Jim Shalom
Jim Shalom

Resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: Blaming the other side won’t work

Whenever there is talk of a possible political resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian side invariably blames the ensuing failure on Israel – and on its right-wing especially – and asserts that Israel refuses to recognize legitimate Palestinian rights. Likewise, the Israeli side blames all failures of resolution on the Palestinians, whom it accuses of calling for the dismemberment of the Jewish State.

An exclusively Palestinian state:
The State of Israel was created on the basis of its connection to Biblical Israel. Moreover, while Jews have long lived all over the world, many of them, as a logical reaction to 18th-century European nationalism, also wanted a state of their own. Finally, Jews have found themselves persecuted and attacked for generations, with no means of defense. The Holocaust, in which one third of the Jewish population worldwide was murdered simply for being Jewish, made the establishment of a Jewish State a matter of urgency. Any solution that denies the Jewish State is a non-starter.

A two-state solution:
A two-state solution has proponents on both sides. “Moderates” and third parties have both promoted compromise solutions. Unsurprisingly, each party to the conflict supports the application of pressure to the other but refuses to budge either ideologically or practically when the same pressure is brought to bear upon it.

The conflictual issues of today – agreement on territorial return / exchange, the status of the settlements, the status of Jerusalem, and what is really meant by the Palestinian call for right of return – seem unbridgeable. Problematic though these contentious topics are, it is the perceived long-term status of Israel that remains the pivotal, divisive issue and makes solutions hard to find. Many on the Arab side declare (more often in Arabic than in English) that they regard a Palestinian state beside the State of Israel as merely a non-violent interim step that will ultimately lead to the dissolution of Jewish sovereignty and the State of Israel. For most, if not all of them, their declared support for a two-state solution may well be only a stop-gap measure. No Palestinian leader has yet clearly declared that a two-state solution will conclusively resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For most, if not all, Palestinian leaders, their specious support for a two-state solution is in truth an indirect call for the ultimate dissolution of the State of Israel.

On the Israeli side, apart from the issue described above, many Israelis also oppose a two-state solution either for ideological reasons – i.e., because they believe the Land of Israel belongs exclusively to the Jews – or because of security concerns: they fear the border of the Israeli State will prove indefensible should a Palestinian State decide to attack it.

Today, we could sum up the situation by saying that neither the previous nor the present Israeli government supports a two-state solution. Nor does the Palestinian side offer support for a peaceful two-state arrangement that is contingent on its being considered an end to the conflict. The middle-of-the-road two-state compromise is at an impasse created by both sides.

The Greater Israel One-State Solution:
Proponents of a Greater Israel one-state solution seek sovereignty and (religious) Jewish cultural dominance over all Biblical Israel, including the entire West Bank and, perhaps, also Gaza. Pro-Palestinians reject this solution outright.

Let us for a moment try to envisage each of these ideologies as its proponents perceive it and follow it to its natural outcome without interference from the other side.

A Palestinian State:
Let us assume that Israel allows the Palestinians a free hand to establish a state as they wish. Given familiarity with the various parties involved, let us speculate what may come about. Assuming that the task will be placed in the hands of the Palestinian Authority (PA), it seems fair to surmise that the nascent state will resemble what we see today: an autocratic, undemocratic and corrupt regime with no independent judiciary or free press. The recent case of activist Nizar Banat, who was critical of the PA and died following his arrest by Palestinian security services is a salient example of intolerance of any opposition – from anyone, not just the Israelis. Iraq is another case in point: the elimination of the tyrant Saddam Hussein and the opportunity for freedom offered by the presence of American armed forces did not usher in an Iraqi Western-style democracy. Moreover, as virtually all Arab states in the Middle East are autocratic and non-democratic, it would be fair to presume that a Palestinian state would be no different.

Nor will this reputed Palestinian state offer women the freedom they enjoy both in the West and in Israel, where all women, Jewish or Arab, have full civil rights. In the PA, as throughout the Arab world today (aside from Tunisia), women’s rights are suppressed, and the failed Arab Spring episode, even with women in the vanguard did little or nothing to redress the situation.

