Sunday, May 23, 2021

Damage Assessment

Note: Postscript added May 30, 2021.

More Israel/Palestine links (things I would have included Monday had I been more on the ball). Since then, a ceasefire was finally announced, leaving immense damage in Gaza, and Israel free to continue the policies that led to demonstrations in the first place:

I didn't collect any pieces from Mondoweiss. If I did, I'd probably wind up with dozens.

I keep thinking of more arguments against the Levitz article on why we bother talking about Israel/Palestine. Aside from the ones I mentioned above, another is that I suspect that we more than anyone understand the perils of living in a successful (i.e., dominant and unchecked) settler colonial society. We just don't know that we know yet.

We also know that success has limits -- in particular, that megalomaniacs never stop until they are checked. The US could step up and provide a sanity check on Israel, rather than wait until it is too late, and both countries pay an inevitable price for such hubris.

Here's a brief outline of what I see as a peace framework, without a lot of detail or explanation. I've spent a lot of time on the history of the conflict, both because it's important and interesting, but we don't need to go very deep into that. What you do need to understand is the following:

  1. Israel is a segregated colonial settler project. Such projects can succeed when the settlers dominate demographically (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina -- all well above 80%), but fail when they don't (South Africa and Algeria around 20%, many lesser examples). Israel is in between (about 30% Jewish before 1949, rising to 70% with expulsions and immigration, now about 50% counting occupied territories), but has been able to dominate through force, and arguably still depends on force.

  2. Israel's political leaders, and by inference most Jewish Israelis, don't want peace. The difference between the elites and the masses is that the former are very arrogant about their power, while the latter are driven by fear. The former don't want peace because they believe they can continue their power indefinitely. The latter allow them to continue because they are terrified of losing control.

  3. The only form of peace possible is what Israel's leaders are willing to permit. No internal nor external power can force Israel's leaders to do what they are unwilling to do.

  4. The Palestinians don't have the power to force Israel to do anything, but they are able to deny Israel victory or legitimacy.

  5. Israel and Palestine are tiny compared to the world around them. Foreign powers cannot dictate terms, but should have the resources to be able to influence them. Although world powers have often claimed to want to promote peace, their efforts have consistently been frustrated by ambivalence in Europe and (especially) America. On the other hand, the costs of failing to find a solution keep accumulating.[1]

[1] This is the only controversial statement in the list. The far right sees Israel as a model for how to dominate their own domestic minorities. The neocons want America to project power globally like Israel does in its region. I believe I can come up with a long and detailed argument why they're wrong, but wish to have to do so here.

Two States vs. One State

The "two state" idea was presented by the Peel Commission in 1936, and has dominated thought about solutions ever since. David Ben-Gurion embraced it at the time, without ever accepting any fixed borders. He campaigned hard for the 1947 UN Partition Resolution, seeing it as a way to secure international legitimacy for the founding of Israel, but from the start he plotted to expand Israel's borders -- as they did in the 1948-49 and 1967 wars.

"One state" has always been understood as a normal, democratic state, which represents and serves all of the people who reside under it. This notion as always been anathema to Israel, which has always conceived itself as a Jewish State, where non-Jews are subordinated if they are tolerated at all. While Israel has been willing to discuss two-state solutions, they have always rejected "one state" out of hand. Indeed, if you look at their two-state proposals, they have never allowed for a normal, democratic Palestinian state.

However, the minimal solution for peace is for both Israelis and Palestinians are citizens in normal, democratic state. This could be one state, two, or more. Israel, and only Israel, needs to decide on this. The obvious reason for splitting off a Palestinian state would be to remove non-Jews from Israel (at the cost of losing the land they live on). Aside from the land, the one point Israel would have to give on is that the ceded state would be normal: independent, with full sovereignty, and no encumbrances.


