Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Middle East Conundrum - A Suggested Way Forward

The history of conflict between the Jewish people and the majority cultures in the Middle East is an old one going back to biblical times and reemerging with a vehemence in the 20th century.  To find a way out of the Middle East conundrum, one must first understand that history.  Please bear with me; it’s a bit complicated.

The Jewish people have perennially been looking for a place to call home, spiritually and physically.  For more than 1000 years, from biblical times through the early period of Roman rule, they found that home in what is present day Israel and the West Bank (Judea, Samaria, and Galilee).  They prospered but were not safe even there as they were conquered several times during that period, persecuted by the victors, and ultimately dispersed to all corners of Europe.  

During the long period of diaspora that followed, Jews remembered the days when they were a people in their own land and not subject to persecution.  The phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem,” was invoked not just as nostalgia but as a fervent hope that Judaism would once again have a spiritual center and physical home.

Fast forward to modern times.  Jews and Arabs have been in a constant struggle since the early 1900s over the establishment of a Jewish state in the historic Holy Land.  It’s important to note that this has not been a conflict of religion but a conflict over land.  

Prior to WWI, the Zionist movement within Judaism sought to make the dream of next year in Jerusalem a reality and encouraged Jews to immigrate to the area.  During WWI and after the fall of the Ottoman empire, both Arabs and Jews sought promises from the British, who came to have the mandate over the area, designated Palestine, to establish an independent state.  

Many Jews denigrated the Palestinian claim for a state in Palestine because they had never governed the area nor had they ever been a distinct people.  But remember that this was a time when a people’s right to self-determination, however vaguely defined, came into vogue as a basis for nation building.  Even though the Arabs living in what became known as Palestine had never before that creation identified themselves as Palestinians, or some other name distinct from their fellow Arabs, this was the land where they had lived for hundreds of years and they felt they should have the right of self-determination.

The Arabs and Palestinians, on the other hand, felt that the Jews were interlopers.  Regardless the situation in biblical times, they had not been present to any but a marginal extent for almost 2000 years.  Even at the end of WWI, after a period of immigration, there were only 60,000 Jews in Palestine or 8% of the population.  By the end of the mandate, though, further Jewish immigration had swelled that number to 570,000 or 32% of the population.

In 1947 the U.N. General Assembly voted to support partition of the Palestine Mandate into separate Jewish and Arab states, with the two in an economic union.  Israel was subsequently declared a state at the end of the British Mandate.  The Arab countries, who had not cooperated with the U.N. Commission that drew up the partition plan, chose not to accept the partition and instead invaded to try to gain all the territory for an Arab state.  Not only did they lose the 1948 war, but the Palestinians were left with much less land than they would have had under the U.N. partition plan.  After the war, the Palestinians again chose not to declare a state in the area under their control.  

The Palestinian leadership for decades were pawns in the hands of the powerful Arab countries of the area who had no desire for peace.  They wanted Israel wiped off the map.  Period.  The Palestinian leadership adopted the same attitude.  Whether or not they still do is a confusing puzzle.  In 1988, Yasser Arafat stated that the PLO accepted the existence of Israel; later moderate leaders have said the same.  But despite claiming that the Palestinian Charter had been amended to remove the clauses calling for the destruction of Israel, it has never been actually amended; they decided to amend it but never followed through.  So their position is at best murky.  Hamas, of course, still calls for the destruction of Israel.

For Israel’s part, it has always and understandably thought of itself as in a defensive position with enemies on all sides.  As a result, although Israel is a democracy with protected rights of religion, etc., and the Palestinians who chose to remain in Israel and become citizens have on the one hand full legal rights of citizenship, including voting for the Parliament, they have been treated as second-class citizens in many ways.  For example, there is widespread employment and other forms of official and unofficial discrimination, and a large disparity exists in state funding for Palestinian schools and towns compared to Jewish ones as well as other Jewish v Arab needs.  Israel thinks of itself as a Jewish state, not just a Jewish-majority state, and that not surprisingly creates problems. 

The wars, occupation, and intifadas that have followed were an almost inevitable outgrowth of this historically combative and distrustful relationship.

