Nothing is more agonizing and emblematic of the nihilistic helplessness of modern diplomacy than the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I can totally understand Mahmoud Abbas going to the United Nations to petition for statehood. It’s obviously going to get vetoed by the US, but I’m perplexed that anyone could criticize him for trying something different than a process which has gone nowhere for as long as I’ve been alive.
I suppose you could oppose Abbas’s move on the grounds that all Palestinians are terrorists by nature, but I refuse to consider any depiction of this messy and morally complicated conflict that depends upon damning a whole race of people. Many Palestinians are actually Christian, not that it should matter. The question of what’s fair to Jews and Arabs alike has to be considered in complete independence from the false “math” of who’s done more wrong to the other side (which actually tilts radically in the Palestinians’ favor if you’re talking about innocent civilians who have been killed).
There’s no incentive for Benjamin Netanyahu to come to peace with Palestinians because that means facing the wrath of his settler population who make the shrillest voices in American politics look tame. There’s no incentive for Barack Obama to say or do anything that can be construed as less than absolute, uncritical support for Israel because doing so would cost him the presidential election. The Palestinians are the only ones who have any incentive to pursue any kind of change in the situation because their lives suck completely right now.
Whatever else is true, Palestinians, especially in the Gaza strip, are living in worse than Third World conditions. The unemployment rate is something like 2/3 of the population. Israel’s siege of Gaza is creating a whole new generation of Palestinians who have nothing to live for, and people who have nothing to live for only have something to die for. They can’t wait around like Netanyahu can. That’s why Abbas had no choice but to do something in order to hang onto whatever thread of political legitimacy he still has.
And yet, there is a completely different route that the Palestinians could take. They could demand equal rights as Israeli citizens through nonviolent protest. If they’re willing to sacrifice their demands for their own independent state, that removes all of the current barriers to negotiation. Then the Israeli settlers wouldn’t have to move. All the jockeying over east Jerusalem, right of return, etc, would evaporate. They could set immigration quotas for emigrated Jews and Palestinians in the diaspora at an equal level that’s sustainable within the small territory that they have. I know this sounds utterly crazy. How could two races who have been this at odds live together in peace?
But it’s happening right now (more or less) in the land where I live, not just between enemies, but even more radically between descendants of slaves and descendants of their masters. 100 years ago in the South, white terrorists in the Ku Klux Klan could lynch black people with impunity. Black people in the South for most of its history have lived under a reign of terror (and some would argue that black youth are still guilty until proven innocent when they’re on the sidewalks at night). There’s still plenty of racism, but we don’t have barbed wire fences and sniper towers separating white neighborhoods from black neighborhoods. All this is just to say (hopefully without offending everyone reading this for different reasons) that the integrated society we have today would have been unimaginable to people in the Fifties.
If the Palestinians and the Israelis who are interested in peace unified around a single demand for one state with equal rights for all, it would be very hard to oppose that demand. Terrorists have the upper hand in a society with 70% unemployment where the only interactions you have with the “other side” is with soldiers holding machine guns who frisk your grandmother at checkpoints, but a society where Jews and Arabs go to the same schools, play on the same sports teams, and shop at the same businesses would completely undermine that power dynamic.
Would there be some racialized fights in the hallways at school for the first decade or longer? Certainly. Would there be some vandalism of the other sides’ businesses? Probably. But terrorism would be a crime that every citizen would have an investment in stomping out. And I really believe that the overwhelming relief and gratitude for the end of a lifetime of misery would be incentive enough for a vast majority of people to say, “We are absolutely not going to let the haters take us back to the way that we were!”
The main difference between the American South and Israel and Palestine is that we changed because we had to. There’s no “have to” for Israel and Palestine. Netanyahu has his hands tied by his crazy settlers; Hamas’s ideology depends upon Israel staying an enemy forever. The only way to create a “have to” in Israel and Palestine is for the US, UN, the Arab League, and whoever else gives money to both sides to give them a concrete absolute deadline, saying, “You fix this or we’ll cut off all foreign aid.” Without the purse-strings getting pulled, there will never be a “have to.” There are too many factors that assure perpetual inertia otherwise.
I know it sounds naive and overly simplistic. It would certainly be a messy, painful process, but how could it possibly not be better than the “two-state” bridge to nowhere which has been a total failure? If the US were somehow involved in not only creating peace but helping the Israelis and Palestinians become an integrated society, that would be the biggest game-changer imaginable in terms of our relationship to the Arab world.
Of course, there’s a sizable bloc of people in the US who don’t want peace in the Middle East because peace would mean that they won’t get raptured out of their miserable dead-end cubicle jobs when Armageddon strikes. I want Jesus to come back too, but as Amos 5:18 says, “Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light.” People who hate peace shouldn’t assume that Jesus is going to run up and hug them when He returns. In any case, I prefer the hopeful vision of Isaiah 2:
In days to come, the Lord’s mountain will be established as the highest of mountains. It will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
I suppose this prophecy is a bit boring for people who love violent video games and prefer the fire and brimstone of the book of Revelation, but it’s in the Bible for a reason and I’m going to hold onto the hope that it gives me.