Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Daniel Kurtzer

The Israeli Palestinian conflict is not a morality play. It is a struggle between two national movements for sovereignty and control over the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

It is also not the greatest moral challenge of our generation, a phrase that does injustice to the true contemporary moral calamities in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Myanmar, and the millions of refugees fleeing war and humanitarian crises in their home countries.

A serious assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to address at least four serious questions, the same questions that guided my reporting and analysis during a 29-year diplomatic career in which I participated actively in serious efforts to resolve the conflict: Do I understand the historical narratives of the parties? Am I sensitive to the context of the events that are taking place? Have I ascertained the facts, to the best of my ability? And is there anything about the situation that shows a way forward toward resolution of the problem or at least its mitigation?

Opinion articles should, in my view, be guided by these same elements. Michelle Alexander’s recent article in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/19/opinion/sunday/martin-luther-king-palestine-israel.html) falls short in every respect and thus does a disservice to the efforts of those trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The historical narratives in this conflict are remarkably parallel, almost mirror images of each other. Both parties consider themselves victims; both have experienced exile from their homeland; both have suffered what they believe to be historical injustice; both are attached to the same land; both have security needs and fears; and both consider themselves the real victim in the conflict.

In playing out these narratives over time, Palestinians and Israelis inflict much pain and suffering on each other, both during periods of outright warfare and as a result of terrorism and counterterrorism operations. Both believe they hold the moral high ground: Israelis waiting for Palestinian and Arab acceptance of their fundamental right to create a state in the historical homeland of the Jewish people; and Palestinians waiting for Israel to recognize their right to self-determination and independence in their historical homeland.

Where these essentially corresponding narratives diverge significantly, however, is the fact that the Zionist movement before 1948 and Israeli leaders since 1948 have expressed willingness to compromise, for example following the 1937 Peel Commission report, on the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, and in the initiatives taken by Prime Ministers Rabin, Barak and Olmert during the past two decades. Palestinian leaders came very late to the idea of compromise, accepting UN Security Council Resolution 242 only in 1988 and recognizing Israel’s right to exist in 1993. Since then Palestinian leaders frankly have not reciprocated the initiatives taken by their Israeli counterparts.

The current context is also important to understand. Alexander chronicles some of the depressing realities of Palestinian life under occupation. These are real problems, and many — including significant political voices in Israel itself — continue to fight for more respect for human rights and basic freedoms even as Israel deals with pressing security problems and ongoing terrorism. Israeli occupation policies and practices must change, including settlement activity.

However, it is wrong to conflate these problems that need fixing with issues such as the status of Palestinian refugees — a fundamental part of the negotiations that need to take place to end the conflict — or the situation of Israeli Arab citizens, who enjoy full citizenship rights and are fighting within the Israeli political system for their fair share of the benefits of society.

Facts are therefore critical when dealing with this conflict. Alexander quotes the Jewish Voice for Peace on what they term the “forced displacement” of 750,000 Palestinians seventy years ago. Serious historians, accessing archives and government records, have painted a far more nuanced and much more accurate picture of the origins of the Palestinian refugee issue, in which Zionist military actions, Arab leadership mistakes, and the realities of war all contributed to the mass exodus of Palestinian civilians. Factual misstatements like this call everything in the article into question.

Finally, an analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian situation that does not point to a way forward, whether a peace process or an amelioration of the situation, is not much more than a partisan exercise in piling on. Having spent the past decades deeply involved in the search for Palestinian-Israeli peace, and having absorbed partisan anger of both sides for not coming down as squarely as they would have liked on their side of the street, I know how challenging it is to keep focused on the path ahead.

In this respect, the moral clarity that Alexander desires should point to the end of conflict, end of claims, and two-state solution that has thus far eluded the two sides. People in this country surely have the right to express their support for one side or the other — to march for Israel and contribute financially, or to advocate for the Palestinians by boycotting the settlements — though the line should be drawn at boycotting the State of Israel generally. These rights are fundamental to our own system of government and way of life.

But if we really want to be helpful, we need to demand judicious, strong, determined leadership in Washington in support of a fair and just settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If we want to be helpful, we need to avoid the partisan rehashing of grievances and build understanding between the two peoples. If we want to be helpful, we need to match the support we provide Israel for its security with significant support to the Palestinians to live better lives, get better jobs, feel more secure and build the institutions of statehood.

As Palestinians and Israelis grapple with the burden of historical narratives and the context of a challenging daily life, the rest of us — Jewish, Christian or Muslim, white or black — need to stake out the middle ground of reasonable compromise, wherein a safe and secure Israel and a safe and secure Palestine can achieve an agreement and start down the path of reconciliation.