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America Pressures Israel Plenty

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
January/February 2011
Foreign Policy

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Scholars, pundits, propagandists, and journalists have created two dangerous pieces of conventional wisdom about the Middle East: that Israelis, not Palestinians, have been the main stumbling block to peace, and that the United States has failed to use its influence to pressure Israel for serious compromises. Both propositions are largely untrue. If uncorrected, these myths could make both Palestinians and Israelis feel irretrievably wronged and unwilling ever to negotiate in good faith.

Israel has a long and compelling history of making major concessions to Arabs. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem in 1977, and less than two years later, Israel agreed to return the entire Sinai Peninsula, booty of a war it did not start and an act of territorial generosity unprecedented in modern history. Israelis negotiated with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, whom they rightly considered a terrorist. At the end of U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians several key concessions, including more than 90 percent of the West Bank. After the Annapolis initiative put forward by George W. Bush's administration, one of Barak's successors, Ehud Olmert, upped the offerings considerably: more of the West Bank, a sliver of Arab East Jerusalem for a Palestinian capital, and a land swap to give the new Palestinian state a land link to Gaza. Olmert even privately accepted "the right of return" to Israel for a certain number of Palestinian refugees. To both generous proposals, the Palestinians said either no or nothing.

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