Decade after decade, the world's most powerful leaders have tried to resolve the conflict between Israel and its neighbors, yet the two sides continue an endless cycle of provocation, counterattack and escalation. Why?
I believe neither side knows what it would do with itself if it didn’t have perpetual conflict with outsiders to unify its society. The war now defines the warriors.
Israel, which started its independent life 62 years ago on a European, secular (though ethnically Jewish) and socialist model, now has a powerful religion-based right wing that claims a Biblical right to occupy all land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The American culture wars are a friendly game of Family Feud compared to the potential for civil strife in Israel, particularly over the relinquishment of Jewish settlements in occupied lands.
Palestinians likewise are caught up in a rise of religious fundamentalism epitomized by Hamas. Hamas clings to an ideology calling for Israel’s elimination as a Jewish state and a return of Palestinians to places within Israel from which they fled, or were forced to leave, in 1948. Though there is some historical justice in Palestinians’ aspirations, they have about as much chance of reclaiming a homeland within Israel’s borders as the Wampanoag Indians have of reclaiming Plymouth Rock. Moderate Palestinians and their supporting Arab states have known for a long time that they will have to live alongside, rather than inside, Israel. (Tunisia’s former president, Habib Bourgiba, called for negotiations with Israel as far back as 1965.)
Would an independent Palestinian state, free of conflict with Israel, be secular or religious? Democratic or authoritarian? Aligned with Hamas sponsors Iran and Syria, or with Sunni Arab and Western-leaning powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt? Palestinians need not resolve these questions as long as they continue to battle Israel.
Each side’s political structure tilts power toward the extremes and away from the moderates who are most likely to forge a compromise. So peace never comes, even though all parties have known for many years that a final agreement will ultimately include two independent states, joint or international control over Jerusalem, the end of Israeli occupation and compensation for property claims.
This week’s debacle in the Mediterranean, in which nine activists died when Israel intercepted a flotilla that was attempting to break its blockade of the Gaza Strip, was the latest pirouette in this never-ending dance. The flotilla’s organizers knew Israel would bar passage. I suspect Israeli claims that passengers provoked the violence are true — if only because the ensuing world outcry has, predictably, favored the goal of lifting the blockade. Egypt promptly opened its border with Gaza, while Hamas, tellingly, rejected Israel’s attempt to deliver the flotilla’s relief cargo by truck late this week.
Israel has a point when it says it must restrict goods flowing to Gaza to prevent Iranian trainers and weaponry, especially missiles, from reaching Hamas. On the other hand, Israel is clearly using its blockade to make life miserable for Gaza’s 1.5 million residents. Toward what end? Hamas, remember, is so eager to demonize Israel that it is turning away aid deliveries. Every time Israel reacts or overreacts to a Hamas provocation, it gives the other side what it wants.
Forty-three years ago tomorrow, Israeli forces swept into Gaza on the first day of the Six-Day War. That war also led to Israel capturing, almost without intending to do so, the entire West Bank. Forty-three years later, what seemed like a stunning military victory has become something else, as Israel remains stuck with a huge and hostile population that it refuses to absorb and cannot find a way to set free.
There is a reason Middle East peace has been so hard to achieve. The reason is that, for both sides, it is easier to keep fighting.