Thoughts on the Middle East Quartet’s Report on the Israel-Palestine Conflict

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.

11 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Middle East Quartet’s Report on the Israel-Palestine Conflict

  1. The way I read Israeli policy is: the bulk of Israeli voters have (rationally) concluded that Palestinians are functionally not interested in any peace agreement Israelis can live with, so Israel may as well grab steadily what it can.

    The one state solution is a non-starter because, as the current state of the Middle East shows, Israelis would be suicidally stupid to give up the IDF. Moreover, Palestinian identity has become so steeped in Jew-hatred there is no common identity to be achieved. Also, why would any Israeli tie themselves to the corruption of Fatah or the hatred-politics of Hamas (who, of course, are primarily responsible for the problems of Gaza)?


    • I read things differently, but in an oddly complementary way. Any objective observer of the Israeli occupation and settlement enterprise will have observed that there is one constant in Israeli policy that has remained a constant despite every other vicissitude: the propensity to grab steadily what it can. In light of this propensity–commonly known as armed robbery–it makes sense to lay down a simple condition for negotiations: a freeze on further land grabbing. As it happens, the party engaged in land grabbing refuses to meet this condition, then claims that it has no negotiating partner, then professes bewilderment when its acts of theft are met with armed resistance (or peaceful resistance, from marches to boycotts). In other words, what it wants is the right to lie and steal with impunity. I guess the way I read moral reality is that anyone can claim this right, but no one actually has it. The preceding facts suggest that Israelis are the ones uninterested in negotiations and peace, not Palestinians.

      Your second paragraph starts with a non-sequitur. A one-state solution doesn’t entail the abolition of the IDF any more than the incorporation of the Golan Heights into Israel has entailed it, or the existence of Arab towns in Israel like Umm al Fahm or Nazareth or (the ever-growing) East Jerusalem has necessitated its abolition. You’ll need to make your inferences explicit if I’m to respond to your claim, because the logic is hardly transparent.

      “Moreover, Palestinian identity has become so steeped in Jew-hatred there is no common identity to be achieved.” You’ll need to say more to make that credible to someone who actually is in Palestine, deals with Palestinians every day, and is teaching a course on political philosophy and its relation to the Israeli occupation to Palestinians at a Palestinian university. In other words, I need a little more than bold assertions from some semi-anonymous guy from Australia if I’m to disbelieve the contrary evidence I encounter on a daily basis.

      As for why Israeli would want to tie itself to Fatah or Hamas, my immediate reaction is to say that Fatah’s corruption and Hamas’s theocracy make a perfect fit for Israel’s own rampant corruption and its own theocrats. But the real answer is that, alas, life is not always about what Israelis “want.” It is about the price they have to pay for the things they’ve been seizing for the last several decades. They’ve “grabbed” as much of the West Bank as they can, systematically violated the rights of its Palestinian population, claimed the right to all of it–while claiming to favor a two-state solution, and making their favored solution impossible.

      People engaged in such games have long ago forfeited the right to assert that their wants should be the starting point of a just settlement. If they didn’t want to integrate politically with the West Bank, they shouldn’t have inserted their population and their settlements into the West Bank, depriving the indigenous population of rights in the name of Eretz Yisrael and, ludicrously enough, of liberalism. When you break something, you come to own it. When you ruin something, you have to fix it. The one-state option is the only one that even pretends to respect the rights of everyone in the region. If that isn’t your preferred option, feel free to come up with one that’s better. But as far as I’m concerned, no option counts as “better” than a one-state option if it sacrifices anyone’s rights to anyone else’s. We’ve already seen the human rights track record of the “Jewish State.” Given that track record, the real question is why any Palestinian (or frankly anyone) should have to tolerate its existence for another minute.


      • I know next to nothing about the detailed problematics of the two-state v. one-state solution, but the impression I have is that the one-state solution is simply regarded by most as politically unviable, at least for now. The pamphlet takes for granted that the two-state solution is the way to go; of course there need to be good reasons to think that that’s so, and of course an eight page pamphlet cannot be expected to give fully convincing reasons for why that it so, but is part of the reason why so little is said about the one-state alternative that it’s just taken to be something that the parties will not agree to? My own limited, cynical perspective leads me to doubt that they’ll ever agree on anything substantial enough to lead to lasting peace, but I think I can see why one might regard a one-state solution as particularly unlikely to garner support. You obviously disagree with that, and I’m not in any position to hold a view about the matter. But while you would no doubt regard it as a mistake, is it the case that the relevant international players and policy-makers widely regard a one-state solution as simply unviable? Or do they have some sort of purportedly principled reasons for endorsing a two-state solution? I can imagine some of those, too, but as I say, I do not know much about these issues.

