And here we go again.
Especially in the United States, Palestinian-Israeli violence always sucks up the headlines, siphoning valuable media and filling it with tried-and-true journalistic narratives that play to the myriad of biases that always come to the fore when discussing the Holy Land.
Evangelical Christians get their dose of Biblical chaos, hoping beyond hope that this time, the Rapture will follow this latest spasm of violence. Conservatives and neoconservatives find yet more ammunition against Islam, Islamism, or, to the brute racists lurking among them, merely Arabs in general to fill the Facebook comments of every article that covers the attacks. Liberals dredge up well-worn tirades against colonization, colonialism, Western power and Israeli abuse.
Rather than sit this one out, I’ve decided to delve into the very basics of the conflict at risk, of course, of revealing my own bias (spoiler: I don’t care).
So let’s make this very popular-to-recycle conflict super.
And we begin with the cliff notes.
- The basic geopolitics: one state of one nation dominates another nation that lacks a state, and then refuses to implement a permanent solution.
- Such permanent solutions are obvious enough: assimilation, expulsion, extermination or withdrawal.
- But Israel cannot act swiftly on any of the four, for to do any too quickly would horrify a key backer and possibly undermine Israel itself.
- So until its key backers make a decision, Israel will dither, conflict will smolder, and we’ll tell this tale again in the near future.
So, let’s start off with dispensing with our feelings.
In geopolitics, feelings don’t matter. Leaders may despise one another, but leaders come and go. Nation-states drift over time; good leaders follow the drift and bad leaders resist it. Regardless of our feelings, the mechanics of a conflict like this are rooted in geopolitical need, and not whether or not one culture or another is superior.
Far too many Israelis naively believe they can separate, arrest, or kill a handful of Palestinians to instill obedience in the rest, while refusing to change the fundamental geopolitical situation. That makes conversation a non-starter: such a person thinks that handful of bombing raids over Gaza will teach Hamas not to “mess with Israel.”
Meanwhile, far too many Palestinians believe they can do the same thing, forcing Israeli policy to change, or even for Israel to dismantle itself, by committing to a long campaign of small guerrilla attacks on a vastly superior military machine. Once more, Palestinians who think this way fail to recognize the fundamental geopolitical situation.
Both sides are object-lessons in when both people and leaders fail to understand how nation-states work. When you think of them in terms of blind geopolitical ignorance, their conflict makes much more sense.
So what then is the geopolitical situation?
One powerful nation-state is occupying and controlling a nation that lacks a state. That powerful state holds all the key cards in the conflict: it has the ability to make choices that would fundamentally alter the geopolitical situation, but, for short sighted but not wholly irrational reasons, refuses to.
Both sides suffer from roughly the same irrationality: an obsession with land ownership rooted in some truly remarkable myth-making. There’s little advantage for either in doing so, yet they persist: the height of irrationality. Here human choice comes into play in terms of geopolitics. Both groups of humans deliberately manufacture and believe myths that claim they are the sole rightful holders of a single piece of real estate.
What this looks like in practice is parents and community leaders telling kids stories that justify fighting the other side. Papa comes home and tells a grand tale of some ancestor who may or may not have existed doing this or that on a particular olive grove. They finish the story with the moral “First come, first served.”
It doesn’t matter that such thinking kills people on both sides quite regularly, and will continue to kill people on both sides. The weaker of the two, the Palestinians, cannot alter the geopolitical reality: they simply don’t have the industry, economy, or international backing to capture Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. The more powerful of the two, the Israelis, have the power and capacity to produce a resolution, but, for reasons we’ll get into it, simply won’t.
And what are those resolutions? Well, most of them are rather horrible.
Ditch your feelings here, people! When we take about “resolution,” we don’t always mean hand-holding and hugs. Sometimes, we talk killing fields.
In order to permanently resolve the geopolitical situation in the Holy Land, Israel must either assimilate, expel, or exterminate the Palestinians, or it must withdraw.
Those are some harsh words there: none of them feels very good to consider, which is one reason why the conflict goes on. With so many Holocaust survivors within the ranks and a long history of oppression, Israel’s leaders are wary of carrying out any of these.
But they would solve the fundamental geopolitical problem: one nation without a state dominated by another nation-state.
The first, assimilation, is the most peaceful: it would involve the annexation of the Palestinian territories with full citizenship bestowed upon the people living there. Israel already did something like this in 1948, when it gave citizenship to the Arabs who hadn’t fled the 1948 war. Today, 10% of Israel is Arab.
This would work because by and large, Israeli Arabs get along well enough inside the country, though they are prone to feeling like second class citizens. As second class citizens do, they agitate for a better position in society, but as a group, they don’t threaten the integrity of the state.
But it would introduce a Palestinian majority into Israel’s electorate. Doubtless that would mean a vast cultural shift within Israel but if carried out well, it would not necessarily mean the demise of Israel itself. Naturally, many Israelis hate the idea: to have built such an exclusive nation-state means they’re emotionally invested in what they view as its cultural “purity.”
