Rethinking the Israeli-Palestinian issue

Hussein Agha and Robert Malley offer their advice for the Obama administration on approaching this conflict.  They believe that the “two-state solution” paradigm that has guided negotations does not need small modifications but rather rethinking, as it has not led to an agreement.  In fact, they argue that the American and European embrace of the two-state solution has weakened it in the eyes of Palestinians:

The new millennium began with the near-universal acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state, which is precisely when its support among Palestinians began to slip. President Bush, the first US president to have ardently endorsed it, framed it as the answer to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and then hurriedly narrowed the challenge to the mundane task of building state institutions. Gone was the revolutionary aura with which Arafat imbued the idea; the struggle, no longer about freedom and the end of occupation, became about erecting responsible structures of government.

One of Bush’s least noticed but most profound and pernicious legacies in the region might well turn out to have been this transformation of the concept of Palestinian statehood from among the more revolutionary to the more conservative, from inspiring to humdrum. A small fraction of Palestinians, mainly members of the Palestinian Authority’s elite, saw the point of building state institutions, had an interest in doing so, and went to work. For the majority, this kind of project could not have strayed further from their original political concerns.

Today, the idea of Palestinian statehood is alive, but mainly outside of Palestine. Establishing a state has become a matter of utmost priority for Europeans, who see it as crucial to stabilizing the region and curbing the growth of extremism; for Americans, who hail it as a centerpiece in efforts to contain Iran as well as radical Islamists and to forge a coalition between so-called moderate Arab states and Israel; and even for a large number of Israelis who have come to believe it is the sole effective answer to the threat to Israel’s existence posed by Arab demographics. Those might all be good reasons, though none is of particular relevance to Palestinians; and each only further alienates them from the vision of statehood, the purported object of their struggle.

They argue that the same is true of Mahmoud Abbas, who finds himself in a very weak position due to his dependence on the U.S. and Europe.

Agha and Malley argue that a new solution needs to start again with the hopes and fears of both Palestinians and Israelis in the broadest sense.  They argue that the current approach to negotiations ignores the fervent Palestinian nationalism of the refugees in other countries as well as the Israeli settlers who believe in an Israel expanded to its biblical boundaries.  That would seem to me to introduce some very difficult variables into an already difficult situation, but they argue that the current approach hasn’t truly addressed the desires of both parties.  Towards the beginning of the article, they summarize the desires of both sides and why the two-state paradigm doesn’t necessarily fit them:

A workable two-state agreement would address a large share of the two sides’ aspirations. It would preserve Israel’s Jewish character and majority, provide it with final and recognized borders, and maintain its ties to Jewish holy sites. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would live free of Israeli occupation, they would govern Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and refugees would have the opportunity to choose normal lives through resettlement and compensation. If meeting those goals were sufficient, why have the parties proved incapable of settling the dispute?

Aspirations reflect historical experience. For Israel’s Jewish population, this includes displacement, persecution, the life of the ghetto, and the horrors of the Holocaust; and the long, frustrated quest for a normal, recognized, and accepted homeland. There is a craving for a future that will not echo the past and for the kind of ordinary security—the unquestioned acceptance of a Jewish presence in the region—that even overwhelming military superiority cannot guarantee. There is, too, at least among a significant, active segment of the Israeli population, a deep-seated attachment to the land, all of it, that constitutes Eretz Israel.

For Palestinians, the most primal demands relate to addressing and redressing a historical experience of dispossession, expulsion, dispersal, massacres, occupation, discrimination, denial of dignity, persistent killing off of their leaders, and the relentless fracturing of their national polity.

These Israeli and Palestinian yearnings are of a sort that, no matter how precisely fine-tuned, a two-state deal will find it hard to fulfill. Over the years, the goal gradually has shifted from reaching peace to achieving a two-state agreement. Those aims might sound the same, but they are not: peace may be possible without such an agreement just as such an agreement need not necessarily lead to peace. Partitioning the land can, and most probably will, be an important means of achieving a viable, lasting, peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. But it is not the end.

I think that the whole article is worth reading if you’re interested in this issue.  Like Rashid’s piece on Pakistan in my last post, it tries to give a point of view that’s not completely American-centered.

You may have noticed that in this post and my last, the authors had critical words about Bush’s impact on both of these problems.  Although I wasn’t a fan in general of his foreign policy, I think that these criticisms point something out that’s bigger than whether someone agrees with his policies.  In both cases, Bush had understandable goals: allying with Pakistan to fight al-Qaeda and pushing along the idea of a Palestinian state.  But in both cases, if you buy the authors’ arguments, they had unintended effects: letting the Taliban fester in Pakistan and helping to make a Palestinian state “boring.”

At campaign time, these policies are easy to support or criticize under the assumption that when we act, other countries will react in a simple and predictable fashion.  But it’s important to remember that other actors are not inanimate objects that obey some political version of Newton’s laws but complex assemblies of people and institutions that have to make their own choices within certain constraints that may have much or little to do with us.

Hat tip: Jeffrey Goldberg



  1. “If meeting those goals were sufficient, why have the parties proved incapable of settling the dispute?”

    “Gone was the revolutionary aura with which Arafat imbued the idea; the struggle, no longer about freedom and the end of occupation, became about erecting responsible structures of government.”

    “Unlike Zionism, for whom statehood was the central objective, the Palestinian fight was primarily about other matters.”

    “Palestinians do not judge the idea of a state on its merits. They judge it by the company it keeps.”

    “An agreement that is not implemented or that does not last would produce a radicalizing effect that no absence of agreement could ever accomplish.”

    What a peculiar article. If the problem truly lies in a lack of proper packaging and emotional excitement by the Palestinians, Obama probably is the best man for the job. I certainly hope he’s successful at facilitating peace without going astray in the substance.