        For what it’s worth, my inclination would be to think that a one-state solution would be ideal, but the kind of state I’m imagining probably wouldn’t be a state that many Israelis could regard as Israel, and for that reason I doubt that it would garner adequate support. But I gather from the little of yours that I’ve read on the topic that the one-state solution that you have in mind is a bit more friendly to Israel. The question then would be: can it be friendly enough to Palestinians?

        I know I should probably just go read the rest of what you’ve written about this stuff, and the pieces that were published in RP a while back. But there’s lots of things I should read. The only thing I think I can claim with great confidence to know about the Palestine/Israel conflict is that the solution is well beyond my ken.


        • The one-state option is regarded as non-viable by policy elites in the “Western” world–in the US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and I suppose Russia. It’s also regarded as non-viable among policy elites in Israel and Palestine who insist on giving lip service to the formulations inherited from the Oslo Peace Process. The primary argument is just the axiomatic deference given to the idea of a Jewish State. If we take for granted that there must be such a state, and Jews must enjoy a demographic superiority to any group under Israeli jurisdiction (not quite “sovereignty”), then we’re pushed by default to a two-state option. That’s the “principled” justification for the two-state solution. It’s just a wholesale concession to the idea that ethno-nationalism entails a right to self-determination, and that right is the basis of the nation-state.

          There are essentially three options before us: 1) the status quo, 2) two-state options, and 3) one-state options. The status quo is obviously not viable, unless your definition of “viability” includes the subjugation of the Palestinians. But two-state options are not viable, either. Defenders of the two-state option have not come to grips with the problematics of governing a state with two wings, lacking territorial contiguity, surrounded on both sides by Israel with Israeli control over all resources and border crossings. In short, they haven’t come to grips with the fact that a “two-state solution” means the application of Israel’s current Gaza strategy to a truncated and fragmented West Bank. They haven’t come to grips with the fact that whatever the merits of the two-state option in the abstract (twenty years ago), Israel has done its best to make it unviable in just the way that they’ve “de-developed” Gaza.

          Meanwhile, we have a workable blueprint for how to proceed with a one-state option. Israel has in the past annexed or incorporated Arab populations and given them citizenship. Haifa, Akka, Nazareth, Umm al Fahm, and East Jerusalem are all either predominantly Arab cities or have large Arab populations. Israel didn’t give citizenship to Arabs immediately after its founding (Arabs were put under military rule) but it eventually did. The situation of these Arabs isn’t ideal, but it’s preferable to the status quo, and preferable to the failure we can expect of the two-state solution. The one-state option essentially says to Israel: you wanted a Jewish and democratic state over all of Eretz Israel, didn’t you? Well, make one–on condition that it grants everyone involved equal rights.

          Though Palestinians don’t like it, I’ve defended a gradual or graduated one-state solution. In other words, fully equal rights is the end game, but the route to it has to be gradual so as to defuse the worry that Israeli Jews will be politically overwhelmed by Palestinians who take over the security apparatus of the state and use it against them. (Of course, there’s the equal and opposite worry that without representation within the security apparatus, Palestinians are vulnerable to abuses by that apparatus–a fact that obtains right now, and seldom moves those who worry about Palestinians overwhelming Israelis.)

          Of course, eventually Israelis will have to figure out that there is an inherent incompatibility between commitment to a Jewish state and commitment to a liberal-egalitarian state. But my point is, the “state that many Israelis could regard as Israel” is not a static affair. It’s changing, in both promising and horrifying ways. Many Israelis (and many American Jews) will regard the choice between Zionism and liberalism as intolerable and resist any changes that compromise what they see as the essential features of a Jewish state. These people will blithely defend the idea that Israel is justified in grabbing whatever it wants, however it wants…because Auschwitz. But many Israelis (and American Jews) have come to regard the choice between liberalism and Zionism as inevitable, and are willing to choose liberal values over the imperative to have a specifically Jewish state. This is a painful choice for them, but many of them are willing to make it, and in my view, they should be loudly encouraged to make it. If they do, we have something to work with.

          I haven’t spoken to a large or representative enough sample of Palestinians, but with that caveat, few Palestinians I’ve spoken with favor a two-state option. The vast majority of those with whom I’ve spoken favor a one-state option. The problem tends to be that these one-staters divide into two groups. One group wants a broadly Lockean state based on equal rights. But the other group just wants a Palestinian mirror image of Israel. They want what the philosopher Sadek al Azm called “Palestinian Zionism,” i.e., to replace the Jewish state with a Palestinian version of the same state, based on an analogous (and equally objectionable) form of ethno-politics (“but it’s our ethnopolitics, so it’s OK!”). Obviously, my sympathies are with the first group. What has amazed me is that that group doesn’t just consist of university-educated eggheads. It consists of people from refugee camps as well. (This is what I was talking about in our epistemic discussion about Haidt.)

