Chapter 10: Palestine, More Eternal Lines
In Episode 10 of A Red Line in the Sand, a companion podcast to the book of the same title, author David Andelman examines Israel and Palestine and their too-often tortured frontiers and toxic red lines.
David Andelman: The Holy Land. For more than 5,000 years, Jews and Arabs have lived side by side, dividing this land between them. First, Jews stood against non-Jewish Canaanites. Many of those Canaanites eventually embraced Christianity, then half a millennium later, Islam. By the late Bronze Age, Israeli tribes began to appear. By the late Iron Age, there were already city-states in the Levant. The Levant is today Israel and the Palestinian territories. Maps of the Levant in the Iron Age already show well-defined areas of Israel, Judah, Moab, Edom, and Ammon. And by the time of Kings David and Solomon, walled cities like Megiddo were flourishing.
I’m David Andelman, author of the new book A Red Line in the Sand. I’m your host as we hopscotch around the world in this 12-part podcast. Together, we’re examining the red line boundaries that have changed history, set political agendas, spilled blood and smoothed paths toward peace.
Today, in episode 10, we’re examining Israel and Palestine and their too-often tortured frontiers and toxic red lines.
From the earliest days, the capital city was already Jerusalem. By the year 850 BC, there is also clear evidence of Israeli and Judean states. This suggests that even then, lines existed not unlike today’s. The Jewish state of Israel was effectively destroyed by a sweep of Assyrian forces in 721 BC. A century later, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar completed the process with the Babylonian exile. The Jews scattered, though many returned and built the Second Temple in Jerusalem a century later. So, for more than 2,000 years, Jews and Arabs have lived side by side in some fashion in the Holy Land. Eventually, of course, Romans would conquer much of this region. Christianity would arrive, and later Islam. But in each case, there were distinct communities with their own lines of authority. Many were perhaps the oldest red lines of all.
As for the Jews, they've been living side by side with conquerors and indigenous non-Jews—first Arab Christians, then Islamized Arabs. Eventually, they were absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, where they managed to coexist for 400 years in the Islamic province of Syria. By 1896, they had become a majority in the city of Jerusalem.
Four years earlier, Chaim Weizmann left the Russian Empire to pursue his studies as a chemist in England. By time he arrived as a professor at the University of Manchester, he had fully embraced Zionism. He was committed to making Palestine the Jewish homeland. In Manchester, Weizmann met Arthur Balfour, the local member of parliament. At the time, Weizmann was pursuing his experimental work in chemistry. Shortly before the out-break of World War I hostilities, he discovered a way of artificially creating acetone, a critical component in making bombs. At the same time, Britain was also seeking a way to weaken the Ottoman Empire and build its own influence in the Middle East.
Weizmann developed a pitch: “Imagine Palestine fell within the British sphere of influence. Then imagine Britain encouraged a Jewish settlement there, as a British dependency. In 2 or 3 decades, we could have a million Jews out there. They would develop the country, bring back civilization, and form an effective guard for the Suez Canal.” His pitch contained three central and powerful elements for British politicians. They were so persuasive that they led to the creation of the State of Israel. Those three elements were as follows: first, more territory. Second, the development and modernization of a desert wasteland. And third, a loyal and powerful ally prepared to defend the Suez Canal—Britain’s most direct route to the East.
Britain had a clear self-interest in creating this Jewish homeland in Palestine. They could build their presence in the Middle East, protect the Suez Canal, and weaken the Ottoman enemy while doing so. They were also indebted to Weizmann for his brilliant chemical discovery. David Lloyd George later said that he had “rewarded” Weizmann with a Jewish homeland in Palestine in return for his donation of the formula to produce vast quantities of acetone. In fact, the political pirouette was a trifle more complex.
