The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

May 16, 2021

As an Adjunct Professor, sometimes released and eventually retired from diplomacy, I would pose to my students two questions. With Israelis and Palestinians seeking the realization of their conflicting versions of their respective national rights, where does justice lie?

And, if one were confident in making such a judgement, and if one agreed with the view (however improbable it might seem) that the arc of history tends towards justice, how should justice in the case of Israelis and Palestinians be given concrete form?

My starting point for discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was that without a political solution to the conflict through the creation of two states, one Jewish and one Arab, in Palestine, willing and strong enough to be able to reach and win support for accommodations and compromises with each other, a measure of justice cannot be realized for the Palestinians. In other words, if justice is to be found at all, it will have to be through politics, not through appeals and demands for the observance of international law, or unilateral declarations of the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Nor will it be found through whatever reprehensible, illegal and self-defeating acts Israel, backed by an indulgent US Administration, might adopt in seeking to quash Palestinian aspirations and force acceptance of an Israeli-dictated ‘reality’.

My intention was to encourage students to realize that at its core, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a puzzle that lends itself to multiple interpretations, but not solutions. I encouraged my graduate students to appreciate the diversity within the original Zionist movement, and to discuss the reasons why the bi-nationalist approach, advocated by certain leading figures in the Zionist movement such as Judah Magnes failed to win political support. I encouraged them to read I.F. Stone, Arthur Koestler and Menachem Begin not only to understand the determination and single-mindedness of those and other early Zionists, but also to appreciate that an Israeli who, against the odds, survived the Holocaust, managed to enter Palestine, and had the will and support required to prevail militarily, would have little inclination to appreciate the suffering and outrage of those Palestinians, and their descendants, who were forced to flee. Their notions of justice proceed from entirely different standpoints.

I insisted it was equally important, of course, for students to read Palestinian and other Arab perspectives—Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said, Yezid Sayigh and Albert Hourani among others—as well as the views and concerns of Jewish intellectuals such as Simha Flapan and Peter Beinart. And I urged them to appreciate the personal and professional dilemmas facing Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals and academics, many of them friends of mine, able to discern historical fact from political fiction.

I shared with students my outrage at the betrayal by Arafat and his coterie, and the Israeli Right and its supporters, of the idealism and personal courage of those Israeli and Palestinian academics and friends of mine who had risked their reputations by arguing for the two state approach. I lamented the corruption and venality and recourse to terrorist violence which overtook the Palestinian movement, and the opportunities for peace-building that Israelis ignored. Freed at last from the constraints of being a public servant, I lambasted the extraordinary ineptitude of US diplomacy as the Oslo process collapsed. I deplored US reluctance to counter Israeli malfeasance with the vigour required, not only for the sake of preserving a peace process, but also for the sake of its own interests in defending the credibility of western pretentions to being balanced in its approaches to the Arab world.

I also argued that without strong and courageous political leadership the views of Palestine of Israelis and Palestinians, respectively, were fated to remain poles apart because history, real and imagined, and lived personal experience would remain at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian contest. As I explained at length in Palestinian Refugees: Mythology, Identity and the Search for Peace, mythologies are structural issues. They build identities. They cannot be negotiated away. The task was to achieve accommodation on the basis of mutual respect – now clearly no longer possible via the fabled two-state approach—and it required meaningful responses from Israel to injustices.

The lesson that I hoped would be taken was that it was essential, for academics and diplomats alike engaged in seeking conflict resolution, to be aware of and to respond to the ongoing creation, on all sides, of memories and political mythologies surrounding historical events and personalities. Central to the political equation between Israelis and Palestinians, fundamental issues of identity and dignity and power and material worth would continue to permeate perceptions of each other in that sadly tormented parcel of land between Jordan and the Mediterranean.

To help my students on their way toward intellectual engagement with those questions, and perhaps discovering something about their personal values in thinking about them, I would tell the real-life story of two people – one Palestinian, and one Israeli – and a piano.

A Palestinian friend, Aida, returned in 1992 to Jaffa from Jordan, where her family had lived since 1948. She located the family home, and without prior warning, knocked on the door. She was greeted politely by the somewhat surprised Jewish woman living in the house, who graciously showed her around rooms that were distantly familiar. In the drawing room still stood the family piano. But when she opened the seat of the piano stool, and found the music she had played as a 10 year old, complete with her mother’s handwritten notes, Aida wept.

Aida’s Israeli hostess, trying to comfort her in her distress, said she could only begin to imagine how painful such memories had to be. But she wanted Aida to know two things. First, she had had nothing to do with the departure of Aida’s family from Palestine. She had arrived in 1950. And second, she had spent much of her life since that time paying the Jewish National Fund for the house. It was her home.

