So, what is going on here? Why is the presence of an embattled terrorist group holding onto a rather small territory of 365 km2 destabilizing the Palestinian Israeli conflict and in fact much of the middle east? The answer in my opinion is “the idea of Hamas”, as it is now being called. But no, I am not talking about the idea of Islamic fundamentalism, Muslim Brotherhood flavored. While certainly that is a problem in the region, I am thinking of something even more destructive, the idea of ‘total victory’. This idea permeates circles on both sides of this conflict and it comes in many flavors.
The worst brand of ‘total victory’ is the Hamas brand, this is the idea that there is a military solution to this conflict. Unfortunately this idea is not just found in Hamas but among many Israelis as well. Interestingly, the Israeli leadership in the war with Hamas, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Galant have repeatedly used the term ‘absolute victory’ in regards to their aims to totally defeat Hamas militarily.
I would often here from people on the far right in Israel that they believed that one day there would be another major war here and this would create an opening to make a fundamental change of some kind that would enable ‘total victory’ where either the region would be so intimidated by Israel that they would never expect Israel to give up the territory of the West Bank or somehow in the fog of war Israel would be able to evict a large enough percentage of the Palestinian population to enable it to annex the West Bank without significant demographic changes to Israel.
Hopefully the latest wakeup call of being dragged to the ICJ by South Africa should make it clear that we are not likely to just get away with other crimes against humanity. Being that Israel’s only real supporters are all western liberal democracies, Israel needs to play by their rules if they want to stay in this club and no other club is inviting them to join.
In parallel, there was a similar variant on this fantasy scenario on the left in Israel, which was also shared by a portion of Palestinian supporters, whereby Israel will be so badly beaten in some future conflict that they would be forced somehow to give up the West Bank. This one makes even less sense as in the reality where Israel lost a war here there is a good chance of a major genocide or ethnic cleansing of the Jewish population, doesn’t seem likely that any force capable of beating Israel would just stop at the West Bank.
There are even non-violent variants of the ‘total victory’ fantasy, shared by many Palestinian supporters abroad, particularly in the west. There is a version of this idea where somehow the whole world will force Israel and Palestine to merge territories into one like in South Africa. For better or worse, this is not one of the possible options for a solution as international law and the international community broadly support the existence of the two states, the State of Israel and the State of Palestine. The majority of countries in the world recognize both of these states (163 recognize Israel and 139 recognize the State of Palestine) and recognize their right to statehood on the basis of the pre-1967 borders with a range of different opinions on the political status of Jerusalem.
The reality on a political and legal level is that there are already two states here. The only problem is that one of the two states is occupying the other militarily and in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, over the course of the over 55 years since the conquest of 1967, Israel has settled around 720,000 Israeli civilians, while this territory is largely still under a formal military occupation. The international community considers this a serious violation of international law.
Already during the end of the Obama tenure as US President, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 of 2016, which passed 14-0 with the United States abstaining, declared that Israel’s settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, “has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law”, and demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities.”
There is also another variation on the non-violent ‘total victory’ whereby the Palestinian supporting side thinks that maybe they won’t get the two states to merge into ‘Historic Palestine’ but maybe the international community will force Israel to agree to allow an unlimited number of Palestinian refugee descendants to move to Israel turning Israel into a Palestinian Majority state. This is also unrealistic as there is no other such situation where the international community has forced a country to take back the descendants of refugees, not in Turkey and Greece, India and Pakistan, Germany and Russia, it’s just not a thing that is done. This doesn’t mean that no Palestinian refugees will ever make it back to Israel, some probably will, but just not by force and not without a compromise on the number by both sides.
There were two cases I can think of where the international community supported return of refugee descendants to their land of their ancestors, Zionism and Liberia. Both of those created a new conflict and are sometimes thought of as a form of colonialism, at least to some, others would call them justice. In both of these cases you had returning descendants of refugees to a place that has undergone a long period of historical change. This tends to have the look and feel of colonialism and not something that is going to go unchallenged by the new local population. You can’t just uproot one group of people because another group of people have ancestors that used to live there.
There is also a new a reality that Israel will also have to face, one of a changing international opinion and particularly one in the US. If the Obama administration was seen as one that was tough on Israel then they have to be ready for what is coming in the future. It is likely that the Obama tenure was just the beginning of a major shift in political outlook in the US.
In a recent poll in the Wall Street Journal of 1,500 American registered voters, more Americans now support either Palestine more or ‘both sides equally’ than support Israel more than Palestine. This is a significant shift, but that is just the beginning. When you look at Democratic voters vs Republicans you get an even more dramatic picture. More Democrats now support Palestine more than Israel than the other way around with the largest group of Democrats saying that they support both sides equally. Similarly when you look at those voters under the age of 35, you also have a majority either supporting Palestine more than Israel or both equally. Given this trend it is certain that in future US presidential terms, particularly with a Democratic leadership, the pressure on Israel will increase immensely particularly with regards to the settlement policy in the West Bank.
