The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Made Super

The West Bank barrier near Bethlehem, February 16, 2013
The West Bank barrier near Bethlehem, February 16, 2013 (hjl)

And here we go again.

Especially in the United States, Palestinian-Israeli violence always sucks up the headlines, siphoning valuable media and filling it with tried-and-true journalistic narratives that play to the myriad of biases that always come to the fore when discussing the Holy Land.

Evangelical Christians get their dose of Biblical chaos, hoping beyond hope that this time, the Rapture will follow this latest spasm of violence. Conservatives and neoconservatives find yet more ammunition against Islam, Islamism or, to the brute racists lurking among them, merely Arabs in general to fill the Facebook comments of every article that covers the attacks. Liberals dredge up well-worn tirades against colonization, colonialism, Western power and Israeli abuse.

Rather than sit this one out, I’ve decided to delve into the very basics of the conflict at risk, of course, of revealing my own bias (spoiler: I don’t care).

So let’s make this very popular-to-recycle conflict super. Read more

Why Israel Won’t Let the West Bank Go

Israeli soldiers patrol along the West Bank barrier near Hebron, June 17, 2014
Israeli soldiers patrol along the West Bank barrier near Hebron, June 17, 2014 (IDF)

Most of Israel’s critics argue that any Israeli claim to the moral high ground is compromised by the fact that the Israeli military has been dominating the West Bank since 1967, thereby denying the Palestinians the ability to ever form their own state. While of course there is truth to this argument, it nevertheless ignores a critical point: Israel believes it must control the West Bank, at least for now, in order to ensure its own continued safety over the long-term.

Even though religion is the key motivator for most of the Jews (and Christians) who have settled or support Jewish settlement within the West Bank, Israel’s desire to control the West Bank is not ultimately rooted in religion, but rather in physical geography and “strategic necessity.”

By dominating the West Bank, Israel gains control over the Jordan Rift Valley, a steep-walled, incredibly deep canyon containing a number of the points on Earth that are the furthest below sea level through which the Jordan River runs into the Dead Sea. The rift valley serves as an excellent defensive barrier against invasion or incursion. Israel enjoys using it both as a defensive border with Jordan and as a security barrier separating the roughly three million Palestinians living in Jordan from the three million Palestinians living in the West Bank.

Israel is hardly alone in wanting control over this valley: about seven different African states also use the Jordan Rift Valley (in Africa it is called the Great East African Rift Valley) as an international border.

Even more important, the West Bank allows Israel to control the hills and highlands that surround Jerusalem on three sides and directly overlook nearly every other major Israeli city.

The average elevation of a West Bank hill is about 700-1000 metres above sea level; to put that in perspective, the One World Trade Center, the tallest building in Manhattan, reaches just 540 meters high.

Tel Aviv, in contrast, sits roughly at sea level with its downtown core just twenty kilometers away from the West Bank and a number of its suburban areas, like Modi’in or Rosh Ha’ayin, within two-ten kilometers of the West Bank. The Jordan Rift Valley, meanwhile, sits around 200-400 meters below sea level. And the centre of Jerusalem is within two-four kilometers of the West Bank in every direction except due west.

Managing the West Bank also lets Israel have control over any movement or potential smuggling of weapons between West Bank Palestinians and Palestinians living within the pre-1967 borders of Israel, the latter of whom account for an estimated 20 percent of all Israeli citizens. Most Israeli Arabs outside of Jerusalem live in a region of hills and low mountains that is just around twenty-sixty kilometers north of the West Bank in which they make up about 50-75 percent of the regional population.

This region also happens to be strategically crucial for Israel, as it borders Lebanon and overlooks both Haifa (Israel’s largest port and third largest city) and the Jezreel Valley, Israel’s route to the the Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights which is where the majority of Israeli freshwater is located and which serves as an Israeli border with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Panoramic map of Israel and its neighbors
Panoramic map of Israel and its neighbors (Maphill)

Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, then, is most likely the result of Israel’s desire for security and survival rather than the result of the Israeli government being a uniquely radical one. Indeed, it is possible that the Israeli government’s support for religious Jewish civilians settling the West Bank is based for the most part on the notion that these settlers are likely to help cement Israel’s strategic control over the region rather than being a result of, as most critics of Israel believe, the Israeli government having been cowed or infiltrated by religious Jewish extremists. Of course, this does not mean that extremist views have not also become much too influential within Israeli politics.

The idea that Israel faces serious threats is not some outdated relic from the earlier days of Zionism when the country’s power was not yet fully formed. To the contrary, it was only a decade ago, between 2001 and 2005, that a thousand Israelis were killed by Palestinian militants, most of them in suicide attacks. Relative to the size of Israel’s population, that would be the equivalent of about 45,000 Americans being killed, roughly nine times more than have died in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. And of course, the conflict also claimed the lives of an even larger number of Palestinian civilians.