One may debate whether the law can provide justice in such cases: whether Israeli legislation preventing Palestinian ‘absentees’ forced to flee in 1947-48 from returning to their homes contravenes various instruments of international humanitarian law; or whether Jews forced to flee Iraq, Yemen or Egypt should be no less entitled to the reversal of an illegal act. Extracted under strong US pressure, Israeli willingness, however provisional, to discuss a limited and strictly controlled return of perhaps 100,000 refugees to the newly-established Jewish state, in return for international recognition, disappeared within a few years. And whereas Jews are entitled under Israeli law to present claims to return to properties they were forced to leave in 1947-48, no such right exists for Palestinians.

UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (IV) paragraph 11, recommended compensation for those Palestinian refugees who might choose not to return. It is an illusion. No government would ever be willing to provide the quantum of funding that might be deemed sufficient to satisfy the demand, even if the evidentiary and policy basis for such compensation could be agreed. Still-debated policy questions would include, in the case of the Palestinian refugees, whether compensation should be paid to those few wealthy individuals —such as Aida’s family—who could perhaps demonstrate loss of property: or instead to the vast majority of Palestinians, without property, who lost their livelihoods.

In addition to the refugee issue (and not irrelevant to it) stands the question of sovereignty in Jerusalem. For anyone engaged in teaching or researching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jerusalem is where the metaphorical rubber of peace-building, not only between Israel and the Palestinians but also between Israel and much of the Arab and Islamic world hits the realities of the political road. It requires examination from many perspectives, including its historical record of occupation and contested claims of sovereignty; its place in national mythologies and identity-building; its significance to the three Abrahamic religions; and its importance as a key issue in negotiations toward a resolution of the conflict that has endured for almost a century.

Whereas the refugee issue is centred on issues of identity and justice, Jerusalem encapsulates, in addition to those concerns, the relationships between power, ideology, messianic impulses, religion and religiosity in a struggle to control a space whose character, history and even whose physical dimensions are fundamentally contested. In its religious and cultural diversity, its cuisines, cultures and sub-cultures, its passions and tensions, Jerusalem remains, in the words of the 10th century Arab geographer, al-Maqdissi, ‘a bowl of scorpions’. And whether we like it or not, it will shape the contours of relations between Israel and the Palestinians for generations to come.

In recent years, the focus of the contest for Jerusalem—in practice, the Old City Basin and the Arab suburbs, notably Silwan and lately Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem—has been on Israeli efforts to drive out Palestinians and entrench Israeli control over territory it occupied since 1967. Jewish settler groups have succeeded in using the Israeli judicial system to achieve the legal (according to Israeli law) but entirely unjust eviction of Arab families from their homes in those areas.

But this is only part of a picture of ongoing discrimination intended to prevent the growth of the Palestinian population, and to Judaize the city with a minimal Palestinian presence. In pursuit of those objectives, since 1967 Israel has appropriated one third of the privately-owned land in East Jerusalem to build homes for 225,000 Jewish settlers; but it is almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits in Jerusalem, and buildings constructed without such permits are liable to be demolished (at the owner’s expense). Palestinians living in Jerusalem do not have Israeli citizenship, and their residency permits may be withdrawn if they cannot prove that their ‘centre of life’ is Jerusalem.

In its urban planning, residency laws and minimal budget allocations, and its facilitation of Jewish takeovers of homes and settlement construction, the clear intent of the Israeli government, and its discriminatory practices, are in blatant contradiction to its obligations as an occupying military power. There is no moral equivalence between the occupier and the occupied in Jerusalem. But since the politics of identity in Israel revolve around upholding difference, the Israelis defend their behaviour as necessary to uphold the Jewish character of the state. In the reported words of a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum,

This is a Jewish country. There’s only one. And of course there are laws that some people may consider as favouring Jews—it’s a Jewish state. It is here to protect the Jewish people.’

In the course of the resistance by Palestinians to a seizure of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, in May 2021, a Jewish settler (with an American accent) put it even more bluntly, in response to a Palestinian woman pointing out he was stealing her house:

Yes, but if I go, you don’t go back. What’s the problem? Why are you yelling at me? I didn’t do this. If I don’t steal it, someone else is going to steal it.

