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