Joseph Cox
Finding Beauty in Complexity

From Abraham to Ahmed: a Road to Peace

Singapore Super Trees

Part I: History as Warning

The U.S. government toppled the regime of Saddam Hussain and dreamed that something democratic and free would emerge. European countries withdrew from post-Colonial Africa and dreamed that something democratic and free would emerge. Simón Bolívar’s revolutionaries drove the Spanish out of Latin America and Simon Bolivar himself dreamed that something democratic and free would emerge. Haitian drove out their slave masters and dreamed of something democratic and free would emerge. Western governments allowed (or even encouraged) the fall of Mubarak and Ghaddafi and dreamed that something democratic and free would emerge.

In all cases, their dreams were shattered by reality.

Why do war and oppression and violence overcome societies liberated from another oppressor?

Why doesn’t freedom emerge?

The unifying characteristic of all these failed transitions is that the underlying societies lacked the civic tools for self-governance. They lacked the building blocks of the rule of law. Often, instead of law, faction affiliation granted special, and often extra-legal, rights. Iraq, Libya, Haiti and much of Africa devolved into sectarian war. Much of Latin America bounces between right and left-wing dictatorships. Haiti has never escaped its slave past. Due to these factional conflicts, the rule of law never had a chance to emerge.

At the end of his life, Simón Bolívar made himself a dictator because he saw that failure that was coming; he wanted to use his power to establish these civic norms.

He failed.

All of this is relevant to Israel because many well-meaning Westerners (and even Israelis dream) that with the removal of occupation – with freedom and justice and dignity – something democratic and free will emerge in what is called Palestine. History, even the recent history of Gaza and the West Bank themselves, should leave any rational person with fundamental doubts about the certainty of this outcome. The lack of Palestinian rule of law, on display not only in the West Bank and Gaza but with global and violent protest is clear.

Seeing it, we can know what the future of a newly liberated Palestinian state would be.

This is why any ‘Federation’ approach is doomed to failure. This is why withdrawal to ’67 borders is doomed to failure. This is why it is a pipedream to imagine that something good would emerge from the sudden granting of freedom, dignity and justice to the Palestinian people. As much as Palestinians may deserve freedom, dignity and justice, Israel cannot afford to grant it. If they did, Hamas and Fatah, the worst elements of society, would dominate and the genocidal war against the Jewish people would be taken to another extreme.

For those who are unaware, 99% of Jews were ethnically cleansed from Arab and Muslim lands. No Jews live in neighboring Jordan, Syria or Saudi Arabia. 12 live in Egypt and a few hundred live in Lebanon. Approximately 105,000 lived in these countries before 1948. Today, Jews are not allowed to live in Palestinian controlled territory.

Jews have already suffered the consequences of freedom, justice and dignity in the Arab Muslim world and Hamas, Hezbollah and others have repeatedly declared their intent to finish the job through the removal of Jewish state.

They are dedicated to factional conflict.

This is why Israelis are so resistant to the well-meaning ideas of European and American diplomats.

Part II: History as Hope

Despite all of the above, I am not writing this in order to declare that there is no hope or that there is no road to a better future.

After all, not all of history is defined by horror replacing dictatorship, autocracy or foreign domination. Poland, Czechia, and some other free and democratic European states emerged from Soviet domination. The collapse of the Nazi and Imperial governments in Germany and Japan quickly led to something far better.

Although the example is a horrifying one, the author of Black Earth, Timothy Snyder, points out that the rule of law defined the results of the Holocaust for European Jews. In Lithuania and Latvia, the rule of law was completely erased and over 99% of Jews died. In Germany, even under the Nazis, legal regimes retained some power. This made the Wannsee Conference was necessary. The Nazis had already killed millions of Jews, but they needed a legal basis (and a definition of a Jew) to carry out the job in Germany. Even then, they could not simply kill German Jews – they could only deport them for execution in the lawless east. 50% of German Jews died. In Denmark, which retained its independent Parliament and legal systems, 1% of Jews died.

Despite massive flaws and ethnic hatreds, some form of the rule of law survived in Germany and emerged again after World War II.

