5 Reasons the Israel-Palestine Conflict Won’t End Any Time Soon
من الصحافة اخترنا لكم
JANUARY 8, 2024
If you’ve studied the history of the modern Middle East and you follow the news from that region on a regular basis, you probably have a well-formed view about why the long conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians has never been resolved. In that case, this column is not for you.
If you’re not very familiar with that history, however, and you tend to pay attention to the issue only when something awful is happening—like right now—you may be asking yourself: “What’s the problem here? Why haven’t Israelis and Palestinians been able to settle their differences and get on with it? America made up with Germany and Japan after World War II, and relations between the United States and Vietnam are amicable today. Even troubled societies such as South Africa and Northern Ireland have moved toward justice and peace. So why have the various efforts to end this other conflict failed, such that we are now seeing the worst Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting since Israel was created in 1948?”
I’m here to help. Here are my top five reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to take innocent lives, destabilize the region, consume disproportionate amounts of Washington’s political bandwidth, and perpetuate fear, suffering, and injustice.
1. Indivisible objectives. At the heart of the dispute is a deep structural problem: Israelis and Palestinian nationalists both want to live in and control the same piece of territory, and each side believes it is rightfully theirs. Each group has a basis for its claim, and each fervently believes its position should trump the other side’s. International relations scholars refer to situations such as these as “indivisibility” problems: It’s harder to settle a dispute if the issue(s) at hand cannot be divvied up in a way that is acceptable to both parties. Add to the mix the complex and contested status of Jerusalem—a sacred site for three major religions—and you have a potent recipe for recurring trouble. Although there have been several proposals for sharing the land over the past century, voices calling for compromise have been drowned out or marginalized by those who want all the disputed territory. Sadly, that’s how nationalism usually works.
2. The security dilemma. Given the first problem, coupled with the small size of the disputed territory, the two communities face a severe security dilemma. Zionist leaders recognized from the start that it would be difficult to impossible to create a Jewish-controlled state with a sizable Arab minority, much less a majority. That belief led to acts of ethnic cleansing during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and again in 1967 when Israel captured the West Bank. Its conduct was hardly unique, however, as state-building efforts in many other places (including the United States) involved acts of a similar nature. Unsurprisingly, both the expelled Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbors were enraged by what happened and eager to reverse the results.
To make matters worse, Israel’s small population and vulnerable geography gave its leaders a powerful incentive to make the country more secure by expanding its borders. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion briefly hoped to retain some of the lands Israel had occupied during the 1956 Sinai War, but steadfast pressure from the United States forced him to abandon these schemes. Eleven years later, that same expansionist impulse led Israel to retain control of the West Bank and Golan Heights after the Six-Day War in 1967 and maintain control of much of the Sinai Peninsula from 1967 until the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.
Unfortunately, holding and settling the West Bank while also controlling the Gaza Strip meant that millions of Palestinians would be permanently under Israeli authority, in effect leading to the demographic problem the nation’s founders had sought to avoid—roughly equal numbers of Jews and Palestinians in the lands Israel controlled. Pursuing the goal of a “Greater Israel” would force its leaders to give the roughly equal number of Palestinian subjects full political rights, find another excuse to expel most of them, or institute an apartheid system at odds with Israel’s purported commitment to democracy and human rights. As former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami wrote in 2006, “Democracy and Jewish statehood cannot be reconciled with territorial aggrandizement.” Which leaves the least bad option: Israel could give up a substantial portion of the territory it now controls and allow the Palestinians to have a state of their own. That goal was the stated policy of the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now Biden administrations.
The security dilemma, however, complicates efforts to negotiate “two states for two peoples.” Israeli negotiators insist that any future Palestinian entity (or state) must be effectively demilitarized, with Israel retaining substantial control of its borders and airspace to ensure that a Palestinian state is never able to seriously threaten Israel. But such an arrangement would leave the Palestinians permanently vulnerable to Israel (and conceivably other states), a situation that they are understandably unwilling to accept. Although it is possible to imagine arrangements that could improve each side’s sense of safety and help encourage eventual reconciliation, absolute security is an unreachable goal. Unfortunately, Hamas’s crimes on Oct. 7 and the crimes now being inflicted on innocent Palestinians in Gaza will make it even harder to achieve a two-state solution in the foreseeable future.