    I’m curious what your opinion is of Charles Krauthammer’s recent op-ed: The Settlements Myth, in the context of scrapping everything and starting over for perception’s sake.

  2. You raise a good point. I wonder if the authors might answer that the Palestinians have despaired of anyone truly taking their interests into account. We might not quite understand their feelings of being pawns in struggles involving regional and international powers. There’s probably a part of that we can’t grasp.

    On the other hand, if a state can’t satisfy the Palestinians, it’s reasonable to ask, what will? That’s an easy question to ask as I sit here in the suburbs at my laptop, rather than in a refugee camp or at a checkpoint being searched. But as many people have said, Israel is not going away. And Palestinian and Arab leaders don’t seem to have served the cause of a Palestinian state very well for the last 60 years.

    I had read the Krauthammer article. I think he’s going to emerge as Obama’s most principled and intelligent intellectual opponents, and he made some good points (like blaming the Palestinian leadership, which Obama did not do). At the same time, I tend to agree more with Jeff Goldberg on the settlements issue: the settlement freeze is an important measure to get the peace process going:

    He’s got an article about his time with the settlers linked in that post. Goldberg is a liberal Zionist who feels strongly about the ideal of Israel, the justice of a Palestinian state, and the damage that the settlers do to both. This article has been on my radar for a while; I hope to read it this summer.

  3. Scott wrote: “how did you get hypertext in blog comments?

    WordPress (and most blogs) allow some limited html markup by default, such as:

    <a href=””>Google</a> -> Google

    <em>emphasized</em> -> emphasized

    <b>bold</b> -> bold

    I checked but couldn’t find a list of tags allowed by WordPress. They should really have a link to such a list from every reply box. Anyway, you can probably control it through some plugin.

    I’ll come back to your other comment when I have more time.

  4. Goldberg wrote: “Now, of course, there should be some delineating going on here — everyone knows that most settlements would actually become part of Israel in a final peace deal

    Krauthammer and Goldberg might not be that far apart, depending upon what the State Dept.’s actual position is.

    Has there been any delineating between settlements? If the settlements to freeze are only those deep within the West Bank and accurately depicted by Goldberg as “a government-subsidized trailer on a barren hill,” then I tend to agree with him: just move them. Strangely, I thought this had already been done to a good extent.

    By contrast, Krauthammer considered the freeze to include close-in settlements, even suburbs of Jerusalem, and suggested that it’s seeming like the assurances that “everyone knows” have changed under Obama.

    I agree with Goldberg about the Pharoah analogy, but I can see more irony than him in forcing relocation. He seems very pragmatic, which I appreciate, but his final paragraph is somewhat disturbing given the historical concessions and failure of their peace agreements.

    It’s so bizarre how Agha and Malley seem to infantilize the Palestinians and then build from there. I wonder if the Palestinians aren’t a microcosm of larger authoritarian societies, with Hamas being the natural outgrowth of Fatah’s corruption and reinforcing propaganda. It’s like a political fractal.

  5. I think the settlements to freeze would be all of the settlements, and that Goldberg’s “trailer on a barren hill” was probably a reference just to the place that the specific settler was talking about (probably more of a rhetorical device to ridicule his sentiments).

    You’re right about the poignancy of the last paragraph, that the solution that most people see as inevitable is still only based on hope.

    Good points about the article too. I talked with one of the Middle East experts in Urbana and I will have her reaction to the article.

    On Hamas, I liked your connection of the outgrowth from Fatah’s failings and propaganda. Interestingly enough, Israel actually allowed Hamas to emerge in order to compete with the secular PLO in the 1980s. Now, it’s an organization strong enough and “respected” enough by many to be a problem to both Israel and Fatah.

  6. Scott wrote: “I think the settlements to freeze would be all of the settlements

    Exactly what “all of the settlements” entails seems to be the question. Is it all of the settlements outside the security barrier? Or all of those beyond the 1949 armistice line? Goldberg focuses upon small communities in the heart of the West Bank, while Krauthammer focuses upon its fringes. In any case, even vacating settlements hasn’t seemed to have had much positive effect.

    Scott wrote: “Interestingly enough, Israel actually allowed Hamas to emerge in order to compete with the secular PLO in the 1980s.

    I’m curious what you are specifically referring to, but it makes sense. Hamas provides a useful counterpoint to the more duplicitous and corrupt PLO, and their election should’ve provided moral authority to other nations to address the Palestinians according to the explicit goals and behavior of Hamas.

  7. We’ll see how the specifics on the settlements go. It’s my understanding that last week there was something of a flare-up where the US administration asked Netanyahu to stop building a settlement in East Jerusalem and Netanyahu refused.

    As far as Hamas, I’ve read that Israel would shut down PLO charities and allow Hamas charities to exist to allow a countervailing force to compete with the PLO. I’m interested in more specifics as well.

  8. Hamas has done valid charity work which helped earned them that respect you mentioned, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it took a while to gather intel on the mixture of funds and activities for charity and terrorism.

    As a related aside, I wonder if Israel uses the terminology of “occupation” and even “settlements” (to a lesser extent). If so, then it seems they’ve implicitly already relinquished their claim over the land.

    • I’ve only seen a couple of sentences on it. They suggest that it wasn’t an intel failure but a deliberate attempt to encourage a rival.

      My thought on it right now is that it’s a case like American support for Islamic radicals in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, where a country thinks that it can manage Islamic radicalism to serve its own purposes (maybe even good or understandable purposes), but radicalism has a life of its own.

      What I learn in the future may prove this impression wrong and will certainly give Israel’s decision a better context than I have now.

    • Yes, that’s what I meant. Thanks for providing the article, as I had only seen passing references to it. It doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but probably doesn’t help matters either.

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