Denying Reality in the Israel-Palestine Situation

Denying Reality in the Israel-Palestine Situation

The resistance to recognizing that a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian is the only realistic way forward at this point has provoked pushback in Washington DC policy circles.

Part of the essence of realism in international affairs is to recognize things as they are and to deal with those actual circumstances prudently and practically, as opposed to dwelling in a realm of things as we wish they would be. In the land that Israelis and Palestinians inhabit, two major features of reality have become undeniable. One is the persistence and bloodiness of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, despite efforts to “shrink” the conflict, to sidestep it, or simply to ignore it. The conflict has become increasingly bloody lately, with violence surging over the past year.

The other reality is that Israel’s policies since its conquest of the West Bank fifty-six years ago have institutionalized a single state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The large-scale Israeli colonization of the conquered territory—with the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem now exceeding 750,000 and growing—has been accompanied by the construction of physical and legal infrastructure to serve their needs the same as for any other Jewish Israeli citizens. Israel treats that land as an integral part of its own territory for whatever purposes it suits Israel to treat in that way.

There already is a one-state “solution” to the conflict, although it is a solution only for those content with a system of one ethnically defined group oppressing and subjugating another group that is denied political rights and self-determination, with all the resentment and potential for violence that such an arrangement inevitably involves. Meanwhile, a two-state solution, which has been part of the standard vocabulary of diplomats and politicians for decades, has been pushed ever farther out of reach and, in the view of many informed observers, is dead.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Michael Barnett, Nathan Brown, Marc Lynch, and Shibley Telhami have described this reality and observed that “It is no longer possible to avoid confronting a one-state reality.” The resistance to recognizing that reality—and the implications for U.S. policy that flow from that recognition—remains strong among those determined to stick up for Israeli policies and to advocate continued U.S. condoning of those policies. Thus there inevitably has been pushback against the Barnett, et al. article, including in a recent piece in this publication by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Ross and Makovsky invoke many of the old chestnuts long used by American sympathizers with Israel in ways that may have been valid fifty-six years ago but now seem stuck in a time warp. They open their piece with a flourish about how the recent demonstrations in Israel against the Netanyahu government’s plan to emasculate the judiciary show “the depth of the Israeli public’s commitment to democracy.” But the democracy about which the demonstrators have been chanting has nothing to do (as Ross and Makovsky later acknowledge) with the several million Palestinians whom Israel rules and who have no say in choosing their rulers. The commitment to democracy (of some Israelis, and not, according to Ross and Makovsky’s own logic, those who back the extreme right-wing government that is pushing the judicial overhaul) may be deep insofar as it applies to themselves, but it is narrow in not applying it to other people next to whom they live.

The chestnuts also include the familiar image of Israel surrounded by hostile neighbors supposedly determined to destroy it. Ross and Makovsky write of how “Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas deny Israel’s right to exist, support terror against it—and would even if there was no occupation—and acquire and develop weapons to act on their aims.” Such an image ignores the entire question of capabilities, and how Israel’s building of what is now by far the most capable military in the region—even at the conventional level, let alone beyond that level—makes its existence assured even in the face of any foe that might prefer that it not exist. The image also ignores the intentions of foes, such as Hamas, which, notwithstanding its extreme rhetoric, long ago made clear that it would accept a hudna, or long-term truce, as part of an arrangement of living peacefully beside a continuing Israel.

The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory has been a big part of Israel’s conflicts with its regional foes. It obviously is with a Palestinian group such as Hamas, whose goal is to be the government for all Palestinians. It also is for Iran, which has long backed Palestinian resistance groups both because of sympathy for subjugated Palestinians and Tehran’s awareness of how much resonance the issue has elsewhere in the Arab world. And the occupation of Palestinian territory is the sole reason most Arab governments have still not begun full diplomatic relations with Israel.

To the extent that animosity toward Israel goes beyond issues related to the occupation and conflict with the Palestinians, Israel’s actions have had at least as much to do with that hostility as have the actions of the neighbors. Hezbollah, for example, was able to establish itself in the 1980s as a major political player by presenting itself as the champion of resistance to an Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the years-long occupation of a portion of that country. As for animosity between Israel and Iran, a cursory look at the rhetoric from each regime about the other shows hostility by Israel against Iran to be much more all-consuming than hostility in the other direction. It is not just rhetoric that displays this imbalance. Israeli sabotage and lethal terrorism in Iran are unmatched by anything Iran has done to Israel.

Even more to the point at hand, how exactly can the ritual invocation of Israel living in an unfriendly neighborhood constitute a rationale for clinging to the occupied Palestinian territory? It is not as if the occupation somehow bolsters Israeli security. To the contrary, it detracts from it. Besides being the main stimulants for regional resentment against Israel, the occupation and West Bank settlement project constitute a major burden on the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that lessens its ability to respond to any foreign threats.

Ross and Makovsky strive to convey the impression that Palestinians have been primarily responsible for the absence of a resolution to their conflict with Israel. A careful review of the decades-long history of the conflict shows that impression to be false. And never do Ross and Makovsky acknowledge the biggest asymmetry of the conflict today, which is that Israel, not the Palestinians, is the side with the military power, with control of the land, and thus with the ability to change the status quo if it wanted to.

In a manipulation of cause and effect, Ross and Makovsky repeatedly explain away Israel’s actions that have prolonged or intensified the conflict as responses to Palestinian behavior, without ever mentioning how much of what one sees on the Palestinian side is a response to Israeli behavior. For example, in response to the observation by Barnett and his co-authors that Israel’s “withdrawal” from the Gaza Strip is somewhat of a misnomer in that Israel retains to this day a suffocating control of Gaza’s airspace, sea lanes, and borders, Ross and Makovsky note that nasty Hamas is in Gaza and has attacked Israel even after the Israeli “withdrawal.” Never do they consider how the Israeli-imposed plight of the Gaza Strip as an open-air prison has much to do with a group like Hamas gaining and maintaining as much popular support as it has.

Not surprisingly, Ross and Makovsky dislike the use by Barnett et al. of the A-word. Ross and Makovsky define apartheid, implicitly referring to the South African experience, as a legal edifice involving the oppression of a majority by a minority, and declare that this is not true of Israel. So are we supposed to be less appalled when one racial or ethnic group oppresses another group that happens to be numerically inferior? Even their minority/majority semantic stratagem—which, by the way, is hardly part of any consensus conception of apartheid—breaks down when applied to the West Bank, where Palestinian residents are a clear majority and where a legal edifice institutionalizes oppression based on ethnicity.

An even bigger motivation for these two denizens of the Washington policy world to take issue with the article by Barnett and company is that article’s policy recommendation to condition U.S. aid to Israel “on clear and specific measures to terminate Israel’s military rule over the Palestinians.” The Israeli occupation is contrary to U.S. interests on multiple grounds, including its contribution to persistent instability in the Middle East and the association of the United States with ethnically-based repression. The end to the military rule also would be necessary to realize any version of a two-state solution, which Ross and Makovsky claim to support.

With no direct answer to those facts, Ross and Makovsky try to argue that any loosening of the unconditional U.S. support to Israel would somehow embolden Israel’s regional foes. They ask how “the Iranians, Hezbollah, and Hamas would react to an American cut-off of military assistance to Israel” (in a formulation that implicitly assumes that Israel, given the chance to continue receiving voluminous U.S. aid if it ends the occupation, would refuse that option). Wouldn’t those foreign foes, they suggest, “perceive great opportunity in such a circumstance?”