More worrying than the prospect of another intifada, however, is the possibility that Israel could suffer tens or hundreds of thousands of casualites by militant groups or perhaps even individuals armed with weapons of mass destruction.

This threat too may inform Israel’s continuing presence in the West Bank. If, for example, a country that has nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan, were ever to collapse into extreme chaos, one of Israel’s main defenses would probably be to seal its own borders, and perhaps also to establish buffer zones in areas like the eastern Sinai Desert or southern Lebanon, until it could ascertain whether or not any such weapons were likely to have gone missing. The goal would be to protect its core territories between Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Be’ersheva.

This strategy might be an effective one, not only because Israeli borders are fairly short and carefully guarded but also since it is extremely challenging to properly adapt a nuclear weapon for a missile — particularly a long-range missile — and because Israel has a relatively sophisticated missile defense system that it hopes to continue to improve over time.

The weak link in the defense, however, could be the Palestinian territories in which there are long-established smuggling, militant and short-range missile networks as well as borders which are adjacent to major Israeli cities.

The West Bank poses a danger in this sense because it directly borders and surrounds Jerusalem, overlooks the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Be’ersheva and has a long external border with both Israel and Palestinian-inhabited Jordan. Indeed, the West Bank’s border with Jordan is more than ten times longer than Gaza’s border with Egypt; the West Bank’s border with Israel is more than six times longer than Gaza’s. As such, Israel’s ability to respond to a nuclear threat arguably appears to depend on its ability to control the border of, or movement within, the West Bank.

Admittedly, this does not mean that there is not a strong religious current running through the Israeli government and helping to drive its policy of expanded settler activity or that the Israeli government’s alliance with portions of the religious right wing is not a cynical one.

Indeed, by issuing a claim on the West Bank that appears to be irrational — namely, that Israel has a right to it because Jews controlled it during parts of the Biblical era or that God Himself granted it to the Jewish people — the religious right often dilutes and, in effect, undermines the true security-based explanation for Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank.

Given that Israeli politicians understand Israel’s security situation extremely well, as many are themselves former military commanders or security officials, this also suggests that the Israeli government has been at least somewhat disingenuous with regard to the offers it has extended for a two-state solution in recent decades. Unless real trust is formed between Jews and Palestinians, or unless Israeli technology reaches a point wherein geographically-rooted security considerations are finally rendered irrelevant, it seems unlikely that the Israeli leadership would ever remove its military from much of the West Bank. It might not even be willing to remove its civilian settler population, as that can double as a security and intelligence force or political bargaining chip in times of crisis. The government’s offers to do so during peace talks, therefore, were perhaps never intended to succeed but may instead have been extended mainly in order to placate outside observers like the United States.

Clearly, then, the Israeli government has made, and continues to make, important mistakes. Many of its actions may even be cruel or counterproductive. Still, it is worth remembering that the primary motivation for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is its real, deep, possibly even existential security concerns rather than its religious land claims or nationalistic expansionism. The geopolitics of Israelis and Palestinians are simply intertwined now and both must somehow find a way to make the best of a very dangerous — and, especially for the Palestinians, a very tragic — situation. Getting God out of politics would be a good start.

This story first appeared at Future Economics, July 28, 2015.

Israel Retaliates After Gaza Strikes, Escalation Unlikely

An Israeli F-16 fighter aircraft, November 30, 2008
An Israeli F-16 fighter aircraft, November 30, 2008 (Nehemia Gershuni)

In November 2012, the last time the Israeli Defense Forces had to conduct a massive military operation in the Gaza Strip, the campaign against the militant group Hamas lasted eight long days. When all was said and done, over one hundred Palestinians were dead, Gaza’s already warscarred population was forced to again rebuild their lives while Israelis had been reminded that the horrors of indiscriminate terrorism were still lurking around the corner.

One and a half years later, Israel and Hamas are locked in another confrontation along the Gaza border, with hundreds of rockets flying out of the coastal enclave and hundreds of airstrikes conducted by the Israeli army in response. The shaky ceasefire that both sides signed in November 2012 has been shattered with a familiar cycle of rocket attacks and airstrikes that Israelis and Palestinians have grown to expect.

