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A Baleful Peace Process

For how many decades will we pursue this diplomatic dead end?

Mar 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 26 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Then there are those, like Jeffrey Goldberg, Thomas Friedman, and Peter Beinart, who sincerely worry about the democratic and moral identity of a Jewish state that rules over 2.5 million Palestinians on the West Bank. Israel’s occasional violent intrusions into Gaza are also distressing, but they aren’t as corrosive to the Israeli spirit, so it seems, because Hamas, a fundamentalist, jihadist outfit with a fondness for Qassam missiles, runs the Strip. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry appear now to be in this camp. In a recent interview with Goldberg, the president expressed his foreboding: 

Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions? 

Israel needs to solve this fundamental challenge to its moral integrity lest it feed the boycott movement in Europe and the United States, which Obama and Kerry have underscored. Although both men have said they don’t support this movement, it doesn’t take a logician to see that if the Israelis are guilty of unnecessary coercion and theft, as Obama and Kerry are saying they are, then why shouldn’t they be boycotted? Obama and Kerry may have put a time-delay on their opprobrium, but their judgment is clear. This growing angst about Israel’s integrity, and thus its existential legitimacy, seems to have gained ground since 9/11 among liberals, both Gentiles and Jews, even among those who’ve usually been more concerned about the Palestinian cause than Israeli democracy. 

A more liberal, more democratic Israel

It has always been part of the American gospel to believe “that the rule of one people over another offends against a basic principle of nature, if not a higher edict,” to borrow from the Middle Eastern historian J.B. Kelly. Since the collapse of Europe’s empires, Europeans too have made anti-imperialism part of their moral DNA—though they, like Americans, get much less exercised about this offense when non-Westerners are lording it over other non-Westerners (Tibetans, Uighurs, Kurds, Muslim Caucasians, and so on don’t elicit the same passion as the Palestinians). Most Israelis would surely prefer to have as little administratively to do with the Palestinians as possible. And it would certainly be better for Israelis and especially Palestinians if Palestinian terrorists planning a strike against Israelis, or receiving aid from Iran, were always taken down by Palestinian security forces without Israeli assistance on the ground. It would no doubt be an incredible relief to Israelis to have a responsible Palestinian gendarmerie in the Jordan Valley that could police the -border to ensure nothing crosses that threatens Israel or Jordan. Israelis and Palestinians ought to know that their good fortune or bad luck is in their own hands. 

But Israeli democracy has been doing extremely well since 1967, when Israeli forces took East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan’s late King Hussein, who considered both his rightful patrimony. Israel has become vastly more liberal, and even more sensitive to Arab concerns, both Palestinian and Israeli, in the last 20 years. Israelis may be rough in their views of Arabs, but they are more concerned about civil liberties for all citizens—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—even through the intifadas and suicide bombings. Israeli Arabs, it should be noted, show no desire to leave Israel for the West Bank, Gaza, or Jordan. It is odd to depict the Jewish state’s democracy as mortally threatened by its soldiers’ continued presence on the West Bank when the last 47 years have seen the efflorescence of this culture. 

Duty on the West Bank is certainly no fun for Israeli soldiers, and may well coarsen many of them; it’s probably worse for the officers of Shin Bet, the internal-security service, who really have the front-line duty. What Andrew Sullivan said about America fighting in the ethically challenging Middle East, that it tarnishes our virtue, is no less true for Israelis who must operate cheek by jowl with Muslims who might use young women as suicide bombers. Yet this morally harsh service hasn’t retarded the growth of a much more vibrant, open, and self-critical culture and politics. Israel in 2014 is a healthier country than Israel in 1966. It’s possible that Israel’s difficulties on the West Bank have actually sped this evolution. 

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