          I’ve always tried to insist that the struggle for Palestinian rights be engaged in alongside the struggle to re-define what Israel is to be. It’s why I’m against the “B” element of BDS. It’s why I spend my summers teaching pol phil in a Palestinian university but am also an unapologetic contributor to the New Israel Fund. I see the two things as complementary (and so do many people).

          There’s a long road ahead, and I doubt we’ll see anything but change at the margins in my lifetime. But I’m cool with that. A real solution to the whole conflict is beyond anyone’s ken. I would be happy (with myself) if I got more American Jews to depart from their Taglit itinerary to spend some quality time in the abandoned parts of Hebron–or got more American Jews to face what the occupation really means, and reflect on how they’re perpetuating it, whether wittingly or unwittingly. Likewise, I’d be happy with myself if I got more Palestinians to drop their dogmatic commitment to boycotts against Israel, or their refusal to vote in Jerusalem municipal elections, or got them to question their casual attachment to theocratic norms, or got them to question some of their uninformed stereotypes about Jews (or generally, how politics works in the outside world). Etc.

          Both the one-state and the two-state solutions have their benign and malign forms. Whichever one we end up with, people’s attitudes will determine which form of it we get. Though I favor the one-state option, ultimately, I only have influence over individual attitudes. So in a sense, that’s where the action is, even if the ultimate political objective is a single state based on equal rights.

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          • Is it possible to change some of the conditions you list that make a two-state solution problematic? What would a better (or the realistically best possible) two-state solution look like? I’m skeptical about the prospects of a one-state solution on the general grounds of how hard it is to have two ethno-national-identity populations (and two that have been at each other’s throats for quite some time) live together governed by one multi-ethnic state. I’m also skeptical of the idea that Israelis will ever give up on having a state that is for Jews and which Jews have the upper hand in governing. (I also don’t think this is crazy or that squaring the circle of this and a substantially liberal society is impossible.) But I’m more than a bit spotty on all of on-the-ground details. (I do find your version of the one-state solution interesting and not entirely implausible.)

            I find it interesting that there is not much mention in this discussion of Israeli security concerns (and how the present arrangement addresses these – even while shamefully providing cover for land-grabbing settlement). I suspect many Israelis would say: “Hey, the wall works and military occupation works – they are necessary evils. Look what happened when we gave everything back in Gaza.” That may be bad reasoning, but it is not crazy and I suspect that – even if it is as much rationalization as good reasoning [ed – obligatory Haidt reference] – addressing Israeli security concerns in an understanding way (even if one thinks that these concerns are overblown and that unreasonable or immoral means are being chosen to address them) will be necessary if the international community is to firmly insist that settlement (and eventually occupation) must end. The Quartet’s recent report seems to do this (and seems to take both the existence of Israel as a Jewish homeland and the desirability or necessity of a two-state solution for granted).


          • The simplest and most obvious two-state solution would be: move the wall to the 1949 Armistice Line, and declare everything east of that line “Palestine.” Then declare everyone living in Palestinian territory (regardless of ethnicity or religion) a citizen of the state of “Palestine,” just as everyone in Israeli territory is (de facto, not de jure) a citizen of the state of Israel. Give the Palestinians control over the borders of “Palestine,” and give them control of the aquifers under Palestine. Give them control of the population registry of Palestine, and give them East Jerusalem as their capital. I don’t regard that as the best option, but it is the most obvious, intelligible meaning of the phrase “two state option.”

            If you offered that option to the Israelis, they’d laugh in your face. But what I find laughable is that what passes for a “two state option” in contemporary discourse has no relation whatsoever to what the phrase “two state option” actually denotes. Let’s just back up and find our way out of Orwellian semantic territory for a second: doesn’t “two state option” entail that (a) there are two entities involved, and (b) both are sovereign states? The absurdity of the phrase “two state solution” is that there is literally no version of it that involves creating a second state on the ordinary understanding of what a sovereign state is or does.

            On the standard view of the “two state option,” the wall is a fixed constraint, the settlements are a fixed constraint, the citizenship status of the settlers is fixed (Israeli), Israeli control of all of Jerusalem is a given (as is the right to expand Jerusalem’s city limits in an eastward direction), Israel controls the borders, Israel controls the highways of the West Bank, Israel controls the air space, Israel controls the water supplies, Israel grants the right of the PA to have or not have weapons (forget the idea of a military altogether), to have or not have airports, to fly or not fly aircraft–and Israel controls the right to develop x% of the West Bank at the exclusion of Palestinian rights to develop it (except with Israeli permission), where x is up for negotiation. In other words, the “state” that is taken for granted in virtually every version of “the two state option” is a state that is controlled by Israel, except that the locus of control is in Israel rather than in the West Bank. Put another way: it’s not a state at all. (This, by the way, is why Israel has repeatedly refused to negotiate subject to a settlement freeze on any definition of “freeze.”)

