Let’s forget history for a moment, or at least as much history as is not absolutely necessary for understanding the present situation of Israel and the Palestinian people. Let’s also pretend for a moment that we are all rational, forward-looking beings, who are committed to universal human rights, including the right to a democratic government.
Under these parameters, it’s obvious that a lasting and acceptable solution to the continuing, simmering conflict between Israel and the Palestinians must include the establishment of an economically viable, independent Palestinian state comprising most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with some means of reliable access between these two areas. Of course, Israel is entitled to guarantees of its security and to the means of preserving its character as a homeland for the Jews. No state can be expected to enter into a peace agreement that results in its annihilation.
One implication of maintaining the Jewish character of Israel is that Palestinians would have to give up the “right of return.” An estimated 700,000 Palestinian Arabs left (fled or were expelled from) their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war that immediately followed the creation of Israel. Some of these individuals are still alive and they and their descendants now number about four million. Even if only a substantial fraction of these individuals take up residence in Israel, they would in a very short time alter the Jewish character of Israel. In exchange for giving up the “right of return,” these individuals should receive generous economic compensation.
Can anyone doubt that, in broad strokes, the foregoing provisions are what should be contained in a Middle East peace agreement? What is the alternative? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested that Israel might insist on a “one-state” solution, that state, of course, being Israel. President Trump, in a departure from long-standing American policy, has now said that the one-state position might be acceptable to the United States. But denying an independent state to the Palestinians would achieve peace only at the point of a gun and at the cost of sacrificing Israel’s commitment to human rights and democracy. As former Secretary of State Kerry stated, “If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic—it cannot be both.”
Precisely because Israel wants to maintain its Jewish character, it will never give full citizenship rights to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. 2017 marks the fiftieth year that Israel has occupied the West Bank. Is this occupation to continue for another fifty years? Indefinitely?
Americans, and a number of other Western countries, have long supported Israel in large part because it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. That reason for supporting Israel will evaporate if the Israelis restrict democracy to its citizens while treating the Palestinians like serfs.
Permanent occupation of the West Bank will also drive the Palestinians into the arms of Hamas and other militant groups. If the only alternatives are to submit to a foreign occupier or fight, many will choose the latter alternative.
Nothing in the foregoing should be interpreted as placing sole blame on Israel for the failure to achieve a lasting peace that would recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. If we feel the need to blame anyone, there’s plenty of blame to go around. In particular, the Palestinians have been ill-served by their leaders. The working plan for a peace agreement during the 2000 negotiations, which took place during the waning days of the Clinton administration, contained the broad strokes outlined above. Arafat balked at the proposed deal. Although accounts of those negotiations differ, apparently sticking points included giving up the right of return and most of East Jerusalem. If that’s true, then Arafat was unrealistic or imprudent (or perhaps just not interested in a deal).
I have deliberately refrained from going back beyond 2000 in providing historical analysis. Even more than other long-lasting ethno-religious conflicts (think Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Sudan), the conflict in the Middle East has been burdened by the weight of history and the hatreds and mutual recriminations that history has engendered. Each side has some alleged grievance caused by the villains on the other side, which is then rebutted by the other side’s understanding of events and by their own corresponding grievance. Israel has the West Bank because it launched a preemptive attack in 1967! Israel was surrounded by Arab armies on all sides and did launch a preemptive attack on Egypt; however, it only invaded Jordan (which then controlled the West Bank) in response to a Jordanian attack. The Israelis drove the Palestinians from their homes in 1948! There would have been no war, and no refugees, had the Arab states agreed to accept the United Nations resolutions creating both an Israeli and a Palestinian state. Ultimately, Israel is the result of Great Britain’s 1917 Balfour declaration, and Great Britain had no right to carve out a territory for the Jews in land Great Britain did not even possess. (The Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire, with which Great Britain was at war at the time.) Partially true, but there would be no Palestine either had the British not defeated the Ottoman Empire and then received a League of Nation’s mandate for the territory now encompassing Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.
Exacerbating the tendency of both sides to nurse decades-long grievances is the overlay of religious conflict. Although control over the holy sites, in particular the Temple Mount area, in East Jerusalem was not the only stumbling block in the 2000 negotiations, it was a significant point of contention, with the parties squabbling over who would have sovereignty or mere custody over this or that portion of this area. This is perhaps the saddest part of this seemingly intractable conflict. If there is a deity worth worshiping, that deity can’t give a damn about who has sovereignty over land where some temple, mosque, or church is located. But, of course, we humans do care, because we have to show our God is better than your God. In the Middle East conflict, as in so many other conflicts, religion is not a vehicle for peace, but rather provides a rationale for bitter animosity and horrible violence.
No, the Israelis are not to blame; the Palestinians are not to blame. The Middle East conflict is a microcosm of humanity’s flaws, including the difficulty of putting aside past grievances, resentments, and short-term political gains to pursue what both reason and compassion unmistakably mark as the only path forward. Can a just two-state solution still be achieved? I hope so, but I’m not optimistic.