Conflict stemming in the land of Israel and Palestine regurgitates toxic attitudes towards Zionists, Israelis, Arabs and Jews, with one group painting another as the oppressor or terrorist in the extreme cases. The picture shifts based on where in the various timelines an analysis begins. In Israeli and Palestinian governments, the question of how to approach cohabitation is never easy and never static. Furthermore, when international communities impose their sense of moral right and their conception of a resolution to political sovereignty, when the elephants fight so to speak, it’s the grass that suffers. But there are ways to improve living conditions for both parties without deciding who is more right or wrong.
In the past year, a few non-governmental organizations have unilaterally decried Israel as an apartheid state—one which creates systematic ethnic separation—Amnesty International being the most recent and producing the greatest reaction. Bipartisan consensus in the United States government, the Israeli government, and an abundance of academics and Zionist groups have since rejected the report as bias and political. Eugene Kontorovich, a scholar in the US and Israel, pointed out laws by which the Palestinian Authority may be closer to enforcing apartheid than Israel’s government, as their policies explicitly prevent Jews from living in the Palestinian Territories and punish Palestinians for engaging with Jews, in some cases threatening death.
UC Berkeley’s Bears for Israel published a statement that similarly refuted the claims against Israel. Underlying this rhetorical bout is the concern that the categorization only takes away from confronting the true conflict and moves away from peace. Eugene said in an interview that the goal is not to defend against rhetorical offenses but to recognize the facts on the ground which must be engaged for true progress.
Diplomatic progress has been hard to come by between Israel and Palestine in the 70 years since Israel’s formal founding. Strong evidence points towards 1967 as a particular inflection point in Israeli politics regarding the conflict with Palestine. Following the 1967 War which practically doubled Israel’s territory, Jewish Israelis and the diaspora diverged into holding two separate hopes: to the Jewish political left, this was a chance to reconcile with national neighbors, to utilize the territories to bargain for peace and to eventually come to an agreement with Palestinians in which both peoples could coexist.
To the Jewish political right, this was the opportunity Israel had waited for: to settle the land of its biblical heritage. As one member of the Knesset said in an interview, it was in Judea and Samaria that the first capital of the Jewish people could be found. For him and those he represents, Israel is the land the Jewish people always wished to return to. He did not say whether this means other inhabitants must be expelled.
Debate circulates in the United States and elsewhere whether Zionists are to blame for Israel’s failures to sufficiently protect Palestinian rights, though this misses the problem altogether. Whereas Zionism calls for national self-determination for the Jews (and actualizing on this dream has been a source of internal debate since Zionism’s birth—largely in academia), it does not prescribe a plan for non-Jews who are also indigenous to the land of Israel and Palestine. The question of how to handle such intercultural affairs has plagued leaders on all sides of the conflict for generations, going back even before the 1967 war, before the British Mandate, before the Ottoman empire. A debate focused on modern Zionism does not truly confront historical conflict of regional ethnic communities vying for self-determination. It is just as futile pointing to Zionism—the movement for Jewish self-determination—as an expression of Islamophobia or anti-Palestinian sentiment, or as the source of conflict between Jews and Palestinians, as it is pointing to the charter or actions of Hamas, a designated terrorist organization, as representative of the Palestinian will for self-determination. The antisemitism Hamas spews coupled with a sense of divine justification for war would obfuscate, if not delegitimize altogether, the geopolitical question of ethnic self-governance.
The Jewish movement to return to their homeland is vulnerable to enabling the expulsion of those currently living there. That vulnerability has been exploited for decades by the settler movement in the West Bank, which builds unauthorized settlements near Palestinian villages. The left will not agree to the expulsion of Palestinians, Bedouins, or others from the region, and has been a vocal opponent to settlement expansion in Palestinian territories for decades.
For the political right, the left’s hope of trading land for peace prevents Israel from becoming the absolute Jewish homeland in the birthplace of Judaism. Coexistence also raises security concerns for many Israelis: while exchanging the Sinai Peninsula with Egypt for a peace treaty was successful, leaving the Gaza Strip in the 2000s did not lead to peace, but rather to a spike in violence and the rise to power in Palestine of Hamas—the political and terrorist organization occupying the region. Hamas has incited violence consistently and claims affiliation to the Intifadas, a series of riots which included suicide bombings, indiscriminate missile attacks, and the murder of thousands in Israel.
The left’s concern with maintaining the status quo and continuing to settle in the West Bank has to do with the security and rights of Palestinians. However, the current status quo denies many living in the region their right to a reasonable standard of living. To be sure, in some parts of the West Bank Palestinians and Israelis coexist successfully. In other parts, with security enforced by Israel and civil maintenance from the Palestinian Authority, there is inconsistent access to running water, cellular service is spotty or nonexistent, work permits to find occupation in Israel are tightly constrained, and violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians is a frequent occurrence.
As the New York Times reported, the number of attacks reached a five-year high in 2021 among West Bank residents. The Times interviewed both Israelis and Palestinians, who both expressed they feel unprotected by the army. The Israeli government recognizes the severity and risks of the violence, the threat to regional security, and to Israel’s public image by fringe aggressor groups who perpetuate conflict.
