Sunday, June 3, 2007


After I submitted my piece on CUFI to The Seminal, it was requested that I should come out with a progressive Jewish perspective on the current situation in the Middle East. I'm happy to do so, but with the usual Jewish caveats: my perspective is not meant to represent the majority view of the Jewish people, and there is no official Jewish position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. My perspective is my own. What I bring here is an attempt to outline a progressive, Zionist, viewpoint, with an eye toward the historical realities of the region and the chances for future peace.

For a long time now, I've resisted coming out with a new essay about the Israel-Palestine conflict, because, quite frankly, there hasn't been much point. The current Israeli regime seems inept and corrupt, and the Palestinians are too busy fighting amongst themselves to do anything constructive.

Before I outline the steps I believe are necessary to bring peace to the Israel-Palestine conflict, I need to do some historical analysis, in an effort to find the roots of the mess we find ourselves in today.

In 1948, a large portion of the Arab population of Israel fled and ended up in refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries. Some Arabs also fled to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, controlled at the time by Egypt and Jordan, respectively. Instead of integrating these refugees into society, as they should have done, the Arab nations have let them fester in fetid, overpopulated, poverty-stricken refugee camps, where they continue to live today.

Before 1967, Egypt and Jordan had every opportunity to create a stable Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, but both nations chose instead to let those areas turn into poverty-stricken refugee zones.

These refugee camps have become breeding grounds for religious extremists who exploited Palestinian hopes for a homeland and anger about the appalling conditions in the camps to create terrorist militias. Thus, instead of directing anger about living conditions to their host countries, Palestinian refugees were guided by terrorist groups and religious zealots to blame Israel for all of their troubles.

During the intervening years, the Palestinian nationalists won the sympathies of the international community, even convincing the United Nations to declare Zionism as a form of racism: a hurtful, specious, and disgusting charge.

Between 1948 and 1967, Israel endured a constant threat of destruction from every one of its neighbors, and fought and won several decisive military victories to secure its place as a legitimate member of the international community of nations. The 1967 war brought the conflict to a head. Israel took, by force, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai. These areas were won by Israel through military action, although the Sinai was later given back to Egypt in exchange for peace.

Now that Israel controlled the West Bank and Gaza, the Arab nations could "legitimately" point at Israel as the cause of the appalling conditions in which the Palestinian refugees living there found themselves. In fact, Israel inherited these problems from the very Arab nations who claimed to be the champions of the Palestinian nationalist cause.

The next two decades saw the formation and development of the PLO, a quasi-governmental paramilitary organization representing of the Palestinian nationalist forces controlling the refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank. Its leader, Yasser Arafat, was embraced by the international community as the legitimate, moderate face of the Palestinian cause.

Despite the violence of the first Intifada, relations between Israel and this new Palestinian entity gradually improved, with the Oslo accords being the first serious attempt at dialogue between the two sides. The next decade saw several attempts at final status negotiations between the two sides, with mixed results.

In 2000, Ariel Sharon, a hardline Likud leader, was elected Prime Minister of Israel, at a time of rising tensions with the Palestinians. Many people blame Sharon for the start of the current Intifada with his pre-election visit to the Temple Mount.

The ensuing years saw a spike in suicide bombings against Israel, spiralling deterioration in relations between the two sides, the death of Arafat, the political reinvention and subsequent incapacitation of Sharon, and the current civil war between Hamas and Fatah.

So, where are we now?

The truth is, nowhere good.

The current civil war between Hamas and Fatah, the conflict in Lebanon between extremists in the refugee camps and the Lebanese government, and the civil war between Sunni and Shia in Iraq, are all interconnected and fueled by the same kind of anti-American, anti-Zionist religious extremism that was further exacerbated by America's illegal war and occupation of Iraq. These divergent groups have different goals, different viewpoints, and are often in violent conflict with one another, but they all agree that American imperialism and Zionist oppression are their main enemies. The entire Arab world is primed for a major conflagration, which would only be made worse by further American military involvement in the region.

What does this mean for Israel?

Despite the current and escalating cycle of violence, the way to peace is the same as it has always been. The Economist has it just about right, the Arab League came pretty close to it in 2002, and the Geneva Initiative was another good effort.

All of the history I just cited, all of the misery, and the mistrust, and the hatred, and the bloodshed, can be solved. There are a few key points to consider.

1) Israel must give up most of the land it captured in the 1967 war. Border concessions must be made on both sides to preserve the integrity of long-established Jewish and Palestinian settlements, and to ensure the long-term security of both states.

2) Israel must find some way to give a future Palestinian state some real control over Arab sectors of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and must be preserved as such, but the Palestinians have a legitimate claim to those areas with a majority Palestinian population. However, Israel must preserve its sovereignty over Jewish holy sites such as the Western Wall, and over the majority of the city of Jerusalem itself.

3) The Palestinians have to realize that their dream of a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees cannot mean that all Palestinian refugees get to move back into Israel. That would cause a demographic crisis that would not only threaten the Jewish nature of Israel, but would cause a major economic catastrophe as Israel is forced to deal with a huge influx of very poor people. Granted, Israel has to find some way to compensate those Palestinians who were forced out of their homes as a result of the 1948 war of Independence. The best way to do so is financial compensation. The best way to do that is for Israel to aid the Palestinians in developing Gaza and the West Bank into viable, economically stable areas where there are jobs and public infrastructure to support a peaceful, democratic state. The Arab countries, meanwhile, need to integrate the Palestinian refugees into their own countries, as full citizens, give them economic assistance, and destroy the fetid camps in which the refugees have been forced to live for more than 50 years.

4) The United States has to be a prime mover for peace in the Arab world. We have a responsibility to undo the damage we have done with our military misadventures in Iraq. We must withdraw from Iraq immediately, seriously refocus our efforts in Afghanistan on fighting terrorism, and put real political pressure on our so-called allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, both of which are actually harboring Al-Qaida terrorists. We must show that we are committed to providing real peace and stability in the region, not just throwing our weight around and invading countries without cause. If the United States becomes a productive voice for peace in the greater Arab world, then that will take a lot of the wind out of the sails of the extremists using the Palestinian cause, and the anti-Americanism that partially underlies it, as a rallying cry for global jihad.

This is a conflict that can be solved, but not until forces in the region, on all sides, start thinking bigger than their own ideologies. Until we have political leaders who are willing to take real political risks, in Israel, in the Palestinian territories, in the Arab world, and here in America, then peace won't happen. Until we recognize the very humanity in our enemies that we claim for ourselves, we will never achieve a lasting peace.