The Israel–Palestine conflict isn’t inevitable. Here’s how both sides could gain by building on their common interest for peace and fairness. The United States still holds the key.
Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is possible—Israeli security and Palestinian rights are not mutually exclusive, but rather each is impossible without the other.
The Palestinian Authority and virtually all the Arab states are now on record expressing their willingness to recognize Israel and to provide security guarantees in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands conquered in the June 1967 war. This would leave the Palestinians with just 22 percent of historic Palestine. Nonetheless, the U.S.-backed Israeli position is that the Palestinians should be allowed an independent “state” on even less territory and only in a series of non-contiguous cantons surrounded by Israel and with the Israeli government controlling the air space, water resources, and the movement of people and goods.
Unlike some earlier periods in Israel’s past, the country’s survival is no longer at stake. The Israeli military is far more powerful than any combination of Arab armies. Despite the threat of periodic shelling and suicide bombings from Islamic extremists, most Israelis are relatively secure within their country’s internationally recognized borders. Where Israeli soldiers and civilians are most vulnerable is in the occupied Palestinian territories. In these areas, illegal Israeli settlements and roads—reserved for Jews only—create an apartheid-like situation, and make it extremely difficult for Israeli forces to defend against a population angry at the occupiers who have confiscated what is often their best land. Israel would be far more secure defending a clearly defined and internationally recognized border than an archipelago of illegal outposts within Palestinian territory.
It is the ongoing Israeli occupation and colonization of the West Bank, along with the siege of the Gaza Strip, which creates the hopelessness and desperation that breed extremist violence. Only when the occupation ends will the threat from Palestinian terrorism finally have a realistic chance of being controlled.
U.S. policy in this troubled region has become increasingly controversial, but it should not be criticized as being too “pro-Israel.” U.S.-backed Israeli policies are not only jeopardizing the human rights of their Arab victims, they are hurting Israel’s legitimate interests as well.
“Peace” proposals that allow Israel to annex large swathes of occupied Palestinian territory—like those the Clinton administration pushed at Camp David in 2000 and the Bush administration has been supporting subsequently—cannot provide rights or security to either side. A truly pro-Israel policy would maintain the U.S. commitment to the security and well-being of the Jewish state, but would insist that Israel end its occupation, withdraw from its illegal settlements, and allow for the emergence of a viable, contiguous, independent Palestinian state.
This may require that the United States apply pressure—such as withholding military and economic aid—if the Israeli government continues to violate its obligations under international humanitarian law. Such aid does not help Israel much anyway. Indeed, most of the more than $2 billion in annual “military assistance” to Israel amounts to a credit line to American arms manufacturers and actually ends up costing Israelis two to three times that amount for personnel, training, and spare parts. The additional $2 billion in U.S. economic aid is little more than the interest Israel is required to pay American banks from loans for previous arms purchases.
Many of those in Washington who call themselves supporters of Israel are supporting Israel’s hawks who are making the country more dependent upon the United States. This increases Israel’s vulnerability by preventing it from recognizing its natural alliance with the world’s Afro-Asian majority. Within Israel, there is a solid progressive minority that supports the necessary compromises for peace and a similar-sized militaristic minority that does not. Most Israelis are in the middle and, as Israeli scholar and peace activist Galia Golan describes it, “They will lean left when Israel is feeling pressure from the United States but lean right in situations like today when there is no U.S. pressure.”
The combination of Israeli technology, Palestinian entrepreneurship and industriousness, and Arabian oil wealth could result in an economic, political, and social transformation of the Middle East. This would be highly beneficial to the region’s inhabitants, but not necessarily to powerful U.S. interests who benefit from the current policy of divide-and-rule. An Israel at peace with its neighbors would be far less likely to be willing to serve as a reliable ally in support of U.S. hegemonic designs in this critical region.
If the United States really wants to be a friend of Israel, the U.S. government must apply some “tough love.” This would entail unconditional support for Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, but with an insistence that Israel uphold its international obligations and withdraw its settlers and troops from the occupied territories. Only then can the violence end and peace become a reality. And only then will the United States be a true friend of Israel.
Stephen Zunes wrote this article as part of A Just Foreign Policy, the Summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the Middle East Studies program. He is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage, 2003) and a member of the advisory board of the Tikkun Community. www.stephenzunes.org