At the heart of the current conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinian People are competing one-dimensional interpretations of events and their significance. A common element among these competing interpretations is a lack of nuanced, critical thinking.
By critical thinking, I do not mean simply criticizing the points of view that differ with one's own; but also the ability to subject one's own point of view to the same scrutiny as one subjects rival points of view. In other words, real critical thinking means asking not only "How do you know that?" but also "How do I know that?" This is without question a more challenging way to sort through the complexities of the conflict (especially with the false urgency of the 24-hour news cycle and the numbing effects of social media pulsating in the background). Shouting the same one dimensional argument again and again is easier and emotionally more rewarding perhaps, but ultimately futile. The more challenging path is the more productive and rewarding path.
Consider, as an example, the debate over Israeli rule in the West Bank and the related claim that Israel is an Apartheid State.
Critics of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967 claim that the occupation must be undone, reiterating the mantra "pre-1967 borders," and the moral implications of a people being governed by a foreign state created by a form of European colonialism. Defenders of the State of Israel expanding its border in June 1967 claim, among other things, that Israel is not the only country in the world that has expanded its borders through military victory, and that the historic ties to these territories legitimize this expansion.
Both sides are correct to a point. Israel occupying the West Bank is not the same as Great Britain colonizing much of Africa, if only because Great Britain had no pre-existing connection to any part of the African continent. Israel's right to these territories transcends the reality of military conquest, but includes, too, a deeply rooted 3000-year historical connection and a powerful sense of return. (The more apt comparative might be the return of freed American slaves to Liberia.).
Zionist ideology did not invent this claim: throughout the millennia of the diaspora, Jews yearned to return to the Land of Israel. Passover Seders for the last millennia and a half have concluded with "Next Year in Jerusalem." Having said that, once Israel claimed these territories as its own it also inherited the obligation of governing these territories responsibly, which, in this case, means democratically.
Israelis can claim sovereignty over these territories, and even try to rename them Judea and Samaria, but not without bearing responsibility for the situation of Palestinians in these territories. This responsibility points to the issue of apartheid rule. Contrary to the claims of Israel's critics, the State of Israel is not an apartheid state, but it is closer to being an apartheid state than ever before.
For the moment, Israel and its government can deflect the accusation of apartheid through a legal technicality: since the occupied territories are not fully part of the State of Israel and are still in a sort of political limbo, the inhabitants need not be governed according to the same laws as territories that are fully part of the State Israel. This means, however, that if the occupied territories were to become fully part of the State of Israel — through annexation, for example — and the Palestinian residents of the territories are not granted full and equal citizenship immediately, then this already tenuous defense against the claim of apartheid would dissolve instantly.
To be sure, the notion of Israel as an apartheid state poses no problem to the non/anti-democratic elements within Israel society and politics — Kahanists — who have little or no interest in the Jewish State being democratic as long as it is Jewish. For the rest of Israeli society, however, from Meretz to Likud, the state must be Jewish and Democratic. This core notion was envisioned by Zionist thinkers across the political spectrum, from Ben Gurion to Jabotinsky, and hard-wired into the Declaration of Independence. As usual, Jabotinsky's articulation of this notion was the most eloquent and concise.
Complete civic equality between Jews and Arabs, between the two languages, and between all religions will in the future predominate in the Jewish State.
This vision was echoed in the Declaration of Independence.
The State of Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…
This means that, if the territories were to be annexed, Israeli polity and society would have to accept the demographic consequences of several million Palestinian residents becoming full citizens.
The difficulty of critical, nuanced thinking about these issues had been augmented by the chronic scarcity of strong Israeli and Palestinian leadership. Consider by way of contrast, the central role of strong leadership in the negotiation and conclusion of the Camp David Accords at the end of the 1970s, a treaty that has lasted nearly a half-century.
The driving force behind this treaty was a tandem of visionary leaders: Menachem Begin, arguably Israel's greatest prime minister, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. It is sometimes forgotten that prior to Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem and the ensuing peace negotiations, Begin and Sadat were hardline war hawks. Begin embraced his mentor Jabotinsky's presumption of military superiority as a prerequisite to the survival of the state; Sadat had been the quintessential enemy of Israel, the loudest in the chorus of voices calling for the destruction of the State of Israel and Jews to be thrown into the sea.
For each leader, a willingness to sit down and discuss peace earnestly in the aftermath of Yom Kippur War, the latest failed attempt to destroy the State of Israel, was driven, more than anything else, by a deep concern for the welfare of his own people. To this end, Sadat set aside his ideological objections to a Jewish State and political aspirations for Egyptian hegemony and made peace instead, a choice from which he never wavered and that ultimately cost him his life.
