Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Israel: The Siege Tightens

I have written a number of posts in which I assert that Israel is a siege democracy along with Northern Ireland. Here is an article by veteran New York Times Middle Eastern correspondent and now columnist Thomas Friedman on Israel's environment as perceived from Israel.

Israeli perceptions may seem to outsiders like paranoia--and they definitely are not the perceptions of a normal state. But Israel is not a normal state inhabited by a normal people. It is the Jewish state called for in the UN General Assembly partition resolution of November 29, 1947 (whose 64th anniversary was marked by Friedman's article).  Jews have suffered from a basic insecurity from the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ACE/AD until the present day. There have been good periods of relative security and well being followed by periods of extreme insecurity. From 1881 to 1946 there was a period of extreme violence for European Jewry starting with a series of pogroms (incited massacres) in Russia and Romania and culminating in the industrial slaughter of two-thirds of Europe's Jewish population in the Holocaust. Not coincidentally, this is exactly the period that saw the rise of Zionism with the first Zionist theorists on anti-semitism in Europe (Leo Pinsker in 1882, Theodore Herzl in 1895) and the first Zionist immigration to Palestine. But the perceptions are perfectly rational and normal for a people that has suffered the experiences of the Jews in recent history.

Likewise, Palestinians seem paranoid at times about what they perceive as Israel's attempts to steal all of their land. Such perceptions are also normal for any people that has suffered the experiences of the Palestinians since 1948, when Palestinians were expelled in an-Nakba from parts of modern Israel by the same logic as Germans were expelled from Central Europe in 1944-46 by the victors in a war that Germany had started. Since 1967 Israel has gone about settling the West Bank and Gaza, first in a few strategic locations in an attempt to reverse the results of the 1948 war when Jewish settlers were expelled from Gush Etzion near Bethlehem and from the Old City without allowing the Palestinians to do the same. Then starting in the mid-1970s Jews were allowed to settle in many settlements throughout the West Bank. So just as Jews fear that Arabs want to finish the job that Hitler started, Palestinians and Arabs fear that Jews want to finish the process that they started in 1948.

Extremism feeds off of extremism. Twenty-nine years of Arab siege led to the Likud coming to power in 1977. In 1948 the party that became the main part of the Likud, Herut, was marginal to Israeli politics and was excluded from all Israeli governments until June 1967. The settlement project sponsored by the Likud and the religious Zionists of the National Religious Party along with the corruption of Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority led to the rise of Hamas. Hamas won the Palestinian election of January 2006. The threat of Hamas helped stiffen Yasir Arafat's spine at Camp David in July 2000 when he denied the existence of a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (to the annoyance of the American Arabic interpreter, an Egyptian Copt) and sunk the possibility of any compromise with Israel. Arafat then initiated the Al-Aksa Intifada with Israel in October 2000. This led to Sharon coming to power as first prime minister in February 2001 and then as head of the victorious Likud in Knesset elections in 2003. Since this time all Israeli governments have been dominated by the Right. With the prisoner exchange deal with Hamas, in which over 400 prisoners were traded for Gilad Shalit, Prime Minister Netanyahu was attempting to weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a negotiating partner. 

In Northern Ireland Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists cooperated quite nicely against the peace deal of the moderates at the beginning of the decade of the 2000s. After they sufficiently weakened their ethnic rivals they then made a deal to share power. Unfortunately, in the Middle East it is more difficult. Both Hamas and the Likud in practice oppose the two-state solution. If they continue to oppose it long enough they will then have to make the bloody transition to sharing power in a one-state solution. Now outsiders are only pushing Northern Ireland as a successful example of negotiation politics. In another decade they may begin pushing it as a successful model of power sharing between ethnic enemies. Then Israel and the Palestinians will be in real trouble.


  1. I'm skeptical of these attempts to attribute Israeli and Palestinian actions and attitudes to historic traumas. An obvious counterexample: as you say, the seventy years prior to the end of World War II were extremely violent for European Jewry. But today in Israel, the yefei nefesh in the peace camp are almost exclusively the descendants of those European Jews. The Mizrahim have much less sympathy for the peace process.

    I agree that Israeli (and Palestinian) attitudes are perfectly rational and normal reactions -- to contemporaneous events. If you want to understand Israeli actions in the past decade, the Second Intifada has more explanatory power than the Holocaust. If you want to understand Palestinian actions in the 90's, Oslo is more important than the Nakba.

  2. Goreism,
    Actually your counterexample isn't really one. Most of the "yefei nefesh" (beautiful souls or bleeding hearts) as you disparagingly refer to them are European Jews but from families that were settled in Palestine before the Holocaust. The Labor Party leadership was based mainly on former generals and functionaries many of whom come from families that date from the pre-state aliyot mainly the third and fourth aliyot (waves of migration).

    The point of my post was that the actions were not only rational but also mutually reactive. And I should add here cumulative as well. Large-scale Jewish settlement in the territories throughout the Oslo process reinforced the pre-existing belief that Israel was out to steal all of Palestine. The al-Aksa Intifada reinforced the pre-existing Jewish belief that Arabs couldn't be trusted. People may cite the latest outrage as it is freshest in the memory, but it goes to confirm and reinforce previous beliefs.