3. Unhelpful outsiders. The conflict between these two peoples has also been fueled and sustained by an array of third parties whose self-interested interventions have usually been counterproductive. Britain kicked off the problem with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, mismanaged its League of Nations mandate during the interwar period, and then threw up its hands and punted the problem to the United Nations after World War II. After 1948, competing Arab states backed separate Palestinian factions as part of a recurring series of inter-Arab rivalries, which undermined Palestinian unity.
The United States armed Israel and the Soviet Union armed several Arab client states during the Cold War for their own self-interested reasons, and neither superpower paid sufficient attention to the festering Palestinian issue or to reversing Israel’s decision to build settlements throughout the West Bank. Then Iran got into the act by backing Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, largely to derail U.S. efforts to reorder the region in ways that Tehran regarded as threatening. None of these outside interventions helped resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and indeed tended to make a bad situation even worse.
4. Extremists. In the Middle East, as elsewhere, small numbers of extremists can sometimes derail well-intentioned efforts to solve difficult problems. The Oslo peace process in the 1990s was the closest the two sides ever came to achieving a workable end to the conflict, but extremists on both sides helped undermine this hopeful path to peace. A series of suicide bombings by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad undermined the pro-peace camp in Israel, an Israeli-American settler murdered 29 Palestinians in 1994 in a deliberate attempt to halt peace efforts, and another Israeli fanatic subsequently assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, thereby indirectly helping Benjamin Netanyahu become prime minister.
Opposition to a two-state solution has been the lodestar of Netanyahu’s entire political career, so much so that he covertly supported Hamas for the express purpose of weakening the moderate Palestinian Authority, which was interested in making a two-state solution work. The tragic results of that policy were revealed on Oct. 7.
5. The Israel lobby. Contrary to what some of you might think, I don’t hold groups like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, or Christians United for Israel solely responsible for the persistence of the conflict, but they and other like-minded groups and individuals have been serious impediments to progress. (For a fuller account of their actions, see chapter 7 of this book or read Peter Beinart’s more recent account.)
In addition to indoctrinating the American body politic with a one-sided view of the conflict, these groups have actively worked to obstruct every serious attempt by a U.S. president to bring it to an end. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama were all publicly committed to achieving a two-state solution, and Clinton and Obama made serious attempts to bring it about. Why? Because, as Obama put it, two states for two peoples was “in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest.” But despite the enormous potential leverage at their disposal, none of these presidents was willing to put serious pressure on Israel (i.e., by making U.S. military aid and diplomatic support contingent on reaching a fair deal). They could not even make U.S. aid and diplomatic protection conditional on Israel halting settlement construction and beginning to dismantle the apartheid system in the occupied territories.
Even prominent pro-Israel organizations that supported a two-state solution—such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now—never openly called on U.S. leaders to take this step or pressured members of Congress to support putting meaningful pressure on Israel. Because Israel was never held accountable by its principal patron and protector, successive Israeli governments never felt any need to compromise or consider the long-term consequences of their actions. The result, as John Mearsheimer and I (and plenty of others) warned many years ago, was just the sort of calamity that Israel and the Palestinians are facing today.
Each of these five factors alone would be a daunting obstacle to peace, and there are undoubtedly other impediments that I’ve left off this list. What this tells you, I regret to say, is that this conflict is not going to end any time soon. That’s a tragedy for Israelis and Palestinians alike, although it is the latter who are suffering the greatest losses by far.
Moreover, Israel’s conduct in the present Gaza war may endanger Jews around the world by fueling antisemitism. And because the Biden administration is actively complicit in Israel’s brutal and potentially genocidal campaign in Gaza, the United States will pay a serious moral and strategic price for its role in this disaster. World leaders eager to discredit America’s self-proclaimed role as the leader of a “rules-based international order” could not have asked for a nicer holiday present.