Weizmann had developed a friendship with Sir Mark Sykes, chief secretary of the war cabinet. Sykes, along with his French counterpart François Georges-Picot, drafted the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement dividing the Middle East between Britain and France. This pact awarded a large swath of Palestine to the French. But the war cabinet, even Sykes himself, believed Britain deserved much of Palestine, Greater Syria and Iraq, which had also been awarded to France. Weizmann lobbied mightily for the position that France should have rights that did not extend beyond Syria. He said, “ The only work which may be termed civilizing work has been carried out by the Jews.”
On November 18, 1917, Chaim Weizmann waited outside the door while the War Cabinet met. Minutes later, Sykes emerged, waving a document. He said, “Dr. Weizmann, it’s a boy.” In fact, it was the Balfour Declaration. Arthur Balfour had drafted a letter to Lord Lionel de Rothschild, the powerful leader of the British Jewish community: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews of any other country.”
Weizmann promptly traveled to Palestine for a meeting with the Arab leader Faisal bin Hussein, arranged by the great T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence believed the Jews could helpadvance the Arab agenda in the region—namely expeling Ottoman overlords. During this two-hour meeting in the desert, Weizmann promised the Jews intended “to do everything in their power to allay Arab fears and susceptibilities.” Over thick, sweet coffee and tea, there was very much a meeting of minds. Faisal insisted that a photo be taken outside his tent. In a remarkable image, Weizmann wore the traditional Arab headdress atop his three-piece white linen suit, and Faisal the robes of a Bedouin warrior.
Of course, there was much work left before the Jewish state of Israel would be created three decades later. In 1922, a British census showed the total population of Palestine as barely 750,000 people, “of whom 600,000 were Moslems, 84,000 Jews and 82,000 Christians.” Then the Jewish migration began. By 1930, the number of Jews had doubled. The Jews arrived ready to pay for Arab lands where they wanted to settle. But the foundation was laid for future problems between Jews and Arabs, who saw themselves as increasingly disenfranchised. The trickle of Jews to Palestine rose 20-fold in the 1930s. By the time the State of Israel was created in 1948, Jews outnumbered Arabs 700,000 to 150,000. To highlight the shift: in 1922, Jews made up 10% of this territory. Less than 30 years later, they were more than 80%.
The physical boundaries of the State of Israel were drawn by the British when they controlled Palestine. This included the present-day Palestinian territory of Gaza and the lands along the Jordan River’s West Bank. From the moment of its creation, Israel was challenged by massive armed reactions from Arab armies. At least three times over the next half century, Arab forces attempted to cross the red line that was Israel’s fiercely defended boundary. Each time, Israel fended off these attacks in the face of almost unanimous condemnation by the outside world, including the United Nations and its Security Council. After the 1948 war, Israel retained territories that included East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula. Little of this territory was part of the original boundary established by Britain when it allowed the creation of the Jewish state. But Israeli leaders believed that retaining and expanding the nation’s red lines provided vital buffers against further challenges. They feared that, without expanding Israel’s “narrow waist”, that thin strip of line could be used to divide Israel in half.
Palestinians, particularly the Palestine Liberation Organization, had by then seized on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as their future homeland. Israel still considered these territories as part of its own newly expanded home. After the Six-Day War, Israel seized the Golan Heights. But as part of the truce, it agreed to return the Golan to Syria and the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. Israel retained the Gaza Strip and the West Bank—which put it in direct conflict with the view of the UN Security Council. The Security Council had voted unanimously in 1967 to approve a resolution introduced by Britain. This resolution called for Israel to relinquish Gaza and the West Bank. It even drew a map of what it viewed as the nation’s new red line.
Six years later came the Yom Kippur War, a surprise attack by a coalition of Arab armies on the Jews’ holiest day. Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and advanced through the Sinai, while Syria struck from the Golan Heights. The Israeli military retaliated by air and land on all fronts. Within two weeks, Israel had utterly humiliated the entire Arab coalition. President Nixon promptly went before the press to express hope for the future:
President Richard Nixon: We now come, of course, to the critical time in terms of the future of the Mideast. And here the outlook is far more hopeful than what we have been through this past week. I think I could safely say that the chances for not just a cease fire, which we presently have and which, of course, we have had in the Mideast for some time, but the outlook for a permanent peace is the best it has been in 20 years.