Menachem Begin, too, saw peace for his people as preferable to endless war and, with little or no concern for his personal or political future, ceded territory for peace — a decision that eventually included dragging entrenched Israeli settlers from their homes in Yamit and other Israeli settlements in the Sinai. The noble efforts of Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon to replicate Begin's achievements during the Oslo peace negotiations were upended, among other things, by the tragic assassination of Rabin in 1995 and the sudden incapacitation of Sharon a decade later.
Thereafter, it is hard to locate such visionary leadership on either side of this conflict. The death of Ariel Sharon meant the end of the generation of founders and the pantheon of semi mythical heroes whose towering aura commanded the respect of political allies and critics alike; such an aura made it possible for Rabin and Sharon to get closer to peace with the Palestinians than any other Israeli leader before or since. Ben Gurion, Begin, Golda, Rabin, Sharon — these were not politicians but statesmen in the best sense of the term.
Bibi Netanyahu, for all of his abilities and strengths, is not part of that pantheon. Rather, he is the most experienced leader of a second generation of Israeli politicians whose presence and experience pales in comparison to the founders. Moreover, although Bibi has the intellectual and rhetorical tools and perhaps the charisma to rise to the level of the founders — and even perhaps surpass Menachem Begin as Israel's greatest prime minister — his personal concerns have warped his choices, above all, his choice of political allies.
Netanyahu’s decision to pander to settlers and religious parties in order to remain in office and stay out of jail has aggravated a situation in which these two minorities receive disproportionate state funding and exercise disproportionate influence over issues, to the detriment of the majority of Israelis. Most recently, Bibi violated Begin's parting instruction never to allow Kahana or his minions into the government. Indeed, is it really that surprising that the rioting and brawling between Jews and Arabs on the streets of Lod, Bat Yam, and elsewhere coincided with the election of to the Knesset of a right-wing racist-Kahanist like Itamar Ben-Gvir?
The dearth of leadership is even more pronounced on the Palestinian side. Yasir Arafat turned out not to be the sincere partner for peace his Israeli counterparts hoped for, and other strong Palestinian leadership has yet to come forward. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been, at best, no less corrupt under Abbas than it had been under Arafat, and is less trusted and heeded by most Palestinians.
The main alternative to Fatah and the PA is the non-military leadership of Hamas, but only if they choose to follow in the footsteps of Sadat by abandoning their ideology of endless conflict in favor of peace and the best interests of the Palestinian people. Short of that, Hamas offers yet another tier of one-dimensional leadership, parallel to Bibi and his followers, impeding any path forward out of this conflict.
The upshot is a situation in which Bibi and Hamas reinforce each other's mediocre, short-sighted leadership. Bibi uses Hamas' horrendous attacks on Israeli civilians as an excuse not to negotiate. Hamas uses Bibi as evidence that the Israeli government is not serious about working toward Palestinian statehood. Even though neither Bibi nor Hamas represent the views of all Israelis or all Palestinians, their dysfunctional symbiotic relationship undermines any attempt to improve the lives of both peoples.
Israelis, at least, are on the verge of taking the first step out of this political stalemate by forming a governing coalition without Bibi that includes right- and left-wing parties and perhaps — even more remarkable — Israeli Arab parties. This new coalition, stalled but not yet upended by the recent strife, would exclude the racist Kahanist wing of the far right, would not be beholden to the whims of the Settlers, and would relegate the religious parties relegated back to the periphery of Israeli politics from whence they arose a half-century ago.
This would create a situation in which the government of Israel, long mired in ideological differences and corruption, could begin to improve the day-to-day lives of all Israelis — Jews, Arabs, Muslims, religious, secular, urban, rural. The growing possibility of a post-Bibi Israel government raises the important question: Can the Palestinian people do the same? Are there Palestinian leaders, from Hamas or elsewhere, who are willing to engage what could be a new political reality and new possibilities?
No less important: If Hamas leaders emulate Sadat's decisive turn away from ideological aims in the name of improving the lives of Palestinians, would Israelis accept the possibility that a Hamas leader, olive branch in hand, could be another Sadat?
Much of this seems remote at this moment, especially in the aftermath of yet another destructive but ultimately futile exchange of Hamas missiles and Israeli retaliation, and, even more so, amidst the growing tension and violence between Israeli Arabs and their Jewish neighbors. Conflicts do not always end with one side victorious. Some end through sheer exhaustion when the warring sides finally come to see that difficult compromise is necessary for the good of the many and that only a minority on each side benefits from endless strife, instability and uncertainty.
Such moments are usually recognized only in hindsight. Perhaps we are approaching such a moment.
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