Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Do Israelis Want?

In my last post (November 16), I talked about the importance of mistaken beliefs in politics. This first really struck me when I was living in Israel, and it became apparent to me that the Arab world, and the Muslim world in general, was almost completely uninformed about Israel. In particular, they have a strange view of what Israelis (or Israeli Jews) actually want from peace negotiations. No doubt the reverse is also true, but that's a job for someone else.

So here's a summary of what Israelis want:

a. They want their own country.

b. They want some confidence that people will stop trying to kill them.

That's about it. That doesn't seem too unreasonable, does it? Give them that and a Palestinian state is easy.  Here are some things Israelis do not care about:

1. World domination.

2.  All the land between the Euphrates and the Nile. I doubt that even leaders of Hamas, which has this in its charter, can take it seriously any more, ever since Israel made a major move in the opposite direction by giving the Sinai back to Egypt.

3.  Lebanon. The only reason Israelis ever cared about Lebanon was to stop its use as a base by people trying to kill them. That's still the only reason they care.

4. Gaza. Well, no one wants Gaza.

5. The West Bank. Here I need to put in some qualifiers. First of all, the West Bank is the heart of the historic Israel/Judea. A lot of Jewish history took place there. So there is a significant number of people who want Israel to keep it. Nonetheless, polls show these people to be a clear minority, albeit a vociferous and, at the extreme, a potentially violent one. Most people are not indifferent to the West Bank, as they are to Lebanon, but they would be willing to give it up.

All the problems of making peace in the Middle East can be traced to points (a) and (b) above. Admittedly, the devil is in the details. But for example:

A Palestinian state: As I said, no problem. Most Israelis wouldn't be opposed, as long as they knew a Palestinian  state wouldn't try to (a) take away their country or (b) kill them. The big question for Israelis is whether they are safe with a Palestinian state in close proximity. Israel is the size of four Delawares--with two of them almost completely uninhabited. The basic Israeli fear is of an armed, hostile Palestinian state able to shell or rocket every spot in Israel. And even if the state is not hostile, will it be willing, or able, to stop people who are? Israelis who had no great desire to hang onto the West Bank are now having second thoughts, given what happened when they withdrew from Gaza.

A One-State Solution: Issue (a). Forget it. Not gonna happen. It's perfectly clear to everyone that a combined Israel-Palestine would eventually result in Jews being a minority. Then they are once again dependent on the goodwill of others. That hasn't worked too well for them in the past, and not just in Europe; Jews from Arab countries feel even more strongly about this. Yes, you say, but we can set things up so Jews have constitutional guarantees even when they're in the minority. So how well did that idea work out in Lebanon? (Answer: Depends on how you feel about civil war.)

Right of Return for Refugees: Issue (a). Not gonna happen. See above. Also, Israelis object to the implication that they're to blame for the 1948 war. No Palestinian leader, or any other leader, has yet broken the news to the refugees. No Palestinian leader can even bring himself to say that a two-state solution would include one Jewish state.

Powers of a Palestinian State: Issue (b). One sometimes hears commentators talk about the Israeli insistence on keeping some control over borders, and not allowing a Palestinian national army, as though Israelis just get a kick out of keeping Palestinians down. That's not it. It's issue (b). Don't like it? Should have thought of that before you spent sixty years trying to kill them.

It seems pretty simple, and it's frustrating to see Palestinians continually missing the point. One still hears Palestinians saying, "The only thing the Jews understand is force." That is exactly wrong; the only countries to have recovered land from Israel did it by making peace. Not only has violence not accomplished anything, it has made things worse by reinforcing Israelis' belief that the Arabs will never stop trying to kill them. With an organized campaign of non-violent resistance, Palestinians could have had their own country forty years ago. A campaign like that would have been devastatingly effective. Try convincing a Palestinian of that.


  1. Concise and I largely agree with it. What about Jerusalem?

  2. I admit that I skipped the question of Jerusalem to save space. I also admit that I personally find the arguments for control by Israel more persuasive than those for Arab control: (1) Jerusalem is far more central to Jews than it is to Muslims or Christians. Roughly speaking, Jerusalem is to Jews what Mecca is to Muslims. All the talk about it being the city "sacred to three religions" obscures this fact. (2) Since East Jerusalem fell under Israeli control in 1967, there has been virtually unrestricted access to holy sites of all religions. The same was not true under Jordanian control (and the old Jewish quarter was destroyed).

    International control is the usual alternative, but Israeli experience with international control in general has not been positive-- for example the UN force in Sinai before the 1967 war-- nor do Israelis have much faith in the international community.

    The most likely outcome under a peace deal, I think, is one where Israel keeps control of most of Jerusalem, and some of the Arab sections of East Jerusalem go to the Palestinians as Al-Quds.