Israel and Palestine: The Folly of Strength and the Folly of Weakness

Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel didn’t go so well. When the Interior Ministry announced plans for a major expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem just as Biden was helping to organize renewed—if indirect—negotiations with the Palestinians, he, on instructions from the White House, promptly condemned the plan, a condemnation, which was amplified in a long, “tough” conversation between Secretary of State Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The episode illustrates a consistent feature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that obstructs prospects of any negotiated settlement, the ease with which radicals on both sides who oppose such a settlement can act autonomously to scuttle the possibility. It is obvious that the Palestinians are deeply divided, with the popularly elected Hamas in control of Gaza and the Palestinian Authority retaining international backing and controlling the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority cannot control Hamas, which has repeatedly staged missile attacks and bombings against Israel, evidently with the purpose of scuttling any peace talks in which the Authority may be engaged. It is not even entirely clear that Hamas has full control over its own militants, much less over smaller, independent Islamic groups.

It is not as often recognized that the Israeli government faces the same problem. Elements of the Far Right who are deeply committed to the project of Jewish settlement in the West Bank have both the incentive and the means to stage provocations such as that which disrupted Biden’s visit and endangered the latest round of talks with the Palestinians. In recent years some of these Far Right parties have usually been part of the governing coalition, as they are now. Any attempt by the Prime Minister to control them could lead to the fall of the government.

In effect, then, neither side is in a position to make and keep lasting commitments. Both are subject to outrages committed by their own radicals, calculated to cause the failure of negotiations.

Why would anyone want these peace negotiations to fail? The answer lies in a reciprocal blindness affecting many people on both sides. The Israeli blindness stems from power. Israel’s repeated successes against Arab arms, and its security in the knowledge of reliable U.S. support, make many Israelis dismiss entirely the need or desirability of a settlement with the Palestinians or other Arabs. They seem to assume that they can continue indefinitely ruling over the occupied Palestinians, progressively taking their land, blocking and blighting their life prospects. Most outsiders can see that this is folly; it is the folly of the strong. Its name is arrogance.

The Palestinians are not at all strong, they are pathetically weak, as well as divided among themselves. For a century they have been beaten at every turn by the Zionists and the State of Israel. Their Arab allies have failed at every opportunity to liberate them from Israeli occupation. Instead, every time there has been a war, the Arabs and Palestinians have rejected settlements that were offered to them, only to demand the same terms later, when they were no longer available.

The Arab states rejected the UN territorial plan in 1948, only to have the Israelis drive them back and occupy more land. The Arab states challenged Israel in 1967, only to lose control of Gaza and the West Bank, and to see Israel unilaterally annex Jerusalem. The Palestinians could have had an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for a peace settlement, but they rejected that option, continuing to call for the annihilation of Israel.

The Arab states attacked Israel in 1973, but achieved no gains, and Egypt had to negotiate the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. First Egypt, then much later, Jordan, finally negotiated peace treaties with Israel, but the Palestinians gained nothing. Since the 1990s, the Palestinians have been willing to negotiate with Israel, but they continue to make demands that they know the Israelis will not accept.

They are so weak, and there is such a gulf between what they can get and what they think they have a right to, that it seems they cannot bring themselves to agree to any settlement that is really available to them. Outsiders can see that this, too, is folly; it is the folly of the weak. Its name is delusion.

The trend is obviously against the Palestinians. Even if the Israelis were to agree to a Palestinian state, it is questionable at this point whether it could be viable as long as Israel kept overall control over security and population movement. An independent Palestine under present circumstances could scarcely be other than a ward of the international community. Having rejected settlements that might have been viable in 1948, 1967, and 2000, the Palestinians might be better off now being annexed by Israel.

The Israelis, in their arrogance and self-assurance, do not seem to see that their present course is unsustainable. In the short term, their power lets them do as they wish with the Palestinians, taking more and more of their land for settlements and security while denying them an independent state except on terms so unfavorable and humiliating that they know the Palestinians will not accept. But their power depends on continued U.S. support, and that support is eroding.

The longer they continue the occupation, the more it will be seen around the world as the equivalent, as Jimmy Carter said, of South African apartheid. Moreover, if the settler movement succeeds in its goal of annexing all of Palestine, Israel will soon find that Jews are a minority in their own country. Then they will have the choice of a secular democracy or oppressive minority rule. I exclude from consideration the possibility of perpetrating ethnic cleansing or even genocide, because I cannot believe that any conceivable government of the Jewish state could or would undertake such policies, after having been thus victimized themselves.

john-peeler.gifThe United States has a direct stake in helping these two delusional antagonists find a way to peace: as long as this conflict continues, the Middle East and the Muslim world will continue to produce zealots dedicated to our destruction. It is entirely possible, however, that we will not succeed, and that these mutually reinforcing follies will continue to play out toward unknowable tragedies to come.