            So there are really two issues in play here. One is that even on the normal understanding of a state, a Palestinian state is suboptimal. But the real problem is that Israel has created “facts on the ground” so that no Palestinian state is possible. All that is possible is a political entity, controlled by Israel, with autonomous control over some of its internal functioning, but with an Israeli veto over all of the things mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

            If you’re skeptical of the idea that two ethno-national populations can live side by side under the same government, consider the ramifications of two ethno-national populations living side by side under two hostile governments. If they’re both governments, you’ll get a literal enactment of that old chestnut from libertarian-Objectivist polemics: competing governments. What do you do if a citizen of country A, Ahmad, has a quarrel with a citizen of country B, Baruch? So Ahmad calls his police, and Baruch calls his. Now you have a quarrel between Police A and Police B. In other words, you potentially have a war every time you have a dispute. The only way to handle this is to downgrade one police department so that it isn’t a police department at all. My view is: why not just have one law and one police department? Whatever the problems of two ethnicities under one law, they’re preferable to two ethnicities under two.

            One of these days, I’ll walk from the Palestinian town where I live to the Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Adumim via the intervening Palestinian town of Eizariyah, and take some pictures. (It’s a good 6-7 mile walk.) The people in these three towns share many of the same (main) roads. Some Palestinians work in Ma’ale Adumim. Some settlers shop in Eizariyah (the shop signs there are in Hebrew). In other words, though segregated, they people of these towns manage to interact. Right now, the Israelis live under Israeli law and the Palestinians effectively (de facto) live without law.

            It wouldn’t help things to have the Palestinians live under Palestinian law unless you want to insist on a form of apartheid that demands that Israelis must never interact with Palestinians and vice versa. But how would enforced non-interaction be an improvement? To enforce it, you’d have to build walls around everything. You’d have to treat the borders between neighboring towns as though each one was its own international border. And you’d have to destroy the entire infrastructure of trade that’s been built up between the two communities. Imagine treating Providence, Johnston, and Cranston as one country, and North and East Providence as another, dividing them with walls and armed soldiers. If you want to get from Providence to East Providence, you apply for a visa and take a route through Pawtucket that circles back around to where you wanted to go, etc. Multiply that by thousands and the insanity of it starts to become obvious. How far would you have to go to keep the populations separated?

            On Israeli security concerns: let me just go for the jugular. Any discussion of security concerns has to pose the stark question: who is the aggressor and who is defending against aggression? I won’t adjudicate that whole dispute here. But I think it’s obvious that if the Israelis are the aggressors, there’s no need to focus on their security needs to the exclusion of the Palestinians. Nor can their security needs be conceived so that they just trump all discussion of Palestinian rights. But however things look back home, it really is not obvious to me that the standard American narrative is correct–Israelis are playing defense against Palestinian aggressors. It is entirely plausible to think that the normative arrows go in the reverse direction. So either we open that up, or we treat equality as a default position.

            But the way American/Israeli discourse works, inequality is the default assumption on the a priori premise that the Palestinians must be the aggressors. In the Objectivist version of this discourse, the a priori assumptions about inequality and aggression are mediated by civilizational claims: since Israeli culture is superior to Palestinian, it somehow “follows” that Palestinians must be the aggressors in the Palestine-Israel dispute, or even in any dispute involving the two parties. But that’s a non sequitur even if you accept the civilizational superiority premise. But the bottom line is that I just reject this whole way of coming at things. Unless someone wants to argue that the Palestinians are the blanket aggressors, it’s not legitimate to endorse whatever works for Israelis, full stop.

            I’m sure the wall “works” in the sense of deterring some terrorism. But it’s a commonplace of liberal rights discourse that you can’t permissibly do whatever decreases the crime rate. Indeed, at a certain point, doing so would be aggression. African Americans commit crime at higher rates than any other ethnic group in America. Would that justify building a wall around black neighborhoods, expropriating/displacing black people in the process, and treating them as non-citizens with no procedural rights at all? if you did that for 50 years, and found yourself with a violent insurgency, it isn’t clear that you could regard yourself as playing defense to someone else’s initiated force. At that point, you could plausibly be seen as the aggressor, especially if your security measures facilitated a land grab.

            Consider that if you have a medical emergency on the east side of the wall, and you need to get to an ER on the west side, what would otherwise have been a five minute trip will now become a 40 minute trip through an armed checkpoint. Do those lives weigh in the balance? The Israeli answer seems to be “no.” So the wall “saves lives”–just not those lives. But that’s not “working.”

