This week, President Obama traveled to Israel for the first time since he assumed office in 2009. He met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who only recently finally succeeded in organizing a shaky post-election coalition government—and the chairman of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Obama articulated in measured terms various long-standing American positions on issues related to the unsettled Palestinian question with hopes of encouraging both sides to enter a negotiated peace settlement that has, after decades of conflict and stalemate, proven frustratingly elusive.
The world is well aware of the enduring conflict between Israel, the Palestinian people who live within its borders and its Arab neighboring states. Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the small Jewish state has fought seven recognized wars, featured very prominently in the center of Cold War geopolitical strategic competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S. and, to this day, elicits powerful emotions from people around the world who either vigorously defend its inherent right to exist and defend itself from threats or who powerfully condemn its policies towards Palestinians living within its orders.
Sixty years of complex history, intense political intrigue and negotiations and heartbreakingly brutal conflict have succeeded in proving only one thing with regard to Israel—the way one approaches Israel and evaluates its basic nature and the way in which it conducts itself to the Palestinian people and its surrounding Arab neighbors depends entirely on the philosophical and historical assumptions from which the various parties involved in the conflict choose to view it.
These assumptions are so numerous that referring to a single “Israeli” or “Palestinian” position on any issue is stunningly superficial and naïve. Here’s one basic example affecting a very foundational issue: critics of Israel allege that the Zionist movement of the 19th and 20th centuries displaced a people that had already been living in modern day Israel. How can a state whose establishment depended on denying an entire nation the right to practice self-determination enjoy legitimacy?
Note that this claim only makes sense if one accepts the assumption that the people who had been living in the lands of the Ottoman Empire that roughly correspond to present-day Israel constituted a separate “nation.” While Arab people had been living in the “Eretz Israel” before the various “aliyahs” of Zionism began to bring Jews to their historical homeland, the idea of a Palestinian nation separate from the Arab peoples of the decaying Ottoman Empire emerged roughly at the same time as Zionism rose as a political force. If that is indeed the case, then the legitimate winner of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is simply whatever side can bring its historical claims to the same land into reality. That is, after all, the underlying root of the conflict to this day—two different groups of people claim the same land as their historic homeland.
In this brief space, we could never go through a substantive overview of the many issues that complicate the Middle Eastern peace process. Generally, Israeli policy (with the exception of some political parties and interest groups that do not advocate sacrificing Israeli land won during the 1967 6 Day War in peace negotiations) supports the establishment of a Palestinian state; this has also been the official U.S. policy for decades. If that’s the case, what exactly is the hold up?
One of the enduring issues preventing the emergence of a negotiated settlement of the Palestinian issue involves both sides’ perception that the other is preventing such a settlement from emerging. Israel, for instance, demands that Hamas—the principal Palestinian group that governs the Gaza Strip and which is regarded as a terrorist organization by both the United States and Israel—end its refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a precondition for any negotiations. The Palestinian side, on the other hand, demands that Israel cease constructing settlements in territories that, in the event of an agreement, would constitute sovereign Palestinian land. Both sides believe the end of the conflict basically lies in the other’s hands.
As far as I can tell, the solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict will likely prove elusive even during our lifetimes. Israel simply has no incentive to consent to a Palestinian state that could be controlled by organizations that refuse to recognize its existence and which could emerge as an unstable, destabilizing and potentially hostile neighbor on its borders.
The various political factions among the Palestinians cannot agree on a single, unified policy to approach Israel, and this internal weakness will be detrimental to their ambitions for statehood, particularly on the international stage. In my view, the Palestinians need to practice realism to achieve statehood. They must recognize that moral battles or attempts to circumvent negotiation with Israel by making political gains in the international community, particularly the United Nations, cannot substitute for Israel’s upper hand in all of this. Policy and strategy grounded in a hard assessment of the facts on the ground are the only routes to success in any issue. Moral disagreements are, at the end of the day, inconsequential.