So if they don’t want Palestinians as fellow citizens, they could always try to finish the expulsion.
A vast number of Arabs fled the 1948 war, believing that victorious Arab armies would sweep over Palestine, defeat the Jewish forces, and return them to their homes. Obviously, it didn’t work out that way.
When the war ended, Israel refused to allow them back across the border. In the 1967, Israel captured the remainder of the former mandate, but didn’t expel the Palestinians this time around. Instead, it’s allowed them to fester as occupied subjects.
To expel the final Palestinians means finding somewhere for them to go. Its treaties with Jordan and Egypt mean it can’t use military power to force refugees across those borders: to do so would upset the United States. But chaos in Syria and Lebanon provides a possible opportunity. While shoving people off to the killing fields of Syria wouldn’t be prudent, it could be done should Syria settle into a fragile peace much like Lebanon, with no single Syrian state able to stop a flood of Palestinian refugees pushed across the Golan Heights.
Lebanon, already creaking under the weight of its own Syrian refugees, would be another option, with Israel washing its hands of the inevitable violent consequences of cramming yet more people into the country.
This would, however, be open ethnic cleansing, and seen as such within the United States. That’s why it won’t be tried on a vast scale anytime soon.
Then, there’s the most murderous of solutions: extermination.
Israel has the military and industrial power to annihilate the Palestinian people if it so chooses. But to do so would isolate the country and probably doom it to an invasion or civil war. Israeli liberals and members of its armed forces would be deeply unlikely to want to create killing fields in the West Bank, while both Jordan and Egypt would be hard-pressed to stand by and witness the slaughter. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Israel would almost immediately lose its supporters.
So even if an Israel regime arose that wanted to try this solution, they’d faced uprisings from Israelis and a counterattack from the outside world. That’s why even the most racist of Israelis don’t get much traction with this proposal.
Finally, there’s the withdrawal option.
This could be seen in two forms: withdrawing from the Palestinian territories, or withdrawing from the former mandate entirely. The latter is deeply unlikely; no state has ever willingly dismantled itself. The former is pretty much what the international community wants from Israel.
But to withdraw from the West Bank risks creating a second Gaza Strip, now ruled by implacably anti-Israel Hamas. It might involve abandoning settlers to a new Palestinian state, where they’d receive little help and even less sympathy as mobs ran riot through their communities. To cause both would topple just about any Israeli government as the country’s right-wing political parties took advantage of the surge in anti-Israeli violence. Fresh elections would bring a new government that would reverse course.
But there are a few ways forward.
Israel currently is experimenting in a slow combination of all minus extermination. While Israel does kill Palestinians for security purposes, that’s not the same as extermination: that’s just good old fashioned police action.
As Israel slowly settles the West Bank, it is both pushing Palestinians off their land into smaller and smaller confines of territory and cramming Palestinians and Israelis so close together that invariably a form of mixing and assimilation will happen. It’s also withdrawn from Gaza, having decided the benefits of continued occupation weren’t worth the costs.
And that slow, creeping strategy – a few settlements new here, a few more Palestinian emigrants, a few mixed marriages – may well one day yield a state with a mixed nation. But that’s only if the patience of the superpower holds up, and there are plenty of signs that such patience is waning.
Because Israel is no longer useful to the United States.
During the Cold War, Israel was a reliable ally against Soviet-aligned Egypt and Syria. But when Egypt switched to the American camp in the 1980s and with the collapse of Syria, Israel is more a liability than an asset. Its creeping conquest of the West Bank stirs up bad blood and is of no value to the U.S.
On a long enough timeline, the U.S. may conclude that a looser relationship with Israel is a better one. Such a relationship involves a lot less aid to Tel Aviv and a lot more criticism of its human rights record.
While Israel’s nuclear arsenal will keep it on the map, to lose the protection of the U.S. exposes it to the kind of pressures that brought down South Africa’s apartheid regime: embargoes and isolation combined with internal unrest.
Israel is too small to risk such an outcome. Should the U.S. realign itself from Israel, Israeli policy will stampede towards a withdrawal from the West Bank, understanding no other solution will allow it to keep its frayed ties with the United States.
The U.S. is already doing that: the Iran nuclear deal was about building a Middle East that drives itself rather than one that relies upon the Americans to solve every problem. The U.S. cannot afford to develop the region the way it wants, so it’d abdicating the responsibility. That will include seeking to impose its own settlement on Israel and Palestine.
Instead, as the U.S. falls back, Israelis will discover their senses: the sudden crush of isolation will force them to use their superior power to make the best deal they can. Such a deal will involve partition and withdrawal from much of the West Bank.
Until the U.S. does so, however, the conflict will recycle itself, and this will not be the last time we see the same old headlines from Jerusalem.