How to (not) solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

When I read some of the international Op-Eds written about us, my opinion of the human race improves in leaps and bounds. When I peruse the comments at their bottom, I become a downright humanity-enthusiast.

Who knew that humans can be so knowledgeable and insightful? Who knew that so many people out there are brilliant enough to know just what must be done to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

But then, somewhat deflated, I realize that I can’t count myself among these people. I don’t have a fail-proof solution to promote. If only I was distant enough! If only I possessed their ability to view the conflict clearly, without the bothersome encumbrance of details and facts on the ground! But, alas, this was not to be. Deprived as I am of their ability to rely on generalizations and vague preconceived notions, I can’t compete with their omniscience regarding all things Israel-related.

Oh well. I guess I will be obliged to opine about something else. I heard that tensions are rising between Japan and China. By virtue of my ignorance of the situation, I’m sure I can find a solution for them.

Sarcasm aside, the desire to offer solutions is an admirable human trait. It’s at the heart of human progress, at the core of moral life. And for the most part, it stems from good intentions. The people promoting solutions to our conflict see a painful situation and want to make it better. I respect that. I am grateful. And I feel the same way.

But some solutions don’t improve anything. They actually make things worse. By promoting them, we draw resources and attention away from methods that can actually make a difference. As we chase the rainbows of these grand, instantaneous solutions, we miss the opportunity to do some actual good.

Of the many, many “brilliant” solutions that only look good if we ignore reality, some are especially damaging:

1. A unilateral return to the 1967 border


Also known as The Realignment Plan, this solution offers obvious PR and moral perks. We will get to be the good guys, and we will no longer have to rule the Palestinians. The moral and practical costs of the situation will be off our hands, and the Palestinians will finally gain the opportunity for national self determination. A real win-win. And, best of all – we will gain all of that without having to negotiate with recalcitrant opponents! How can this go wrong?!

Well, easily. For one, what’s to keep a newly formed Palestinian state from waging eternal warfare against us, if we simply withdraw without any agreements in place? Unfortunately, this problem will be succeeded by a bigger one. Before the Palestinian state will be able to inflict too much damage upon us, Isis, Hamas, Hezbollah, and perhaps even Russia, will race straight into the west bank. Can Israel afford to create another Syria miles from its major city? And how can we do that to the Palestinians?

The world will not help the Palestinians in such a case, nor will it defend us from the results of our decision. Look at Gaza. Look at Syria. If anything, the world will be more likely to criticize us for whatever we may have to do to defend ourselves, and demand further concessions, like allowing the Right of Return within the diminished Jewish state

This “solution” ignores another major aspect of the situation: Israel is a democracy. Even if the world will convince an Israeli Prime Minister to pursue unilateral realignment, as it did before, can it convince Israel’s citizens to evacuate almost a tenth of Israel’s population from their homes? Will they do so without any guarantees for Israel’s future safety?

2. Signing an agreement with Abbas post-haste


On the surface, this solution offers exactly what the previous one lacks: Guarantees for Israel’s future safety, and an official agreement regarding the Right of Return.

Unfortunately, this solution assumes that Abbas can retain his power in Palestine over time. Seeing as Abbas is derided and mocked by many Palestinians, this assumption seems somewhat too optimistic. In the current state of affairs in the middle east, can a weak president, struggling to retain legitimacy, hold ISIS, Hamas, and Hezbollah at bay?

Many Israelis repeat the mantra “we have no partner on the Palestinian side” but really mean “we know of no one there who will agree to all of our demands.” This covert expectation is ludicrous, of course. But the mantra itself is correct. We need a partner. We need a strong, functioning Palestinian government that can be relied upon to defend and sustain the new Palestinian state. Otherwise, we would be shortsighted and irresponsible to trust it with our citizens’ safety.

Only with a strong civil society at its back can a Palestinian government uphold agreements and fight invaders. And only then can we responsibly see it as a partner. By focusing on immediate negotiations with Abbas, instead of strengthening the Palestinian society from within, the world is missing the opportunity to make actual negotiation possible.

3.”Tranfer” (ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Israel)


It truly amazes me that this idea is still in vogue in certain circles. Some speak of outright transfer by force. Others suggest offering economic incentives to Palestinians who are willing to leave.

The first suggestion is blatantly immoral.

The second suggestion fails to recognize the Palestinians’s attachment to this land.

The idea of “transfer” relies on the assumption that the Palestinian national aspirations are misguided or “wrong”. Its proponents point to the (true) fact that before the late nineteenth century, most Palestinian Arabs didn’t think of themselves as “Palestinians” in the national sense.

