Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What the Conflict is Really About

Ethan Bronner has a forgettable article in yesterday's NYT, about how things look good in Israel these days but the Israelis are worried. Or rather, that's what the first four fifths of the article says. Near the end it veers off in the opposite direction when he approvingly cites Aluf Benn in Haaretz last week, who posited that when Israelis feel secure they see no reason to make compromises for peace. (That wasn't my reading of Ben's article, but I see how Bronner could have read it that way).

The opening of Bronners article is useful for my purposes:

Rocket fire from Gaza has markedly declined. The Lebanese border is quiet. Terrorist attacks from the West Bank are rare. The national airport processed a
record number of travelers in the first week of August. The currency is so strong that the central bank has bought billions of dollars to keep the exchange rate down.
Israel is flourishing this summer, and one might imagine its people and leaders to be breathing a sigh of relief after nearly a decade of violence and unease. That, however, is far from the case. On every front, Israel is worried that it is living a false calm that could explode at any moment. Its airwaves and public discourse are filled with menace and concern.

So Israel has managed to beat off its many foes, once again, but it still feels threatened. Perhaps because the foes are still there, nursing their wounds and brooding over their thwarted plans to get rid of us. Which is, in a way, the thesis of the unlikely Hussain Agha-Robert Malley duo, in their NYT op-ed of two days ago, or, as Jeffrey Goldberg describes it, in the latest of "their never-ending series of provocative and thoughtful op-eds".

Agha-Malley, in the unlikely case you've never heard of them, are the fellows who double-handedly saved the day for the Palestinians and their myriad appolgists at the height of their war against school-children and bus riders earlier this decade. At the time Bill Clinton's rueful but public recognition of the fact that it was the Palestinian side that had thwarted peace, was forcing the more sane among Israel's haters to admit weakness in their case. Then, in August 2001, Malley and Agha published a seminal article in the New York Review of Books which claimed that actually, no. Ehud Barak had been mean to Arafat; he hadn't really intended on letting the Palestinians have anything; and while Arafat's negotiating style wasn't pretty, the talks failed because of the Israelis. Any number of well-informed people refuted this narrative, including Malley's boss Bill Clinton, but facts interest Israel's enemies only to the extent they can be used against it; otherwise they're not important.

Jonathan Tobin has more on this here.

Perhaps they're incorrigible contrarians; perhaps they derive special pleasure from poking American Presidents in the eye. Whatever the motivation may be, over the past year the duo's line has been inching towards an acceptance of reality. In this week's op-ed the factual part of their analysis is roughly the same as mine is, believe it or not.

Over the past two decades, the origins of the conflict were swept under the carpet, gradually repressed as the struggle assumed the narrower shape of the post-1967 territorial tug-of-war over the West Bank and Gaza. The two protagonists, each for its own reason, along with the international community, implicitly agreed to deal with the battle’s latest, most palpable expression. Palestinians saw an opportunity to finally exercise authority over a part of their patrimony; Israelis wanted to free themselves from the burdens of occupation; and foreign parties found that it was the easier, tidier thing to do. The hope was that, somehow, addressing the status of the West Bank and Gaza would dispense with the need to address the issues that predated the occupation and could outlast it.

That so many attempts to resolve the conflict have failed is reason to be wary. It is almost as if the parties, whenever they inch toward an artful compromise over the realities of the present, are inexorably drawn back to the ghosts of the past. It is hard today to imagine a resolution that does not entail two states. But two states may not be a true resolution if the roots of this clash are ignored. The ultimate territorial outcome almost certainly will be found within the borders of 1967. To be sustainable, it will need to grapple with matters left over since 1948. The first step will be to recognize that in the hearts and minds of Israelis and Palestinians, the fundamental question is not about the details of an apparently practical solution. It is an existential struggle between two worldviews.
For years, virtually all attention has been focused on the question of a future Palestinian state, its borders and powers. As Israelis make plain by talking about the
imperative of a Jewish state, and as Palestinians highlight when they evoke the
refugees’ rights, the heart of the matter is not necessarily how to define a state of Palestine. It is, as in a sense it always has been, how to define the state of Israel.

This line is aggravating some of Israel's supporters. Even Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the most sofisticated and nuanced of them, is uneasy:
This reads to me like an unfortunate bit of pussy-footing. Events are moving
me into the camp of people who believe there isn't an actual solution to the
Arab-Israeli conflict, and it seems as if events are moving Agha and Malley
in this direction as well. But if they're arguing that the conflict will only
end when Israel ceases to define itself as a Jewish state, they should say it
outright. It's not an appealing notion -- that there is room in the Middle East
for twenty-three Muslim-majority states, but not room enough for one Jewish
state , but they should state it if they believe it.

