Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Israel and Palestine for Dummies

One shouldn’t think that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is intractable. Nor does one need to know its entire history in order to understand it, though it’s not a mistake to know this history. Needless to say, where there are multiple players (such as in the case of a political conflict between two nations) there are multiple narratives. Where there are multiple narratives, revisiting the history of the conflict usually ends in a clash of narratives.

Here is where it’s at: Palestinians don’t have a state, but Israelis have a state. Israel is a nation state, one which declares itself both Jewish and democratic; Palestine is, well, even saying what Palestine is is tricky. It is definitely not a state. It is a geographic unit created by the British (on biblical boundaries, hence a “scriptural phantasy”), divided by UN resolution, so as to provide the basis for two states, one predominantly Jewish, the other predominantly Arab. (According to the 1947 UN partition plan, Jerusalem was to remain extraterritorial, a corpus separatum, under an international regime.) Mandatory Palestine therefore turned into a divided body: part of it is today the geographic base of the State of Israel, founded in 1948, while another part or other parts of it constitute the Palestinian territories. One of these territories, the West Bank, is still under Israeli military occupation and the other one, the Gaza Strip, was recently subject to an Israeli military campaign though it was previously vacated by the Israelis in an act of unilateral withdrawal. Both Gaza Strip and West Bank came under the autonomous governance of the Palestine National Authority after the Oslo Agreements of the mid-1990s. De facto the two regions are now ruled by two different Palestinian factions (Hamas in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority, or rather the PLO, in the West Bank). The West Bank continues to be riddled with expanding Israeli settlements established since 1967 when Israel captured the West Bank from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and the West Bank is militarily controlled by the State of Israel, which reoccupied the Palestinian territories during the Al Aqsa Intifada, which broke out in 2000 and has never officially ended, though it has since fizzled out. An additional feature is the “separation wall,” a security fence (including miles of concrete barriers) separating Israeli from Palestinian territory, though the wall’s placement has caused lots of grievances and complaints about the unnecessary hardships it imposes on Palestinians whose villages are sometimes cut off from their fields. The separation wall also attempts to sever East-Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Jews and Arabs have been fighting over Palestine. Setting aside the history of the conflict, there are a number of possible resolutions.

1) Establish a Palestinian State alongside Israel in the territories of Gaza and the West Bank with a connecting corridor. This is the much cited two-state-solution to the problem of Palestine, resulting in the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

2) Establish an Israeli-Palestinian confederacy with internally autonomous areas and joined administration of federal lands and resources. This would be a kind of one-state-solution with parity among its disparate constituents.

3) Get rid of the State of Israel and replace it with a democratic state of Palestine, with equal rights for all citizens.

4) Establish a rigorously radical Jewish state in Greater Israel, or a Muslim state in all of Palestine.

5) Continue managing the conflict without a resolution of the political issues.

Of these options, number one, the two-state-solution, has been the stated goal of the negotiations between the State of Israel and the PLO, which led to the Oslo Accords and subsequent agreements. It continues to be advocated by the PLO, the PNA, by Tsipi Livni’s Kadimah party, by Ehud Barak’s Labour party, and many others to the left of the current Likud government. The two-state-solution is widely supported among moderate Israelis and Palestinians. To be sure, the Palestinian state requires agreements with its neighbors, the Israelis, the Jordanians, the Syrians, the Egyptians, that would guarantee control over roads and bridges, air and sea traffic, tourism, water, agriculture, industry, etc. This is not even so difficult to imagine, as long as Israel respects the integrity of this state and its territory and as long as this state respects the integrity and security needs of its Israeli and other neighbors. Major problem to be solved on the way toward such an agreement: what to do with the Israeli settlements. This issue could be resolved either by vacating settlements or by compensating the Palestinians with territory currently held or claimed by the Israelis.

If I am not mistaken, option two (one confederate state) is advocated by Palestinian intellectuals who don’t believe that the two-state-solution is either viable or just, that Palestine is a single region, that Israeli Arabs are part of the Palestinian people and that one should not base a state on religious or nationalistic distinctions. Currently I know of no Israelis who feel this is the way to go, though in the past this was advocated by Brit Shalom, established by the likes of Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Henrietta Szold. This solution has been discredited as too idealistic, i.e., as not taking into account the need for national self-determination, and hence of the nation state as the only viable form of realizing national interests.

Option three would require a return to the status quo ante 1917, an undoing of a century of Zionist development in Palestine and the undoing of well ensconced instutions of a highly functional state. The Palestinian notables responding to the new situation created by the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of British mandatory government that separated Palestine from Trans-Jordan and from Syria were hoping to achieve sovereignty for the population of what they perceived as overwhelmingly Arab lands, nothwithstanding the religious affiliation of its inhabitants. This appeared as the most natural development, though it ignored the sincerity of the British commitment, made in 1917, to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This goal has therefore always been undermined by the resourceful competing interest of European supported Jewish nationalism. If it didn't work before the state of Israel came into being, it is unlikely to work now.

Option four
, the radical Judaization of Greater Israel (including the biblical lands of Israel located, of all places, in the high lands of Judea and Samaria, i.e., in the hill country north and south of Jerusalem that are the West Bank) or the radical Islamization of Palestine (an unprecedented idea given the long Jewish and Christian histories in the Holy Land): either variant would be plainly absurd and undesirable, except from extremist perspectives, which does not mean that it is not advocated by the respective radical fringes. And since radicals speak more loudly than moderates, it appears that there are not few advocates of radical solutions on either side.

