Grasping the Nettle

June 24, 2010

Grasping the Nettle

With the escalation in violence between Hamas and Fatah, a past article by John Hulsman offers insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


This article is excerpted from "Grasping the Nettle" by John C. Hulsman, which originally appeared in issue #86 (Nov./Dec. 2006) of The National Interest.

WE ALL know the broad parameters of any real and lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians: two states with secure borders recognized as final by the whole of the region, as well as by the United States, un, eu and nato; security guarantees for both parties; using the 1967 borders as the basis for the territorial settlement, leading to a real, undivided Palestinian state on the West Bank; certain limited land swaps, in particular relating to the three largest Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank; a secure Palestinian transit corridor link between the West Bank and Gaza. Along with these parameters, the Palestinians also get to plant a symbolic flag in East Jerusalem, while Ramallah remains the true capital, and give up their right of return, except for symbolic cases, in return for generous compensation.


These practical, non-millennial goals must obviously form the basis of any settlement. They derive from Yitzhak Rabin's belief in land for peace, of turning the vast majority of the West Bank (and Gaza) over to a Palestinian state in exchange for peace not only with the Palestinians but with all of Israel's neighbors. As with all good deals, it will entirely satisfy no one. However, one can sincerely hope that there is enough there for everyone to entice realists in both camps to make the bold sacrifices necessary for peace.

These sacrifices may well have to be physical as well as political. In a rare flash of insight, Thomas Friedman once wrote that for peace between Israel and the Palestinians to be achieved, the leaderships of both sides would have to fight civil wars against their own rejectionist radicals. This has often been the case in such situations. The peace treaty of 1921 between Britain and the ira led to a civil war in Ireland in which the greatest ira leader, Michael Collins, was killed by men he had previously led for signing and sticking to the treaty. In Israel, a Jewish rejectionist also murdered Yitzhak Rabin; and this fate will threaten future Israeli and Palestinian leaders who sign a genuine peace treaty. Nevertheless, as Rabin and Collins courageously recognized-but Yasir Arafat did not-such risks are necessary if peace between Israel and Palestine is to be achieved.

Of course, this plan leaves plenty of unanswered questions: Can Hamas be prodded into categorically accepting Israel's right to exist? Will the rest of the Arab world-not to mention Iran-accept such a settlement? Can Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) prove a stabilizing influence on the hotheads surrounding him, or will he remain well-meaning but ineffectual? On the Israeli side, can a newly threatened Israel be persuaded to ignore the siren song of unilateralism? Will the policy of assassinating senior Palestinian leaders be quietly shelved? After the Lebanon disaster, will the Israeli people avoid the lure of their own rejectionist right, led by Netanyahu? Can settlers in the West Bank be politically handled by any sitting Israeli government? Can a leader of unimpeachable stature, such as Rabin and Sharon in their own ways, be found to make the concessions necessary to secure Israel's future?

All these questions are very hard to answer, and the response could well be "no" to most of them. This does not mean that the effort to reach a settlement should be abandoned. A peace deal founded on the ethical realist principles discussed here stands at least a chance of acceptance. Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its ramifications are so dangerous for vital U.S. and European interests in the struggle against terrorism that elementary patriotism simply demands a determined effort to end this conflict.  One good thing about the present disastrous state of the region is that things could hardly be worse. It should therefore be obvious that the United States must try again, and try differently.