            There was a shooting and a stabbing in Kiryat Arba the other day (Palestinians against Israelis). The Israeli response was to shut down the entire surrounding area–Hebron and all of its satellite towns. Well, Lor Scoota was killed in Baltimore the other day, too. Would that justify shutting down every black neighborhood in Baltimore and its suburbs? The Israeli attitude is literally, “Well of course it would. Our security demands that any time one of us is attacked, we get to shut life down for the other side, no matter how much inconvenience it causes. I mean, what’s a little inconvenience when lives are at stake? Of course, when we attack them, we observe all of the civilized niceties of criminal procedure. I mean, we’re civilized people, for God’s sake–we can’t expect to be treated the same way.” I would say that once that attitude becomes institutionalized, it’s tantamount to aggression, and it deserves a retaliatory response in kind. You can’t enforce gross inequality at gunpoint indefinitely and not expect to get your head blown off.

            As for Gaza, Israel didn’t give everything back. It withdrew its settlements and enacted a siege. (In international law, and by the State Dept’s criteria, Israel continues to “occupy” Gaza–their word, not mine.) To evaluate that siege, we have to know whether Israel is defending itself against Gaza, or Gaza is playing defense to Israel. If you abstract entirely from that question, and call the Israeli siege a “necessary evil,” the response is going to be that the Gazan response to that siege is a necessary evil, too. Either we open the whole thing up and figure out who’s really the aggressor, or we bracket that debate and find a way to treat both sides security concerns as being on a par. But as the discussion is currently set up, especially in Israel and the US, Israeli security concerns get top billing; Palestinian concerns don’t exist.

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  2. It seems to me that, in different respects, both are aggressors. That is sort of what conflicts are even if one party started it, should be blamed more from an objective or impartial standpoint, is aggressing more or more effectively or egregiously presently, etc. Peacemaking is not so much the business of sorting everything out and righting all wrongs from an objective, impartial standpoint. At least often, it is more about respecting reasonable, even if mistaken and biased, claims by both sides. Perhaps when Israelis say “The main thing is we are defending ourselves against terrorists” they are being utterly unreasonable – and do not really deserve respect. But I doubt this. As I doubt that the Palestinians are unreasonable when they assert that armed resistance is justified. Maybe they are both wrong here, but I think both sides meet the minimum standard for being respected as reasonable. (On the other hand, I don’t think it takes much sensitivity or reason to see that Israeli claims with regard to existing and continued settlement do not hold water. These claims are not only objectively misguided but also have only a patina of reasonability – and as such need to be addressed, at least in part, by being shamed and opposed. Similarly for Palestinians attacks on innocent, even if not-fully-innocent, Israeli civilians.)

    I see how the literal separation of the populations would be costly and a bit absurd. In individual terms, yes, but the costs to the Israeli state would not be too high (as the removal of the settlers would be) – if they were getting security from terrorism and missiles in return. And similarly the Palestinian Authority could shoulder these costs – if they were getting their own state out of the deal (or maybe two states, Hamas having its own thing going in Gaza). So I’m curious, though it would not be on the table for them to have a military (at least not immediately), what are the obstacles to giving Palestinians rights over their aquifers, borders, etc. (as part of a two-state solution)? Sure, there is unreasonable stubbornness on the part of the Israelis. But why isn’t the thing to do here to get the Israelis to relent through whatever means are appropriate (security-related carrots first, shaming and more forceful measures as necessary)? Or is the problem that, at present, too much has been conceded in advance to Israel, the result being that any Palestinian state in a two-state solution would be a state in name only? Anyhow, at least in principle, what I suggest here seems like a good candidate for a good two-state solution and a solution that might be preferable to a one-state solution (though, again, I may be ignorant of relevant details that make this kind of approach not very viable).


    • There are conflicts in which both parties can be aggressors, and parts of the Arab-Israeli conflict itself that fit that description. But putting aside Gaza (which I haven’t studied or visited), I don’t think both parties are aggressors with respect to the occupation of the West Bank. I think it’s very clear that the Israeli occupation and settlement enterprise, as of 2016, is a long-standing act of aggression.

      It’s a matter of record since the Allon Plan that Israel’s strategy is to establish “facts on the ground”–settlements–in order to consolidate their hold on what they regard as the ancient and God-given land of “Judea and Samaria,” an aspiration explicitly mentioned in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The disagreements concern the details, not the overall aim.

      Settlement activity is–again, explicitly–part of a settled design of conquest. The Israelis have made no bones about the fact that each settlement is where it is in order to advance the unified military purpose of reclaiming the ancient land of Israel. In other words, each settlement serves a military purpose, and each settler, by being a settler, is discharging a military obligation to the state. The government seizes the land it gives to the settlers (or ratifies seizures made directly by the settlers), it subsidizes the settlers, it arms them, it protects them, and controls the lives of non-settlers in order to effectuate the goals of the settlers (and the state). For documentation, one book to read among many is Geoffrey Aaronson’s Creating Facts.

