normal relations with Israel. Thus Olmert might be able to elicit broad Arab assistance, unavailable in earlier years. Countering this, however, was the rise of Hamas.

While virtually nothing has been officially revealed regarding Israel's positions in the present talks, the debate over borders appears to be somewhere between Barak's positions (90% of the land?) and the Clinton Parameters, with Israel rumored to be pressing for unequal land swaps to accommodate ever-growing settlement blocs, along with security measures that sound much like the Barak demands for use of air space, roads and a presence in the Jordan Rift Valley-though the Clinton Parameters solution to these issues and that of the borders may be on the table. As in the past, Jerusalem is subject to negotiations; the official position on the refugees is no return to Israel. Unlike in the past, the explicit goal is an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state. The "catch" is that, even if there was an agreement that the Palestinians could view as a solution, it is to be a "shelf" agreement, which means that implementation is to be put off, ostensibly until Road Map obligations are met, but, in reality, until an Israeli leader deems it politically possible or expedient to end the occupation.


Present circumstances: the weakness of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, and the disillusionment and skepticism of both publics limit the immediate prospects, but Israeli positions have undergone a possibly irreversible evolution. The 60 years have brought Israel to a recognition of the Palestinians as a people, the acceptance of the two-state solution, the June 4, 1967 lines as the reference point for territorial agreement, the principle of agreed land swaps, the preference for demographic over territorial considerations, the removal of settlements, the negotiability of the status of Jerusalem, security through an international presence and the assistance of the Arab states. In addition, there are numerous blueprints for the resolution of the most difficult issues. Perhaps, the most significant aspect of all of these changes is that they have been adopted by leaders-and publics-from what was the political right, forming today the center in Israeli politics.

1 Under the UN-created Palestine Conciliation Committee (PCC), the three members of which were Britain, Turkey, and the United States, acted as mediators in the conference meetings held in 1949, and briefly in 1950 and 1951.
2 There is divers evidence as to Israel's tacit, maybe even explicit, agreement that the land intended for an Arab state could be absorbed by Jordan.
3 According to Benny Morris, 65,000 was the approximate number of refugees who had managed to get back into the country or were in the pipeline. Israel's population at the time of these proposals was 650,000.
4 With regard to the resolution admitting Israel to the UN on May 11, 1949, stating that resolutions 181and 194 as the relevant UN decisions upon which admittance was based, Israel noted Resolution 194 with "clarifications."
5 Syria did not attend the conference and the PLO refused to sign the final resolution, both because the meeting was perceived as "too moderate" for its acceptance of the Egyptian position in favor of allowing international diplomacy for the return of the territories.
6 Reuven Pedatzur (Haaretz, July 2, 2007) provides some interesting details on the government discussions of the Jordanian Option/Palestinian state ideas. The West Bank Palestinian state was to be independent, even with a seat in the UN, but in essence an enclave with Israel maintaining the Jordan Rift Valley as its eastern border.
7 For a more detailed discussion of Israeli positions from Oslo onward, see Galia Golan, Israel and Palestine: Peace Plans and Proposals from Oslo to Disengagement, 2nd edition (Princeton: Markus Weiner Publishers), 2007.
8 September 9, 1993, letter from Rabin to Arafat accompanying the DOP.