25 May 2012
The Middle East conflict has been a constant thread running through the news for virtually the whole of my life.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive list but merely some highlights. Israel and Palestine have almost never been out of the news, either due to conflict or due to speculation about the peace process.
Ardent Zionists sometimes complain about the level of attention given to the Middle East and to the plight of the Palestinian people. They point out, quite correctly, that there are far greater injustices elsewhere in the world. To cite just one example, during the last decade or so, over 5 million people have died in conflicts in central Africa near the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
However the sad reality is that all human beings are selective about their concerns. Our concern is greatest for those we know best, our immediate family, our friends and our townspeople and our concern gradually attenuates as people become further away or become more different from us.
The Middle East conflict matters to around 2.2 billion Christians, around 1.6 billion Muslims around 13 million Jews for a number of reasons:
Muslims and Jews living outside the Middle East understandably identify with the concerns of their coreligionists who live in Israel and Palestine. Many Christians, particularly American evangelicals, identify strongly with Israel as part of their understanding of God's plan for the end of time. Religious extremists on both sides who see Islam and Christianity as being in conflict focus upon the Middle East as the most important location for this conflict.
While the contested territory is of relatively little economic importance by itself, much of the world's oil supply derives from adjacent countries which have deep concerns about the Middle East conflict.
Accordingly it should be no surprise that the world takes a far greater interest in what happens in the Middle East than it does in other geographical areas which are less significant.
History matters because, in a fundamental sense, we are our history. Accordingly, despite the contentious nature of the subject, I believe that everyone should study the history of the conflict.
However, we cannot change the past. Equally we must not allow the past to determine our future. Many Jews and Arabs have died fighting over pieces of territory. While such sacrifices need to be remembered and honoured, they cannot be allowed to preclude territorial concessions which may be in the best interests of Jews and Arabs today.
Elsewhere on this website, I have written that when I spoke about advocating Israel to Muslims at “The Big Tent for Israel” I advised Jews who wish to discuss the Middle East conflict with Muslims not to start from the history. However that does not preclude studying the history, as long as one remembers that agreement about the history is not necessary for agreeing a way forward.
Any attempt to chart the way forward must start from where we are today. Again without seeking to be comprehensive, I have listed what I regard as some of the key facts below.
Israel has prevailed in every war that it has fought against the Arab states. However this has not resulted in peace and when I visited Israel at the end of 2009/beginning of 2010 I found people very pessimistic about the future. Few if any Israelis, even those who are most hawkish, believes that a permanent peace can be achieved by the additional exercise of Israeli military power.
Despite Israel being the military superpower of the region, there are undoubtedly some amongst the Palestinian armed factions who believe that Israel can ultimately be defeated by military means. Quite apart from being an unrealistic assessment of the balance of forces, this belief fails to take into account the implication of nuclear weapons. It is inconceivable that an Israel facing destruction would not use nuclear weapons either as part of a military defence or as a form of retaliation. That is the meaning of the phrase "Mutually Assured Destruction". It means that even a very powerful nuclear weapons state cannot defeat a weaker one if that weaker one has an assured second strike capability.
It is inevitable that any peace agreement will leave many Jews and Arabs dissatisfied.
It is quite easy to find amongst both Jews and Arabs maximalist positions which are utterly unacceptable to the other party.
God gave the whole of Judea and Samaria to the Jewish people as part of a perpetual covenant. Accordingly it would be a sin for Israel to hand back any part of it to Arabs.
It was sentiments like these which motivated the assassin who murdered Yitzhak Rabin. Furthermore some Jews wish to expel Arabs from within their midst and commit terrorism against Arabs; the most notable recent example being the killongs by Baruch Goldstein. Almost as reprehensible as his killings is the fact that some Jews regard him as a hero.
Any land that has once been governed by Muslims must always be governed by Muslims. The Jews in Israel are European settlers who should return from whence they came.
In every war between the Arab states and Israel there have been some Arabs shooting off their mouths about "Driving the Jews into the sea."
This is the preferred model of many Muslims. It would involve a single state comprising the territory of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank with single citizenship for all of the people living there. Even without considering the possible return of Palestinian refugees from Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, the demographics would mean an Arab majority in the forseeable future.
From a Jewish perspective, fundamentally Israel is about one thing – survival.
The early Zionists were acutely conscious of discrimination in Western Europe but even more importantly of pogroms in Russia. Then came the Holocaust. Once you think about people seeking to exterminate you while no other country will let you in, you understand why having one country with a Jewish majority that will always take you in is so fundamentally important to Jewish people.
As a concrete illustration, one should look at the history of the SS St Louis in 1939. The ship sailed from Hamburg carrying Jewish refugees. It called at Cuba, the USA and the UK, but each country would take only a few refugees, such as children or doctors. Eventually the ship returned to continental Europe and some of those on board perished in the Holocaust.
Israel's Law of Return sets the criterion at what seems like a very low threshold; having one Jewish grandparent is enough to qualify under the Law of Return. The criterion becomes understandable once you remember that this criterion was sufficient for persecution by the Nazis under the Nuremberg Laws.
The essence of a two state solution is very straightforward:
Where you draw the boundary line and the precise nature of the special arrangements for Jerusalem and the refugees are matter that needs to be negotiated by the parties. However the essence of negotiation is that the deal must be acceptable to both parties; otherwise there will be no agreement.
One regularly hears voices amongst Israeli Jews that there is no point in seeking peace with Arabs who cannot be trusted. Israel has military control over the whole of the West Bank (while allowing some Arab self-government under the Oslo Accords), and can defend itself. The status quo allows the gradual settlement of more Jews on the West Bank and eventually it will be sufficiently well-settled by Jews that a Palestinian state becomes impossible.
It is superficially attractive to put off the difficult decisions regarding territorial concessions that would be needed for a two state solution. However in my view a strategy of continued occupation of the West Bank combined with increased settlement activity would be dangerous and self-defeating for Israel. I was struck by Tony Klug's 3 January 2013 article "Israel will pay the price for intransigence" in the Jewish Chronicle which makes the same point.
It will not be possible to keep the Palestinian residents of the West Bank in their present limbo status permanently, and ultimately Israel would face demands for their absorption as citizens. Such absorption would fundamentally change the demographics of Israel in a way that most Israeli Jews would find unacceptable. Conversely I believe that it will be impossible to resist the demand for absorption once a two state solution can no longer be achieved.
Accordingly time is not on Israel's side, as a continuation of current policies will make a two state solution impossible.
Each of us changes the world every day. We can choose to make it a better place.