People like to categorise information into dichotomies—good vs bad, justified vs unjustified, etc. And for the first decades of its existence, Israel was ‘good’ in the popular imagination of the West, and Israel’s enemies ‘bad’. This was because Israel’s enemies openly declared their desire to destroy Israel, which the West perceived as unjustified.
But since 1967 (when Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank in the Six Day War), Israel’s image has steadily worsened. The reasons are complex but, broadly, it’s because in the years after 1967, the Palestinians and the Arab world changed their rhetoric on Israel. Increasingly, the language used was about national self-determination—to have a Palestinian state alongside Israel, not instead of it.
This message worked and, in the West, the Arab–Israel conflict morphed from being about Arabs trying to destroy Israel (unjustified) to Palestinians trying to gain independence (justified). The title of the conflict also changed; the Arab–Israel conflict became the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Just as they came to perceive that the post-1967 Palestinian goal was to establish a state in Israeli-occupied land, Western observers increasingly perceived Israel’s refusal to cede that land as the reason for continued conflict. Israel gradually moved from being good to being bad.
(I would note two things. First, stated Palestinian objectives did not change overnight, but evolved throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, as did Western perceptions of Israel. Second, many friends of Israel are concerned that stated Palestinian goals mask a desire to destroy the Jewish state. This post does not enter that debate; it’s about perceptions.)
Israel justifies its refusal to cede land by citing security concerns. However, this is not accepted in the West, which believes that ceding land would resolve the conflict, ending Israeli security concerns.
To the West, Israeli settlements in the West Bank are further proof that Israel is not interested in peace. And, indeed, Israel has never made a convincing argument justifying the settlements.
Filtering facts to prevent cognitive dissonance
Because Western individuals, media and officials perceive the conflict through the ‘Israel is the reason for the lack of peace’ prism, they interpret some facts and disregard others in a way that confirms their assumptions (we all do this—ask any psychologist!)
Thus, that terrorism increased in the years after the peace process began is not interpreted that Palestinians used their newfound autonomy (and the arms and money that came with it) to increase attacks on Israel. Nor is it interpreted that Palestinian rulers could not control their own population, which included extremists wanting to attack Israel (both interpretations would have suggested slowing down the rate of Palestinian autonomy until it had proved itself capable of ruling). Instead, the increase in attacks was interpreted as Israel not giving up land fast enough. The answer was to pressure Israel to give up more land quicker.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. The immediate result was that, for the first time in history, Palestinians gained sovereignty over land they claimed. Within a year, hamas took over, killed its internal rivals, established an Islamist dictatorship and increased its attacks on Israel, resulting in three wars in six years (2009, 2012, 2014). The Western interpretation was not that withdrawing from land before Palestinians are ready to rule it results in more violence, but that Israel provokes hamas due to its policy (along with Egypt) of placing Gaza under embargo.
If this is perception, what is reality?
If the Western perception that ‘Israel is bad because it is the reason for the ongoing conflict because it doesn’t give up land’ is incorrect (or too simplistic), what is the real reason for the ongoing conflict?
The goal of the Arabs in the first decades of the conflict was to end Israel’s existence. In the years after 1967, some Arab parties changed their goals to establishing a Palestinian state alongside (not instead of) Israel. However, other Arab parties continued the goal of wanting to destroy Israel. Thus, Israel’s security fears of people wanting to destroy Israel (no matter how much land it cedes) are valid. But so is the West’s view that Israel not giving up land is an obstacle to peace.
Just as the fight to eradicate the Jewish state continues, the Israeli settlement movement is pursued by Israelis that don’t want a non-Jewish state anywhere in what they call the Land of Israel (which includes the West Bank). The Israeli government allows the settlements to increase in population. However, this is more a function of it pandering to powerful factions in Israeli domestic politics, than a sign the Israeli government wants to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.
Israel would have the political ability to remove the settlements and withdraw from the West Bank if the majority of Israelis and the Israeli government became convinced a Palestinian state would not endanger Israel. This won’t happen by badgering Israel into making more concessions (although that is also necessary), but by ensuring the Palestinian government is able to rule. This means the Palestinian government needs to end corruption within its ranks (for two reasons: a major source of hamas’s popularity is the Palestinian government’s corruption; and corruption deters would-be foreign investors, which are necessary to enable an economically viable Palestinian state). Also, the West needs to encourage the Palestinian government to defeat hamas and all other Palestinian factions that want to destroy Israel.
However, for the Palestinian government to wholly sign on to peace with Israel, and to embark on a process of destroying hamas et al for that reason, the principle of making peace with Israel needs to be accepted. Currently it is not. Anyone in the Arab world that encourages ‘normalisation’ with Israel is ostracised. This policy is encouraged by Arab governments. While this might be a popular choice, it doesn’t give the Palestinian government the political umbrella it needs to take the courageous actions required to make itself viable, encourage Israel to withdraw from land and defeat its enemies. Thus, the Arab states need to change their approach to the Israeli–Palestinian dispute.
This is not to say that Israel has no role to play. Just as the Arab world needs to give the Palestinian government political cover to take pro-peace actions, and just as the Palestinian government needs to take those actions, Israel must provide rewards to the Palestinian government for doing so. Currently, most achievements by Palestinians vis-à-vis Israel (and there are few) are perceived as coming as a result of violence against Israel. This encourages more violence, and creates popularity for those groups participating in violence. If rewards come to those groups that advocate peaceful action, and more rewards come when peaceful actions are taken, it creates legitimacy for peaceful parties.
The international community can encourage both Israel and the Palestinians to take pro-peace actions. But most Western actions do the opposite. The West sees Palestinians as justified, and so offers Palestinians rewards—recognition at the UN, millions in aid, etc. These rewards do not stop when Palestinians take anti-peace actions (such as celebrating violence against Israel, ruling out future negotiations or ignoring corruption). Indeed, such anti-peace actions are blamed on Israel for not being quicker to withdraw from land, thus encouraging Palestinians to take more anti-peace actions. Rewarding bad behaviour will only encourage more bad behaviour.
Israel is seen as unjustified because it refuses to cede land, and is routinely criticised by the UN and others. But Israel is not withdrawing from land because it is genuinely scared of what will happen if it does. In order to overcome its fear, it needs to know the international community has its back. Unremitting condemnation from the West has convinced Israel that everyone (except America) is against it. This has made Israel less willing to withdraw from land.
In the coming months, Palestinians will likely seek a Security Council resolution instead of negotiations with Israel. If the Security Council (or General Assembly) says yes, this will reward Palestinian intransigence, which will encourage more intransigence, which will breed more Israeli stubbornness. Serious carrots and sticks need to be applied to both parties to force them back to the negotiating table and for both sides to enact policies that enable peace to be possible. This is the only way peace will be engendered.