The Magazine

Facing Reality

The answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jan 19, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 17 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Several smart observers have described the root cause of the ongoing battle between Israel and Hamas in the exact same phrase: "irreconcilable differences." America and Europe are warned not to press for pointless negotiations, because the parties are irreconcilable. Israel and the Palestinians both want the same piece of land and can't both have it; Islam and Western democracy or Islam and Zionism can only be antagonists.

Warning the world against pressuring Israel is timely and important, as governments everywhere respond to Israeli self-defense by celebrating the usual worldwide Hypocrisy-Fest (complete with street demonstrations, U.N. resolutions, and the customary savage gaiety), and as Israel's battle against Hamas is denounced as immoral or "disproportionate." A proportionate response would presumably consist of Israel's launching randomly targeted missiles back into Gaza. (Hamas's rocket technique was pioneered in 1944, by the way, in Nazi Germany's V-1 "buzz bomb" attacks against Britain.)

But even though the warning (beware of forcing negotiations) is right, the premise is not. Of course Israel has no choice but to fight Hamas in Gaza. Of course the idea that all problems can be settled by diplomacy is idiotic. Yet we ought to remind ourselves that the supposed "irreconcilable differences" between Israel and the Palestinians are trumped up and phony. The facts are well known to those who care about facts, but bear repeating.

The dispute has many causes, but one root cause. If I own an old junker Buick that's worthless to me, and a stranger offers me $10,000 for it, naturally I'll take the money. But at the same time I might grow suspicious (or at least thoughtful): Maybe the thing is valuable after all. Maybe I could have got more for it.

And suppose the new owner proceeds to enthuse rapturously over the old car, and repairs and rebuilds it and makes it shine, makes it better than new, and starts exhibiting it at car fairs and winning big prizes. Under those circumstances, I'm even more likely to feel aggrieved, cheated, angry, and (especially) stupid--if I'm the kind of person who dwells on old hurts and imagined grievances. And my friends can make matters worse by egging me on. (Everyone loves a fight, especially if he can watch from the sidelines.)

Now, every human being on earth who cares about facts and can tell a lie from a truth knows that there was no such thing as "Palestinian nationalism" until modern Zionism created it out of whole cloth, by placing enormous value on a piece of land that used to seem as precious to its landlords as a rat-ridden empty lot in a burnt-out neighborhood in the middle of nowhere, in the suburbs of nothing. The Jews gradually got possession of an arid stony wasteland (where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief / And the dry stone no sound of water)--complete with the odd picturesque, crumbling, dirty town; and they loved it. They turned it into a gleaming, thriving modern nation, not only a military but an intellectual powerhouse. And so it is only natural that the former owners' descendants want it back, and remember how much their ancestors loved it, and how the new owners only got possession by wickedness and deceit. Such memories have the strange property of growing clearer instead of cloudier every day.

Only one thing can restore the former owners' peace of mind. They must be kicked firmly in the pants and told "stop whining and get lost" so many times that they finally move on to another grievance.

Any competent psychologist will agree: When someone is mooning over a thing he can't have because it belongs to someone else, the responsible and humane course of treatment is not temporizing sweet-talk but a blunt lesson in the facts of life. "No, you cannot have my wife (girlfriend, husband, etc.), and we are not going to negotiate over it; let's talk about something else." (And it really doesn't matter that the two of you used to keep company; you never loved her.) "Know Thyself" was supposedly carved on the ancient Temple at Delphi; "Face Reality" should have been carved right next to it. There is no irreconcilable difference in the fight between Israel and the Palestinians, no bone-deep dispute that will haunt humanity forever. There is only greed and envy. They never disappear, but can easily move from one target to the next. The problem will be solved as soon as the world stops trying to solve it. When the international community moves on to fresh causes, so will the Palestinians.

Islam too is held up as a basis of "irreconcilable differences" between Israel and the Palestinians. But we ought to remind ourselves that Israel fought the Six Day War in 1967 (and took possession of the West

Bank and old Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and Gaza--as well as Sinai, since returned to Egypt) with the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, supported by Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Except for the Saudis, every one of these Arab governments was a secularist or modernizing autocracy. On the Arab side the most important man by far was Nasser, führer of Egypt, who as a young man had been a "Green Shirt" (modeled on Mussolini's Black Shirts and Hitler's Brown Shirts) and stood for "nonaligned," left-leaning, bellicose secularist nationalism.

Fatah and the PLO were also secular organizations to start, and in some respects still are. (Fatah was founded in 1954, the PLO in '64; they merged in '67.) In the late '60s and 1970s, the PLO made common cause with far-left terror groups such as the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof gang, and other wacko-Marxist murderers. At one point, Baader-Meinhof gangsters traveled to PLO camps for elementary terror training.

The English actress Vanessa Redgrave represents the sort of bloody-minded Westerner who supported Palestinian terrorism in the 1970s. In 1977, Redgrave made an infamous propaganda film on behalf of Palestinian terrorists. But she was hardly endorsing Islam or any other religion. She was a Marxist (and, as far as one can tell, still is). The Palestinian terrorists were members in good standing of a worldwide fraternity that included the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Communists, Castroite Cubans, the Sandinistas, and dozens of other far-left groups that mostly hated religion to the extent they bothered with it at all.

Obviously most Arabs are devout Muslims, and Islam has a long history of jihad. An event of the late 1800s suggests modern Iran: An Islamic leader in the Sudan who proclaimed himself the Mahdi, God-given ruler of the whole Islamic world and (in effect) the messiah, announced a jihad against the British colonial authorities. His army drove the British and their Egyptian allies out of the Sudan. In the process his troops slaughtered or enslaved thousands of British, Egyptians, and Sudanese and presented the Mahdi (as a sentimental remembrance of victory) with the severed head of the British commanding general on a pike. The Mahdist army then launched invasions of neighboring territories, but was finally destroyed by the British at Omdurman in 1898.

No one doubts that the Muslim religion can inspire gigantic ferocity--yet Islam, like horseradish, is available in anything from super-hot to extra-mild. Only with the rise of Khomeini's Iran in 1979, the Saudis' increasingly lavish support for the spread of Wahhabism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 did modern Islam become the dominant hate engine of the Middle East, powering anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish, anti-Western bloodlust. The Arabs are an intensely religious-minded people, like the Jews, but the same religious devotion that is focused today on blood-and-guts Islam could also be focused on a kinder, gentler variety, such as the one preached in the 19th century by the Emir Abd el-Kader. (On Abd el-Kader, see the book by John W. Kiser, reviewed in last week's issue.) Religious devoutness persists from generation to generation, but can take many different systems and causes as its target--as Jews are well aware.

The Bush administration, which has done so many small and medium things wrong and the biggest of all things right, could leave the world a parting gift by introducing some appropriate resolution in the Security Counsel or General Assembly. A proclamation that "anti-Zionism is a form of racism" might be just the thing. (The infamous "Zionism is racism" resolution, passed in 1975 and rescinded in 1991, remains a perfect symbol of depraved worldwide attitudes to Israel.) Or a U.S. resolution might call on the U.N. to take the unprecedented step of enforcing its own charter and booting out members that preach the destruction of Israel. (Article 2 part 4: "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.") To start the ball rolling, Iran might be designated for immediate expulsion.

The resolution would be savaged and hooted down. But here and there it might make people think.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a professor of
computer science at Yale.