Israel/Palestine: Standing Firm Means Never Getting Anywhere

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

As Jason Greenblatt meets with Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu, you can’t help wondering: will anything change? Through several U.S. administrations, the talking points have remained virtually the same. Meanwhile, confidence in a two-state solution is waning in both Palestine and Israel.

“Young Palestinians start to lose faith in two-state solution,” declared a Financial Times headline recently. NPR had the same story last month. In a piece broadcast on February 17, reporter Joanna Kakissis interviewed two students at Bir Zeit University. Both of them said they don’t recognize Israel as a country. “It’s not even their home,” says one of them, referring to Jewish Israelis.

This is hardly news. In 2014, when the journalist Nir Baram interviewed people living in Israel and the West Bank, a Palestinian woman told him “We can’t live with you, we want our own state. The Jews can go back to America or Europe.” As one man put it: “All of Palestine is Palestine, from sea to sea. I don’t believe there is such a thing as Israel. All the Israelis came here from far away and conquered our lands.”

Yaasir Arafat made the same argument over 40 years ago. To him, Palestine was like Algeria under French rule. He saw the Jews as European invaders, promoting a colonialist, imperialist project which should be overthrown in favor of national sovereignty. Arafat explicitly promoted an armed struggle whose “causes do not stem from any conflict between two religions or two nationalisms. Neither is it a border conflict between neighboring States.” His goal was a single Palestinian state where Jews might also live.

On the Jewish side, advocates of two states have consistently believed in negotiations to establish agreed-upon borders between the states, arguing that nothing else could preserve Israel as both Jewish and democratic. Skeptics, on the other hand, foresee a Palestinian state that would resemble some of its Arab neighbors: unstable, undemocratic, and a greater threat to Israel’s security than the status quo. Over more than 40 years, those arguments haven’t changed much either.

All that these efforts have accomplished is to maintain a stalemate. Whether you believe that they reflect high principle or simple intransigence, the inescapable fact is that the predicament remains the same as 50 years ago. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for: an uneasy ceasefire in a multigenerational conflict, with occasional eruptions of individual and military violence.

What else could be done? The parties might accept the status quo as preferable to any of the alternatives and abandon the pretense of seeking negotiations. On the other hand, they might conclude that the situation is deteriorating and unsustainable, and be willing to modify their long-held beliefs as the basis for new negotiations. Or, combining elements of both outlooks, they might conclude that the status quo is unsustainable but that negotiations are ineffectual, and that the conflict can be resolved only by force.

Of course the participants in the Israel/Palestine debate may prefer to stick to their long-standing positions rather than contemplate something new. But is that really tenable? It takes a lot of courage to reconsider one’s own fundamental assumptions and consider changing them. But it’s a necessary step towards progress. Standing in place won’t get us anywhere.