      For this reason, I think it’s an illusion, an inversion of the facts, to think that when a Palestinian shoots an Israeli settler who’s “just peacefully minding his own business,” it’s the Palestinian who is the aggressor and the settler who was engaged in peaceful activity. Settlement is conquest. Conquest is aggression. And aggression isn’t peaceful–it’s a force-initiation. So contrary to the face-value appearance, I would say that the “peaceful” settler is not in fact “peaceful,” but appears peaceful because he’s in a lull in his protracted acts of conquest. Meanwhile, the Palestinian looks like the aggressor, but is just retaliating at the only time and place that allows for a successful act of resistance to aggression (“successful” in the very narrow sense of involving an operation that has some likelihood of achieving its intended aim; a failure in a broader sense, however–see below).

      The Israeli settler “just minding his own business” is just like Michael Walzer’s example of the “bathing soldier”: is a soldier engaged in aggression if he’s part of an aggressive military campaign, but right now, at t, happens to be doing something entirely peaceful, like taking a shower on the outskirts of the battlefield? My answer is “yes.” Can you shoot him, if you’re defending against his aggression? My answer, once again, is “yes.” What if the idiot brought his wife and kids to the battlefield, and there’s no way to shoot him without endangering them? Well, then you endanger them. He shouldn’t have brought them here. In fact, he shouldn’t be here, at least in his military capacity. (But you don’t target them, something I’ll come back to.)

      I would just say that it’s difficult for an educated adult settler to be innocently ignorant of the fact that settlement plays the military role I’ve just described. (And the settlers I have met have not been innocently ignorant of it.) As for children or any innocently ignorant adults that remain, I’d just say that they’re innocent shields and can permissibly be treated in just the way that “we” treat innocent shields in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan (or as the Israelis do in Gaza): we try our best to avoid hitting them (whatever “our best” means), but if there’s no other way of hitting our intended target (in a just war), we have no compunction about collateral damages. When we’re done, we say, “That was regrettable,” and we move on. There is a kind of mind-blowing hypocrisy about both the American and Israeli public in this respect. After decades of killing hundreds of thousands of innocent shields with bunker-buster bombs, from Lebanon to Iraq, we feel outrage when the Palestinians stab a couple of people. But unless it can be demonstrated that Palestinian resistance is aggression, this outrage is absurdly misplaced. It ignores the obvious possibility that the occupation is aggression.

      Israel has engaged in conquest with impunity for almost 50 years, and shows no sign whatsoever of stopping. The one and only condition the Palestinians have put on negotiations is that the Israelis stop further settlement–an eminently reasonable demand, since settlement equals conquest, and the whole point of the negotiations is to negotiate the status of the land being conquered. I don’t know what else to call a party that refuses this condition, continues settlement, intensifies occupation, and then claims that it lacks a negotiating partner. Liars and thieves is what I called them above, and I guess I’ll stick with that. It’s not aggression to fight back against an armed robber who steals from you, then goes and lies to the world about what he’s done–for fifty years.

      The problem with Palestinian violence is not (quite) that it’s aggression. The problem with it is that it’s egregiously instrumentally irrational. That might even understate the problem, because “instrumental irrationality” presupposes an end in view (with the agent miscalculating the means to it), but I don’t think Palestinian violence has any such end. It just sort of erupts at sporadic occasions, and when it does, the perpetrators will shoot at a couple of cars, stab a soldier or two, go on a shooting spree in Tel Aviv, stab a teenage girl in her bedroom, etc. and call it “resistance to the occupation.” But it’s not really “resistance to the occupation.” It’s just people temporarily losing their minds.

      If you spend time in the South Hebron Hills–I’m hoping to spend a long weekend there soon–you can see how or why people would lose their minds. But that doesn’t make such violence justified or rational. The underlying problem is that people here are isolated from the rest of the world, insular in outlook, uneducated, and politically unsophisticated. And their political leadership has no integrated response to the occupation. Even the non-violent demonstrations I’ve attended are little more than haphazard displays of angry emotion. There’s no underlying message there, no articulated account of what they’re opposing or trying to accomplish. The result is what Americans recognize (out of context) as “the problem of Palestinian terrorism.”

      If you want to call Palestinian violence “aggression,” I would insist on this proviso: There is a difference between the aggression of conquest and the aggression of an egregiously irrational response to conquest that would be justified if it took a different form. Palestinian aggression is “aggression” of the latter variety. (By the same token, it’s only justified on a counterfactual reading.)