But in Germany, Poland, Czechia, England, Canada, the US and other places, the rule of law developed over centuries. The slave past of the United States demonstrates that even after independence, a legal system that did not discriminate racially took a long time to develop.

These places offer no useful lessons for present day Palestine.

But there are societies that do.

Singapore was established in 1965. It emerged despite Malaysia’s threats and developed its own unique form of a society ruled by law. The World Bank rates Singapore in the 97th percentile for the Rule of Law. The World Bank measures the quality of contract enforcement, property rights, policing, and courts as well as the likelihood of crime and violence. The core goal is understanding the degree to which individuals have confidence in and adhere to the rules of society.

Modern Taiwan was established as a military dictatorship in 1945. It is at 85%.

South Korea was founded as another dictatorship in 1945 and is now at 86%.

Hong Kong was a colonial dictatorship founded in the wake of the Communist takeover in China. In 2015 (prior to the most recent crackdown) it was at 95%. The citizens’ commitment to the rule of law was demonstrated by the great sacrifices made in the face of Chinese aggression (rated at 45%).

Chile was a military dictatorship in 1990. It ranks at 83% today.

The UAE? 1971 and 78%.

Israel, 1948 and 82%.

Rwanda, the site of a massive attempted tribal genocide has risen from 5.5% in 1996 to 56% today.

It is possible to develop the rule of law. The Asian, Arab, African and Latin American examples show us that any culture can accomplish it.

Part III: The Ingredients of Hope

If we want to unlock a better future in our region, Palestinians (as well as Syrians, Egyptians and Lebanese) need to develop the rule of law. Specifically, they need to replace factional violence with law. They don’t need to be free societies (the UAE isn’t) but they do need to be lawful.

How can that better future be unlocked? To find answers, we must look to the successes we’ve seen and the attributes they share. Specifically, we should look to the core elements of any radical change: motive, means and opportunity.


All the examples of newly emerged lawful societies saw (and were threatened by) the horror of lawlessness. Taiwan and Hong Kong by class war in China, South Korea by North Korea, Singapore by Malaysia (and their own internal race riots), Tutsis in Rwanda by Hutus in Rwanda, and Chile by the Communist example of the Shining Path in Peru (as well as destabilization in neighboring Bolivia).

The UAE’s rule of law rating rose from 61% to 78% during the Arab Spring. They saw the worst of what Arab culture had to offer and their dictatorship consciously moved in an alternative direction.

Palestine has experienced the horrors of lawlessness. We see it in the corruption of Fatah, the violence of Hamas and the costs of human shields being used in warfare with Israel. We would be naïve to imagine that many do not willingly accept these costs in return for the unending battle against the Jews and Israel. But we would be blind not to see others – like peace protestors tortured by (or human shields who curse) Hamas. Talk to a Palestinian laborer from the West Bank and ask their opinion of Fatah. Weeks after making Aliyah, I met a man at a bus stop at 3:00am in Jerusalem. Neither of us spoke more than extremely basic Hebrew. He didn’t speak English. But he showed me a photo of a playground he had built and I showed him a photo of my kids playing on that playground. Then he showed me his own kids’ playground in Bethlehem. It was a clearing with gravel and nothing else.

I asked him why and two clear words emerged. Fatah and Ganeivim (thieves).

Some Palestinians have plenty of motive.


Of course, motive is not enough. There must be means as well. Taiwan and South Korea borrowed from aspects of their Confucian traditions. Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yu leveraged the Western concept of the ownership society (after noting that buildings owned by individuals were protected during early riots). Rwanda borrowed from Singapore’s racial harmony laws. Chile’s Pinochet borrowed from Milton Freedman’s economic theories. The UAE intentionally modeled themselves after Hong Kong and Singapore – relatively unfree but legal societies. Palestinians could follow in the path of the UAE. Their diaspora has experienced far more legal societies and while some individually have moved in very different directions, others have surely learned from their experiences. Palestinians are not uneducated or stupid. They can borrow from the world in their own efforts to develop a lawful society.

