Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Israel and Palestine: Why Is This Issue So Difficult?

Steven E. Meyer


March 14, 2008

During the past six months we have seen an escalation of violence between Israel and the Hamas-controlled forces in the Gaza Strip. American-sponsored talks between Israel and the majority Fatah-controlled government in the West Bank have gone nowhere. Sadly, since at least the late 1930s, violence and failed negotiations have been more the rule than the exception in efforts to bring some sort of final status to the region.

Why has it not been possible to secure a lasting peace and a political settlement acceptable to both sides? I think there are three major reasons, which, taken together, produce a zero sum game between Israelis and Palestinians.

First, there is the weight of history. Both sides take history very seriously and believe it to be divinely directed. Both Israelis and Palestinians trace their “right” to the land back to Abraham. For both, the land is considered a divine patrimony and since it is God-given there is no reason to surrender any part of it to any other party. That which God has given is not negotiable.

Second, there has been an unwillingness to deal seriously with the issues that must be resolved if there is ever to be lasting peace in the region. There are five pressing issues:

  • The city of Jerusalem, which both sides see as part of their divine patrimony.
  • The borders of a future Palestinian state: most Palestinians would accept the 1967 borders, while Israel is reluctant to surrender that much territory.
  • The “right of return” for Palestinians, on the one side, and Israeli settlements on the West Bank, on the other hand, are mutually exclusive stumbling blocks.
  • The fallacy of moral superiority: both sides have used terrorism when they felt it served their purposes and, in the process, killed combatants and noncombatants alike.
  • If Hamas is not included in the negotiations there will be no settlement.

Third, outside forces and patrons tend to reinforce the divisions between the two sides.  Arab and other Muslim states support the Palestinians diplomatically and, most important, financially. Such support reinforces hard line Palestinians with little consideration of Israel’s interests. But the most important and harmful support comes from the United States, both from governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Although U.S. administrations have tried to be more evenhanded over the past decade, they still afford Israel almost a blank check, which allows the Israeli government to act with a free hand in dealing with the critical issues. In addition, many fundamentalist Protestants in the U.S., in a misreading of Scripture, back Israel as divinely established—a position that successive Israeli governments have exploited to maintain an uncompromising position in dealing with the Palestinians.

If the next U.S. administration wants to try to succeed on this issue, where so many others have failed, it will have to come to grips with these issues and, in many cases, reverse positions Washington has held in the past. Whatever road a new administration decides to take, a just and stable solution will undoubtedly require years to achieve. A new administration could begin by finding ways to include Hamas in the process and to foster economic development in the Gaza Strip along with stronger Egyptian economic ties to Gaza. On the larger issues, the U.S. should use economic and other leverage to encourage the Palestinians to back away from the “right of return” in exchange for Israel’s dismantling of its settlements on the West Bank. The U.S. should also support a two-state solution that conforms to the 1967 borders. Without these moves there is little hope that any significant progress will be made.

—Steven E. Meyer, Professor of Political Science
    The National Defense University
    (The views expressed here are those of the author alone.)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”