      If you want an American analogue, the Palestinian resistance seems stuck at the level of the slave rebellions associated with Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey in American history. These “slave rebellions” were just pointless eruptions of violence. They killed a lot of people, but politically speaking, accomplished nothing. I don’t mean to suggest that the occupation is like slavery. My point is that the Palestinian leadership is stuck in the sort of thinking that would be appropriate to the early stages of resistance to slavery, but isn’t appropriate 50 years into an occupation.

      That said, if peacemaking isn’t a matter of sorting out rights and wrongs as above, why can’t we just assume a default of equality of treatment for both sides? In that case, Israeli Jews (including settlers) would be subject to the same security measures as Palestinians–checkpoints, searches, restrictions on movement, and all the rest. But they’re not–by a long shot.

      On your second paragraph, I think the answer is that too much has already been conceded to Israel in advance, and since it’s been conceded, the Israelis have no incentive to relinquish anything that they have. They have control over almost everything here, and they have the capacity indefinitely to extend that control while claiming to have ceded control to the Palestinians in Areas A and B. No one can force the Israelis to give up that control, so why should they unilaterally do so? They have an ally in the United States that is willing to back them up no matter what they do–at worst making clucking noises when they do something that supposedly “contradicts U.S. policy” (like settlements!). The state they (some day) intend to give the Palestinians is one in name only, and with every passing day, they win the propaganda war involved in convincing the outside world that the Palestinians already “govern” or “control” parts of Palestine and do a terrible job of it–so why the urgency to give them more?

      If the issue is looked at from the perspective of how we secure substantive rights for individual Palestinians, however, the insistence on a Palestinian state is simply a distraction. The Palestinians don’t know how to govern a state. The state they have isn’t all that great from a rights-based perspective. The state they’re being offered is not viable, and the Israelis have no intention of making it viable. The insistence on ethnic separation in preparation for the two state solution is just making conditions unbearable for one party: the separation intensifies, but the long-awaited state never comes. The Palestinians are now starting to lose their minds and go on terrorist rampages, which in turn triggers paranoia and fear in the Israelis and leads to an intensification of the occupation.

      The irony is, as the Palestinians go on these rampages, they realize (because the Israelis give them helpful little reminders) that the Israelis control every aspect of their lives. If the people of Abu Dis rose up against our Israeli overlords, all the Israelis would have to do is surround us with troops, block the roads, restrict movement in and out of the area, shoot anyone who tries to jump the wall, cut off our electricity, water, WiFi, and phone service, and wait. Within maybe a month we would beg for mercy and that would be the end of it. People admire the Gazans because the Gazans have endured that kind of treatment for years without visibly begging for mercy. But West Bankers aren’t ready for it (except maybe near Hebron).

      My view is that we need to undo this whole knot. A Palestinian state is not the most obvious or effective route to Palestinian rights. And separation in advance of a two state settlement is really just apartheid by another name, the means by which Israel consolidates its hold over the West Bank while dangling the “carrot” of a state in front of the Palestinian leadership (the only likely beneficiaries of such a state). The underlying problems here can’t be resolved until both sides internalize the principle of equal rights and subordinate their ethnic identities to that principle. Nothing else will work, and the solution itself finds a natural home in a single state.

      Anyway, this is going to be my last word on Palestinian armed resistance (until I get home). Despite Israel’s vaunted respect for free speech, it’s not clear that I have the legal right to write in defense of armed resistance from inside the West Bank. There is no real “law” here (just military edicts), but it wouldn’t take much for what I’ve written to be construed as “incitement” and cause legal problems–as it recently has for others. It’s one thing, apparently, to talk about what military actions should be taken vis-a-vis Libya, Gaza, Syria, Iran, Iraq, the Taliban, or the Palestinians. If I said, “We should drone the shit out of the Taliban,” there’d be no problem. But if I say that Palestinian resistance to occupation is justified, I’m practically inviting the Israeli authorities into the dashboard of PoT. So let me leave it there. (PS. I highly recommend the Intercept article in the preceding link, if only for the photos. The second large photo is a very nice one of the neighborhood I’m living in, taken from the Jerusalem side of the wall.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve now (July 11) Facebooked some of the pictures that I said I would l take in my July 5 comment, of the interconnection between Ma’ale Adumim (the Jewish settlement) and Eizariyah (its neighboring Palestinian town). I think there are maybe 15 photos, but they only scratch the surface of what I was getting at.

