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.
The 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.
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University