There has always been a peace movement in Israel, but most governments have acted more to strengthen Israel’s presence in the West Bank and thus make a Palestinian state on the ground impossible.  Even the much ballyhooed  peace plan presented by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak during President Clinton’s Camp David peace initiative in 2000 was not a plan, objective observers felt, for a viable Palestinian state.  Nevertheless, it’s rejection by Arafat was the final straw for most Israelis and many Americans in the debate over whether the Palestinians really want peace.

On the other side, the almost 50-year occupation of the West Bank has with each passing decade deepened the hatred of Israel, especially since 2000 when West Bank Palestinians ceased being able to work in Israel as a result of the Second Intifada.  Thus you now have a whole generation of young men who have never interacted with Israelis other than the occupying military and Jewish settlers.  The problem is now not so much the enmity of the large Arab states, as it is the hatred of Israel by many Palestinian.  This shift can be seen in Hamas’ winning the ill-conceived election of 2006.

In the Bible, it speaks of Pharaoh’s heart having been hardened towards the Jewish people.  God sought to show his power and break Pharaoh’s will by sending the plagues.  And while that worked, Pharaoh quickly regained his senses and chased after the departing Jews only to be drowned in the Red Sea.

This story, regardless of the lack of historical or archeological documentation, has direct relevance to the current situation in the mideast.  Violence and fear do not soften hearts.  The hearts on both sides, which tended to distrust the other from the very start, have only been hardened over time as a result of the violence meant to break the other.  

In my opinion, if the peace process is to be truly revived and bear lasting fruit, a way must be found to soften the hearts of both sides.  Because of the history, this must be something much deeper than the “confidence building measures” that have been suggested in past negotiations.  As the saying goes, half measures will avail us nothing.

Because I feel it is impossible to imagine that an Israeli government, not just the current Netanyahu-led government but any future government, or the Palestinian leadership will have the mental and political flexibility and openness necessary for this process to move forward, I suggest that a working group be formed of citizen-representatives from both sides to work out a plan that would then be presented to the people as well as the then-existing governments.

“Who the hell do you think you are?” I can see readers thinking.  “This problem has been intractable even when very experienced and determined heads have put their minds to this.”  Ah, but the minds have almost always been government-connected political minds.  I honestly think that a major problem has been that people unconnected with government haven’t been asked to take the lead.  They are the ones who truly want peace.

It would be presumptuous for me to express my thoughts on what the major points of a peace plan might be, and so I will not, with one exception (see below).  However, because this problem has been so intractable and all efforts to date have failed, I am going to suggest something about the process, beyond the point I’ve already made, to help soften hearts.
  1. Each side must acknowledge the role they’ve played in creating distrust over the years.  This must be more than a mouthing of words.  It must be a heartfelt mea culpa of the various ways in which each side contributed to the current state of affairs.  
  2. A massive information and people-to-people campaign needs to be undertaken to reintroduce Palestinians and Israelis to each other as human beings after years of conflict. 
Finally, the one point I feel needs to be addressed here regarding a peace plan, because I have never heard it discussed when previous plans or outlines were presented, concerns the status of Palestinian-Israelis.   I have noted earlier in this piece that they are second-class citizens, suffering from widespread official and unofficial discrimination.  That must end.  They must be treated equally in all areas of public policy, including budgetary matters.  All official examples of discrimination against them must be removed.  And the government must undertake a major campaign to stamp out employment and other private discrimination against them.

That said, it takes two to tango.  If Palestinian-Israelis wish to remain in Israel and be citizens of that nation, then they need to pledge allegiance to the flag/state in exchange for finally being treated as full and equal citizens of Israel.

There is no question that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians/Arabs will be exceedingly difficult to bring to a peaceful conclusion.  It will require the suspension of decades of distrust.  It will require the ability to not let the violent actions by those who would seek to destroy the peace process … and almost certainly there will be such actions by groups on both sides … to succeed.  It will require giving your former enemy the benefit of the doubt over and over again.

Most important of all perhaps, it will require reeducating both populations that Israelis and Palestinians are all human beings with basically the same desires and that all deserve freedom, respect, and equality.

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