Americans often wonder what the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is about, and why they should be obliged to care about it. They can’t get a clear sense of what it’s about from the mass media, but lack the time, energy, expertise, or inclination to wade through history books or specialty websites to figure it out from scratch. What to do? The situation seems one designed to induce apathy about the issue.
If you find yourself in that situation, I highly recommend reading the Middle East Quartet’s eight-page report on the conflict, released today to some (but not much) fanfare. Though signed by all four members of the Quartet–the United States, Russia, the EU (presumably including Britain), and the UN–it is, by American standards, a radical document that makes claims far outside of the mainstream of American discourse. You will, in short, learn things in the twenty minutes or so you spend reading the report that it’s doubtful you’d ever have learned from twenty years of reading your favorite hometown newspaper. It’s short and easy enough to read without my having to summarize it (opens in a new window as an 8-page PDF). (Here’s a link to the official press release.)
Though it’s certainly an improvement on what usually passes for discussion of Israel-Palestine in the United States, as I see it, the report makes at least five highly problematic claims, omissions, or assumptions that are worth calling out.
For one thing, the authors of the report seem dogmatically attached to the idea of a two-state solution, an assumption that seems to motivate and structure the report as a whole. They offer no defense of its feasibility, or of its desirability to the alternatives. Nor do they seriously acknowledge the existing obstacles to it, or the reasonable arguments that have been made against it, or in favor of a one state solution. In general, the assumption seems to be that the two-state solution is the only reasonable or responsible option in town. The reader is left to infer, without argument, that advocacy of a one-state solution is irresponsible fanaticism.
Second: The authors focus on systematic Israeli human rights violations in West Bank Area C (which is fine), but ignore Area B as though it didn’t exist (an omission that particularly hurts my feelings, inasmuch as I’m currently living in Area B). The omission seems to imply by default that life in Area B is somehow unproblematic from a human rights perspective, which it decidedly isn’t. In fact, much of what the authors say about human rights violations in Area C applies, with appropriate adjustments, to Area B as well. In ignoring Area B, the authors perpetuate the decades-long mythology that Area B is “under Palestinian civil control” and therefore in fine fettle. In fact, Area B is not under any form of civil control whatsoever, a fact with problematic ramifications for the sorts of human rights issues the Quartet discusses re Area C.
Third, the authors ignore Israel’s de facto annexation of West Bank territory that lies east of the 1949 Armistice Line (or “Green Line”) and west of the security wall (including the parts of the wall that lie on land directly expropriated from Palestinians). The area involved is significant both in purely geographic as well as in political terms. It is frankly amazing that Israel’s annexation of this land has gone widely ignored–but it has, now with the tacit assistance of the Quartet.
Fourth: In prescription #9 of their list of prescriptions for the contending parties, the authors blithely demand that Gaza and the West Bank be “reunified under a single, legitimate, and democratic” government based on the rule of law. In making this apparently reasonable prescription, they ignore the fact that the relevant populations haven’t consented to be reunified under any such arrangement. Evidently, the mere consent of the West Bank and Gazan populations is unimportant to the Quartet, and irrelevant to the creation of a “democratic” government.
Let’s grant that principle as a principle. In other words, the principle states that a desirable unification of a hitherto divided political entity should (if sufficiently desirable) be effected with or without the consent of the governed. In other words, if unification is sufficiently desirable, it should just be brought about, whether the affected parties like it or not. If Canada and the United States could be better off as a single political entity, they ought to be turned into one. If Kashmir should be a part of India, make it a part of India, whether the Kashmiris want to be Indians or not. If Britain ought to be part of the EU, it ought to be made part of the EU, Brexit referendum or not. Same with Quebec and Puerto Rico and Texas and the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne and all the rest.
Fair enough, but in that case, what exactly is wrong with a one-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? If the consent of Palestinians is irrelevant to a unification of the two halves of Palestine, why should the consent of Israelis be required for unification of Palestine with Israel? The authors of the Quartet report can hardly be unaware of the fact that the whole point of a one-state solution is to create a single, legitimate, and democratic government based on the rule of law over the whole of Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. Nor can they be ignorant of the fact that as far as advocates of a one-state solution are concerned, if it’s desirable to unify the West Bank and Gaza, it’s at least as desirable to unify the West Bank and Gaza with Israel and the Golan Heights as well. There is no principled reason why political unification should apply to the Palestine of the Oslo Accords but not the Palestine of the British Mandate. The reasons that justify unification in the one case justify it in the other. Or so some of us think.
Fifth: The authors of the report explicitly question the sincerity of Israel’s commitment to the peace process, correctly singling out the settlement enterprise as evidence of Israeli insincerity. Having done so, they offer no sanctions against Israel, offer no binding constraints on Israel, have no plans or leverage by which to change Israel’s behavior, and have literally nothing to say that would convince anyone of any such change anytime in the foreseeable future. For all that the Quartet can deliver (or claims it can deliver), an occupation that has so far lasted 49 years may last another 49.
Despite this, the Quartet insists that the Palestinians cease violent resistance against a 49-year military occupation without offering any constructive suggestions about what, short of violence, the Palestinians are supposed to do either to ratchet back the occupation or even to engage in proximate self-defense against Israeli depredations whose existence the authors of the report themselves concede. Israeli rights to self-defense come up repeatedly, but you couldn’t guess, by reading the report, that Palestinians have any comparable rights. Apparently, the Israeli right of self-defense altogether nullifies Palestinian claims to the same right.
There’s something laughable about the fact that this advice comes from diplomats from the United States and Russia, countries that came into existence (and have remained in existence across the centuries) by means of constant, wrenching, continents-wide warfare. In other words, the political heirs of Generals Washington, Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, and of Comrades Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Khruschev, and Brezhnev are telling the Palestinians to calm down and be nice. If asked what exactly the Palestinians are supposed to do as they find themselves expropriated and dispossessed, the answer would seem to be “endure it, while re-enacting episodes from Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi.‘” Maybe it’s about time to ask whether an answer that jejune is consistent with the requirements of justice, given everything else the Quartet manages to say about the nature of the conflict. Maybe it’s also time to ask whether diplomats in this predicament have the moral standing to demand perpetual Stoicism of people under occupation.
Meanwhile, this just in from Israel and the United States: Israel has closed down the southern half of the West Bank over a shooting and a stabbing that took place there. And the United States has decided that now is the time to offer Israel the biggest foreign aid package in American history. Moral of the story: the Quartet has spoken, but unsurprisingly, life goes on as though it hadn’t.
Tensions are building here. Eight pages will tell you why.