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Progress may be possible; miracles will take a little longer

The article below was submitted to the Cape Argus and Business Day. Let me have your views.

Mike Berger

At its best, public political debate can resemble a judicial process: a rule-governed contest between two sides from which eventually a measure of “truth” will emerge. It’s a rough analogy, and in the real world, especially in South Africa, political debate is more like a pub argument where the loudest voices and most outrageous and scurrilous accusations receive the most attention.

There are few issues in which this is more true that the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The causes of the vastly disproportionate and immoderate attention paid to this in the media are multiple but, undoubtedly, a major reason is that it is the focus of a coordinated propaganda campaign driven by an array of groups under the umbrella of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) network

Nevertheless, this article is not about the BDS project. It is rather an attempt to restore some dignity to the debate, to steer it back to the ideal of honourable conversation between those with differing points of view in which respect for truth and logic remain important values.

I will start with two somewhat contradictory statements. Firstly, Israel is far from a monolith, a false image which has been created in the public mind. It is an extraordinarily heterogeneous political, social and religious entity – especially considering its small size. As far as I can remember over the past 3 decades Israel has been governed by coalitions and over 30 distinct parties contested the recent elections. It s electorate is well-informed and political debate is open, extremely robust and remarkably creative.

Secondly, and this is where the paradox enters, there is indeed a consensus within the broad centre of the political spectrum on the following issues: security is a paramount consideration in all policy decisions; there is virtually no hope for a full resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians within the foreseeable future; that a two-state solution in theory would be desirable but without progress that option may close down; that “concessions” to buy favour with international opinion would be disastrous; and that the continued control of a hostile Palestinian population in the West Bank is bad for Israeli political and social well-being.  

Regarding the last point, Israel has already taken significant steps to devolve civil and even security sovereignty over significant portions of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. This has had mixed success and the inherent dualism in control has led to political posturing and provocation on both sides. Furthermore, without a formal form of statehood, the term “occupation” continues to be used by Palestinians to delegitimise Israeli efforts towards resolution and to mobilise Palestinian and overseas public opinion.

Clearly some form of formal separation and genuine rather than ersatz sovereignty would be preferable, but how to get there? Perhaps the best analysis of the issue I have seen recently is by Prof Asher Susser of Tel Aviv University to be found at  He is an expert on Middle Eastern affairs and he brings a non-ideological and scholarly perspective to the table. I will interpret freely from his analysis.

He frames the dispute in terms of the 1948 and the 1967 files. In essence, the 1967 file (following the 1967 war and the Israeli capture of the Sinai, West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza from Jordan and Egypt) deals with such matters as borders, the disposition of Jerusalem and the “settlements”. According to Prof Susser, the 1967 issues have either been resolved or are not major obstacles to a resolution.

 The Sinai Peninsula went back to Egypt as part of a comprehensive peace treaty.  Gaza settlements have been evacuated in their entirety and Hamas is in charge of Gaza, though far from democratically elected. In Susser’s view the division of Jerusalem and the delineation of borders (all 1967 issues) are eminently solvable. The rub comes with the 1948 issues, specifically the refugees and the status of Israeli Arabs in Israel.

The essence of the issue is that the Palestinians insist that the refugees return to Israel proper and that Israel cannot be a Jewish state because of the fact that 20% of its citizens are Arab-Muslim – in fact, if the refugees returned Jews would be a minority. Both sides understand this would be the end of Israel as it was conceived, but since the Palestinians have never properly admitted the authenticity of Jewish rights or history in the region, they see this outcome as simple justice. The Jews see it as genocide. Stalemate!

Susser’s solution is to finesse the recent Palestinian moves towards unilateralist action in the United Nations in search of statehood and, indeed, to go along with it. Move all Jewish settlements (possibly excepting one or two small military lookout posts) out of 60 to 70 percent of the West Bank entirely and formally recognise Palestinian statehood in that area. Accept that it is interim and that the Palestinians continue to have claims (as will the Jews,) but do not oppose the two-state dynamic and the institution building required for Palestinian independence. Use the USA as an honest partner to assist both sides in practical matters of coordination and to ensure mutual good faith.

As Susser implies, such a step will ensure a massive separation of hostile populations and reduction in mutual provocation and will provide the trappings and reality of Statehood (thus restoring self-respect to the Palestinians). Israel should refrain from attempting to force an ultimate resolution for which the Palestinians are not prepared.

Can this work and provide a way out of the present impasse? The potential reduction of friction resulting from separation is attractive as is the facilitation of the two-state dynamic. Security should not be a major problem. Israel’s military strength and her demonstrated willingness to use it if pushed sufficiently plus the fact that the USA has Israel’s back and Arab factionalism and instability, ensure Israel ‘s immunity to major strategic military threat. Furthermore, although not discussed by Susser, imaginative economic and cultural initiatives could be taken to improve relationships between Israel and the new Palestinian state, thus smoothing the way to on-going adjustments.

But this is the Middle East. The Palestinians have cultivated a culture of unremitting suspicion, grievance and victimhood which will be extremely difficult to relinquish. Islamism and other extremist movements are rife in the region and will not be eager to see this succeed. Indeed maximalists on both sides and the radical Left in the West will do everything in their power to seek points of dissention and conflict.

If this happens and Israel’s international position does not improve and the West Bank is infiltrated by Iranian funded and trained militias, one can predict a strong Israeli backlash further heightening the potential for major conflagration.

A number of alternative “separation” schemes have been proposed. All of them (including “sit-tight” or “annexationist” proposals) are fraught with obvious and hidden pitfalls. In the meantime, the regional and state-based dynamics are in constant state of flux, altering the strategic landscape and thus undermining opportunities for peaceful resolution.

Those looking for a neat solution to this intractable conflict will be disappointed by this analysis. But if it serves to introduce a sense of reality and a better understanding of the enormous complexity of the Middle East conundrum, then it will have served its purpose. It will be interesting to see what comes of the recent Obama initiative, but don’t expect the impossible.

Mike Berger










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