In the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Both Sides Must Stop Fighting for What’s Never Going to Happen.
There are a lot of things I would like to see happen. I’d like to be appointed to the US Supreme Court. I’d like to win the Nobel Peace Prize specifically for a winning routine on Dancing with the Stars. I’d like to be awarded the Wimbledon Trophy because all of the top players were too intimidated to play me and forfeited. Unfortunately, none of these things are going to happen. They just aren’t. (Except maybe the Wimbledon thing).
The same dynamic has kept the hot war between Israel and the Palestinians going for over seven decades. Both sides are ignoring the adage that politics (and war) is the art of the possible. And while the magnitude of the self-deception is different as to the two sides, and there is no moral equivalency, neither side has fully and honestly assessed what is achievable and what is not. They both have a wish list, but in some key respects, their wishes are as realistic as my list in the opening paragraph of this article. (Again, except maybe for the Wimbledon thing).
I have a bit of base knowledge about this conflict. I’ve read a good deal on it and made it a focus of my studies in college as I earned my undergraduate degree in Political Science, which, as everyone knows, is a fail-proof and instant ticket to riches. I’ve been to both Israel and the Palestinian Territories numerous times and have spoken to both political leaders and falafel venders about the situation there.
Our family’s last trip before COVID included a stop in Israel. (After COVID, most of our family trips included a stop at RITE AID). When I was a boy my non-religious Jewish mother had moved us from Philadelphia to Allentown and, in what I can only assume was an effort to individuate, I insisted on going to Hebrew School. My mother signed me up for classes at the first synagogue she could find, which happened to be Sons of Israel (not sure what we were supposed to make of what happened to the “daughters of Israel”), an orthodox Shul where the training was fairly intense and included a lot of time spent in youth groups learning about Israel.
I became well-versed in the War of Independence and the heroism of those who fought for a state that had only existed for 24 hours when it defeated virtually every Arab army. I learned about the Six Day War where Israel was vastly outnumbered but had beaten the odds again. And I personally remember obliviously (the days before smart phones) going to Shul on Yom Kippur in 1973 and being stunned when Rabbi Roth announced that Israel was being invaded yet again, on their holiest day, by their neighbors who had sworn to destroy them.
We were taught that the Arabs, who were not yet widely referred to as Palestinians, were utterly intractable and refused to even consider compromise or peace. Even at the age of 12, I was familiar with the publicly stated Arab position on Israel. “No Peace, No Negotiations. No Recognition”. And while I clearly received a one-sided education, even the national news shows I watched reinforced the view that Israel was going to be perpetually under attack and needed to do all it can to defend itself.
However, I’m now older (although I don’t look it. I still pass for 12). Over the years I became a strong progressive and, setting Israel aside for the moment, a vocal proponent of human rights. And while I still love Israel and support it’s right to defend itself, I am no fan of Bibi Netanyahu. I feel that at times he has been gratuitously punitive and cruel towards average Palestinians, and made their lives unnecessarily difficult. Living as a Palestinian in the West Bank and particularly Gaza is brutal. That said, we’ve had better leaders of Israel (Rabin, Barak, Begin, Perez) who were also unable to convince the Palestinian leadership (both Hamas and Fatah) to permanently end the conflict and make peace, on pretty much any terms.
The bottom line is that we currently have a dearth of good, visionary, courageous leadership on both sides. Until that situation changes, it will be very difficult to permanently end the violence. However, lets pretend that leadership was not the issue, and that both sides wanted to negotiate in good faith and come to a deal. One of the basic rules of negotiations is that neither party has fixed positions, they have interests. The more their core interests can be met, the more flexible they can be on their positions on each point.
The problem is that while both sides have completely legitimate interests which any reasonable peace deal would address, they also both have desires that are unrealistic because it would simply be unreasonable for the other side to agree to them.
For the Palestinians, many of them want all of Israel to cease to exist and become part of a Greater Palestine. But it should be obvious that no Israeli leader will or could agree to his nation’s elimination from the map. “From the river to the sea…” is just not going to happen with Israel’s consent, and the Palestinians will not be in a position to bring that result about by military force for many decades at least, and probably never. That needs to stop being, publicly or privately, a motivating wish of the Palestinian side. They may not be happy with Israel’s establishment, but it is a permanent fact on the ground and it does no good to pretend that’s not so.
Similarly, the Palestinians are not going to be given the entire city of Jerusalem. No Jewish leader could negotiate away their capitol and holiest sites. For centuries, Jews in the diaspora would greet each other by saying “next year in Jerusalem”. Again, some Palestinians sincerely and passionately believe that they are entitled to all of Jerusalem. But Israel’s possession of at least the Jewish parts of Jerusalem is not going to change, and the only alternative to accepting that fact is permanent war that the Palestinians will continue to lose.
Israel is also simply not going to grant a broad-based “right of return”, whereby Palestinians who claim that they were evicted from their land 75 years ago can come back, tell the Jews living in their houses to scram and move back in. There is passionate historical debate about whether the Palestinian claims to land are historically valid. My point is that in 2021, for purposes of a peace agreement, it just doesn’t matter. Right of Return is not going to happen.
However, Israel has to abandon it’s own magical thinking. Some site biblical edicts to argue for a “greater Israel’ which includes a lot more land, much of it Palestinian, than Israel currently controls. One thing that we will not be seeing out of a peace agreement is Israel getting more land.
While the aforementioned Right of Return is not practical, Israel cannot expect the Palestinians to agree to simply abandon their people’s claims to ancestral homes. No Palestinian leader who did so would survive for long. And a leader no longer in power is not a leader who can deliver peace.So, while we won’t see a Right of Return, we can see the establishment of a fair process to evaluate Palestinian claims and assess the payment of just compensation to those wrongly displaced.
The Palestinians also could never agree to a treaty that did not give them control over Muslim holy sites and Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Just like the Palestinians will have to give up their dreams of having 100% of Jerusalem within their control, so will the Israelis. And for their own sake, they should. Controlling an angry, resentful population is not a recipe for a constructive peace
Any Palestinian state must have secure, viable borders, which will necessitate Israel removing some of the smaller Jewish settlements, as they did, sometimes forcefully, in the Sinai when they made peace with Egypt.
On the other hand, settlements which have grown into cities of 100,000 people are not going to be removed, and the Palestinians are going to have to accept land swaps to make up for areas it is just no longer feasible to get back. And Israel is going to have to offer land that is fully equal in value to the land where the settlements sit, and the land that makes up the west bank portion of the new Palestinian state must be co-joined, cohesive and make geographic sense.
There are other components of any sustainable peace agreement. But both sides have to stop engaging in unrealistic wishful thinking. More importantly, the supporters of both sides must do so as well.
There is something i learned as a professional politician for eighteen years. We often hear elected officials say “We have to make the tough decisions”. Usually, when a politico says that, they mean “tough” for THE OTHER SIDE! Not for them. When a conservative Republican says that we have to make the tough decisions to balance the budget, what he means is that we have to be tough enough to cut a bunch of programs he doesn’t like anyway. Raising taxes is not one of the “tough decisions” that he is generally willing to make.
The conflict in the Middle East is the same. When Israelis and Palestinians say that we need to make the tough decisions for peace, they need to start looking inwards at what is tough for them, not the other side. This starts with abandoning positions that the other side could not possibly agree to and work to achieve what is possible. That is the only way that peace will ever truly come. The alternative is too horrific to contemplate.