You could wake up in 1950, 1960, 1970, or 1980 and read more or less similar headlines. Arab forces, outmatched but full of dumb, brave young men, launch attacks on Israel. Israel kills a whole bunch of people in return, not particularly worried about who so long as the attacks stop. Everything goes quiet for a while until both sides want to have a go again.
But how can two communities just keep on repeating the same thing over and over again for decades on end? Trying the same thing multiple times and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. That’s about right; when I visited the West Bank and Israel in 2011, I kept thinking, “Wait, they’re all worked up about this?” That feeling deepened the more kitsch Jesus plates I saw.
The bare-bones tale is two communities fighting each other over a tiny scrap of crowded land and refusing to see compromise as a valuable trait
Israel-Palestine is where the nation-state system has failed the most fully in organizing people into peaceful states. The essential problem is that the old mandate is too small for two states to function without one dominating the other. So why not have a bi-national state? Mostly because, irrationally, both sides have people who see their primary trait as not being from the other community.
Nation-states, by their very nature, try to bring about cultural and linguistic uniformity, if only for the sake of getting things done. Hebrew and Arabic are related languages, and there’s more than a few cultural bridges between the two – as Bruno famously pointed out. Where it all falls down is that both communities believe their nation-states should not be secular.
And that makes it very, very hard to have a quiet dinner between neighbors.
Israel: the state that could end the cycle, but doesn’t really want to
Israeli complacency regarding the conflict is pretty understandable when you realize all people are pretty lazy and would prefer not to think about unpleasant stuff unless they really have to. Israel’s military forces could, if they wanted, cause a humanitarian crisis by expelling all Palestinians from disputed territories and ending the conflict once and for all by taking all the land for themselves.
But while they have the military power to do so, they lack equal political power. Not only would the world be outraged – and perhaps even be roused to do something that could endanger the Israeli state itself – but Israelis themselves aren’t too bothered, day to day, by the occupation, the violence, or the militarization of their society. No political party can win a majority in Israel on the platform of “Greater Israel” – and not for lack of trying.
Palestine: the territory that has all the will in the world, but no way to carry it out
Palestinians, on the other hand, have two factions with two very different views of ending the crisis, but neither of them are strong enough to carry out their plans. Fatah under Mahmoud Abbas wants to see a two-state solution, with Palestine and Israel existing side by side, but has no power over Tel Aviv to help him get there.
Hamas, on the other hand, wants to wipe out Israel and replace it with an Islamic state, but can’t do much more than lob rockets at Israeli cities. So while Israelis dither, Palestinians don’t have the strength to carry out the desires of their two main factions.
So conflict has become the identity for several of the factions, their followers, and leaders
For Hamas, resistance is why they exist. For Israel’s hard-right, expansion into Arab territory and the destruction of Arab communities is the overriding goal of the day. These two groups are just large enough to keep derailing any attempts at peace. But they are not strong enough to carry the day against one another. And so the cycle of violence, as cliche as that is used to describe Palestine and Israel, must continue.
That is, until one of the two key outside powers gets sick and tired of the mess and pulls the plug on their supporters
The U.S. started backing Israel as a useful counterweight to Soviet-aligned Egypt and Syria during the Cold War. With no such threat from either place these days, there’s little reason to give Israel much slack.
The Arab Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have abandoned their shrill calls for war, and are prepared to accept compromise because they cannot afford to alienate their American protectors. Even tiny Qatar, as pro-Hamas as it is, knows where to draw the line.
So that leaves Iran to back Hamas. But they’re both backing different sides in the Syrian civil war – Iran with Assad and his Alawites, Hamas with the Sunni rebellion (as Hamas is, like most of Syria, Sunni). The politics of sectarianism is fraying a relationship that once provided meaning for both.
The cycle can’t go on forever, and the geopolitics of the region are shifting in such a way that they may soon force something to finally be done
The greater Shi’a-Sunni conflict may break the bonds between Hamas and Iran, leaving Hamas with no sponsor to resupply its rockets and at the mercy of the Israeli Defense Forces. Meanwhile, the U.S. is growing more and more openly tired of Israel’s tactics. Ironically, the chaos sucking down almost every other country in the Middle East may just force the two sides to negotiate – if only because their backers won’t be able to afford their sideshow any longer. Greater fires are already burning; bigger ones are probably on their way.
In the meantime, the violence repeats itself. And everybody who has half a brain can wonder what the hell the point is.