Don Robinson: Power to the Middle East peacemakers

Last modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014
ASHFIELD — John Kerry, the secretary of state, is about to present a framework for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Why is the U.S. taking this step? Is there any realistic hope for a successful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Israel was created to be a refuge for Jews, a place where Jews could live safely and productively after centuries of harassment and persecution. The U.S. was involved in Israel’s existence from the outset. Acting in defiance of the advice of his secretaries of state and defense (George Marshall and James Forrestal thought it was madness to incur the wrath of the oil-rich Arab world), President Harry Truman granted diplomatic recognition, just 11 minutes after Israel declared its nationhood in May 1948.

With his usual knack for putting the feed down where the goats could get it, Truman later explained why he had done it. “Hitler had been murdering Jews right and left …. The Jews needed some place where they could go.” One might quarrel that the persecution of Jews didn’t begin with Hitler, but you got the idea.

Ever since then, U.S. policy has been strongly and, I dare say, unalterably Zionist, committed to the preservation of Israel as a national homeland for Jews.

Late last year Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist and patriot, published “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.” It is a brave, brilliant, deeply moving book, full of narratives that shed penetrating light on Israel’s history and current predicament.

Shavit is candid, and ultimately unapologetic, about the costs associated with establishing Israel, including what it had to do to crush Arab resistance. The “triumph” of Israel required it. But he is also unblinking in recognizing the “tragedy” of the current situation.

Tragedy happens when a hero’s virtues, taken to extremes, entangle him in catastrophe. To take one aspect of the current situation, Shavit shows how Israel’s secular leaders, hesitant at first to confront the faith-grounded aspirations and actions of their most devout citizens, now must reckon with a settler movement whose demands make Israel’s posture in negotiations virtually untenable. (Note also that many American evangelical Christians share the settlers’ belief that Israel is entitled to the whole of biblical Israel, on the ground that God gave it to them.)

The prevailing idea for resolving this diplomatic impasse is the “two-state solution.” Its advocates do not regard Israel’s situation as tragic. With skill and persistence, they believe, it can be resolved. They outline four issues at the center of the current negotiations.

The first is borders: if Israel and Palestine were to co-exist, where would the borders be drawn? The devil is in the details, of course, but fundamentally Israel must end its occupation of the West Bank. There are Arabs (Muslim and Christian) in Israel. They have elected representatives in the Knesset. But if Israel is to remain a “Jewish democracy,” it must give up its rule over millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The second issue is security, for both states. Some Israelis speak of “defensible” borders, but others note that in 1967, when Israel existed behind narrow borders, it won a quick and decisive victory, whereas in 1972, when Israel commanded the heights, the outcome was far less satisfactory. Questions around the security issue are indeed fraught. Who will police the borders? Will Israel have nuclear weapons, but not Palestine?

Third, how about refugees? To remain a “Jewish democracy,” Israel must restrict the number of Arabs. It cannot grant a “right of return” to Arabs displaced when Israel was established. But how about Jews “returning” to Palestine? Who will control that?

And finally, Jerusalem. Both states want one city, the same city, as their capital. Doesn’t that defy Aristotelian logic: no two entities can occupy the same space at the same time? One is reminded of the treaties, utterly ridiculous in their myriad contradictory provisions that regulate the use by Christians of the Holy Sepulcher, the tomb of the Prince of Peace in a place where there is no peace. Collectively these treaties are one of the grossest ironies of human history.

Given this tangle of issues, what are the prospects? There are some encouraging omens. The intense involvement of John Kerry gives some wiggle-room to the political leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Many Arab states are pressing the PA to compromise where necessary to settle this costly and dangerous dispute. Others, of course, wish to prolong the conflict, to keep pushing back against Western hegemony. Another factor is that the U.S. and European nations have promised aid to the PA if they come to an agreement.

Israel for its part is furious over Kerry’s occasional reminders of the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign, but there is no doubt that it has begun to gain momentum, especially in Europe. Many Israelis believe that it is foolish to ignore this campaign. Others, however, angrily resent this pressure. Their response has included a proposal by Avidor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, that Israel’s parliament fund a program for the education of Jews abroad, whose commitment to Zionism appears to be weakening, according to a survey by the Pew Foundation which Lieberman cited.

After so much suffering, on all sides, and so many frustrations, one cannot help praying for a diplomatic breakthrough. Power to the peacemakers!

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at drobinso@smith.edu.