Outward recognition is so yesterday

Michael Herzog writes

Arab steps toward normalization have become more meaningful to Israelis than anything they would expect from the Palestinians, allowing Israeli officials to present a paradigm shift: instead of obtaining Arab-Israeli normalization through Israeli-Palestinian peace, they could try to provide space and cover for peacemaking with the Palestinians through convergence with Arab states. 

But this was always the way! Notwithstanding all the other complications, no Palestinian leader could ever be expected to make peace with Israel outside an umbrella of significant Arab (read: Egypt and Saudi) support. For as long as the official Arab line is ‘no peace until Israel concedes everything’ continues, Palestinians daring to make peaceful noises (much less sign an agreement) would be left out in the cold.

I’ve long thought that Israeli-Palestinian peace requires the Arabs to extend an olive branch – perhaps opening a trade office with ‘Palestine’ (and through it, Israel) in East Jerusalem – so as to give Ramallah political cover to make the significant concessions peace will require. 

Herzog also writes

Conceptually, [France’s] efforts are informed by the classic, misguided view that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to regional stability

He’s bang on. France (and much of the rest of the West) has it backwards. 

An intractable conflict?

The Australian Jewish News ran an opinion piece I wrote today. It is on the same topic I will be discussing at Limmud Oz, this Monday. 

See you on Monday?

Earlier this month, foreign ministers convened in Paris in an attempt to kick-start the moribund Israeli–Palestinian peace process. And as the Obama presidency winds up, many predict the US President will outline parameters of a future peace agreement, possibly as part of a UN Security Council resolution.

Perhaps to ward off these events (and dispel signs of inaction), Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu last week dragged up the ghost of the Arab Peace Initiative.

And so it goes. Despite the Middle East’s many pressing issues—turmoil in Syria, Libya and Yemen, the growing Saudi–Iranian sectarian cold war—Western powers return again and again to the prospect of Israeli–Palestinian peace.

Asking why is important. But we might also ask why the peace they so desperately crave eludes them. For almost a century the League of Nations, the United Nations, the British, the US, the Norwegians, the French, the Arab League and a host of Israelis and Palestinians have nominated themselves as having come up with a solution. None have worked.

It has been 23 years since the first Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement. The Oslo process was supposed to usher in a ‘New Middle East’. Instead, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have since been killed. Indeed, more Israelis died as a result of terrorism during the seven years of the Oslo process than in any preceding seven-year period. (Though this number was dwarfed by the number of Israelis killed in the seven years from September 2000.)

Why is the Israeli–Palestinian dispute so resistant to resolution? The answer isn’t as simple as pointing to the traditional ‘obstacles to peace’, such as settlements or terrorism. These are but symptoms. To understand the problem, we need to take a step back—to look at the forest instead of focusing on the trees.

What is frequently called the ‘Israeli–Palestinian conflict’ actually consists of multiple, interwoven conflicts. To understand why the over-arching dispute hasn’t been resolved we need to identify these individual conflicts. This is accomplished by examining the objectives of all the parties involved. By doing so, we can distil two main types of conflict—territorial and existential.

Territorial conflicts are fought over land or resources. If two states or national movements claim the same territory, they are in a territorial conflict. Resolution comes when they agree to share or divide the land between them. Most people view the Israeli–Palestinian dispute as a territorial conflict. But if this were the only conflict at play, there would have been peace decades ago.

The other type of conflict is existential. As the name suggests, this arises when at least one party is fighting to end the existence of the other. The Israeli–Palestinian dispute involves two distinct existential conflicts. The first is waged by Islamists such as Hamas. The second by activists within the religious settler movement. (I hasten to add that religious settlers are not seeking the death or enslavement of Palestinians. But there are a significant minority struggling against the establishment of any non-Jewish state in eretz yisrael. These activists will ‘win’ when the Palestinian national movement stops existing.)

Existential conflicts don’t necessary last forever—the wider Arab–Israel dispute was existential in nature until the Arab world and, later, the pragmatic Palestinian leadership, concluded they could not defeat Israel militarily and so softened their existential conflict into a territorial one. Realistically, though, there is little hope that Hamas and its ilk will give up their religiously-inspired existential conflict.

Since existential conflicts cannot be resolved, they must be won or managed. This means that before or during a territorialist peace process, observers and participants must be aware that existentialist parties exist, that the prospect of peace enrages them and that they will violently seek to undermine that peace (because the compromises associated with territorialist peace weaken their visions of total victory).