If Israel decides to carve off a Palestinian state, Israel will be largely free to determine the borders. The Palestinian state has to be normal, with democratic elections organized by the UN. The state must be free to interact with the world, as normal states do. The obvious candidate for separation is Gaza, which is also the most straightforward to implement, as it is contiguous, with an external border and seafront.

If Israel decides to cede additional territory from the West Bank, the only additional requirement is that all such territories allow for connecting transportation without Israeli checkpoints. Some provision should also be made for joint administration of resources best shared, like air space, radio frequencies, and water.

This does not cover resolution of boundary disputes with external countries, like Syria and Lebanon. I'm thinking that Israel should return Bekaa Farms to Lebanon, as this would resolve a major dispute between Israel and Hizbullah. At this point, the best solution for the Golan Heights might be for Israel to pay Syria for the land, as part of a broader international project to reconstruct Syria after its horrific civil war.

For what follows, we will assume that Israel has designated and ceded some territory to a Palestinian state. The exact borders do not matter.

International Support

Why would Israel agree to any of this? In the long run, everyone would be better off for the conflict to end and normal life resume, but the political elite in Israel were selected for war and dominance, so they're unlikely to change on their own. The question is how sorely they will resist international pressure (and incentives) for peace. That hasn't really been tested, because the world community is itself divided, with the US unclear whether they're green-lighting or simply rubber-stamping Israeli policy.

Nothing much happens until the US, Europe, and other countries come together to leverage their influence toward peace. This can be done with sticks and/or carrots. The latter is mostly money. Gaza is especially in need of repair. Israel is one of the world's richer nations, but it still depends on $4 billion plus of aid from the US. So let's start by pooling all of the money into a development bank, which Israel and Palestine can draw on. This bank would be run by an international oversight board, which can impose conditions on how the money is spent, and can police for corruption.

The "stick" side of the equation is to allow nations to implement tariffs and sanctions on Israel and/or Palestine as penalties for abnormal behavior, such as violations of human rights. Israel's current discrimination against residents of its occupied territories, or even against Israel's own non-Jewish citizens, could be deemed as cause for sanctions.

Aid through the development bank would be subject to some kind of "consent decree," which would contractually bind the recipient to various terms, for a limited number of years (maybe 10-20). This is where one might set expectations for personal freedoms. This is also where one might restrict arms imports, and provide some sort of import oversight.

Terrorism Insurance

The development fund can be used to fund an insurance scheme to pay out damages caused by acts of terror (either state or non-state). If, say, someone in Gaza shot a missile into Israel, the damage would be assessed, and compensation (drawn from Palestinian funds) paid to the victim. The IDF would not be allowed to "defend itself" by bombing Gaza. If that happened anyway, again the damage would be assessed and compensation (drawn from Israeli funds) would be awarded.

Reserves can be adjusted to payouts, so as terror wanes, aid will flow faster. Same principle can be applied within states for things like excess police violence or "domestic" terrorism, but that would be harder to manage.


There should be a right to go into exile, especially for evident political prisoners. (This is a right that should be universal, but this would be a good place to start.) One might wish to exempt those charged with terrorism or espionage, but the former could be prosecuted in the ICC. One worries that this could incentivize Israel to arrest Palestinians in hope that would prod them into exile. That could count as a crime of repression punishable by sanctions.


Sovereign nations have a right to restrict their own borders. Israel is not required to readmit refugees. (For that matter, Palestine isn't either.) Existing refugees should be compensated and resettled, phasing out the registry in a reasonable time frame.


Amnesty would be granted for all past offenses against international law. Moving forward, new offenses would be referred to the ICC.


Back in 2000, the Oslo Peace Process foundered on three big issues: borders, Jerusalem, and refugees. This framework gives into Israel all three points. The only thing asked in return is that Israel treat its subjects fairly and equally, and refrain from attacking other countries. I'd like to see Israel pay more -- for refugees, for Syria, for Lebanon, for Gaza -- and restricted more, but it's hard to impose restrictions on a country convinced of its righteousness. Whether Palestinians are ready to agree to respect this agreement peaceably isn't clear, but I'd wager they are, and that they'll do a better job of limiting their own ranks than Israel could ever hope to.