What about minority rights? As things stand now, Jews are not welcome in the PA, and even Christian Arabs are having a hard time. What about religious rights? When Jordan controlled the Old City of Jerusalem, Jews were not allowed free access to the Western Wall. Will the PA behave differently?

Corruption is a serious problem in the PA. While many Palestinians are poor, many Palestinian leaders are not. A poll conducted by The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research revealed that 71% of Palestinians believe PA institutions in the West Bank to be corrupt. This should be a major concern: a newly founded Palestinian state will not get off to a healthy start if huge swathes of the outside funding on which it is dependent are misappropriated.

The main problem, however, is even more formidable: Who will lead the Palestinians? Hamas and its supporters will reject a state presided over by the PA, if only because Hamas views itself as the Palestinians’ only legitimate representative. Therefore, any concept of PA-run Palestinian state will be a non-starter from the Palestinian perspective.

What would a Palestinian state run by Hamas be like? In power, Hamas would probably operate much as it does today. Once again, we would be dealing with an autocratic, non-democratic government with no independent judiciary, no free press, no tolerance for opposition and no equal rights for women. This would be a militant Sunni Islamist government that prioritizes military objectives, such as constructing and storing rockets, over civilian issues, such as housing and schooling – after all, Hamas has consistently misappropriated funds earmarked for civilian use in order to build its tunnels, rockets, and rocket launchers. Would such a government’s priorities change if hostilities with Israel diminished?  Unlikely. We need only look at Iran, which is not at war with anyone, to see that, even as its people suffer and endure sanctions, its government prefers to prioritize military funding in order to extend its hegemony throughout the Middle East. Hamas, like Iran, regards promoting its cause beyond its borders as more important than tending to the welfare of its citizens.

Just as Hamas rejects the PA as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians, so, too, will the PA reject a Hamas-led state. Thus, that option will likewise be a non-starter from the Palestinian perspective.

It should be fair to assume that Palestinians and their supporters regard freedom and opportunity for its citizens as a sine qua non of a Palestinian state.

How can the Palestinians enter into serious negotiations with Israel while their own internal representation differences remain unresolved? What will be the profile of a future Palestinian state? We may wonder whether the liberal Western champions and potential citizens of such a state realize that, as things stand now, they will in all likelihood be supporting a tyrannical, non-accountable, oppressive regime that subjugates all except a privileged few.

Let us now move on and look at the Greater Israel ideology. Right-wing religious Jews view the Biblical Land of Israel, which includes the West Bank, as the propriety of the Jewish People as promised by G-d. It is therefore self-evident to them that Jews should be the exclusive ruling authority over all Biblical Israel. Their vision comprises not just the land itself but the persistence of a dominant Jewish cultural, religious and nationalistic milieu.

Looking at the numbers: Israel currently has a population of 8.8 million people, 1.9 million of whom are Arabs. An additional 2.2 million Arabs live in the West Bank, with another 1.8 million in the Gaza Strip. If a single state were formed today, and all annexed residents became Israeli citizens, the result would be a political entity comprising 12.8 million people (8.8+2.2+1.8), of whom 5.9 million (2.2 + 1.8 + 1.9) – almost half – would be Arab.

With or without a Jewish majority, the cultural flavor of such a state would no longer be exclusively Jewish. Furthermore, though contact between Arabs and Jews in the West Bank is limited at present, the two cultures would eventually mingle. I know this from my own experience of life in the peaceful Western Galilee, where a large minority of inhabitants are Arabs. Subscribers to a Greater Israel ideology would have to appreciate that when their car broke down, when a woman saw a gynecologist, when an authorization permit was needed, or when they appeared in front of a judge, the person facing them might well be a Palestinian Arab. In the nursing home where I work, when the siren goes off on Holocaust Day or Memorial Day, it is invariably an Arab caregiver who helps the wheelchair-bound Holocaust survivor to stand up, and who supports them while the siren sounds.