For a territorialist outcome to be possible, territorialist leaders must not only be aware of the existence of existentialists, but also willing and able to force existentialists to accept territorialist will. This is a politically-difficult and sometimes bloody path to tread.

A significant obstacle is that the Palestinian leadership and media apparatus continue using existentialist themes—‘all of Israel is Palestine’; ‘right of return’—in their messaging. This indicates either they remain existentialist or do not have the courage to change the minds of the Palestinian people, who have been fed a diet of existentialist promises since the beginning of the dispute.

If the West wants peace, it must insist that the Palestinian Authority not only tackles the existentialists in its midst, but also presents itself as a true, territorialist alternative.

Unfortunately, the requisite awareness, willingness and ability do not currently exist, either internationally or locally. Until this is reversed, peacemaking is destined to remain an exercise in futility.

Does the Iran nuclear deal advance or undermine US and Western interests?

The P5+1 and Iran

Tom Switzer in the Weekend Australian paraphrased Lord Palmerston’s “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow…” Switzer was writing that the recent Iran deal is a good thing, and might change the Middle East for the better.

While I disagree with parts of Switzer’s analysis, the Palmerston quote made me put aside my instinctive reactions about the nuclear deal and analyse it in light of Western and, principally, US interests.

I have previously written that American strategic interests in the Middle East are few and simple: security for Israel; unrestricted flow of energy sources for the global economy; stability and security for those countries that seek to help the US pursue its interests; and a weakening of those parties that oppose US interests. Second-tier interests include the establishment of a Palestinian state and the spread of human rights in the region. These second tier interests cannot contradict the first. This is why, to date, there is no Palestinian state and human rights are only protected in one Middle Eastern country, Israel.

The wider West, which is far less loyal to Israel than the US, has only one principal interest: the continued flow of energy sources. Secondary interests, such as regional stability, help further the primary interest. There are also subordinate interests, such as human rights and the development of democratic mechanisms.

As a result of the Iran nuclear deal (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA,) UN sanctions against Iran will be dropped. Countries, such as Australia, that have autonomous (that is, additional) sanctions against Iran will likely also quickly drop these. This will allow Iran’s massive oil and fuel deposits to be better developed and exported. On the surface, interest achieved!

But there are ramifications. Iran is engaged in a region-wide hegemonic struggle against the Sunni-dominated status quo, led by Saudi Arabia. This ‘Status Quo Bloc’ (which I have previously written about) consists of Arab countries with pro-Western dictatorial leaders who have long looked to the US for their security. That is to say, Iran is opposed to the US and is the enemy of the US’s client states in the region.

Iran has proxies or clients in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and has come to hold considerable influence—if not veto power—over those countries’ strategic decision-making. It was once, and is once again becoming a significant sponsor of Hamas. Iran has used Shi’ite militias to undermine Western interests in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion, and is now reportedly aiding the Taliban to do the same in Afghanistan.

The massive injection of cash Iran will receive as a result of the JCPOA will significantly help it pursue its regional agenda. It will use this money to consolidate its hold on Baghdad and could use it to foment trouble in the Shi’ite-populated, oil-rich parts of Saudi Arabia. That is, Iran will use the benefits of the JCPOA to harm US interests.

This is all conjecture, of course (based on Iranian statements and Iranian precedent). Perhaps an Iranian-dominated Iraq will become stable, better run and able to export much more oil than the current mess (which is, in large part, the result of the West being blind to Iranian undermining efforts.)

The issue of trust
When considering interests, another factor to take into account is trust. There is now less trust of America in the region than there was 10 or 20 years ago.

In recent decades, Israel and Saudi Arabia have come to view the US as their principal defender (and the US has made clear it is a partner in this understanding). However, from the moment negotiations with Iran were mooted, both Israel (very publicly) and the Saudis (behind the scenes) have strongly communicated that a nuclear Iran would be a danger to them and the region, and that any accommodation with Iran would both embolden Iran and pave the way nuclear weapons capability.

These increasingly strident warnings were ignored by the Obama Administration, because, in regards to the nuclear negotiations, the priority for the West and especially the US was for a deal to be signed. Far-reaching concessions were made to achieve that priority. (The priority for Iran was to maintain its nuclear infrastructure. It stuck to its guns and achieved its priority, at the cost of stalling its nuclear development by a few years at the most. It was a win-win deal because both sides achieved their priorities!)