Option five
is de facto the position of the current Israeli government. It has been widely noted that, in his first address to the Israeli parliament, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu failed to mention the term "Palestinian state." Instead he spoke of peace with Israel's Arab neighbors. To speak of the latter without mentioning the former means that the new Israeli government is planning to return to the tried and failed policies that were in place before Madrid and the first Intifada, the "Shaking-off" movement that began late in 1987. All the gains made in direct negotiations would be lost because Israel would deny the Palestinians the status of an actual partner in the negotiations between two sovereign people, reducing the Palestinians to an autonomous population without sovereignty. Clearly this is a blow to moderate Palestinians, aimed at delegitimizing them in the eyes of their own people and encouraging Palestinians to return to violence, which in turn will justify those Israelis who will be able to say, we told you so, the Arabs don’t want peace.

How does Jerusalem fit into this picture?

In the two-state scenario (option 1), Jerusalem is one of the “final status” issues, to be settled by negotiation. Other final status issues are the return (or compensation) of Palestinian refugees, i.e., a settlement of the claims of millions of Palestinians living in refugee camps in Palestine, the Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere, and the exact boundaries of the future Palestinian state. As to Jerusalem, Palestinians demand sovereignty over East Jerusalem, i.e., those territories of the city captured by Israel in 1967. Return to the pre-1967 borders (i.e., the 1949 armistice line) is also the overall condition for peace stated and affirmed by the Saudis in recent years. In other words, a return to something like the status quo ante 1967 (though replacing Jordanian by Palestinian self-government) would satisfy not just moderate Palestinians but much of the rest of the Arab world.

Secular Israelis have no big issue with this, but both the religious-Zionist settler movement and some ultra-religious Jews are adamantly opposed to giving up sovereignty over the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, over the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), the City of David, and ultimately would like to take full ownership of the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). Jewish religious attachment to East Jerusalem is enormous, and it appeals to the endtime phantasies of Evangelical Christians who support this kind of attitude.

Religious Zionism which really came into its own only after 1967 has recently latched on to East Jerusalem so vigorously that it appears even more difficult to dislodge it from this, its religious and national hub, than it would be to dislodge it from settlements in the ancient lands of Judea and Samaria, including such embattled places as Hebron. So much emotional, ideological, and material capital has now been invested in the Judaization of Arab East Jerusalem that it appears virtually impossible to reverse course without major civil and political disruptions over the Holy City. The secular authorities of the State of Israel are to be blamed for having supported the policies of unification of the city under the banner of its Judaization; none of the major political parties are exempt from blame for the failed policy objectives pursued in regard to the Holy City; hence it will require a major national effort to reverse course in this respect.

Because of the elaborate mythological and concrete investments of religious and secular groups alike in the Judaization of Jerusalem, the most likely option to be pursued in the near future is option five, the continuation of conflict management rather than the resolution of the conflict. This is so because to pessimists (and most Israelis are pessimists today) it appears the most realistic. It may also be expedient to a government devoted to a delegitimization of the Palestinian claim to statehood to foster what appear to be historically sound and religiously grounded Jewish claims to the Holy City. For this reason, government support of the settler institution currently entrusted with the excavation and display of the City of David will most likely continue and the claims of the Arab residents of the Village of Silwan will most likely continue to be dismissed.

For now, we can only hope that the Obama administration will muster the courage and patience needed to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. Human conflicts can only be settled by human means, i.e., by means of reasoned compromise rather than by radical solutions. Israelis and Palestinians need to learn once again to regard one another as legitimate antagonists with equally valid claims to dignity and self-determination. To accomplish this equilibrium at the negotiating table, mediation is needed that only the United States can plausibly and credibly provide.


  1. Thanks Michael. I sat at a Mideast peace conference about a year ago where someone suggested what you do in the last paragraph--that a George Mitchell (as seen in the Northern Ireland case) figure from the US needs to emerge--someone who can arbitrate mediation while taking both sides' claims seriously. I'm worried that such a significant sociological amount of cynicism on either side would be stubborn about taking the US' mediation seriously however...maybe soccer games would be a good deterrent or at least safety valve for cynicism and violence: back to the FIFA thesis, the old Bread and Circus?

  2. This is a terrific overview, Michael. Discussion of the conflict is so prevelant that it's easy to forget what the fight is even about.

  3. what role does religion play in the conflict between Israel and Palestine?

  4. Religion plays a huge role in shaping identities, memories, hopes, and aspirations. It can play a constructive role in bringing moderate believers, interested in interfaith dialogue, to the table; it can mitigate extreme nationalism and contravene violence. But many people believe, with Christopher Hitchens, that "religions poisons everything" and we'd be better off--in the Middle East and elsewhere--without it. -- Rabbinic Judaism long maintained the Jews as an exilic people; or vice versa: Jews-deprived of political power-developed a system of religious law (oral Torah; halakhah) that allowed them to live devout Jewish communal and family-lives under the condition of political dependence. The same religious tradition can be read in different ways: some Jews (following Rav Kook) have imbued Zionism and the State of Israel with mystical qualities and redemptive powers. Others (following Rav Blau and Neturei Karta) reject this completely and would rather live under Palestinian sovereignty rather than speak of a secular state as the "beginning of redemption." -- The British, who ruled Palestine from 1917 until 1948, "religionized" the "native" Arab minorities to forestall the foment of a national movement that would have crossed religious boundaries. In the end (and in fact before the British took power) that strategy could not forever forestall pragmatic political movements toward national independence, such as Fatah, which includes Christians and Muslims and is basically secular in orientation. The rise of Hamas has re-religionized the conflict on the Arab-Muslim side, just as national religious parties in Israel (and religious Zionism since 1967 more broadly in the Jewish world) re-religionized Zionism. Evangelical Christians have stoked the tensions by supporting what they perceive as "Israel," by which they mean some millennialist dispensation, and avant-garde before the return of Christ. This, to me, is all quite disconcerting and some of the more troubling aspects of religion.