Is Peace Possible in the Middle East?

First Quarter 2004

by Marc H. Ellis

At a conference on international politics, hosted by Gordon College in Boston last November, one of the speakers on the Middle East was Marc H. Ellis, University Professor of American and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University. Ellis is the author of Israel and Palestine Out of the Ashes (2002) in which he argues that only by addressing the way in which the fundamental principles of justice and community "are being squandered by a militarized state of Israel and a complicit Jewish establishment in America can there be hope for peace in the future." The excerpts that follow are from his speech in Boston last November.


In discussing the future of Israel and Palestine it is always difficult to know whether a committed and emotional rationality or an irrational rationality will predominate. In my experience lecturing on this subject I sense that the audience brings both of these understandings to the discussion and I do as well. For as a Jew, could I pretend to a disinterested objectivity, to a commitment that is only rational? If this were so, the Middle East would be one among other issues in the world, no more or less important to me than any other political issue.

So without pretense to objectivity and without being able to completely separate the rational and irrational, I want to ask the question: Is there a midpoint between those Jews in Israel and America who want all of Palestine and those Palestinians who want all of Israel?

For some years that midpoint has been seen within the context of a two-state solution, Israel within the borders of the state as it was before the 1967 war, alongside a Palestinian state comprising East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. It is important to point out that this midpoint is actually more and less than that: it does not grant Palestinians a full equality of land within historic Palestine or envision a state of Palestine with the sovereign rights of any other nation-state.

In most understandings of this two-state solution, Palestine is without a military and the borders are to be controlled by international and Israeli forces. Refugees outside of Palestine are restricted in their aspirations to return to their homes within what became Israel and it is widely understood that East Jerusalem will only have symbolic Palestinian control. It is also understood that the Jewish settlements that ring Jerusalem and effectively make Jerusalem a Jewish city will remain and even grow.

So the midpoint settlement is one where Israel, though constrained from a complete victory, is dominant and where Palestine, though short of a complete surrender, accepts a historic and final loss of its continuity and completeness. Of course this settlement, which has been a matter of international consensus for over three decades and remains central to the stated foreign policy of the United States, contains possibilities of further movement between the two nations as trust is built and the complex details of geography and demography are worked out. This was the hope of Oslo and the handshake on the White House lawn in 1993. But that agreement and handshake seem so ancient today, almost unreal. If Oslo represents the midpoint as described above, with its limitations and possibilities, it also seems that its implementation today would be little short of a miracle.

If that midpoint is no longer in view, then the task is to either devise a path where the parties can be brought back to the midpoint or abandon the previous consensus and move toward a new one. The former seems, at this point at least, almost impossible. If we leave aside the moral and ethical questions, what political process or military power can bring the situation back?

Post-Oslo Possibilities

Though Israel has a contentious political debate within its borders about domestic and foreign policy, the present Israeli administration is bent on establishing a new understanding of the final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Exactly what the contours of that settlement are in the mind of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is difficult to know exactly. But if his past understandings and present policies are an indication, then the extent of Palestinian hope for a real state in the West Bank and Gaza, with even a foothold in Jerusalem, is negligible to non-existent. According to the maps outlining Sharon's positions on the final settlement that have surfaced over the last years and his actions since becoming prime minister, the most the Palestinians will receive is a non-contiguous and unempowered autonomy in Palestinian population centers on the West Bank and Gaza, surrounded on both sides by the Israeli army and fragmented by Jewish settlements. Nothing is envisioned for Palestinians in Jerusalem. The speculation about how far Sharon might pursue his vision during a war on Iraq increases daily. Some Jewish Israeli commentators have even gone so far as to predict a new expulsion of Palestinians into Lebanon and Jordan.

Though it is easy to blame Sharon for this situation or to label him an extremist, previous prime ministers of Israel also had similar, though less drastic, maps of the final settlement with the Palestinians. The Oslo agreements signed by Prime Minister Rabin designate areas in the West Bank to be controlled by Palestinians, areas to be jointly controlled by Israel and the Palestinians, and areas to remain under the control of Israel. It seems that the final settlement envisioned by Rabin under Oslo would combine the Palestinian autonomous areas and the jointly held Israeli and Palestinian areas to form the Palestinian state. But the third area would be part of an expanded Israel: this area included Jerusalem, most large Jewish settlements in the West Bank, security corridors and bypass roads connecting the settlements, and security buffer zones on the west bank of the Jordan river and outside the 1967 borders of Israel.

