“History,” Mark Twain reportedly said, “doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.” And recent attempts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement prove it.
On June 25, 2019, Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, presented part of the administration’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The economic portion of the proposal, entitled “From Peace to Prosperity,” was formally unveiled at a conference in Bahrain, with representatives from several Arab nations in attendance.
The Palestinian Authority, however, refused to participate. Indeed, the PA announced its opposition more than a year ago—long before the terms of the proposal were announced. The PA not only boycotted the proceedings, it threatened retaliation against any Palestinians who would participate.
In an interview on i24News English, a former PA minister, Ashraf Al-Ajrami called the several Palestinian businessmen attending “collaborators” who will be “seriously punished.” On Twitter, Jason Greenblatt, the U.S. envoy in charge of negotiations, noted that Palestinians were “threatened” or “forbidden” from attending. The Jerusalem Post reported that the PA even raided the homes of several Palestinian businessmen who participated, arresting at least one of the participants, Saleh Abu Mayaleh, who was only released after pressure from American officials.
Some commentators, in The Washington Post and elsewhere, asserted that the U.S. is to blame for the PA’s behavior. However, Palestinian leaders’ choosing to reject both negotiations and normalization predates the Trump administration. In fact, Palestinian leadership have rejected any type of compromise and threatened those Arabs who contemplate normalization—and they’ve consistently done so for nearly 100 years.
In the wake of World War I, the British promise to support a “national home” for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland was enshrined into international law via the League of Nations 1922 Palestine Mandate, Article 6 which encouraged “close settlement by Jews” on the land west of the Jordan River. Although some Arab leaders, such as Prince Faisal of the Hashemite family, initially pledged to support the Zionist enterprise, this would soon change.
As Ronald Florence documents in his 2007 book, T.E. Lawrence, Aaron Aaronsohn and the Seeds of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, after the French government defeated Faisal’s short-lived rule in Syria—and as the Hashemite prince faced mounting difficulties in asserting his rule in a land far away from his native Hejaz—opposition to Jewish self-determination grew. Yet, another contributing factor was the failed attempt by Arab notables in Mandate Palestine to join Syria.
Opposition to Zionism itself was by no means guaranteed; in the final days of WWI, the Ottoman Empire contemplated issuing its own Balfour Declaration and officials in the Ottoman-era, such as Jemal Pasha and Mustafa al-Husseini had even offered to sell the Western Wall to prominent French and Jewish Americans. However, some Arab parliamentarians in Ottoman-era Jerusalem like Uthman al-Husseini and Ruhi Khalidi, had expressed their disdain for Zionism.
One former Ottoman soldier, Amin al-Husseini, received political support from British officials in his bid for power after WWI. As the historians Barry Rubin and Wolfgang Schwanitz revealed in their 2014 book, Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, al-Husseini had been a wartime spy for the British—even helping to recruit Arab fighters for their war effort after the British publicly backed the re-establishment of a Jewish national home.
Perhaps in recognition of this service, authorities in British-ruled Mandate Palestine supported his unlikely bid—he wasn’t even 30 years of age and had no religious training—to be the grand mufti of Jerusalem and asked him to create a “Supreme Muslim Council,” thus giving him “tremendous patronage power and a large, secure source of revenue.” As the first Palestinian Arab leader, al-Husseini would set the pattern for his successors: consolidating power, murdering political rivals and threatening those Arabs who contemplated any accommodation with Zionists.
Prior to his 1921 appointment, secret societies of young Arabs opposing Zionism had formed in Jaffa, Haifa and elsewhere. In 1920, Schwanitz and Rubin note, al-Husseini himself had “helped organize the first anti-Jewish underground military organization in southern Syria, al-Fidiya (the sacrifice).” Anti-Jewish violence, encouraged by al-Husseini and others, broke out in April 1920 at the Nabi Musa festival and in 1921 in Jaffa.
In August 1921, an Arab delegation met with British officials, including Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, and demanded that Ottoman-era laws be re-enacted, Jewish immigration ended and the abolition of the principle of the Jewish national home. While refusing to repudiate the latter, the British offered to establish a legislative body and an advisory board, but the delegation rejected these proposals in a Sept. 1, 1921 letter. Another attempt by Churchill, in late November 1921, was also spurned.
In August 1922, a meeting of 75 Arab delegates voted to boycott legislative council elections. According to a June 1922 proposal by the British, the council would’ve had influence over Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine. But instead of some influence, they chose to have none, demanding that no land be sold to Jews—a demand which many of the delegates themselves would secretly break.
In the spring of 1923, the British High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel, once again proposed an advisory council and sent out invites to ten prominent Arabs—invites which were accepted until it was announced that there would be also two Jewish members serving. In August 1929, al-Husseini incited anti-Jewish violence in Jerusalem, which soon spread to Hebron, Jaffa and elsewhere.
Almost immediately after Adolf Hitler’s 1933 ascension, al-Husseini sought support from fascists in Italy and Germany. By 1935, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini began financing him and, in October 1937, a then obscure Nazi official named Adolf Eichmann met with al-Husseini’s representatives in Cairo. The fascist powers, assisted by Saudi Arabia as a middleman, would arm the 1936-1939 Arab revolt, in which Palestinians led by al-Husseini murdered political opponents, Jews and British officials. The mufti even tried to bomb the palace of Faisal’s brother, Abdullah, the King of Transjordan and a British ally whose land al-Husseini coveted. U.S. intelligence officials, Schwanitz and Rubin note, would later conclude that the revolt “was able to continue only because of Nazi funding.” Abdullah, who was more open to working with Zionists, was assassinated in 1951 by al-Husseini’s henchmen.
Worried about the rising threat posed by the Axis powers, the British sought to shore up their position in the Arab world by seeking accommodation with Palestinian leaders. As a result, the British dramatically limited Jewish immigration precisely at the moment that anti-Jewish persecution in Europe was increasingly.
A 1938 Palestine Partition Commission recommended a “two-state solution,” with the overwhelming majority of the land going to the Arabs, and a small coastal plain being left for the Jews. Al-Husseini, however “refused even to talk without a prior British guarantee that all of Palestine would become an independent Arab state and that” his rivals “the an-Nashashibi faction would not be allowed to participate in any meetings.” That al-Husseini had murdered—and would continue to murder—several members of the al-Nashashibi family was not enough apparently.
Arabs who participated at a subsequent London Conference were told that al-Husseini “demanded a total ban on Jewish immigration and land purchases plus rapid creation of an independent Arab Palestine under his rule.” The British, however, gave in and offered terms which Schwanitz and Rubin describe as making it so “no Jewish state could ever be created.” However, as the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state wouldn’t be immediate, the offer was rejected. For al-Husseini, “it was all or nothing.”
Time and again, the process would repeat itself. The U.N.’s 1947 Partition Plan, which, had it been accepted, would’ve given the Palestinians a state, was accepted by the Jews and rejected by the Arabs, who declared war and sought to destroy the fledgling Jewish nation.
Al-Husseini’s cousin and successor, Yasser Arafat, would reject—without so much as a counteroffer—statehood, in 2000 at Camp David and 2001 at Taba. And Arafat’s successor, current Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, refused another offer in 2008 that would’ve given Palestinians more than 90% of the land in the West Bank and a capital in eastern Jerusalem. U.S.-backed proposals to restart negotiations were also declined by Abbas in 2014 and 2016.
Karl Marx famously said that history repeats itself—first as tragedy and then as farce. But Palestinian leaders seem stuck on repeat—with only tragedy to show for it.
(Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared in The Times of Israel on July 16, 2019)