It is a pattern that has become all too familiar to citizens of Israel and Gaza who simply want to live their lives in a relative degree of peace. That is, an incident involving civilians from one side sparks a response from the other, only to escalate into a full-blown conflagration. After several days of intense fire, everyone involved begins to slow down, reassesses their assumptions and rethinks the direction they wish to go in, until finally exploring an end to hostilities. This is how Operation Cast Lead ended in 2009 and how Operation Pillar of Defense ended in 2012 — and it is how the latest flareup in violence is likely to stop. How long it will take to reach that point, however, is far from certain.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no doubt cognizant of the fact that sending troops into hostile and densely populated Gaza is a dangerous course of action. Although the Israeli security cabinet has authorized the deployment orders of an additional 40,000 reservists, the country has thus far chosen to use the full might of its air force to pound Hamas targets into the ground. Since Operation Protective Edge commenced on Monday, Israeli jets have hit more than two hundred Hamas targets. The number will probably go up over the next several days as the IDF expands its “operations against Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza,” as Netanyahu put it.

Unfortunately, some of those airstrikes will result in the deaths of Palestinian civilians — men, women and children who either reside in the same area as Palestinian militants firing rockets or who happen to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, Israel’s top military officer, was defiant as he addressed the press on Tuesday. “We will now activate all of our force and take all the time that is needed in various stages in order to reach victory,” he said. “We will accomplish goals against Hamas, hurt it badly, remove its capabilities, defend our civilians and our country and we will exact from Hamas the full price of the strategic mistake that it has made.”

Yet just as the two previous operations against Hamas in Gaza ended with a tenuous agreement to stop the violence, Prime Minister Netanyahu will try to accomplish much the same objective: leveling just enough pain on Hamas to convince its leadership that suing for a temporary peace is preferable to a war it cannot win.

Netanyahu and the Israeli people may want to extinguish Hamas entirely but doing so would require a heavy handed, long-term, bloody campaign in a piece of territory the country was happy to vacate nine years ago. For now, restoring quiet on the southern front is the next best thing.

Obama Talks Middle East Peace Amid Crimea Crisis

President Barack Obama welcomes Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 28, 2009
President Barack Obama welcomes Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 28, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Washington’s attention may be focused on events in the Crimea but the rest of the world is not standing still. Indeed, on the very day Russian officials moved to formally annex the peninsula from Ukraine, President Barack Obama delved into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Monday, he hosted Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in Washington DC. As was the case when Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the White House earlier this month, Abbas was treated to a red carpet welcome and both leaders exchanged platitudes in front of reporters about the need for peace, the importance of the diplomatic process and why the conflict needs to end after festering for so many years. As President Abbas said, “We don’t have any time to waste. Time is not on our side.”

As usual, President Obama was cautiously upbeat about the situation, despite the fact that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators remain far apart on the very issues that have ruined previous talks: settlements, borders, security arrangements and the status of Jerusalem.

“This is obviously an elusive goal and there’s a reason why it’s taken decades for us to even get to the point where we are now,” the president said. “But we remain convinced that there is an opportunity.” He added, “I believe that now is the time for not just the leaders of both sides but also the peoples of both sides to embrace this opportunity for peace.”

The question now, as it has always been, is whether Israel and the Palestinian Authority feel the same sense of urgency.

Judging from Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts in recent months, it does not appear that either side is willing or able to come to the difficult political decisions that the Americans say are needed for diplomacy to succeed. Where Kerry was once optimistic about concluding a final peace agreement by April of next year, he has dialed those expectations down, pushing instead for a framework agreement that would stretch out the process further into the year. Despite the fact that the parameters of a peace agreement have been well known since the Clinton Parameters of 2000, Abbas and Netanyahu are constrained by multiple factors — some of which, like the holdout of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, are outside of their control.

Over the long-term, Obama’s discussions with Abbas are unlikely to produce more than his talks with Netanyahu; that is, without any progress on moving the process forward. At best, the administration, with Secretary Kerry in the lead, will keep Israeli-Palestinian talks going for the remainder of the year and hope that a framework will find enough common ground for Abbas and Netanyahu to latch onto.

The dispute is difficult and challenging, as Obama and Kerry have constantly said. But if there is one positive, it is that the Israelis and Palestinians continue to negotiate, if for the simple reason that neither side wants to be blamed for spoiling an effort that John Kerry has invested so much of his own credibility in.

Kerry Tries to Rescue Stalled Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, greets American secretary of state John Kerry in Amman, Jordan, June 29
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, greets American secretary of state John Kerry in Amman, Jordan, June 29 (State Department)

America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, has a lot on his plate, from the upcoming round of nuclear negotiations with Iran to the global effort in Syria to verify and destroy Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons. Yet on Wednesday, he added another item to his “to do” list — spending a full day traveling between Israel and the West Bank to resurrect a peace process that both parties believe is on the brink of collapsing.

After six months of persistent contact with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry achieved a breakthrough in the conflict that had eluded American officials the previous three years. That is, Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed to relaunch direct negotiations within a strict nine month timeframe. Given the enormous mistrust between Israel and the Palestinians over the core issues of the conflict, getting both men back to the negotiating table was a major obstacle. But by with sheer force of his personality, Kerry at least broke through that roadblock.