Palestinian Arab Muslims have the means for the development of a lawful society.


What is lacking is the third leg of any such effort: opportunity.

Fatah and Hamas have, and do, crush any attempt at developing a legal society.

Fatah is anti-Jewish. Selling land to Jews is punishable by death in the Palestinian Authority, the families of terrorists who kill civilians are granted special pensions and schoolbooks glorify terrorists like Dalal Mughrabi who hijacked a bus and killed 38 civilians and 13 children. But Fatah is also deeply corrupt. Google pictures of the homes of wealthy Palestinians and compare them with the refugee camps under Fatah governance. Almost all these wealthy Palestinians share political connections to Fatah and the international cash flows that come with those connections. A legal society would threaten the benefits Fatah enjoys. The war with Israel enables them to justify their ongoing theft. They routinely crush any political opposition.

Hamas, for its part, is religiously dedicated to the destruction of Israel. They are willing to be martyrs (and to martyr others) in the service of this cause. As hopeless as it might seem, the fight is more important than any material benefit. They will not allow the development of a lawful (and non-genocidal) society. Even Fatah threatens them. In their 2007 takeover of the Gaza strip, Hamas operatives threw Fatah prisoners from the tops of high rise apartment buildings (conceivably the very same buildings Israel bombed in the recent campaign).

Resistance to Israel excuses almost any crime.

Interestingly, democracy is not the answer to these problems. Fatah and Hamas dominate the political scene. They are popular. With the last-minute split between Fatah and Marwan Barghouti’s Freedom Party, Hamas was expected to be the leading vote getter in the most recent (and cancelled) elections.

I believe the Abraham Accords and the willingness of the Islamic Arab Ra’am Party to sit in government with nationalist Jews drove the most recent war. Fatah nor Hamas can not allow normalization with Jews and Israelis in this region. If this were to occur, both parties would be fundamentally challenged. Being anti-Israel might take a back seat to honesty, transparency and peace.

Because normalization much be crushed, those Palestinians who desire self-rule in a society governed by law have nowhere to turn. The West Bank is a deeply anti-Jewish kleptocracy and Gaza is a genocidal theocracy. For its part, the Palestinian diaspora is no answer. As Jews know, living in others’ functional societies is not the same as forming your own.

Part IV: A Golden Bridge to a Better Future
Sun Tzu argued that you always leave your enemies a way to escape a conflict. The possibility of escape undermines their desire to fight. Sun Tzu called it a Golden Bridge. But the Golden Bridge can do more the undermine the desire to fight. It could also give motivated Palestinians the opportunity to form a lawful society.

The idea is simple. Israel can:

  1. Identify families (or even entire clans) of Palestinians interested in developing a local, sovereign and functional civil society.
  2. Select a small piece of territory.
  3. Begin to allow vetted Palestinian families to move there. These should be families, not individuals; families provide positive social pressure.
  4. Grant that territory some small measure of autonomy (e.g. independent policing, laws, tax and economic policy or courts).
  5. As the territory reaches milestones in the rule of law, extend the level of autonomy. Milestones might include measures of political violence, the rights of minorities (including Jews and Christians), the consistency of the application of law, transparency, and levels of corruption. As performance improves, Israel would extend sovereignty and independence including recognizing the territory as an independent state and allowing it to define its own immigration policies. If performance is not realized, the experiment would be constrained or, ultimately, shut down. Just as Singapore, Taiwan and others required pressure to develop, the residents of this territory would face the return to Fatah and Hamas governance to drive them towards developing a lawful society.

Because of its strength and stability, Israel can provide an environment otherwise unavailable to Palestinians looking for a better reality. Ultimately, this society could end up taking many different forms. Israel is not there to dictate the methods or create a society in its own image. Instead, Israel’s focus must be on outcomes, not forms. After all, the UAE is not free, Singapore is a police state, but both are lawful, and both are at peace with Israel.

In practical terms, this sort of entity could be placed almost anywhere. Residents of an Arab-Israeli town (Israeli-Arabs already have a far more developed legal culture) could be given the opportunity to host it. Alternatively, it could be placed on near empty land in the Golan or the Negev. It could even be placed in the West Bank, on land currently controlled by Israel.