In ignoring the warnings of its allies, the US will guide its allies (and not just in the Middle East) to the understanding that the US cannot be trusted. The US earned incredible trust around the world because it has been the guarantor of global stability since the end of the Second World War. It is this stability (particularly that which has allowed the extraction of oil and its transport across oceans) that has allowed the phenomenal growth in the global economy from which we have all benefitted.

However, like good reputations, trust is hard to obtain and relatively easy to lose. I’m sure Lord Palmerston would agree that having allies and enemies believe what you say is a permanent interest, but under Obama’s watch, this interest has been significantly eroded. To be clear, this decreasing trust did not spring from the July 2015 signing of the JCPOA. IT is a result of American mistakes in the Middle East that began with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (under Bush) but were significantly compounded by the Obama Administration since that time (such as when the US abandoned Egyptian President Mubarak and walked back from ‘red lines’ threats in regards to Syrian use of chemical weapons). This is especially the case in its relations with Iran.

There are three separate but linked ramifications of the US word no longer being worth what it once was in the Middle East. First, countries like Saudi Arabia do not believe that the US will prevent Iran from becoming nuclear, and so are already looking to become nuclear themselves. Second, US allies are no longer absolutely convinced the US will protect them if their enemies attempt to undermine them, and so will be tempted to seek other friends. This lets Russia back into the Middle East, and potentially provides an open door to China, as well. Third, if US security guarantees are no longer thought rock-solid, parties might be more willing to pursues their interests violently. All three of these ramifications lead to a more dangerous region.

Is Bishop a pawn?

chessAustralian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will be visiting Iran on 18 April. The visit comes in the wake of the nuclear framework deal initialed on 2 April. Australia did not have a role in the ‘P5+1’ team of negotiators, but will look to benefit from any positive outcomes of the ongoing negotiations, if and when a final agreement is signed at the end of June.

Like every other country, Australia seeks to advance its own interests. However, it ought to be mindful of the Middle East strategic equation, and not sacrifice long-term interests for short-term gains.

On Ms Bishop’s list of talking points will be Iranian asylum seekers, Islamic State, sanctions relief, business interests, and a mandatory, light wrist-slapping about human rights and Iran’s long-running policy of undermining regional countries through proxies.

There are a lot of Iranian asylum seekers in Australia or on Nauru and Manus Island. Most of them have been or likely will be judged as not being owed protection (i.e. as not being genuine refugees). When an individual has had their asylum seeker claim rejected, Australia can forcibly return them to their home country—but only if that home country is willing to accept them. Until now, Iran has refused to accept Iranians forcibly repatriated from Australia. And since most failed Iranian asylum seekers refuse to return voluntarily, this puts Australia in a bind. Ms Bishop’s priority in Iran will be to secure an agreement from Iran to receive failed Iranian asylum seekers from Australia.

With the prospect of UN sanctions against Iran being withdrawn, Ms Bishop will be seeking opportunities for Australian companies to invest in Iran (especially in its decrepit fossil fuel infrastructure), buy from Iran and sell (especially livestock) to Iran.

Both of these issues—though especially the first—put Australia in the position of supplicant. Iran will thus have considerable leverage over Bishop to push for what it wants. And what it wants is an end to its international isolation without having to pay the price of giving up its nuclear program or stopping its drive to achieve regional hegemony. In the context of the Australian visit, it will want Australia to praise Iran’s good intentions in the nuclear negotiations and in regional politics. It will want Australia to lean on its Western friends to accept Iranian assurances about its nuclear ambitions. And, of course, it will want Australia to drop or considerably lessen its own sanctions against Iran (which are separate and additional to the UN sanctions).

Will Bishop accede to some or all of these demands? The answer lies in the determination of whether Australia wants to return all those failed asylum seekers more than it wants to hold Iran to account for its actions (which don’t directly affect Australia).

But the strategic equation is highly important. As former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has now repeatedly warned, it appears that the US has shifted its strategic objective of preventing Iran from having a nuclear capability to constraining that capability. This is a fundamental shift, and is already having considerable impact on the Middle East and, particularly, those countries that have looked to America to guarantee their security (and who are increasingly feeling like they’re being hung out to dry).

Ms Bishop’s trip to Iran so soon after the framework deal means that Australia is playing a small but important role in the developing Middle East dynamic. How will history look upon this footnote?