The contest for Jerusalem is more subtle and complex than the blending of state power and exclusivist visions of the city countering Palestinian claims to sovereignty, important though that behaviour is in regard to Palestinian lived experience. In addition to the deliberate, strategic use of land and settlement activity and barrier building to secure Jewish predominance Israel has done its best on the ground to blur, physically, the so-called Green Line which demarcated Arab from Jewish Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967. And in recent decades a shift of Israeli government economic focus toward the private sector has witnessed a government-sponsored capital investment, tourism and archaeology effort in and around Jerusalem whose aim is to capture the (non-Palestinian) public imagination, with the altogether improbable objective of supplanting one long-established, Arab, urban identity with another.[1]

Looking ahead, the optimist in me observes that the immediate prospects for survivability in the Middle East seems less problematic than once was the case. The path of Arab politics since 2011 has been one of ever more-entrenched authoritarianism, amidst periodic upsurges in popular mobilization over inadequate economic performance, corruption, and joblessness, but the rule of existing regimes seems likely to continue. In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority is more likely to slide into irrelevance than either to cede control to its rival Hamas, or dissolve itself. It would appear that Right-wing governments in Israel can outlast almost anything, including, if necessary, by shifting coalition partners and policies even further to the Right. But if political longevity has increased, the scope to take political risks in pursuit of a package deal has not widened. In practice, the willingness, on both sides, to take such political risks has diminished.

The greater concern now is that the very notion of a two-state approach to resolution of the conflict has been fatally undermined, especially by Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as by the direction taken by Israeli and US politics in recent years. Although the first upsurge in settlement building took place under Israeli Labor governments in the 1990s, the 12 year period of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister saw the settler population increase from 490,000 to 700,000. After fifty-four years, Israel has mastered the art of an occupation to which the Palestinians have no hope of mounting serious resistance, whether peaceful or violent.

The Israelis have made effective use of checkpoints all over the West Bank, sealing off Gaza, subcontracting security in cities to Palestinian security forces, recruiting Palestinians to report on their neighbours, pre-emptive raids into Area A (under Palestinian security control) and Area B (where control is shared with the Palestinian Authority), and arresting and imprisoning organizers of peaceful resistance. They have no reluctance to use overwhelming violence against Palestinians and there is zero accountability for IDF or police violence against Palestinian civilians. No Palestinian is beyond the reach of Israeli military courts. The cavalier approach of the Trump Administration to principles the remainder of the responsible international community hold sacrosanct hastened the erosion of US credibility as a peacemaker. And despite the election of Joseph Biden as US president, political momentum for a two state approach is unlikely to be recovered in the foreseeable future.

For our part, meanwhile, we have persisted in seeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within an intellectual and diplomatic framework shaped less by the facts on the ground than by our desire and strong political preference to see a two-state solution come to fruition. Like John Cleese’s famously deceased parrot, it is politically easier and personally tempting to deny the death of the process, or to hold out hope that a meaningful process will be found, rising Lazarus-like in its place.

The facts suggest we should change our approach.

Ninety-one per cent of Israel-Palestine, excluding the annexed Golan Heights, is ruled by Israel. The areas of limited Palestinian autonomy, in Gaza and the West Bank, make up the remaining nine percent.[2] As mentioned, there are over 700,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—nearly a quarter of the population of those areas. More than 7.3 million Palestinian Arabs live either as citizens of Israel or non-citizens in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem alongside 6.8 million Israeli Jews. Importantly, the demographic imbalance in favour of Arabs is set to widen: Palestinian Arab fertility rates (4.3 children per woman in the West Bank, and 4.5 children per woman in Gaza) are far greater than the Israeli Jewish fertility rate average of 3.1 children per woman. Equal rights for Palestinians would be a moral imperative, even if the Palestinians were a clear minority, but demography will make demands for those rights impossible to ignore.[3]

Understanding the forces ultimately and immediately at work, and even pointing to the demographic and other factors that will affect Israel’s international standing in the absence of two sovereign states, does not, of course, provide an answer to the problem of how justice may be found on any of the central issues of the conflict.

For the first 50 years of its existence, the exact nature of Israel’s identity was, for most Jewish Israelis, an intellectual issue to which no answers were needed: the Holocaust provided the justification for a Jewish state in the minds of Israelis. It was accepted as such without question (and with a little help from Hollywood) among westerners deservedly suffering historical guilt in the aftermath of that abomination. I suspect the vast majority of Israelis remain reluctant to address the existential issue of whether they wish to be a Jewish state (and what that means in practice), or an Israeli nation providing equality for all its citizens.

The first intifada broke out in December 1987 because a new generation of Palestinians, no longer prepared to accept Israeli occupation, felt both humiliated and abandoned by the Arab world. The Oslo process degenerated as Israelis lost interest, and Palestinians lost hope, not for want of American activity but for want of strong US leadership (including over the issue of settlements) during Oslo’s implementation phase. The second intifada broke out in 2000 because, by that stage, the vision of Oslo had finally been trampled into the mud by a combination of Palestinian terror, continuation of settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem, Israeli political insouciance, Palestinian leadership fecklessness and the abject failure of American diplomacy. But the undermining, and then the collapse of the Oslo process meant that as a result, since 2018, Israel now rules, as a demographic minority, over the Palestinian majority living between Jordan and the Mediterranean.