DA: To make this reality, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recognized that the Palestinians needed hope of a future homeland, perhaps outside of the Israeli envelope. He wrote in a top-secret cable: “Palestinian interests and aspirations are a reality, and the U.S. has recognized publicly that no settlement is possible without taking them into account, In the context of a settlement, the U.S. would be more than eager to contribute to the well-being and progress of the Palestinian people.”
The Yom Kippur War was the last full-scale conflict between Israel and any external armed force. There have been many efforts since to breach or shrink Israel’s red lines. Two intifadas, or large-scale Palestinian uprisings, were accompanied by a war in southern Lebanon. In between, there were many actions by Israel against Palestine and the militant Hamas, now the de facto governing authority of the Gaza Strip.
A number of diplomatic initiatives were launched with the same goal: to secure Israel’s frontiers and its red lines. Six months after the Yom Kippur War, in early 1974, Secretary Kissinger traveled twice between Cairo and Jerusalem. His first trip, in January, brought an end to the uneasy truce between Israel and Egypt. Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, shrinking the bloated red line. Over eight vigorous days, Kissinger bludgeoned both sides into a first pullback. In May, Kissinger traveled between Jerusalem and Damascus, trying his same magic on Syria. He also hoped that an agreement there would persuade OPEC to lift the embargo on oil shipments to the United States that was crippling the American economy. On May 31, the two countries signed an agreement and Israel pulled out of the Golan. The Israeli red lines effectively returned to the status quo from before the hostilities and they remain there today.
Let’s take a pause here for a little commercial message:
If you’re enjoying this podcast, you’ll love my book! Where there are even more wonderful yarns and heart-stopping ideas to keep you awake at night.
The veteran NBC News anchor and commentator Tom Brokaw calls it "timely and insightful," and is kind enough to call me "one of our most experienced national security journalists."
And if you send me a copy of your receipt, I’ll enter you in a drawing for a half-hour with me one-on-one on zoom. Email me at [email protected]
And now, we’re back.
A succession of future peace negotiations had little to no impact on the red lines that divided Israelis from Arabs. Jimmy Carter, his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance engineered the Camp David Accords. They brought together Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for twelve days in 1978 and the outcome was the Accords: two framework agreements for peace in this region. It was, in many ways, the most consequential of these peace negotiations.
President Jimmy Carter: ...And it provides that Israel may live in peace within secure and recognized borders. And this great aspiration of Israel has been certified without constraint with the greatest degree of enthusiasm by President Sadat, the leader of one of the greatest nations on earth.
DA: Camp David recognized the red lines surrounding the Jewish state that had existed at least since its creation in 1948. Israel also pledged “withdrawal from the occupied territories, with exceptions to be negotiated for Israel’s security.” The pact established, as Carter put it, “a contiguous, or Palestinian state, with ‘full autonomy for the ‘Palestinian Arabs’.” The final provision was “an undivided Jerusalem” which was ultimately deleted from the final document.
What is critical for our discussion, however, is not the issue of a lasting peace, but rather the nature of the territory and the boundaries that were left behind. From the Israeli point of view, the land of Palestine—Gaza and the West Bank—remained within the borders of Israel. Under the Camp David Accords, the Palestinians were given the right to establish a “self- governing authority,” which has done little to change any of the boundaries. The United Nations General Assembly refused to recognize the Accords since neither the UN nor the PLO had participated in the negotiations. The Palestinians had not won the “right of return,” self-determination, or national independence and sovereignty, as was available to Jews and Israelis. That would have meant dramatically redrawing Israel’s red lines, endangering their viability and the security of the Israeli heartland.