John Peeler

Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University


  1. says

    The Israelis are maybe wistfully overly hopeful but not all that delusional.

    Yes, the Israelis very much want US support, but such ‘support’ will be next to worthless if it contemplates a US pseudo-umbrella to allegedly protect Israel (or neighboring Arab states) from a nuke-armed Iran in the grip of a suicide-bomber jihadist regime. (Remember that Iran’s present ‘defense’ minister Vahidi earned his plaudits and promotion under the present regime for his having engineered the bombing of the Jewish community building in Buenos Aires.) Israel does not need or want a US umbrella, it (like many of its Arab neighbors) needs Iran regime-change or at least no nukes in the hands of the current regime.

    So-called ‘peace’ proposals advanced by or for the Palestinian leadership have long amounted to just being interim mechanisms for a weakening and obliteration of Israel. For that leadership (and the ongoing charters of both Fatah and Hamas), the stated aim of an an interim or permanent ‘peace’ has meant a one-state or (more consistently) a zero-state solution. That leadership has a long history of not taking ‘yes’ for any actual two-state answer.

    In 1937 and 1947-48 the responses (to the UK Peel Commission and then the UN Gen Ass) were the same: better no Palestine Arab state then any semblance of a Jewish state. The 1993 Oslo accords started a long-term test to see if maybe Palestinian Arab leadership had moderated. It has not. It said no in 2000 and again no in 2008. No to Israeli offers which kept Israeli territory much the same as 1967 and offered Arab sovereignty over the jointly holy Temple Mount sites: Aksa Mosque and even the Western Wall.

    In the interests of looking ‘fair’ and ‘even-handed’, oil-dependent western governments and media – including would-be progressives – keep working hard to attribute virtue to the Palestine Arab leadership. For instance, Israel has long contained entire Arab towns and neighborhoods. But Jewish residences – even within Israel’s own capital – are presumed to somehow be fatal to the concept of a Palestine Arab state. And meanwhile, in a further Orwellian twist, it’s Israel rather than Arab Palestine which is labeled ‘apartheid’.

    Arab Palestine is indeed and unhappily weak, as the author points out. This is so in large part because its leadership (of all competing stripes) and very self-concept are weak and negative: based largely on organization for terror and macho excuses for fighting Jews at all costs (including inciting the younger generation to hate Jews) rather than on an affirmative program for living in, constructing and staffing the institutions of a peace-time state.

    • Paul McDermott says

      Such a blattantly biased screed, Mr Weinstein! You make it sound like Oslo was a golden opportunity and Arafat was stupid for turning it down. Israel has never offered the Palestinians more than a bunch of bantustans whose resources, airspace, and borders are to be controlled by Israel. The Zionist project has been consistent in nothing else than stealing the land from the Palestinians, terrorizing and displacing them, walling them up into overcrowded communities with no viable future. You make it sound like it’s the Palestinians who are the problem. I applaud your feeble attempt at trying to make the victims of this decades-long genocidal program appear to be the aggressors, but you have to be ignorant or blind not to see the human misery the Zionists have perpetuated in creating a racist, apartheid, settler-colonial state in the midst of the Arab Middle-East.
      I find it interesting that you call the Palestinian leadership weak when it has been the policy of Israel to exile, imprison, or target with assassination the leadership which it is unable to co-opt. Israel has no intention of ever negotiating with the Palestinians on a fair and equal basis. It prefers to bully and coerce; and if it doesn’t get what it wants with all of its preconditions, its willing to flaunt international opinion (they’re all anti-Semitic anyway, just like your UN Gen “Ass”?), and collectively punish the whole Palestinian population in Gaza. It’s fascinating how Israel can use an incident like the capture of an Israeli soldier to advance its program of Palestinian genocide, under the guise of “retribution.” It must be the height of hubris to feel that you can kill those untermenschen, those dirty little Arabs in their crowded Gazan and West Bank towns and villages with impunity — a bit like shooting fish in a barrel wouldn’t you say, Mr. Weinstein?
      One day, maybe years from now, your Zionist project, your racist dream of creating a “Jews Only” paradise will land up on the dustheap of history like the Jim Crow white-ruled South or Apartheid White South Africa or the Nazi dream of an Aryan German empire. Or will there be those Righteous Jews who will stand up for their long tradition of justice and equality for all humanity, who will advocate for a state in which Jew and Arab can live together as equal citizens, and who will defend the right of Palestinians to return to the land of their ancestors and heve their property returned to them?

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