The tragedy of the present situation is that Israeli fears of Palestinian irredentism, and the vastly superior coercive power of Israel sustain Israeli determination not to make concessions to Palestinians under threat of violence; but the Israeli approach all but guarantees the Palestinians, determined to demonstrate their authenticity in response to Israeli military dominance and communal supremacism, will not concede to the humiliations of occupation.

In reality, those who see a tide of history running in favour of anti-colonial struggle may not be entirely wrong. But they are making heroic assumptions about Palestinian capacity to sustain a violent struggle, and they also under-estimate the unifying effects of such threats on Israeli politics and Jewish society, particularly as tensions grow between Jews and Palestinians within Israel itself. And, despite the lessons of the Syrian conflict, they probably under-estimate the likelihood that the primary beneficiaries emerging from such struggles would be forces that are deeply antagonistic toward values of human rights, gender equality and secularism.

On the other hand, however, the international environment is less conducive now to ascribing the blame to the Palestinians for such a situation. With the Democratic Party in the United States responding to and fostering calls for racial justice, the gradual emergence of criticism of specific Israeli practices among members of the US Congress (despite overwhelming Congressional support for Israel in a general sense), and with greater focus on issues of human rights among western countries than ever before, it is difficult to sustain an argument for treating the case of the Palestinians as exceptional. In April 2021, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a compelling, 213 page report arguing that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israel have met the definitions of apartheid and persecution—and thus, of crimes against humanity.[4] The HRW report, and the effective use of real-time imagery from conflict situations have lent legitimacy to public discussion of whether Israel is, indeed, an apartheid state. It is difficult to see how Israel and its supporters can reverse that shift.

If asked to decide between a Jewish state and an Israeli nation now, the likelihood is a strong Jewish reaffirmation of preference for a Jewish identity, not defined in terms of religious observance (on which Israelis will remain forever divided) but given practical expression in favour of Jews in such areas as discriminatory housing, social infrastructure and political rights. But within a few years they are going to  confront the same question when, on present political trends within Israel, there is a real prospect of existing discriminatory treatment against Arabs extending to such areas as hospitals, universities, the civil service and the military (as well as in regard to gender and enforcement of ultra-Orthodox religious codes).

If that should happen, the answers, which would still probably be largely in favour of Jewish identity rather than equal rights, may be deeply distasteful for many of those Jews and non-Jews who have hitherto supported Israel from abroad. And a decade from now, and possibly sooner, the foundation myths of Israel, and its security concerns are unlikely to provide meaningful answers to a polarized Israeli society, or to Jews elsewhere, when facing serious questions about the legitimacy of continued Jewish rule over a Palestinian majority amidst ongoing, mutually-degrading blows and counter-blows.

Like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, Israelis and Palestinians may be condemned to seek but not to find a satisfactory outcome to the issues between them. Meanwhile, however, even as parties external to the conflict and without any appreciable influence over how Israelis may come to see themselves, how we respond to attempts by Israel, and its supporters in the United States, to resort to the palliative of repression and bury the core issues of the conflict, rather than resolve them, will say a great deal about ourselves and our values. We should not add to scepticism in the Arab and Islamic world concerning our commitment to the principles we espouse by treating such moves with indifference.

Policy choices aimed at ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have to take the poetic power of myths on all sides into account, even as we must take care to measure the dosages. Achieving outcomes reasonably balanced between principles and pragmatism will require the political reconditioning of both Israeli and Palestinian popular audiences, something for which neither side has an appetite. But ultimately, as David Shipler wrote several decades ago,

Whatever happens in war or diplomacy, whatever territory is won or lost, whatever accommodations or compromises are finally made, the future guarantees that Arabs and Jews will remain close neighbours in this weary land, entangled in each other’s fears. They will not escape from one another. They will not find peace in treaties or in victories. They will find it, if they find it at all, by looking into each other’s eyes.[5]

In other words, if there is to be a solution, with at least some degree of justice for all sides, it will be through recognition of the essentiality of politics, not raw power, in bringing Israelis and Palestinians to an acceptance of each other.


[1] These concerns are addressed in more detail in Anne B. Shlay and Gillard Rosen, Jerusalem: The Spatial Politics of a Divided Metropolis, Polity, May 2015.

[2] Nathan Thrall, ‘A Day in the Life of Abed Salama’, The New York Review, 19 March 2021.

[3] Marwan Muasher, ‘After the Two-State Solution: New Israel-Palestine Peace Efforts Must Focus on Equality’, Foreign Affairs, 27 April, 2021 .

[4] Human Rights Watch, ‘A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution’,  April 2021,

[5] David Shipler Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) p. 16.

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