But guess what guys?

They do now, and your attempts to convince the Palestinians that they are better off without national aspirations are doomed to fail. Just like us, our Arab neighbors are people of emotion and faith, identity and loyalty. They wouldn’t suddenly exclaim “Oh! We didn’t have such aspirations before the turn of the century? Why didn’t you say so before?! Of course we must drop our aspirations at once!” Nor will they sell out for the right price. As long as we mistakenly expect them to, this conflict can’t be resolved.

4. Treating one narrative as exclusively true

Time after time, leaders, reporters and concerned individuals around the world pour their hearts and efforts into vilifying one of the sides in this conflict. They present either Israel or the Palestinians as the ultimate villain, and reject a-priory the other side’s claims. They expect the “villains” to simply see the error of their ways, throw out their own narrative, and submit to the demands of the other side. Read the comments on any political Op-Ed in this site, or on any other news site, if you wish for examples.

Dear people of the world: This approach is completely counter-productive. Those of us who live here know that reality isn’t black and white. Many of us try to build little bridges of trust between Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis. These bridges can be the seeds of a real solution. But they sink under the onslaught of your vitriol.

Do you truly want us to resolve the conflict? Do you truly want us to build an agreement that takes reality into account, and allows a better reality to emerge? If you do, help us to build trust and mutual good will. We have enough hatred going on here as it is. We don’t need you to flame it.

If you merely wish to espouse popular views, and then go home feeling good about yourselves, by all means continue spreading hatred and mistrust. But know then, that while you go home flushed with self congratulations, you leave us with the conflict unresolved. Worse: you make its resolution far less likely.

*  *  *

The flip-side of these solution can be called the “conflict? what conflict?” approach. Some commentators in the wider Jewish community, as well as many Israelis, ignore the conflict between flare-ups of terror. Even once terrorism raises its ugly ugly head, the only problem they discuss is “the war on terror”, as if terror appears out of the blue. Once the security forces get a tighter grip on the situation, the problem ceases to exist for them…until next time.

This approach, like the (non) solutions above, ignores reality.

It ignores the experience of the Palestinians altogether. It ignores the fact that we have two classes of citizens here, citizens and subjects, and that we are morally obligated to do something about it. Like the idea of “transfer”, it erroneously assumes that the Palestinian aspirations are irrelevant and inconsequential.

And since it never addressees the context of violent flare-ups like the one we are experiencing these days, security “until next time” is the best that this approach can offer.

The focus on terror to the exclusion of everything else often comes hand in hand with calls for collective punishments and threats against all Arabs. Fire all the Arab workers, say some. Force them to swear allegiance, say others. Bomb them. Revoke their rights. Scare them or force them into obedience.

The people who call for harsh collective threats and punishments ignore many things. They ignore morality. They ignore the Jewish values that we came here to live by.

They ignore the fact that in a reality such as ours, when some Arabs are citizens and others are subjects, when they aren’t a distant enemy but rather our coworkers, neighbors and friends, there are no clear “us” and “them”.

They ignore the fact that harsh conditions foster fundamentalism and violence even as they quench terror temporarily. In other words, they ignore the fact that terror has a context. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t justify anyone’s decision to murder. I’ll say it again: I don’t justify anyone’s decision to murder. But if we want to actually stop terror, and not merely ride a moral high horse and gain temporary security, we must address the reality that breeds it.

The Palestinians don’t trust us. They don’t feel like we protect them, and don’t want to have to rely on our protection and favor. Much, by the way, as we don’t trust Abbas and don’t want to rely on him to guarantee our safety. We can and do argue about the causes of these distrust and despair. But at the end of the day, asking whose fault it is simply isn’t enough. We must ask also “what can we do about it.” By ignoring the conflict, we leave this question unanswered, and the next flare up awaits us just around the corner.

 *  *  *

So grand, sweeping solutions can’t work. And ignoring the conflict can do nothing to resolve it. What does it leave us with?

Perhaps what we need to do is to focus on smaller, clearly defined, reality-based (versus ideology-based) goals. We can try to examine reality and remove the hurdles in our way one at a time.

We can build trust through grassroots dialogue between Arabs and Jews and by engaging in joint economical ventures.

We can strengthen the civil society in Palestine.

We can work harder to give Arab-Israelis an equal stake in Israeli society (better policing in crime-infested Arab towns comes to mind).

The world can help us in these efforts. The question is, does it have the patience to pursue long term progress instead instant solutions? Can it abandon its lofty and unrealistic schemes and help us deal with our reality? For all of our sakes, here in this beautiful land, I hope that it can.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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