I recall some Israeli saying that the point is to show Palestinians that "they are an utterly defeated people." This should suffice. But they are people nonetheless, and deserve respect as such. That's what this framework also promises.

If the US and other nations can't get behind this framework, we are truly lost.

I got to this point last night, then started having second thoughts, doubting I should even bother posting. Am I really just saying that the solution to the intractable conflict is: forget the history, and start treating everyone better? That's about it. Sure, there are some financial incentives to better behavior. That approach can be used more widely: any time you can turn a sectarian conflict into a money issue, it becomes much easier to solve. There's also a moral part, even if I'm not leaning heavily on it. All nations should realize that peace with social and economic justice is very desirable, and should be willing to spend to help it happen, but they should also set an example. Arms races have never been an effective guarantor of peace. (If they had been, why would the US have been constantly engaged in wars since 1940? Why would Britain from the 1700s up to around 1970, when they withdrew from the Middle East?) I keep flashing back to A.J. Muste: "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way."

We might as well admit that both sides have compelling historical stories, establishing that they have been victimized, and should be treated better. But the relative merits of one story vs. another would only matter if there was a superior court one could appeal to, that could render judgment and enforce its findings. But there is no such institution. Rather, there are "facts on the ground," which must be accepted as the starting point for any possible future. The only fact I insist on rejecting is the subordination of non-Jews to Jews in present Israel. That must be rejected, because that -- not the various stories about past wrongs and reasons -- is the reason the conflict persists. One cannot change past injustices, but one can reject injustice moving forward. My belief is that this framework starts to do that, and the more progress on this effort, the more successful it will become.

I think it's fair to say that there are Israelis who would welcome this framework, but they're currently a small minority. I doubt that a majority will come over until it becomes clear that Europe and the US make it clear that Israel will be regarded as an illegitimate state unless it shows a genuine interest in resolving the conflict -- which means, quite simply, ensuring that Palestinians have security and equal rights.

A slightly higher percentage of Palestinians may be amenable to this framework, as their political thinking has evolved from nationalism to an internationalist appeal for human rights. But there, too, a majority has been conditioned to think in zero-sum nationalist terms, and there exists a militant minority willing to fight for their goals -- even as they have proven unattainable. One should expect that segments of both sides will resort to violence to derail any move toward peace, but they will be increasingly marginalized as normal life returns. The framework needs to police these violent splinter groups, and also to compensate for their misdeeds -- which I suspect will become increasingly infrequent over time. (Needless to say, organized military groups, including Hamas and the IDF, need special attention, but given their greater discipline may be less of a problem.)

One last thought here is that resistance to the framework will not be limited to militant, irredentist factions of Israelis and Palestinians. It will be led by "conservative" groups in the US and Europe, which are committed to maintaining force as the means for securing the continued rule of their oligarchies. That's a subject for a whole book, but look around you: it's no coincidence that the biggest warmongers are the same people who seek to smash unions, untax the rich, build the police state, exacerbate racial and ethnic tensions, shackle women, etc.

PS [2021-05-30]: Thinking about this piece, it occurrs to me that I should say a few things about political tactics. The framework I proposed above is what I see as the likely end-result of good faith negotiations, which are currently impossible. The main reason they are impossible is that Israel has no interest in or desire for peace, and no other party is able to apply pressure to convince Israel otherwise.

The political strategy behind selling this framework needs to be segmented by audience. In the US and Europe, people need to understand that the conflict reflects poorly on our commitment to international law and human rights. The conflict may have complex historical causes, but what sustains it is Israel's use of violence and discrimination in managing the occupation (and the extension of the occupation back into pre-1967 borders, where Palestinians are supposed to be citizens of Israel). The US and Europe can impress these views on Israel by by supporting the BDS movement, initially at ad hoc levels. I don't generally approve of sanctions (a tool the US often abuses, and which rarely proves effective), but in this case even modest sanctions may convey the message, as long as the goals are modest and framed within basic tenets of peace and human rights.