        I should probably add that all of the issues I’ve been discussing here are a lot more complicated than I’ve made them. In saying that, I don’t mean to be taking anything back; I just mean that I’ve been abstracting from a huge amount of complexity in order to make sense in a short space, and to offer complete thoughts in the time I have at my disposal. A Palestinian friend of mine says that it takes a year away from the place to process every month you spend here, and he’s absolutely right. What I like about visiting this place is that once you do visit, you realize that you don’t need to invent outlandish thought-experiments to clarify or dramatize issues in political philosophy. Here, at least, the world itself generates enough in the way of thought-experiments to occupy your mind indefinitely (so to speak).

        The one drawback to traveling here, however, is that no matter what anyone says about Israeli liberalism or Arab hospitality, one lacks the sort of guarantee of free expression here that one has at home. Here’s the Israeli version of the problem.

        This student was more than a little naive to have tried to bring a personal journal through Allenby crossing, but the down side of being saavier than her is that you not only don’t bring a personal journal here, you don’t write in one at all…for fear of its being confiscated and read at the border. (You could write in one and send it to the Cloud, but what if they demand access to all of your accounts, including your access to the Cloud?) The problem becomes: if you don’t write a journal, you prevent yourself from ever thinking in journal mode (for fear of writing down your thoughts and then having them confiscated), and when that happens, you start to lose access to your own thoughts (or you do if you’re a habitual journal writer, as I am). It really is the case that the occupation structures the one one thinks, and for the worse. And I’m talking about a two-month stay.

        The Palestinian version of the same problem is the one described in Leo Strauss’s essay, “Persecution and the Art of Writing.” (The link is a long PDF of the whole book.) What Strauss says there is literally what any independent thinker still faces while spending time in Palestine–mostly on religious grounds–with predictably corrupting effects on thought and discourse.

        What I find kind of sad and ironic is that when I get back to the U.S., where we take free speech for granted, substantive political conversation is treated as a kind of exotic taste that it would be rude to impose on the vast majority of people, since they take it to be irrelevant to their lives. So socially acceptable talk seems to revolve around sports, food, children, pets, and politically neutral forms of travel–with exceptions to the rule when a Big Event takes place to disturb everyone’s complacency. In my experience, restrictions on free speech tend to motivate people to have substantive conversations that cross the line; guaranteed free speech tends to generate complacency about the free speech one has. The result is an odd sort of trade off: cultures of discourse where you have substantive conversations, but sotto voce; or cultures where everyone’s talking out loud all the time, but about nothing.

        By the way, I decided to end my pol phil course here with a reading of chapter 2 of Mill’s On Liberty (“liberty of thought and discussion”). Whatever its flaws, I can’t think of a book whose message is more badly needed in Palestine (along with “On the Subjection of Women,” which I won’t have time to cover).


      • Worth reading: “Israeli police initiate ‘friction activity’ on quiet streets in East Jerusalem,” and (published last fall) “What I Saw in Issawiya Was the Collective Punishment of Thousands of People.” Both stories lend plausibility to the idea that Palestinian violence is sometimes (maybe often) a response to Israeli aggression, not the other way around.

        Again, I wonder: if these stories broke in the United States, with (say) African American instead of Palestinian targets, would we acquiesce so easily in what they involved for those on the receiving end? And would we go around patting ourselves on the back for being the self-proclaimed avatars of justice despite evidence of initiated aggression by our police forces? But that’s regularly what’s done in the Israeli case.


        • I was in Issawiya today–someone drove me there–and can confirm that the article on Issawiya I linked to is devastatingly correct, and that its claims remain in force. Issawiya is essentially a neighborhood under semi-permanent lockdown, a kind of mini police state devoted to the collective punishment of its Palestinian residents. Maybe I haven’t been around enough, but I’ve never seen anything like it in the United States, not even in neighborhoods where racial profiling has been alleged. Even if all of the allegations about American racial profiling were true, what I saw in Issawiya today is in a class of its own.

          The last time The New York Times devoted attention to this issue was December 16, 2015 (and before that, October 17, 2015). The Times’s most recent coverage of Issawiya? To focus on the residents’ latest hobby, horse raising. Yes, horse raising is a thing here, and is mildly intriguing. But don’t wonder why the American public has no idea how the police operates here, or at a basic level, what is going on here. With journalists as tone deaf as ours, there’s no hope of anything but the perpetuation of ignorance.

          Meanwhile, I happened to drive past the aftermath of this today (or rather, a friend and I drove past it; he was driving and he was the one who pointed it out to me).* Naturally, it’s gotten top billing in the Israeli press, and been dutifully been covered in ours. But that fact by itself doesn’t resolve who is aggressing against whom. It just highlights the fact that our press is really good at cherry picking stories about who is doing what to whom.

          *I’m guessing we drove past the investigation of the event well after it took place. I happened to walk past the scene of the attempted bombing about 35 minutes before it took place. I bought a bottle of water at the exact location of the attempted bombing and moved on. So at least I would have been hydrated had it taken place.


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