“Are you pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian?” That is usually what people want to know when the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict arises. (I dare no longer say “Middle East conflict” since there are so many of those in progress right now.) The question, unfortunately, implies that only one side is right, and that only one side has the truth.
The truth is that both sides are right, and both sides are wrong. The truth is that both sides of the debate have contributed more to prolonging the conflict than to promoting peace. The truth is that each side must find a way to examine itself and to recognize the truth borne by the other side.
In this introductory essay I am not going to try to assess which side has “more” truth, or which side is “more” right or “more” wrong. We can worry about that later. My goal at the outset is to establish an appreciation for the complexity of the entire situation.
So should Israel be blamed for the conflict, for maintaining the occupation? Many see Israel through the prism of South Africa. The BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement seeks Israel’s dissolution through economic means, in a way much like the demise of the Afrikaner regime. Israel continues to expand settlements in Palestinian territories in defiance of international outcries, and to make the lives of ordinary Palestinians miserable with waiting for hours at checkpoints and the denial of equal rights. Despite Israel’s protestations the settlements do seem illegal according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, if one carefully checks its wording. And legal or not, being an occupied people is not a good way to live.
So is Israel the bad guy?
Consider how the occupation started. It was a result of a war of Arab aggression instigated by Nasser of Egypt and his allies in 1967. Nasser’s plan backfired, and Israel ended the war with some chunks taken out of the aggressor states Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Israel did attempt to negotiate the return of those territories, but at the infamous Khartoum Conference the Arab states responded with a resounding No! So why didn’t Israel withdraw unilaterally? Israel feared that going back to the status quo ante would only set up the conditions for another Arab war, and one that next time it might not be able to thwart.
And what about now? Israelis are terrified, and not without justification, that withdrawing from the West Bank would leave them dangerously vulnerable. For years Israelis had been victims of gratuitous Palestinian violence. The Oslo peace process seemed in its final stages during the negotiations at Camp David in 2000. Yet the Palestinians, led by Yassir Arafat who was never going to make peace with Jews under any circumstances and actually said so to his own people, responded to a serious peace proposal with a massive wave of violence that became known as the Second Intifada.
That traumatized Israelis and strengthened the Israeli right. Nevertheless, Israel did still withdraw unilaterally from Gaza in 2005. The result was a takeover by Hamas and a repeated shelling of Israel’s southern population centers by Hamas rockets. Israel has been criticized for the Gaza withdrawal because it was unilateral, without a negotiated agreement. This criticism is questionable. After the fiasco of 2000, no negotiated agreement was close to the horizon. Yet shouts of “End the occupation now!” continued from Israel’s critics and haters. So Israel ended the occupation of Gaza now, and paid a heavy price for it. Israelis would be crazy not to fear something similar happening after a withdrawal from the West Bank.
Today, with the jihadist movement in full force and ISIS gaining ground in Iraq and Syria and now making inroads into Gaza and potentially the West Bank too, the prospect of withdrawal seems more perilous than ever. Israel is currently surrounded by hostile forces: ISIS and Al Qaeda fighting for control in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon with 200,000 rockets pointed at Israel and a demonstrated willingness to use them, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the south, firing on Israeli towns and cities. And behind all of these lies Iran, an exporter of terrorism and revolutionary ideology now committed to the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
All of these entities are committed to Israel’s destruction. They are not simply trying to reverse the results of the 1967 war, which led to the occupation, but the 1948 war for Israel’s creation. Iran has called for wiping Israel off the map. The Hamas Charter calls for wiping Israel off the map, and quotes a saying of Muhammad on the virtue of killing Jews. Anti-Jewish incitement is still very common in Palestinian media and news outlets. And even Mahmoud Abbas has refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, in spite of the fact that the 1947 United Nations partition resolution (which the Arabs rejected and have never really embraced) calls for a Jewish state. Today Palestinians still insist on a “right of return” of Palestinian Arabs not only to a newly created Palestinian state but to Israel itself, which would destroy Israel as a Jewish state and make Jews once again a persecuted minority within an Arab country, as many Jews had been before they either left or were expelled.
