September 19, 2019

Primer Gets You in the ‘Know’ About Middle East Peace

Dear Jared,

I know your father-in-law is not much of a reader. But he entrusted you with a historic peace mission that has defeated countless other men and women for nearly a century, and that’s why I think you would find it useful to pick up a copy of “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University Press). 

You might be tempted to think of it as “Middle East Peace Negotiations for Dummies.”

That’s not to diminish the author’s credentials or achievements. Dov Waxman is professor of political science, international affairs and Israel studies at Northeastern University and director of the school’s Middle East program. His previous books include “Israel’s Palestinians” and “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel,” which I reviewed here when it was published in 2016.

Waxman’s new book — like all the titles in Oxford’s “What Everyone Needs to Know” series — are what journalists call an “explainer.” Waxman draws on his command of history, diplomacy and politics to untangle what is surely the most challenging quandary in the Middle East since the Gordian knot, and he dispenses his solid expertise in short bursts of clear and highly illuminating prose. 

Each section is titled with a pointed and highly pertinent question: “Who is the conflict between?” “Who was there first?” “Why did many Palestinians become refugees in 1948? Who is to blame?” “What role has the United States played in the peace process?” “Why are the West Bank and Gaza Strip considered ‘occupied territories’?” “Is a two-state solution possible?” “Is a one-state solution possible?” 

Waxman is not an advocate for one or another of the contending points of view that make peace in the Middle East such a vexing problem, and he does not create a sense of panic. Indeed, he takes a measured if sober view of the subject.

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the world’s deadliest conflict, nor is it the most destabilizing — the war in Syria has killed vastly more people and wreaked more havoc in a just a few years than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has in decades,” the author observes. “But the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians is one of the longest-running conflicts in the world and possibly the most intractable.”

“Dov Waxman bemoans the fact that so many people are willing to reach and hold an opinion on the conflicts in the Middle East with only a shallow understanding of the facts.”

He also bemoans the fact that so many people are willing to reach and hold an opinion on the conflicts in the Middle East with only a shallow understanding of the facts. One reason is that “we all inevitably bring our own personal backgrounds, beliefs, and prejudices to the subject,” as Waxman writes. Then, too, he thinks we rely too much on the media: “The problem with this is not that the media is biased, although it might be, but that it is generally superficial and focused on contemporary events.” 

The whole point of his book, in other words, is to drill deeply into the facts so the reader is equipped to reach a conclusion of his or her own. “[This] book is a primer, not a polemic,” he insists, and he refuses to play “the blame game.” His frame of reference does not exclude the religious texts of Judaism and Islam, but it is not restricted to these scriptures: “Both nationalisms are motivated by secular political aspirations (above all, national self-determination), not theological ones.” His moral stance is inspired by the word of the late Israeli novelist Amos Oz: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragedy; it is a clash between right and right.”

Jared, that’s exactly why you will soon find out for yourself how hard it is to find a solution that will be acceptable to both sides. To put it another way, a $65 billion gift will not be enough to buy a lasting peace. “The simplest way to explain the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis (more precisely Israeli Jews) is that they both lay claim to the same piece of land,” Waxman writes. “Both sides insist that this land belongs to them, and both claim the right to exercise sovereignty over it.”

Waxman seeks to avoid the shutting down of minds that seems to take place when we start to talk about peace in the Middle East, and he sends signals of his impartiality to readers on both sides. He refers to “the West Bank” rather than “Judea and Samaria,” for example, and yet he also puts “the occupied territories” between quotation marks. Even on this contentious point, however, he insists on confronting his readers with the historical facts. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the use of the word “occupation” as “nonsense,” but his predecessor Ariel Sharon declared, “Yes, it is occupation; you might not like the word, but what is happening is occupation.”

The single most important passage in “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” poses the ultimate question: “If neither [a one-state nor a two-state] solution is possible, then how can the conflict be resolved or at least reduced?” Here we find a rare glimmer of hope in what is usually and gloomily described with a fatalistic shrug as an unsolvable problem. Waxman envisions a European Union-style confederation between Israel and Palestine, each one with a “shared capital” in Jerusalem, dual citizenship for Jews who want to live in Palestine and Palestinians who wish to live in Israel, and an open border between the two countries. 

Waxman is a tough-minded observer with his eyes wide open, and he concedes that his ideas are deeply problematic. “While I am convinced that this is all possible, I am not optimistic about any of it occurring in the near future,” he writes. “Sadly, conflict, occupation, and violence look likely to continue, and peace seems a distant, if not disappearing prospect.” Another book in its entirety could be devoted to the peace plan he briefly describes, and I hope he writes it.

Unless you already know the answers to the questions you will find in Waxman’s important book, Jared, don’t leave home without it! 


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.