In Israel, the strategy is to emphasize that the framework provides a way out of the cycle of violence and discrimination which perpetuates the conflict, and a normalization of relations with the external world. Moreover, the significant decisions over borders and demography are left to Israel, which alone can decide one-state vs. two-states.

With the Palestinians, there is an existing divide between those who are primarily concerned with individual rights, including peace, and those who have nationalistic ambitions, so the direction should be to shift toward the former -- either for practical reasons (Israel will not allow a powerful Palestinian state, and may not permit any at all) or for philosophical understanding.

In all cases, one should minimize the importance of issues that are unlikely -- examples include Jerusalem's "holy places" and the "right of return." (I am pleased to see Peter Beinart's recent piece defending the right of Palestinian exiles to return to Israel, but I doubt that it will persuade many Israelis, and don't want to allow the issue to hold any resolution hostage.) Similarly, in the US it is pointless to argue one-vs.-two states, as that's only something Israel can decide. (Zack Beauchamp's recent In defense of the two-state solution is an example of what not to do, although his "ditch the peace process" and "rethink what an acceptable two-state solution could look like" sections have some merit.)

One more point: I've thought of one more wrinkle that could make the framework more attractive to Israel (and somewhat, but not prohibitively, more onerous to Palestinians: Egypt and/or Jordan could be given a role in securing and governing any new Palestinian enclaves split off from Israel. As I see it, the enclaves would be self-governing (especially given that neither Egypt nor Jordan currently qualify as democracies), but would be considered mandates (to use the suspect League of Nations term) for a period of, say, 10-20 years (after which an election could decide independence or incorporation). The mandatory powers could intervene for security (but Israel could not), would provide an initial legal framework (including money), and would conduct foreign policy for the mandates. One reason Israel might find this attractive is that the enclaves could not represent themselves as a Palestinian state (which they view as an implicit rival for the land they occupy).

This isn't a plank I would prefer -- Egypt and Jordan have previously overseen Palestinian territories, and their records are pretty shabby -- but I don't think it would be a deal-wrecker. One thing that might sweeten the deal would be to allow Palestinian authorities to bypass Egypt and Jordan and negotiate directly with Israel. That may not seem realistic at present, but would give Palestinians an option to leverage, and a measure of autonomy which (by definition) doesn't threaten Israel.

One should always be clear that both peoples are entitled to rights which don't trample on others, and be open to new proposals coming from either side. One should be careful not to conflate the conflict with other issues, like the rise of Jihadism, the American "war on terror," or the Saudi paranoia with Iran. One should be careful not to offer even the slightest whiff of anti-semitism, or for that matter of anti-Arab or anti-Muslim or anti-Christian prejudice. I've found it useful to never describe myself as pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, although people who unabashedly do take sides can still come together behind a framework like the one I've presented.

On the other hand, I don't see any value in understating Israel's responsibility for the conflict and its seeming intractability. There is no peace because Israel wants to and has been able to violently impose a fundamentally unjust order over the land it controls. One may fault various Palestinians for not having been smarter politically at various junctures, but they've never had the power to decide, and as such have never been responsible for the conflict. (One tends to forget Britain's role in this, which was substantial -- cf. Tom Segev's book, One Palestine, Complete.)

Also, while I condemn all violence on all sides, I think it's wrong to treat both sides as equally (or even comparably) guilty. Nor is it a simple matter of counting and weighing explosives. Injustice may not excuse violence, but it does cause it, and the only real way to end it is to remove the provocation. Also, from a more practical standpoint, peace needs the participation of formerly violent actors, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad (as Israelis who remember the terrorist roots of Begin and Shamir must realize). Maybe you can police a last few recalcitrant fanatics, but widely popular groups like Hamas need to be courted, so condemning them (easy as it seems) isn't very helpful.