Israel is probably the greatest political miracle of the 20th century and regardless of political turmoil and internal strife, it remains a country with an unabated capacity for wonder and reinvention. So, particularly at this point in time of political transformation in Israel with its possibility for starting anew in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, permit me to share some observations arising from my trip this past June to the West Bank that was undertaken with a delegation of American Jewish leaders committed to conjoin the Palestinian narrative with the official Israeli viewpoint that had heretofore defined our collective understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Or to quote Rabbi Heschel: “Our sight is suffused with knowing, instead of feeling painfully the lack of knowing what we see. The principle to be kept in mind is to know what we see rather than to see what we know.”
BACKGROUND TO THE TRIP
The trip itself was organized by Encounter Israel, an American Jewish, nonpartisan educational organization cultivating more informed and constructive Jewish leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I went on my own account and my comments do not reflect policy positons of HIAS, any other Jewish organization, or my employer. I went on a four-day trip to the Occupied Territories with 30 American Jewish leaders drawn from disparate segments of the American Jewish mosaic. All participants had to have had previous exposure to and involvement with Israel and an understanding of the Israeli narrative on the conflict.
The underlying principles established by the trip’s organizers were: Ahavat Israel – Love of the Jewish people, as well as the core Jewish principles of k’vod ha-adam (human dignity); areivut (interdependence and inextricability); anavah (humility); ometz (courage); and hatmada (steadfastness and perseverance), as well as the motivating ethos appearing in Pirke Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it either.”
In essence, we as a group met with architypes of the Palestinian community. There was a certain self-selection in the process depending on who would meet with an American Jewish group, so I have no illusion that we met with the more intransigent or militant sectors of Palestinian society. But we were able to meet and dialogue with the following: an advisor to the Palestinian Authority; an American-Palestinian entrepreneur; representatives of the Holy Land Trust; a Palestinian refugee displaced in the War of Independence and living under UN protection; a Palestinian peace activist; an activist for Palestinian women’s empowerment; a number of Palestinian village representatives; an East Jerusalem social worker who heads a community center in the Silwan District; a Palestinian resident dispossessed of his family home in Jerusalem’s Old City; a bookstore owner in East Jerusalem who is a proponent of cultural revolution to revise the narrative; a Palestinian who was released after serving time in Israeli prison for political activity.
COMPETING ISRAELI AND PALESTINIAN INTERESTS
While within both communities, there are certain divergences in outcome expectations, as a general observation:
The Israeli ultimate objectives in its engagement with the Palestinian community are: 1) security; 2) preservation of Jewish identity; 3) preservation of liberal democracy; 4) reclaiming the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria; 5) economic advancement.
The Palestinian interests are: 1) territorial sovereignty and political self-determination; 2) reclaiming Jerusalem as the capital of a sovereign state; 3) reunification with Gaza; 4) the right of return or, at minimum, restitution for properties confiscated during the War for Independence.
But beyond this admittedly broad statement of objectives, there are further splits involving the more militant Palestinian community calling for the destruction of Israel, a dismantling of Western-style democratic movement in the Middle East, and the insertion of Iran as a power broker in the Region and a counterbalanced movement disproportionately evident in the younger generation advocating for fundamental reforms in the Palestinian Authority, including elections, and either the creation of a one-state solution presumably to take advantage of Israeli economic development and to create a demographic/ethnic movement that will ultimately destroy Israel as a Jewish state or a devotional adherence to an independent Palestinian state freed from Israeli domination.
But in addition to the conflicting objectives of Israelis and Palestinians from the peace process, there are some basic asymmetries in the basic approaches of the two peoples to the peace process, consisting of the following:
- Jewish history is based on our story as a migratory people – if things get bad, we leave and reinvent ourselves. That is simply not the case in the Palestinian community both owing to a visceral identification with the land and a lack of destinations providing safety and protection (i.e., no Clal Palestinians)
- There is a desire mainly within the Arab world to perpetuate the conflict since it is a war for liberation that plays well on the global stage vs. a desire within the Palestinian community for closure vs. conflicting visions within Israel running from a desire for closure to a denial of a need to seek a solution from a situation that currently works to Israel’s advantage.