Politically, today, if many members of the Israeli Right have difficulty accepting the presence of Ra‘am, a small  Arab party with a moderate platform, in a minimal role in the present government, in a Greater Israel they will have to accept close to 50% Arab political representation and unavoidable involvement in the political process.

If we follow the Greater Israel ideology to its natural conclusion – at best, its proponents will get the land they crave so much, but without the cultural, religious, and national exclusivity they currently presume will come with it. Is that the sort of arrangement they have been dreaming of?

An alternative, non-democratic Greater Israel that denies the absorbed Arabs equal rights will be a non-starter within Israel itself. As sympathetic as Israelis are to the lot of the settlers, it is doubtful that they would be willing to forgo Israel’s democratic character for the benefit of settler ideology.

We can see that, when each ideology is viewed solely within its own prism, without interference from the other side, the attainable possibilities fall far short of the aspirations. Progress cannot be made towards establishing a viable Palestinian state until it becomes clear who represents the Palestinian people politically and whether or not such a state will provide its citizens with freedom and the opportunity for a better life. A one-state solution that offers Jewish control over the entire Biblical Land of Israel would be either undemocratic or not extensively Jewish.

Rather than concentrating exclusively on what the other side should do to be more accommodating, each side could benefit from first spending more time refining their ideology. If the problematic knots in their own ideological visions can be disentangled, I would predict that there will be a parallel depolarization of views. Then they should consider realistic tradeoff compromises. If Hamas and the PA can reach a reconciliation, the tools they will have acquired thereby could be used vis-à-vis Israel. If, in addition, the Palestinians can compose a more democratic, cooperative and pluralistic manifesto for themselves, this will create more room for accommodating part of the Israeli narrative.

As Greater Israel advocates come to appreciate that they cannot have both all the land and control of the dominant culture, the resulting ideological alternative may well include a more accommodating appreciation of the Palestinian narrative.

Remaining fixated on unattainable goals may be emotionally and politically gratifying and easier for leaders than pursuing an implementable but challenging nitty-gritty, down-to-earth approach that requires a change of attitude and a willingness to forgo one thing for the sake of another. But progress for people in this region will be possible only after the unhealthy and less crucial components of the respective narrative dreams have been discarded and replaced by a readiness to consider the other side’s positive aspirations.

One might speculate that some of the leaders on both sides today are fully cognizant of the limitations of their own ideology but continue to pursue it nonetheless, and to blame the other side, because hostile stalemate keeps them popular and in power. Blaming others is easier than examining one’s own shortcomings and pursuing a compromise solution. Were these leaders to shatter their pipe dream openly, they could well lose status and be replaced by others. By remaining unwilling to scrutinize their own ideological failings, they may well benefit themselves, but they are doing so at the long-term expense of their followers’ wellbeing.

Only when it becomes clear that extreme, simplistic solutions will not work, do people usually become receptive to compromise. The present Israeli government is a relevant example of what could be: seven diverse parties have been brought together by a shared anti-Netanyahu platform, which could be regarded as analogous to an anti-PA or an anti-Israel platform. But the shared “anti” attitude alone was not enough to create a government. The current alternative government is the outcome of the parties’ readiness to compromise and forgo some components of their basic ideology. While only the future can tell whether this new government will endure, it is already clear that each of the parties involved was willing to make a paradigm shift from a rigid ideology to one in which the priorities of their coalition partners are also taken into account.

If the PA and Hamas can take that step and launch a shared and mutually acceptable internal Palestinian dialogue; if they can go on to develop a more progressive platform; and if, in parallel, Israeli right-left dialogue can thrive, both sides will achieve a new and more flexible mindset. This may enable them to move beyond blaming the other side and initiate negotiations with each other.

About the Author
Jim Shalom is a specialist in family medicine, with an interest in end-of-life care. He resides in Galilee. He has spent most of his adult life living in Israel and has studied and extensively followed The Israeli political scene including the Palestinian Israeli conflict.
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