Candidate families might apply (via secure smartphone apps) or be identified and invited by Israel on a rolling basis. To protect future citizens of this entity, they could travel to a third country prior to coming to Israel. This could conceal their purpose and destination. Papers could even be faked granting them faux residence in the U.S., UAE or other international destinations. By bringing whole families, the targets for retaliation by Hamas or Fatah would be diffused. Instead of only needing to publicly punish the close relatives of one man, hundreds or thousands of people would need to be punished by Fatah or Hamas. This would have the perverse effect of extending Palestinian desire for a more lawful reality.

This proposition is not risk free. Individual immigrants could use their newfound rights to turn to terrorism. The threat of family or clan repatriation to Fatah or Hamas territory could be used to dampen individual terrorist’s impulses. The entity itself could be hard to terminate. Starting slow would minimize this risk. If it is obvious that the costs of the experiment are too high, then it could be terminated at a very early stage. The greatest risk is that the experiment is initially successfully – but then transitions to ethnic violence or massive corruption. In this case, constraining and ultimately breaking it up would be a difficult proposition. However, the level of coordination required to intentionally pull of this sort of U-turn would not be easy to achieve. The PLO couldn’t even fake a year of peaceful co-existence after the Oslo accords.

I believe that the risks can be minimized or mitigated. Those mitigated risks are worth it, considering the benefits of this approach. Instead of forcing the unwilling into the hands of Israel’s enemies (because they have no other choice) Israel could undermine those same enemies by depriving them of their most productive citizens. By giving Palestinians a way out, Israel could relieve the pressure cooker that is Gaza and, to a lesser degree, the West Bank. Palestinian nationalism, initially developed as opposition to Israel, might begin to take on other forms. And, by offering hope to the hopeless, Israel could fulfill its own moral goals – all while developing the widespread dreams of achieving both peace and security.

Looking against to history we can see that the West Berlin broke Communism in the Soviet Union, Amsterdam and England undermined the religious conflicts of the Reformation and Hong Kong cracked the Chinese communist model. A little Palestinian city state – incubated by Israel – could undermine the violent sectarianism that defines our region.
I am not naïve enough to imagine that Israel would not have its disputes such an entity. However, if such an entity is populated by people who value law, then those disputes might be mitigated by law – and not war.

Wouldn’t that be a welcome change?

All the magic bullets proposed by well-meaning international experts suffer from a singular conceit: they believe the granting of justice, dignity and freedom will yield a healthy new reality.

History tells us otherwise. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is only one, particularly relevant, example.

But history, recent history, is also replete with examples from around the world of healthy and peaceful societies emerging from tremendously difficult circumstances.

All that is needed are motive, means and opportunity.

Some Palestinians have the motive. All have the means.

Israel can provide the opportunity.

We are living in the aftermath of another round of pointless war and international condemnation. But we are also living in the reality of the Abraham Accords and altogether new possibilities for peace. The old sectarian battle lines can be shattered.

Perhaps, it is time to build on the peace while isolating those who desire only war.

Joseph Cox
p.s. I find that stories can be a more effective way of exploring complex ideas than arguments. This is why I wrote a book related to the concept above. The City on the Heights features a well-meaning but naïve American, a brilliant Islamic State commander and a 16-year-old refugee girl whose parents were assassinated by ISIS.

One Israeli security expert wrote: “I love how the author brings to life a fantastic idea of a model city, but does not leave it as pie-in-the-sky sickly-sweet fantasy. Rather, he introduces the violent and conflictual reality of this region to his Utopia, but in the end also gives us some hope and faith.”

A Muslim reader wrote: “What was remarkable was that it’s written so generous heartedly that I liked all the protagonists – even the ones I disagreed with, or whose motives I found essentially alien… the story and the story telling won me over.”

If you want to explore this idea further, give the book a read.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

About the Author
Joseph Cox lives in Modiin, Israel and has written 12 books. The latest published book is "A Multi Colored Coat... an autobiography of sorts".
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