- The occupation is providing psychological strains on Israeli and an erosion of civic institutions (e.g., the “Breaking the Silence” movement in which veteran Israeli combatants expose various atrocities that have occurred in the Occupied Territories) vs. more immediate effect of radicalizing the Palestinian community/young generation
- What is common, though, is that each side dehumanizes the other and to varying extents sees the conflict as an existential struggle for survival.
INTERNATIONAL LEGAL THEORIES
There are essentially five (5) discrete theories that are set forth, depending on one’s ideological orientation, to explain and justify or condemn the Israeli occupation of the West Bank:
1. THERE IS NO OCCUPATION. This is the position of the Religious Zionists as well as Likud who see the lands of Judea and Samaria as an integral part of the Jewish homeland/Biblical Israel. Under this approach, there is a preexistent right to the land so that the occupation simply becomes an expression of a previously unasserted right to the land.
OCCUPIED TERRITORY BUT WITH UNIQUE CHARACTERISTICS. This has been the official Israeli view for years. It states that for there to be an occupation of territory subject to international law, there would need to be an occupation of land held by a previous sovereign. But here, the previous sovereign of the West Bank was Jordan, which in 1988 renounced its intention to rule the territory.
Under classical doctrine on the rights and responsibilities of the occupier, Israel would normally be prohibited from changing the status of the land in a manner that would prohibit the attainment of a political solution. But Israel essentially claims that these constraints do not apply because:
- Jordan illegally annexed the territory, so it cannot be recognized as the sovereign entitled to its return.
- Since Israel has a claim to the territory, it is not bound to preserve the rights of Jordan until the land can be returned to it. In short, Israel does not owe Jordan anything since it never had a right to the West Bank itself, thereby leading to a conclusion that Israel has an unasserted right to the territory.
- But even if Jordan had a legal right to the territory, it has renounced its claim thereby leading to a void in the legitimacy of a previous occupying power.
- As a consequence, Israel is not constrained in its support of the settlement movement and its development and appropriation of the land itself in a manner consistent with the rights of a legitimate sovereign.
3. PALESTINIAN AND PROGRESSIVE CIRCLES: Israel is engaged in an illegal occupation. Therefore, if the occupation is illegal, its continuing presence in the Occupied Territories is illegitimate. This means that there are no conditions required for a withdrawal. It presupposes that Israel is an aggressor. The solution simply becomes for an Israeli withdrawal and reversion to the current occupiers of the land.
4. ANNEXATION HAS ALREADY HAPPENED: The reality is that 70% of the land mass of the territories falls within Israeli security and civil jurisdiction. Israeli settlers have the same rights and responsibilities as citizens residing in Israel proper. There has been an appropriation of the land through the sustained support of the settler movement and the extension of Israeli law to the Jewish settlers and the exploitation of the land in a manner consistent with rights exercised by a sovereign nation.
Again, with the proviso that any generalized statement will have individual outliers, here are some prevailing realities that exist within the Occupied Territories:
- There is a deep distrust and animosity of Palestinian community to Israelis
- But there is an equally deep distrust within the Palestinian community toward the Palestinian Authority
- The economic aspirations of the Palestinians are stultified by Israeli interference and intransigence, thereby resulting in high unemployment and economic degradation.
- As a result, there exists today the classic elements in place for extremism, particularly among the young
- Physically, the Palestinian enclaves are fragmented with walls and barriers pockmarking the territories that inextricably stymies economic advancement and reinforces the notion that the Palestinians are a subjugated people.
- There is a visible, immediate, and inescapably disturbing contrast of run-down Palestinian villages to shimmering Israeli settlements
- There are in existence roughly 150 Israeli settlements. When Israel abandoned Gaza, there were 21 settlements that resulted in extreme pushback – to wit: widespread civil disobedience - with the surrender of the land.