Twenty years later, in September 1995, President Bill Clinton tried again. He brought Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat together in Washington to conclude a new agreement - the West Bank Accord. This time, the negotiations included the Palestinians. But it did little to ease the tension, often erupting into violence in both the West Bank and Gaza that continues now and likely will well into the future. The West Bank Accord elevated an existential debate that has continued for much of Israel’s existence—a one-state versus a two-state solution to the Palestinian question. Should the Gaza and West Bank territories be simply incorporated into Israel and all Palestinians become full-fledged Israeli citizens? Or should Gaza and the West Bank become a separate, recognized Palestinian nation? This is a fundamental question.
The land area of Israel and the two Palestinian territories is wildly unbalanced— respectively 13,000 square miles versus 3,400. And the numbers are worth considering. 5 million Palestinians in the territories, plus 2 million Arabs inside Israel, equals about 7 million Arabs within what would be the boundaries of a single Israeli state. That's nearly the same as the number of Jews living in Israel. Moreover, Palestinian families are averaging five children, vastly outpacing Jewish population growth. This means that within the next decade, Jews would become a minority in their own land. The situation could well become similar to South Africa under apartheid, when a white minority was governing an oppressed majority. Alternatively, a Jewish minority might be governed by a Palestinian majority. Israel’s red line frontiers, then, would become all but meaningless.
None of this seems very likely. A two-state solution seems to be the only viable formula for maintaining Israel’s seven-decade red line. But for nearly two decades, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to resolve this problem without another full-scale war, but also without giving the Palestinians any real democratic rights. Netanyahu has led Israel for 14 years. Three months into his second term, in June 2009, he announced the road map for his version of a two-state solution. He proposed immediate renewal of talks with the Palestinian Authority for self-government, as long as that doesn’t endanger Israel. West Bank settlements would not be “an obstacle to peace." But even then, it became clear that the train would go imminently off the rails. A freeze on new construction of settlements on the West Bank was nothing more than a pledge. It had no enforcement mechanism. Barack Obama was not happy with the pace or direction of negotiations on such a freeze, which turned out to be utterly ephemeral. Obama’s special envoy George Mitchell was in charge of talks with the Israeli government:
George Mitchell: The United States has consistently, publicly opposed Israel's policies and actions regarding settlements, even as it has opposed publicly Palestinian efforts to resolve other issues outside of direct negotiation.
DA: Over the next dozen years, settlements continued to mushroom, stretching the eastern red line of Israel into areas that were nominally Palestinian. In March 2020, Israel’s defense minister, Naftali Bennett, even approved a master project called “Sovereignty Road.” Sovereignty Road was designed to separate Palestinian and Israeli motorists. As one Israeli journalist put it, it would “enable construction of settlements of a highly sensitive area near East Jerusalem.” Such a project had been frozen for nearly a decade. Now it was full speed ahead.
All this was happening just as Donald Trump was unveiling his own, stillborn peace plan for Israel. Early in his presidency, Trump put his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of this delicate subject. The then-36-year-old real estate developer had no diplomatic experience and was even initially denied the security status he needed to succeed. Moreover, if there were ever an opportunity for both sides to come together on such an agreement, that window closed a month after Kushner’s appointment.
On December 6, 2017, Trump announced his decision to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. We must remember that the status of this city has never been fully settled between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. All three religions have important claims on parts of the Holy City. Palestinians were outraged by Trump’s announcement. Five months later, more than 10,000 Palestinians protested the new embassy’s opening ceremony along the border fence with Gaza, leaving 2,700 injured and 60 dead. Jared Kushner attended the ceremony, standing in front of a huge American flag as a video message from his father-in-law played. In his video, Trump made a pledge:
President Donald Trump: The United States remains fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement and we continue to support the status quo at Jerusalem's holy sites.