As we know now, Rabin's ultimate successor, Prime Minister Netanyahu, was closer to Sharon than to Rabin, and Netanyahu's successor, Prime Minister Barak, was closer to Rabin than to Sharon. However, if the maps that each proposed are examined rather than the rhetorical difference between Labor and Likud, the similarities should be emphasized.

The Arab world certainly cannot challenge Israeli power over the Palestinians and in some ways they simply compound the weakness of the Palestinians themselves. The Palestinians are divided into many factions and their own inability to create civil and democratic institutions after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority under Oslo and transform their society to develop a politics of engagement and compromise with Israel is the subject of scholarly and popular discussion within Palestinian circles and indeed around the world. The Arab world is not only weak; it lacks, aside from rhetoric, a desire for a real, empowered, and democratic state of Palestine. That kind of Palestine might be an example to their own citizenry and thus challenge their own legitimacy as autocratic and often dictatorial regimes.

The American Role

The United States has not been an honest broker, first and foremost because it has perceived its interests in the region to be tied to Israel and to Arab governments that provide access to the resources that the U.S. desires. As a global power, the U.S. can act this way, but other claims that it makes about these policies should be jettisoned. The U.S. has also tilted toward Israel for reasons of domestic politics, which includes Jewish voters and campaign contributions as well as the negative view that many Americans of non-Jewish background have about Arabs and Islam. We can have those views and create foreign policy to serve those understandings, but we cannot have it both ways: if Jews and Arabs in the Middle East are equally worthy of our concern, as recent political and public rhetoric would have us believe, then Israel must be forced back to its borders and a real Palestinian state must be created with American support.

Because of the history in the region, including the weakness of the Palestinians and the Arab world, America would have to back this up with policies that reward and penalize both parties as the goal of a two-state solution is pursued. That means the use of aid monies to Israel and the Arab world as a penalty/reward strategy and ultimately the decision to either abandon the parties to themselves or introduce American troops along the borders of these two states in the making. Without this explicit possibility of American military intervention, the honest broker image will be judged by the world, correctly in my view, to be an illusion, a cover for other designs in the Middle East.

The U.S. has interests in the region well beyond Israel and the Palestinians. For the most part, oil and the proximity to the Soviet Union guided America's support of Israel during the Cold war era. The new relationship with Russia contains elements of the old but without the high stakes of nuclear war. The collapse of the Soviet Union has had profound effects on the Arab countries, forcing them under the umbrella of the U.S. Moral considerations of Jewish suffering in the West and Christian biblical understandings of the return of Jews to their homeland also play their part, so America's support for Israel is not only geo-political. Coupled with the domestic concerns of Jews and other supporters of Israel, U.S. foreign policy has tilted against Palestinians for these and other reasons.

It seems, then, that a consensus among the actors in the Middle East policy world in the United States and abroad is to develop and implement a policy of containment vis-a-vis the Palestinians. None have a desire to grant the Palestinians a real state, but all are wary of the ability of Palestinians to destabilize the region. Therefore, attention needs to be given to Palestinians but primarily for the support of other interested parties—Jewish, Israeli, and American.

In its most obvious sense, the future of Israel and Palestine is in doubt. The forces against the two-state solution are enormous. The forces to compel a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem are extremely weak. If a state of Palestine is created in the next decades, it will be a state in name only, its contours limited by a mapping of boundaries that are more or less similar to those proposed by the previous Israeli prime ministers of both parties. In this way the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank will be redrawn to comport with those boundaries while at the same time becoming permanent. Israeli control of Jerusalem will likewise become permanent and the settlements will continue to thicken until the cities and villages of Palestine, surrounded by an ever-expanding Israel, become holding sites of cheap labor and areas of underdevelopment.