Full disclosure: I was born a German-Jew, but I have never been a Zionist, nor have I shied away from criticizing Israeli policies. I feel the deepest sorrow for the Palestinian people, but I am also sharply critical of their leadership and its political choices. Forty thousand Palestinians have just turned into “internally displaced persons” (IDPs) in their own land, and Israeli settlements have invaded their territory, but I do not view a one-state solution as realistic. Fashionable talk about its being the “only” solution seems to always avoid specifying the institutions it will require, plausible policies focusing on complex problems like “the right of return,” and ideas for dealing with majorities on both sides who understandably distrust each other and harbor deep historical resentments. That is why formal negotiations must take place between organizations of civil society in Israel and Palestine, perhaps using the Geneva Initiative of 2003 as a model, if only so that politicians on both sides can see what *the people* really want.
Israelis and Palestinians are two nations with two cultures and two very different histories: that of the colonizer and that of the colonized. In a world averse to explaining the logic of events, the great Tunisian-Jewish thinker Albert Memmi has much to teach. His use of the “Nero complex” explains how colonizers take over a land, proud of exporting the benefits of “civilization,” while the colonized resist such beneficence. In quelling the resistance, however, the “civilized” colonizer feels an unconscious guilt as well as resentment against the ingratitude of the colonized. The “necessity” of violence tempers the guilt. With each uprising, therefore, the colonizer’s repression will intensify, leading to more intense resistance by the colonized – and so on.
That is what we see in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pogroms and concentration camps from the Jewish past, as Karl Marx would have put it, “weigh like nightmares on the brains of the living.” They feel themselves victims, and enough Israelis are still amazed at the Palestinians’ refusal to acknowledge the modern advances that Jewish settlers brought to supposedly nomadic tribes. So, the old Zionist slogan: “a land without a people for a people without a land.” The mixture of guilt and resentment expresses itself in the blending of Israel’s occasional humanitarian actions with the inhuman brutality of its military attacks. Through this cycle of violence, which is buttressed by $4 billion in yearly aid from the United States, Israel has turned into the region’s hegemonic power. Its participation in the Nero complex, however,has destroyed its moral capital. No longer is it the band of heroes memorialized in tendentious works like Leon Uris’s novel *Exodus*, and its film application.
Just as Israel possesses overwhelming military power, while ostracized by the world community, Palestinian sovereignty is recognized diplomatically, even as its people are reduced to supplicants. In keeping with this contradictory situation, recent Palestinian policy rested on the belief that pressure by the world community would somehow change the outlook of Israeli politicians. But this view ignores Israel’s self-perception as the historical victim of global indifference and anti-Semitism. As for President Donald Trump’s “Abraham Accords,” they mistakenly assume that the Palestinians are no longer relevant and that their commitment had withered. Such blindness toward the Palestinians’ plight showed a remarkable lack of intelligence and foresight. Conflicts don’t simply fade away. Nevertheless, the Abraham Accords facilitated diplomatic relations between Israel and many of its neighbors: it provides a building block for the future.
That the Arab world is sick of the Palestinian struggle and its cynically incompetent leadership was already clear to me in 2007 when, engaging in civic diplomacy in Sudan and Darfur with Conscience International, two ranking Sudanese politicians asked what I thought about their country (then under Sharia law) improving its ties with Israel. Their frustration with Palestinian politics was obvious, and I don’t believe that was an anomaly. Under pressure from below in the face of the Israeli war machine, of course, Arab states must show their public support for the Palestinian rebellion. What this means in terms of their long-term strategy is unclear, however, and (especially given recent diplomatic progress) whether their outrage will as strong six months from now is highly doubtful – at least to me.
Like some schoolyard brawl, only with more drastic consequences, it doesn’t matter who started the fight. What counts is that provocation from one side constantly draws in the other. Hamas fired 4,000 missiles, mostly supplied by Iran, almost all of which were intercepted by an “iron dome” anti-missile system supplied by the United States. This suggest that back-channel negotiations between the United States and Iran should stress regional issues and their impact on bilateral relations.