DA: There followed two years of frantic settlement building across the West Bank. “Netanyahu has chosen to cross the red lines and take us all with them,” an Israeli columnist wrote in February 2020. Construction on the West Bank, he continued, “makes a future Palestinian state unimaginable.” Still, halfhearted discussions continued between Kushner and Israeli officials. The Palestinians declined even to receive Kushner or any other American as long as the embassy remained in Jerusalem.
Then, in January 2020, Trump and Netanyahu unveiled their peace plan. The most critical issue was defining boundaries of the “new” Israel and Palestinian territories. The maps show Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a single unit or 15 “Israeli enclave communities” - settlements Netanyahu managed to establish before the map was printed. Some sort of bizarre tunnel is also shown running beneath Israel, connecting Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian authority promptly labeled the entire deal “utterly unacceptable and grossly unjust.”
Seven months later, Trump triumphantly tweeted that the United Arab Emirates would establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel. Trump credited his son-in-law, though it is likely that other forces were at work— especially a fear of Iran’s growing reach and hostility that required a more united response across the region. But this diplomatic breakthrough was of great importance to the geography of red lines. Most stunning was this: Israel agreed to suspend declaring sovereignty of new Palestinian territories and instead focus its efforts on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world.
There were certain red flags immediately visible. First, Israel had only agreed to “suspend” declaring sovereignty over new territories. It had done so before and quickly regressed. Second, there appeared to be conditions. Ties with other Arab nations might be necessary before any permanent Israeli agreement to establish new lines with these Palestinian territories.
The crown prince of Abu Dhabi has long been a major power broker in the region. The pact with the UAE would be the first with a major Arab nation since Israel and Jordan’s 1994 peace agreement. If this pact could be cemented, then it was entirely possible that similar agreements could be made with Saudi Arabia or other regional powers that could force Israelto adhere to the boundaries in Kushner's peace plan.
Of course, there have been any number of maps drawn over the past 70 years with red lines that have set the boundaries of Israel, the extent of its penetration into conquered territories, even suggesting its willingness to withdraw from Palestinian lands. In the Kushner peace map, there is a host of other problems. The tunnel that appears to link Gaza with the West Bank territories is stunningly ill-conceived. Would Israel ever let a tunnel be built entirely under its land that could be a focal point of attacks on Israeli territory above? Israel has done its best to dismantle tunnels built into Gaza from Egypt that have been used to smuggle in arms and explosives. Freezing growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, of course, has never happened at all. The only convincing talking point in this document is the final one. The red line of Israel's frontier continues to creep, and that is not tenable in the long run. Creeping red lines may hold for some time if there is an excess of power on one side. But in the long run, they will never work. A well-intentioned outside arbiter with no clear agenda must find a way to make these lines permanent, or draw them in a fashion where everyone on both sides can live and prosper.
Two decades ago, I had lunch with an Israeli minister of finance. He had an interesting idea. Why not help the Palestinians understand the value of a cooperative arrangement that could reach across this red line? He’d already begun to establish a fund that would finance new and vibrant Palestinian businesses. By seeing graphic demonstrations of what was possible—jobs, growth, prosperity, and peace—might his adversaries not appreciate the value of a bridge? It seemed like a brilliant idea. But two months later, he was ousted in one of the many Israeli cabinet shuffles that have stymied the pursuit of peace. His idea died with him.
So now we are left with the world's longest and most immutable red line…..the subject of our next episode. This is one that I call truly eternal, if peace is to be maintained among the world's major powers. It is the outer boundary of the NATO alliance.
Thanks for listening.
Meanwhile, I hope you’ll check out my new book from Pegasus, "A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen."
If you’re enjoying the show, make sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts to help other fans of history and adventure find the show.
Red Lines is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. My special thanks to producer Isabel Robertson, engineer Sean Rule-Hoffman, and executive producers Michael de Aloia and Gerardo Orlando.
Visit evergreenpodcasts.com to access a transcript and get more info on the show. Subscribe to the podcast to see the next episode in your feed the moment it’s published. See you next time!