It could be possible in some future Democratic administration that they will demand that Israel cease and desist all settlement activity or face US sanctions. That is all it would take to have a dramatic shift, just like when the Congress initiated sanctions against South Africa in the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. It was only 8 years later that South Africa ended Apartheid in 1994. It is not likely that the US would demand that all the settlers leave the West Bank, as this would seem too much like ethnic cleansing, but they could demand a full building freeze over the green line, like in the Obama period, only this would be a permanent freeze pending a negotiated settlement with the State of Palestine.
So, it is with these combination of factors, the end of the idea that there is a military solution to the conflict, that will hopefully get defeated with Hamas as well as the end of the idea that Israel will just be able to delay the inevitable negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. The idea of a ‘total victory’ via a military exchange, in all its flavors will hopefully come to an end with this last outbreak of violence that will likely prove to be the most deadly in the history of the 100 years of conflict in Israel-Palestine. In the end of this war the borders will not have changed and the demographic reality here will also remain the same.
I think also the coming political pressure on Israel, such as the case in the ICJ brought by South Africa and the pressure from the US administration to start looking for a long term diplomatic solution will be an additional weight in favor of a change. Plus the very real possibility of normalization with a changing middle east lead by Saudi Arabia and the GCC that Israel would really like to be a part of.
In addition there will be a lot of pressure on the PA to reform and finally end ‘Pay for Slay’, which after the end of Hamas may be a realistic possibility as the loss of the war will hopefully shift the Palestinian public in favor of a non-violent solution to the conflict. They will also be under pressure to promote the idea of accepting compromise as a solution to the conflict. This combination of factors all coalescing is where I see the possibility of a breakthrough towards peace happening.
Why is accepting compromise so difficult in conflict situations in the first place? If you look at it objectively it seems like the most logical option. Both sides give in a little and you get the agreement with the best possible terms for both sides and there you go, conflict solved, like a 6th grade math problem. The reality unfortunately is not so simple. This has to do with how identity formation works in a conflict situation.
A group that is in a conflict will begin to form its collective identity as a type of solidarity based around shared experiences in the conflict. For example the Jewish people from around the world, disparate places such as Eastern Europe, the United States, Iran, Yemen, Iraq and Morocco all coming together and forging a common identity largely built on the shared experience of the adversity of living together in conflict and sharing a common story of persecution over their Jewish identity, or antisemitism, in the diaspora.
Today you have more or less a singular modern Jewish Israeli identity which coalesced in the state of Israel. Going to the same school, speaking the same dialect of Hebrew and absorbing the same modern Israeli Jewish culture. The collective story of being the righteous victims in the narrative of the Israel-Palestine conflict is what helps reinforce this identity and any story which will challenge this narrative by assigning any type of guilt for the conflict on the side of the Jewish Israelis will likely be denied, as this will challenge the group cohesion.
Similarly on the Palestinian side, the modern Palestinian identity has been forged by the common experiences of being in a conflict with the Jewish Israelis. Likewise they are equally adverse to the idea that there is any guilt on their part for any of the actions taken by their side of this conflict. This is how you have so many on both sides that are committed to the idea of ‘total victory’ since they have established in their minds as a fundamental part of their personal and group identity that their side is completely justified in everything that they have done in the conflict and that all guilt lies with the other side.
The first step to moving past this is to get the sides to accept the reality that a ‘hot war’ is not the answer, this will likely happen once this particularly gruesome round of escalation is over. The next step in the reconciliation process would be for the exposure of the narrative of each side to the other, perhaps through a mediator, or even through modern media.
Hopefully this will happen and enough of the population of both sides will be exposed to accurate information about the suffering of the other during at least this round of escalation in the conflict and perhaps even the beginnings of learning a more accurate history of events of the conflict in general through the eyes of the other side.
Once both sides become exposed to the narrative of the other, you need to start getting to the point where both sides start to see some truth in what the other is saying and then they can both start taking some accountability for the actions of their side in the conflict. This is the real long process of truth and reconciliation that needs to take place. Ultimately, the two groups need to start building new memories together, based on trust built through positive experiences of the other and the creation of a new shared narrative or version of the events of history that they can both agree upon. This is part of the long process from hot war, to cold war, to cold peace and eventually to a warm peace.
I only hope that as this takes shape and we start to move towards a diplomatic solution to the conflict that realistic and reasonable voices will be listed too. Palestine will need to be recognized as a viable state based on the pre-1967 lines with minor adjustments. It is not really reasonable to expect that Israel will evacuate the Jewish population that ends up in the Palestinian state.
There needs to be some realistic agreement regarding immigration between the two states. Israel will have to concede that some descendants of refugees will be able to return to Israel, Palestine will have to concede that some Jews will live in the West Bank. There will have to be some level of ‘soft borders’ between the two states and these states will have a significant amount of economic and security integration.
Both sides will have to give up the maximalist positions and agree to compromise. The fantasy of ‘total victory’ needs to be defeated here, if there is an ‘idea of Hamas’, or just a ‘bad idea’ it is that one. There is no ‘total victory’ there is only unending conflict or compromise and peace.
From there the Jewish People and the Palestinian Arab People will have to begin the long and winding road of reconciliation. Maybe someday they will even consider unifying their territories formally and creating a Federal State in Israel-Palestine, but that will take a long time to achieve the level of warm peace that would be required.