Three months into the talks, however, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the process is failing to produce any concrete results. Nor is it building the diplomatic momentum that is required to sustain the dialogue for another six months.

With the exception of a few dozen Palestinian prisoners being released from Israeli jails and a promise by Abbas that he will hold off from bringing claims against Israel to the United Nations, the parties remain as far apart as they have ever been.

This was made abundantly clear when Netanyahu, appearing alongside Kerry before their bilateral talks, pinned the blame entirely on the Palestinian delegation. “I see the Palestinians continuing with incitement,” he said, “continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid, run away from the historic decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace.”

The Palestinian delegation is equally upset about how the process has evolved so far, complaining that the United States are not being a forceful enough mediator. The Israelis, they argue, are undermining diplomacy by continuing to approve thousands of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, land they have long claimed as part of a future Palestinian state. One official in the Palestine Liberation Organization went as far as saying that Israel’s current actions could lead the Palestinians to withdraw from the talks altogether. Abbas will be bringing that message to Kerry during their discussions in the West Bank, according to The New York Times.

Kerry has been trying his upmost to ensure that the process he started will continue into the future. Upon arriving in Israel, he visited the Tel Aviv square, where former Israeli prime minister Yitzak Rabin was assassinated eighteen years ago by a Jewish extremist who opposed his 1993 peace agreement with the Palestinians. He reminded Israelis and Palestinians about Rabin’s courage and desire to make peace. His message was clear: the current Israeli government needs to exhibit that same courage.

The big test is whether Abbas and Netanyahu can build on that legacy. Judging by the current impasse, it doesn’t appear likely.

Kerry Persuades Israel, Palestinians to Enter Peace Talks

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, greets American secretary of state John Kerry in Amman, Jordan, June 29
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, greets American secretary of state John Kerry in Amman, Jordan, June 29 (State Department)

America’s secretary of state John Kerry concluded his meetings with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas on Friday with a last-minute commitment to return to peace talks with the Israelis. The agreement, which came after four days of intense shuttle diplomacy by Kerry, could lead to proper negotiations in Washington DC next week, the first in five years.

Kerry, who has made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a defining issue during his tenure, was upbeat with reporters after his midnight meeting with Abbas. “I’m pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement,” he said. “This is a significant, and welcome, step forward.”

Kerry’s work got an added boost during his travels to the region on Wednesday when the foreign ministers of the Arab League expressed full support for his efforts. The body earlier toned down its own peace initiative to Israel, promising a regional agreement among the Arabs that would grant the Jewish state full recognition in exchange for territorial concessions to the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.

Analysts and Middle East watchers predicted that the Arab League statement could persuade the Palestinians to give diplomacy another try. This appears to have been the case after a difficult few hours of discussions among Palestinian officials as to whether Kerry’s parameters should be expanded upon.

From the outside, it is nearly impossible to determine President Abbas’ state of mind. All of the dialogue is taking place behind closed doors, outside the public’s view and without a full understanding of what John Kerry’s plan is. The Palestinians have long argued that direct negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Jerusalem would be a waste of time unless it agreed to freeze Jewish settlement construction beforehand and guaranteed that a Palestinian state would be allowed to exist within the borders of 1967. Netanyahu has consistently rejected both preconditions.

The United States, with John Kerry in the lead, tried to find some way to split the difference to get negotiations back on track. His efforts might have succeeded at this early stage through a combination of determination and creativity. It has been rumored that Netanyahu agreed to stop all settlement building in the West Bank for the duration of the talks and that some Palestinian prisoners would be released.

Despite the breakthrough, real success can only occur when Abbas and Netanyahu meet in person. The participants of next week’s conference will be Israel’s justice minister Tzini Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat — an indication that the two leaders remain skeptical of Kerry’s plan.

But Kerry and his allies have done their part. Now it is up to Israel and the Palestinians to determine how far they are willing to go in the process and whether they are ready solve a conflict that has long seemed unsolvable. There are a number of big unknowns, such as whether Abbas and Netanyahu are able to moderate their negotiating positions, that could make or break the talks. And the process itself, like past efforts at peacemaking between Israel and Yasser Arafat, will be incredibly painful for all participants.

Nevertheless, when both parties are leaning toward speaking in the same room, it is the best news that proponents of Middle East peace have had since the last serious attempt in 2008.

Despite Coalition Support, Israeli-Palestinian Peace Deal Unlikely

Former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, September 2, 2009
Former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, September 2, 2009 (Itzik Edri)

Despite support from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s two centrist coalition parties for a peace deal, Israel is unlikely to reach an accord with the Palestinians during his government. Read more