So Israel is squeezed between two unviable options: maintaining an occupation that even many Israelis hate, or putting the country into serious danger by withdrawing to very narrow and vulnerable borders in the face of this array of serious threats. In fact, at its narrowest point, pre-1967 Israel is less than 10 miles wide. And it is in that part of the country where major cities such as Tel Aviv are located.
So is all this pressure on Israel misguided? Are Palestinians the bad guy?
Despite Israel’s fears after the 1967 war, David Ben Gurion advised a unilateral withdrawal from all conquered territories except Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. He was dismissed as a foolish old man. He turned out to be tragically prescient. Israel’s continued presence in both Gaza and the West Bank, and its insistence that Egypt and Jordan respectively were not the rightful sovereigns, led to those territories acquiring an ambiguous status. In 1978 during negotiations with Egypt over the status of the Sinai, Israel refused to return sovereignty of Gaza to Egypt. And in 1988, fed up with Israel’s continuing occupation and the Palestinian intifada, King Hussein of Jordan renounced his country’s claim to the West Bank. So the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were left stateless, claimed by no one. Without the Israeli occupation they would have remained part of Jordan and Egypt. Israel would never have had to deal with the specter of a Palestinian state.
It was right before that, in 1987, that Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir torpedoed the London Agreement that Shimon Peres had brokered with King Hussein for an international peace conference, and which would have been the last chance to keep the West Bank part of Jordan. The Israeli right has longed for the “Jordanian option” ever since, but Israeli policy destroyed for all time any possibility of its coming into existence.
Thus Likud Prime Minister Menahem Begin ensured that Gaza would never return to Egypt, and Likud Prime Minister Shamir did the same regarding the West Bank and Jordan. So what to do with the people living in those territories? If they were not to be granted a state of their own, the only option left was occupation.
And now Israel is led by another Likud Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history. It is no secret that he is not a fan of a Palestinian state. He has even admitted as much in unguarded moments. So while mouthing support for a “two-state solution” he has carried forward the legacy of his predecessors, continuing the Israeli settlements project in settlements both close to and far from the Green Line. Even the buildup in East Jerusalem has had a political motive: to encircle the Arab neighborhoods there so that East Jerusalem will become unworkable as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Indeed, Netanyahu is so wedded to the settlements project that he has on occasion even chosen the release of proven Palestinian murderers over a settlement freeze as a supposed good-will gesture towards the Palestinians. In fact, many times Israel humiliated moderate Palestinian leaders like Abbas by making concessions to extremist Hamas that they would never make to him, teaching Palestinians that perhaps the only thing that really works with Israel is violence and terrorism.
The fact is that security considerations, as valid as they may be, are not the only reason for Israel’s continuing the occupation. The other reason is an expansionist nationalism, inspired by history and by the Bible, creating a deep desire in many Israelis to hold onto the land of “Judea and Samaria” at any cost. If Israel were put to the test, and all its security worries satisfactorily addressed, would it be willing and able to withdraw from occupied lands? The answer to that question is anything but a clear-cut “yes.” And that means that Palestinian people, pawns caught in a war created by the irresponsible decisions of their own leadership and by Israel’s nationalistic ambitions, continue to be stateless and without full control over their own destiny.
So can you now tell me who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? Can anyone, after considering all this, possibly think they have enough reason to join a picket line roundly condemning the other side without reservation?
If you demonize one side and exonerate the other, especially in public, you are not helping; you are making the conflict worse. There are many groups and websites – I do not have to name them – that are making the conflict worse. My hope is that after carefully considering the history of this conflict, you will find yourself confused enough to think more than twice before answering the question in the preceding paragraph.
This is why I have started this new web site, peacewithrealism.net. I have not updated my old web site, peacewithrealism.org, for years, because I became increasingly stumped for something constructive to say, even healing, regarding this conflict. It seemed impossible to me. So I had to take time off. I think we are living in a new age now. The age of “hasbara” is over. It is no longer credible, if it ever was, to be a partisan for just one side. I am going to leave my old web site intact, because I believe what I wrote there is still basically true. But shifting times and events also require a shift in focus. And so peacewithrealism.net is born.