In any event, Israeli missiles destroyed the dense cities of Gaza, 700 buildings, waterworks impacting 800,000 Palestinians, and 60 miles of tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt, which serve as both a lifeline to freedom and a way of smuggling arms. Such radical imbalances of destruction and death heightened unity among Israelis at home and sympathy for Palestinian anger abroad. That seems a clear product of the 11-day war. Given this situation, indeed, it seems obvious hat lifting the boycott on Gaza is the humanitarian issue of its aftermath.
In this vein, the United Nations decided to investigate Israel’s “systematic abuses” in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Hamas’ “indiscriminate” missile attacks, which violated international law. A positive result of this otherwise worthless conflict has been creation of a permanent Commission of Inquiry by the United Nations to report on human rights in Israel and Palestine. Without the power to set penalties or enforce them, of course, it’s not much. Nevertheless, it provides a platform for turning the struggle for civil rights in both Israel and Gaza into the primary political goal for the near future.
The mainstream media always insist that this rebellion will prove decisive, that this one is different. Uprising after uprising, intifada after intifada, has produced roughly the same disparate result: hundreds of Palestinians and about a dozen Israelis killed, Israeli cities threatened, its borderline settlements bombed, and the Palestinian infrastructure wrecked, later to be rebuilt, before being wrecked again. True, this time the battle between Arabs and Jews bled into Israeli cities like Lod and Haifa, which were once considered happily integrated. Perhaps that time is past. Still, the back and forth cries for vengeance ended in the usual way: innocent Palestinians suffering the unequal costs of battle while Israelis benefited from the same imbalance of power continue Under the circumstances, though it is not now in the cards, it is worthwhile considering that reparations might provide an immediate avenue for reconciliation,
Forces of reason are again on the defensive. Fear pushes moderates to the extreme. Zionist fanatics engaged in pitched battles with Israeli-Arabs. The question is whether they will unify with the Palestinians in in a movement dedicated to civil rights and equality. Such developments would provide a glimmer of hope for future democratic governance. A political free-for-all is taking place in advance of the coming elections. For all the “pragmatic” opportunism of its competing politicians and parties, however, differences over policies concerning the Palestinians are too radical to produce any meaningful consensus. Israel has benefited from the endless “peace process” and, for its small-minded leaders, it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie: suspend discussions about the Palestinians and concentratte on domestic issues.
Palestine remains comprised of two competing sovereigns: one in Gaza seeking vengeance and another in the West Bank marked by paralysis. Simmering conflict between them has created a situation in which, even if Israel were willing to deal, neither competing sovereign can actually represent the Palestinian nation, and neither is in the position to pursue serious negotiations. Many Israelis employ this division to justify semantic nonsense that the Palestinians have never been a “people” –even though the “people” obviously see themselves as such. Such propaganda is intent on undermining any peace plan. That is another reason for building a unified front among the organizational representatives of civil society, across borders, who can make their voices heard.
Friendship between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is not in the cards, since each would need to compromise its power. Hamas enjoys the spotlight while leading the military assault on the “Zionist entity”– whatever the collateral damage to its own people – and who cares if it should clamp down on dissidents? Its intransigence in diplomatic matters derives from the glaring fact that any two-state solution would leave Gaza only as a junior partner. Yet, Hamas’ vanguard activism contrasts sharply from the paralysis displayed by the Palestinian Authority. Its contradictory politics leaves the organization unable either to negotiate for the “Palestinians,” since it does not speak for Gaza, or join the armed struggle, since it has been given administrative authority and receives financial support from Israel.
Civil war remains a possibility on both sides of the barricades. Zionist and Palestinian extremists maintain their veto over any plan for peace. Fanatical settlers and orthodox religious zealots in Israel, and sectarian-militant factions of Hamas and “Islamic Jihad” in Gaza, can – and most likely will – attempt to subvert any serious peace efforts with new provocations. Peace could lead Israeli extremists to rebel against the sovereign government, Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin was murdered by an orthodox Jew. As for the Palestinian factions, the future will witness a battle over which is sovereign. The national interest has already been relegated to the sidelines. There is no reason to believe that this will change as military budgets grow and missiles are stockpiled. Prospects for a lasting peace are dim. The status quo is untenable for the “people” though desirable for politicians on both sides. Another temporary truce presupposes an unresolved conflict. The world cannot afford yet another regional crisis of the same sort, and neither can the innocent citizens of Israel and Palestine.
*Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University and Co-Director of the International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue. His most recent book is The Sovereign.