So too was 2021 a year of unprecedented progress for interethnic and regional diplomacy. Many policy issues, as civilians and diplomats are starting to acknowledge and show optimism for, can be solved outside a comprehensive solution to borders and governance. Shrinking the Conflict Initiative, a new Israeli nonprofit, helps to spearhead this movement. Shrinking the Conflict built a coalition of Knesset members, community leaders, and organizers, and progressively more international stakeholders, in support of key policy initiatives which improve the conditions for Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Shrinking the Conflict draws its inspiration from Micah Goodman’s 2017 book Catch-67: the Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War. The Israeli philosopher provides a historical account of the shift in Israeli dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the stagnant state of affairs of late, a status quo he argues is unsustainable. Though Israelis feel the conflict less so in their day-to-day than in years past, the status quo does not ensure adequate standards of living for Palestinians, peace for Israelis, or a consistent expectation for what will come in the future to either party. More outbreaks of violence like that seen in May 2021 can be anticipated lest policy and dialogue shifts in the Israeli administration to allow more autonomy amongst Palestinians.
In 2021, Shrinking the Conflict and others promoted efforts to expand Palestinian autonomy, and returned to communication with the Palestinian Authority in a fashion unseen since 2014. The COVID-19 vaccination program for Palestinians was increased over the summer, along with economic relief from Israel’s government. Shrinking the Conflict was responsible for the expansion of work permit quotas for Palestinians in construction by 15,000. In partnership with the government and other NGOs, the movement gained hi-tech companies the access and incentive to employ Palestinians from the West Bank, an unprecedented event in Israel.
The Alliance for Middle East Peace (AllMEP), a coalition of over 150 organizations, secured pledges from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe for over $250 million for an international fund to support people-to-people programs. The tens of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis involved in shrinking the conflict are being empowered by the fund to cooperate on political and economic initiatives.
Policy initiatives are just one half of the battle to narrow the scope of the conflict; the movement to reduce the conflict seeks to transform the paradigm of discussion regarding the conflict, to one with pragmatic ideas at center. For decades, the discussion has been progressively more mired in political-ideological conflicts, long-preventing a resolution. AllMEP states that over 60% of young Palestinians and Israelis believe the other is bent on the destruction of their respective society. In line with this sentiment, American President Joe Biden remarked at the UN General Assembly that a two-state solution—the official policy supported by the US—is still a ‘long way’ off.
Not everyone agrees to a two-state solution as the best option for the region. In interviews with Palestinians from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, hopes manifest for “a one-state solution, called the ‘Holy Land,’ with equal rights for all people,” and pragmatic ideas of a three-state solution, keeping Israel separate from Gaza and Gaza kept separate from the West Bank. “Nobody will bring together Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and no Palestinian has the power to fight them.”
This comes from Palestinians who asked to remain anonymous for fear of fallout from their government. Self-determination for Palestinians is a struggle against both Israel and their own government, the Palestinian Authority. Peace agreements or progress towards a solution between Israel and Palestine has collapsed after every success, to the frustration of civilians and foreign parties.
But without coming to an end-state solution, Israel and Palestine are beginning to cooperate over economic and security issues. The New Hope party, a part of the majority coalition in the Knesset, added to the party platform the aim of reducing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So too, in Naftali Bennet’s first speech to the Knesset, he mentioned reducing the scope of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a priority during his term as Prime Minister. There are ways conversation can continue even if not focused on what a solution might look like.
Finding ways to support Palestinians is increasingly on the minds of American Jews and academics: approximately 17% of students at the United States’ most major, non-Orthodox rabbinical and cantorial schools signed a letter following the May Gaza-Israel war calling on Jews to reckon with their relationship to the Jewish state. The letter critiques Israel, without denying the legitimacy of Zionism and the right to Jewish self-determination. If both “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestine” groups were willing to turn away from a zero-sum game and look towards cooperation and empathy, their support for progress might be more effective as united. The groups might learn from each other, and find ways to improve the conditions of the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians who are forced to live within the conflict and must participate in the movement.
In contrast, a petition marketed as a “Statement of Support and a Call to Action” is also circulating among educators in the United States, which equates Zionism to racism—an outdated critique determined anti-Semitic by the United Nations—and calls to implement a California Ethnic Studies Curriculum model that restores “the history of Palestine” rather than a revised model which would recognize both Palestinian and Jewish indigeneity. The statement claims to “reject the toxic binary discourse that frames Jewish safety and Palestinian freedom as opposing causes.” The statement in fact reframes the binary into one for which the Jewish and Palestinian narratives are in opposition, by rejecting the conflict as such. This paradigm, when entrenched in an education system, at the extreme perpetuates aggression between parties further, as it did in Palestinian schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which was found to incite antisemitism and terrorism. And already in the San Diego Unified School District, implementation of the older curriculum model has led to increased antisemitism. At the least, it prolongs a zero-sum paradigm by denying Israelis or Zionists the right to participate in resolving their conflict.
Certainly, the conflict has endured to an extent that for many it feels reasonable to critique the lack of progress in Israeli government. This is different from the implication that the Israeli government doesn’t want a solution at all. The current and incipient Prime Ministers of Israel both vocally support a two-state solution.
A former Palestinian legal advisor and a former Israeli official are proposing a solution to the conflict to the UN. Neither Israel or the Palestinian Authority have yet to comment on the proposal, which largely draws from a 2003 plan drafted by Palestinians and Israelis, but the proposal does attempt to tackle some of the major issues both sides confront. The proposal is unlikely to be taken up with haste, but the international community looks on as parties to the Israel-Palestine conflict are confronted with a choice to engage and continue inching forward.
Featured Image Source: Garrett Layton