- While the settlements may have begun as an initiative to enhance Israeli security or to gain economic advantage, it has now become a concerted effort to solidify Israeli territorial control since with settlements go the need for military protection and infrastructure development in the Israeli controlled sectors of the Occupied Territories..
- The settlements are at least now a major impediment to a peace agreement as they represent a stark economic disparity and an ostentatious assertion of Israeli military might that create facts on the ground constricting the ability to engage in a negotiated peace plan
- There is a cohort of Palestinians who would trade economic advancement, access to Israeli technology, and access to health care and water rights for self-determination, but there is no meaningful prospect at least at present for the emergence of a Palestinian middle class that could advocate for this positon.
- The younger Palestinian generation has largely given up on the two-state solution and their predominating policy at least politically is a one-state solution, meaning that it would paint Israel into a corner of either creating an apartheid state or losing its identity as a Jewish state
- Both sides are acting under a fiction that the other side will go away – the Palestinians by thinking that the Israelis will be driven into the sea and the Israelis that the Palestinians will voluntarily depart the land
- Within the Occupied Territories, the Israeli military controls economic administrative, and social programs in Area C, including the issuance of building permits. Area C consists of 70% of land and around 650,000 Jews and perhaps 50,000 Palestinians.
- If there is one flickering hope for stability and peace, it will rest on women’s empowerment, particularly in the Palestinian community.
- At least at the present, both sides have painted themselves into intransigent ideological positions in which any peace settlement will result in civil unrest and probably rioting.
- The tragedy here is that Israel has at least raised repeatedly comprehensive proposals for peace that recognize the aspirations of the Palestinians that have been rebuffed, thereby leading to Abba Eban’s trenchant observation that “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
- But there is unquestionably within Israel a disinclination to again pursue peace proposals given the absence of a responsible, empowered negotiating partner
- At present, the Oslo and Camp David Accords are realistically dead with their core belief of trading land for peace and creating a reparations program for Palestinians evicted from Israel in 1948.
While the “officially” declared objective is to create a two-state solution, there are competing political architectures on how the conflict might be resolved, running from a one-state solution that arguably would require that full rights be granted to the Palestinians to a confederation without a declaration of statehood to the maintenance of the status quo.
But in the aftermath of the Second Intifada, the prevailing policy pursued by both Israelis and Palestinians was a separation of the communities with minimal opportunities for interaction. While the two communities had previously been linked by a heavily textured range of commercial, social, and historical ties, these potentially unifying interactions were systematically torn down and replaced by conflicting narratives that not only painted the opposite community in demonic terms, but allowed these mythical depictions to go unchallenged.
It is, in my opinion, unrealistic at present to expect a durable political solution to be imposed through political fiat for the following three reasons: 1) there is no political will on the Israeli side to recognize a Palestinian state; 2) there is no capability within the weakened Palestinian Authority to declare much less enforce a peace settlement; and 3) any politically declared settlement would lack popular endorsement, thereby leading to an artificially imposed and unstable arrangement.
Rather, if there is to be a lasting peace and comity between Israel and a Palestinian state, there needs to be a stark change in the narrative propagated by both communities. While any such revision to the popular narrative of each other would benefit from a kick-start from the political leadership, ultimately, it requires the involvement from religious, cultural, educational, and communal leadership circles to change eh hearts and minds of the two hostile communities.
In my own opinion, there are major opportunities for trust-building and productive interactions in a number of areas of endeavor, including:
- Women’s empowerment
- Joint economic efforts and business development
- Environmental initiatives/water and mineral rights
- Coexistence models and foundations
- Cultural and scientific development
- Development of a Palestinian middle class
Unquestionably, the creation of a stable, lasting peace will be a long and arduous process. But once popular perceptions have changed, then and only then can the parties move forward to a political solution that probably has significant elements of the Oslo and Camp David formulas of “land for peace,” although the settlements and its entrenchment of Israeli settlers adds a significant new layer of complexity to the entire peace framework.
But while the quest for a lasting peace appears at present to be ephemeral, its attainment would, when all is said and done, be a reaffirmation of Israel as a political miracle and a country with an unabated capacity for wonder and reinvention.