A third way?

bn-gf451_palun1_p_20141230190425Until recently, the Palestinians have had a binary choice in their path to statehood—negotiate with Israel or fight Israel. Neither have proven successful. The policies of the international community have opened Palestinian eyes to a third way, pursuing Israel in international organisations to embarrass and weaken the Jewish state.

On 30 December, the UN Security Council voted on a resolution calling for a Palestinian state within two years. It fell one short of the required nine yes votes. Two countries—Australia and the US—voted no and four others abstained.

The Palestinian Authority was the driving force behind this initiative. I believe that not only did the Palestinians know the resolution wouldn’t pass (even if it had have received nine yes votes, the US would have vetoed it), they wanted the resolution to fail. It is worthwhile noting that France had been working with the Palestinian delegation on a less one-sided draft—in other words, one that might have passed. But the Palestinians rejected moderate language, insisting on a draft with fewer Palestinian concessions, and maximum Israeli concessions.


Why would Palestinians want to have a Security Council vote calling for a Palestinian state voted down? The Palestinian leadership has two main objectives: to attain statehood and to retain power. The second objective is much more important for the Palestinian leadership than the first. History has shown numerous times (most recently in 2000, 2001 and 2008) that, in any situation where the Palestinian leadership faces a choice between achieving statehood and retaining power, retaining power wins out.

The dilemma is caused because achieving statehood through negotiations with Israel will involve substantial concessions for both sides. These concessions are widely known and, for the Palestinians, will result in: having a Palestinian state in 22 per cent of what it considers ‘historic Palestine’ (i.e. Israel, the West Bank and Gaza); and no ‘right of return’.

The ‘Right of Return’

While most Palestinians have grudgingly accepted the first concession, few will concede the second. The Palestinian leadership has been promising a full right of return to Israel since the founding of the national movement in the 1960s. Any Palestinian leader that agrees to a state without the right of return will be seen to have betrayed the Palestinian cause, likely resulting in an assassin’s bullet.

(Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish state, cannot agree to this ‘right of return’, because it would result in Jews becoming a minority in Israel, thereby creating two Palestinian states and no Jewish state. It thus argues—reasonably, in my opinion—that, following a final status peace agreement, the world’s Palestinians can immigrate to the State of Palestine (i.e. the West Bank and Gaza) and the world’s Jews can immigrate to the State of Israel.)

The refugee issue is, in my opinion, the principal reason the Palestinian leadership has rejected multiple Israeli offers of statehood.

For those who don’t know: What is the ‘right of return’?

In the 1947–49 Arab–Israel war, about 750,000 Palestinians Arabs became refugees. This mostly occurred in the first half of 1948. About half were kicked out by Jewish forces, and about half fled. The Palestinian leadership demands that these refugees and their descendants (today numbering in the millions) have the right to return to their former homes in what has become the State of Israel. This is not a right afforded any other refugee population.

Israel the Scapegoat

Notwithstanding the vexed question of refugees, the Palestinian leadership has long used the Israelis as scapegoats for everything wrong in Palestinian society. Crime, unemployment, corruption and lack of infrastructure are all blamed on the Israeli occupation. Were the occupation to end and a Palestinian state be established, the Palestinian leadership could no longer duck responsibility. Of all these failures, corruption will be the hardest to fix (and this is the problem for which Israel is the least responsible). For a Palestinian leadership historically reluctant to put its people’s future ahead of its own, this in and of itself is a reason not to achieve statehood and forms, in my opinion, the second most important reason the Palestinians have rejected statehood offers.

Role of the International Community

Given that the Palestinian leadership does not want to achieve statehood if doing so will threaten its rule, the international community could and should engineer a situation where the Palestinian leadership will not feel threatened by statehood. This could be done by implementing two policies. First, by tying future aid to Palestinian good governance, it could force the Palestinian leadership to rid its ranks of corruption (since the Palestinian economy is reliant on aid). The West has threatened such action in the past, but never delivered (which has taught the Palestinians that the West is a toothless tiger). If carried out, it would be a painful process, but ultimately be healthy for both the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people.

The refugee issue is far more problematic. However, the international community could provide political cover for the Palestinian leadership if the former were to: a) state quite plainly that the refugees and their descendants will definitely not be allowed to immigrate to Israel en masse as part of a peace agreement; and b) concurrently promise significant funds to integrate Palestinians into either their host populations, the new state of Palestine or third countries.

