I once considered myself an advocate for Israel, but someone recently commented that I no longer sounded like one. The thought had not occurred to me, but I realized that he was right. I once strongly – and naively – believed that if it was up to Israel, the Israel/Arab conflict would be resolved, and that it would be resolved fairly. I now very much doubt that.
I now realize that Israel’s political leaders make decisions based on what they see as the best interests of Israel and sometimes of their own political careers, and that those interests often clash with the pursuit of peace and a lasting solution. This is particularly true with Israel’s current government that often talks of annexing the West Bank and never talks of pursuing peace initiatives together with the Palestinians.
The Israel/Arab conflict is complex, like most conflicts. It is also very asymmetrical in several ways, including the following:
- Israel respects and often exceeds the accepted standards of human rights, while its enemies generally do not, but at the same time, Israel has by far more military capability than its enemies. As a result, Israel causes far more damage to its enemies, including its civilians, than its enemies can cause to Israel, and Israel protects its civilians far better than its enemies can protect theirs.
- Israel is a liberal democracy, while its enemies are rarely democratic or liberal. Yet, Israel builds settlements on Palestinian land while not giving the Palestinians living on that land rights that are equal to Israelis’ rights.
- Israel has a substantial minority of Arabs even though Arab countries do not tolerate any Jews. Yet, while the Jewish refugees from Arab lands were welcomed in Israel and while Jews can immigrate to Israel from anywhere in the world, the Palestinian refugees still have no Palestinian state to go to, and the 22% of Israel/Palestine that could become a Palestinian state is forced to accommodate Israeli settlements.
Modern Israel is the rebirth of the Jewish nation on the Jews’ ancestral land, and yet in many ways, Israel behaves like a colonizer. Israel’s rebirth 71 years ago displaced and disrupted another people sharing the same ancestral land, Israel still imposes on the Palestinians an occupation that has now lasted 52 years with no end in sight, and Israel violates the Palestinians’ right to self-determination by building settlements in the West Bank.
Many Israelis and their supporters refuse to even admit that there is an occupation, yet for the Palestinians, it is a painful and humiliating daily reality that most of them have lived with since their birth and that they cannot foresee the end of. The Palestinians have a form of autonomy in areas A and B, but even in those areas, the Israeli security forces can enter at will, so the autonomy is in name only.
Despite its complexities, the core of the conflict is simple. Israel/Palestine is the land of two peoples, the Jews and the Palestinians, but so far, these two peoples have not found a way to co-habit in peace.
The solution that is by far the most widely supported, even among Israelis and Palestinians, is to have two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, that would divide the land between them. This solution was initially rejected by the Arab world, but it has been accepted in principle since 2002 when the Arab League endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative (also known as the Saudi Initiative), yet the solution has yet to materialize.
The main obstacle to the two-state solution seems to be the lack of trust on both sides. A poll conducted by a joint Israeli/Palestinian organization found that, “Only a quarter of Jewish Israelis trust Palestinians, while only 11% of Palestinians trust Jewish Israelis.” This is confirmed in almost every conversation that I have with Israelis and Palestinians; almost every time, the reluctance to support a two-state solution comes down to doubt that the other side would respect the terms of the agreement.
Because of that mistrust, support for a two-state solution is much lower than in the past (in 2010, it was at 71% among Israelis and 57% among Palestinians), but it is still substantial. The poll mentioned earlier found that, “Both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis favored reaching a peace agreement over violence – 84% among Palestinian citizens of Israel, 45% among Jewish Israelis, and 41% among Palestinians (47% in the West Bank and 29% in the Gaza Strip)”.
Israelis mention Palestinian terrorism as the main reason for their lack of trust in Palestinians, but they typically do not acknowledge that Palestinians too have legitimate reasons to not trust Israelis, namely the ongoing occupation and the ongoing construction of settlements.
How can Palestinians believe that Israelis are sincere about respecting the Palestinian right to self-determination when Israel already violates that right far beyond what is strictly needed to defend the security of Israelis? While some Palestinians may recognize that IDF presence is needed in the West Bank to ensure Israel’s security, they cannot accept that Israeli settlements are required for security.
These settlements, which are considered illegal by practically all UN members, including the UN Security Council, are imposed on the Palestinians by the simple fact that Israel has the military capability to impose them. The Palestinians have no ability to do the reverse, i.e., impose Palestinian settlements on the 78% of Israel/Palestine that is legitimately part of Israel. Each Israeli settlement is the forceful imposition of the occupier’s will on the occupied – it is an act of violence.
Today in Israel, Jews rejoice that after many centuries of exile and vulnerability, they finally have self-determination on their land, and that all Jews everywhere have an unlimited Right of Return. They take pride in the fact that Israel is strong, democratic, and liberal. But while Israel continues to be successful, the Palestinian people is stateless and powerless. Palestinians are dispersed and oppressed, often by their own leaders. Palestinians have no reason to rejoice, and their prospects for the future are dimmer every day. Israel’s role in the Palestinians’ misery cannot be ignored.
As an advocate for Israel, I highlighted the errors and the crimes committed by Arabs against Jews and against Israel, but I said nothing about the errors and crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinians. An advocate, like a lawyer, must extol the virtues of what he or she is advocating for while ignoring its faults, but in any conflict, recognizing the virtues and the faults of both sides is essential to understanding the conflict. That is what advocates for peace do.