Whether Agha-Malley come out and say what they think or not seems to me less important. Why do we need to care about their personal opinions? Jonathan Tobin's point is more important.
Though many will dismiss this piece as extremist fare, Malley has a history of being the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to anti-Israel polemics. Though the authors couch their article in terms that allow them to pose as peace advocates, what Agha and Malley are attempting to do is legitimize the theme that peace depends on the end of the Jewish state even within the 1949 armistice lines.

The lines of discussion are indeed becoming ever more clear, even if the team at the White House doesn't see it. The issue is the right of the Jews to sovereignty in their ancestral homeland. Not the right of the Palestinians; that has already been acepted by any fair minded person. It's the right of the Jews which is being discussed, evaluated, and in many cases rejected. This is what the Jews need firmly to keep in mind.


Anonymous said...

I always seem to let my guard down with Jeffrey Goldberg's comments. He is quite informed and rational.

What I need to remember is that we are fighting an enemy who is not rational.

I need to remember, in our enemies eyes, that we are the transgressors and will always be so, regardless of what steps we take to meet the other side in the middle.

Anonymous said...

"how to define the state of Israel."

is the culturally refined man's way of going back at least to before 1948 or even better to 70 CE or old Babylon but not David, never David - that it holds these implications makes it so perfidious

- this is because it belongs to the phrases which seem to insinuate a higher wisdom or knowledge to my of course over simplistic and admittedly knowledge free reading of the proclamations of the sophisticated

- whenever I followed a writer of such hollow stuff over any length of time I gathered that he meant what I conclude as outlined above whenever I read such meaningless but claiming to be heavy with expertise proclamation today.

Can't you see them sitting around a table seriously and deeply troubled nodding their heads to such open to ALL interpreations stuff
- ooops sorry the simple right to inhabit unmolested by terror land that they earned more honestly than most other states came by their territory is of course not insinuated by the sentence but oversimplifying things is after all beneath the dignity of the self-appointed elite.


Anonymous said...

Yaacov, your blog is becoming "must read".

Anonymous said...

Bravo! This column was so on the mark.


Anonymous said...

Yaacov -- your blog is the 'go-to' place...I know you're busy with other projects but please, please keep up the great work --- always insightful and thoughtful...Regards Zvi

Josh S said...

Y - I am a regular reader and ordinarily agree with what you have to say. In this case, though, I disagree with your assessment of the implications of what Malley/Agha are saying.

First off, I re-read the 2001 NY Review article (interesting to look back) and take issue with your characterization of its conclusion that the Camp David talks failed because of the Israelis. The article countered the prevailing view that Arafat was solely to blame for turning down the best offer he'd ever get for his people. Instead, Malley/Agha showed the complex dynamics underling the inability of all three parties to achieve an agreement. One can still read the article and come away with the conclusion, as do I, that Arafat's rejectionism was a primary and inexcusable cause of the failure. But the narrative that lays the blame entirely at his feet is a dangerous oversimplification: dangerous in that it places all the responsibility on one side while allowing others to claim the mantle of righteousness and reject any introspection.

The recent NYT article reinforces a point you've been making for some time: that in many respects, the obstacles to peace remain rooted in the conflict of 1948, the "return" of refugees and acceptance of the Jewish State. Malley/Agha's point, as I see it, is that the two-state solution has foundered, not over seemingly minor details, but over two fundamentally opposed historical narratives.

The article is somewhat maddening in that it does not propose any solution - ending with the vague and open-to-interpretation statement that the conflict is over the definition of Israel. I don't see this (as Goldberg or Tobin) as a passive endorsement of a one-state solution. Rather, it is a recognition that the devil is not in the details - it is in the mindset of the protagonists and a partition agreement, while essential, will not of itself end the conflict.

Take a look at their article in the NY Review from June, where they write:

"A workable two-state agreement would address a large share of the two sides' aspirations. It would preserve Israel's Jewish character and majority, provide it with final and recognized borders, and maintain its ties to Jewish holy sites. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would live free of Israeli occupation, they would govern Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and refugees would have the opportunity to choose normal lives through resettlement and compensation. If meeting those goals were sufficient, why have the parties proved incapable of settling the dispute?


These Israeli and Palestinian yearnings are of a sort that, no matter how precisely fine-tuned, a two-state deal will find it hard to fulfill. Over the years, the goal gradually has shifted from reaching peace to achieving a two-state agreement. Those aims might sound the same, but they are not: peace may be possible without such an agreement just as such an agreement need not necessarily lead to peace. Partitioning the land can, and most probably will, be an important means of achieving a viable, lasting, peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. But it is not the end."