Although the above is possible, I don’t believe it is likely. As written about in far more detail in this post, the West blames Israel for the continuation of the Israeli–Palestinian dispute. It thus places the onus on Israel to resolve problems and places diplomatic pressure on Israel to do so. And while this in and of itself isn’t a problem, almost all Israeli and Palestinian actions, whether good or bad, are filtered by Western commentators through the prism of ‘Israel is to blame for the lack of peace’. Thus, Palestinian actions that undermine peace (such as corruption, violence, unachievable promises and more) are seen as unfortunate but excusable actions of an occupied people. This would be harmless except for that fact that by providing Palestinians with aid and recognition without holding Palestinians to account for bad behaviour, the West has effectively rewarded bad behaviour and thus encouraged more of it.

The Palestinian leadership largely (though incorrectly) sees the Israeli–Palestinian dispute as a zero sum game. That is, it believes that whenever Israel loses, the Palestinians win. With increasing condemnation of and pressure on Israel, the Palestinian leadership has come to the conclusion that it does not need to compromise with Israel. The world will continue pressuring Israel and will continue providing Palestinians with aid and recognition. And while the West will make statements about what it expects the Palestinians to do, it will not punish the Palestinians if they do not comply.

Palestinians Internationalise the Conflict

This leads us to the Palestinian objective in regards to the draft UN Security Council resolution.

Ahead of the vote, the Palestinians said that if the draft resolution were rejected, ‘Palestine’ would seek to join the International Criminal Court and other international organisations. Indeed, since the 30 December vote, the Palestinians have already signed the Rome Statute—the first step to acceding to the ICC.

As a member of the ICC, the Palestinians will seek to have Israel and individual Israelis prosecuted for war crimes committed on Palestinian territory. (The ICC only has jurisdiction in the territory of its members; it has no jurisdiction over the West Bank and Gaza until it accepts ‘Palestine’ as a member.)

Joining the ICC and other international bodies continues a trend that began a few years ago, and is the culmination of the trend cited in the opening paragraph of this post—that the Palestinian leadership has found a third way (the first being violence, the second being diplomacy—though at the cost of the leadership losing its rule) to hurt Israel and advance Palestinian interests without compromising.

And while this tactic has been and will continue to hurt Israel and advance Palestinian interests, it will not lead to a viable peace for two reasons. First, it further diminishes the little trust Israelis have that Palestinians want to live in peace with it. That doesn’t matter so much, since the Palestinians argue that the reason they are internationalising the conflict is because they have lost all trust in Israel. However, and second, pursuing Israel in the realm of ‘lawfare’ might well hurt Israel and provide the Palestinian leadership with a short-term bump in popularity (which the UN Security Council vote achieved), but it will do nothing to address the chronic obstacles blocking the path between the current reality and a viable Palestinian state. Some of these obstacles have nothing to do with Israel. Others are associated with the Israeli occupation, but will only be overcome when Israelis and Palestinians work together in good faith. (Which is not to say that Israelis are blameless—far from it. But this is clearly an example of Palestinians shooting themselves in the foot for short-term advantage.)

But let’s say I’m wrong. What if UN condemnations, ICC prosecutions and even sanctions by countries such as Australia (which is what some people are calling for) successfully pressure Israel into withdrawing from the entirety of the West Bank (including those parts of Jerusalem that the Palestinians claim)? The occupation will have ended.

But the Palestinian economy is entirely dependent on Israel. The majority of its exports and imports go to and come from Israel. Its electricity and much of its water is supplied by Israel. Many Palestinians find work in Israel or the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Moreover, the West Bank has no airport and no access to the sea; it is reliant on Israel for all international imports and exports. If Israel is forced through condemnations, prosecutions and sanctions to withdraw from the West Bank, you can bet it will have nothing to do with the new State of Palestine. No goods or services will cross the Israel–Palestine border. Any product entering Gaza (which has a port on the Mediterranean) will likely not be allowed to cross into Israel and then into the West Bank. The Palestinian economy will crash. Violence and chaos will be the result. Terrorist groups will also turn their guns on Israel, which will be forced to intervene to protect its citizens.

And so on. If Israelis and Palestinians want a peaceful future, they must cooperate. And while both sides continue to pursue unhelpful policies, trust (and, with it, good will) diminishes and the possibility for cooperation further evaporates. The Palestinian move to go to the Security Council, lose on purpose and then use it as a pretext to join the ICC and other international organisations is one of the most significant such unhelpful moves in the last 10 years.

Why does Israel have such a bad image in the West?

old2bcityPeople 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.