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Can the Ticking Middle East Conflict Be Defused?

Can the Ticking Middle East Conflict Be Defused?

by Bernard Weiner, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers

I had a fascinating email conversation over the weekend on the Middle East conflict, and it seems worthy of reproducing here. Not just because of the issues raised but because they encapsulate the difficulty of even agreeing on what the central questions are.

Americans seem so locked into hardened political positions -- not just Republican vs. Democrats, conservative vs. liberal, religious vs. secular -- that it makes the traditional way of dealing with difficult issues, of finding some room for compromise closer to the middle, virtually impossible. But perhaps this online debate offers some hope in this regard.

My correspondent -- an intelligent, politically-savvy, passionate writer/editor -- had sent me a tough anti-Israel article by British journalist Alan Hart entitled "Zionism Unmasked: A fairy tale that¹s become a terrifying nightmare". I've read scores of similar articles over the years, but Hart's was quite powerfully argued, and I decided to respond to it. Here's what kicked off the conversation:


To get the discussion started, let us suppose that everything (or nearly everything) Hart says about the origins and early years of Zionism, and much of today's brutal Zionist treatment of Palestinians, is true. What are the policies you would advise to help ameliorate the situation, the Israel/Palestine conundrum?

Should millions of Jewish Israelis be repatriated, forcibly or otherwise, to...where? An uninhabited island in the Pacific? A country carved out somewhere in Eastern Europe, with land donated by numerous nations? Where? Similarly, many Israelis want the Palestinians to disappear and are hoping that by treating them so cruelly, this will hasten their departure back to...where? To Jordan? Egypt? Bantustans in the worst geographical locations? Where?

It ain't gonna happen. Both sides are engaged in delusional thinking. The millions of Jewish Israelis will not disappear on their own and cannot be made to disappear by force, no matter how many decades are devoted to the task. The millions of Palestinians will not disappear on their own and cannot be made to disappear by force, no matter how many decades are devoted to the task.

You may ask why the Palestinian should compromise on anything, since you feel their claim is more justified; Israelis might ask why they should compromise, since they believe their claim is more just. But that reasoning just keeps the destructive-loop in place and solves nothing. If my assessment is a realistic depiction of where things stand today, how is it possible to reach an accommodation that will permit both peoples to live side-by-side, if not in peace (at first), then at least with some sort of grudgingly-arranged toleration of the Other?

It seems to me that the art of political compromise dictates that each side will have to give in order to get. The Israelis will have to end their occupation of lands established for the Palestinian state, abandoning its settlements in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in order for a viable Palestinian state to manifest itself. The Palestinians will have to officially recognize Israel, which action would necessitate ceasing to send missiles, rockets and suicide bombers into Israel. Israel might agree to accept a limited number of "right-of-return" Palestinians back to their ancestral homes but also would have to pay a fair real-estate price for those hundreds of thousands of Palestinian who would not be welcomed back. Jerusalem probably would become an international city, administered by the U.N. or some other neutral body. Once Israel and the new Palestine were established inside of secure borders, it would be easier to work out treaties dealing with water-sharing, movement back and forth across the borders for workers and others. Finally in this abbreviated list, since we know there are Jewish Israeli and Palestinian factions who would be opposed to any serious movement toward peace, both governments would criminally prosecute those who use violence in opposition, and continue moving toward peace despite whatever violence takes place.

I'm not pulling these potential solutions out of my hat -- or from any other orifice in my body. By and large, all of these compromises, at least in principle, have been accepted by both sides over the past decade or two, in negotiations held in Oslo, Madrid, Camp David, etc.

The key to moving in the direction suggested by these already-agreed-to compromises is for both sides to quit playing I'm-more-a-victim-than-you-are game, to admit that the Other has some right on its side, and to not get bogged down on who first committed which act of violence in the past. History is valuable and never to be forgotten but when it comes to diplomacy, it can also be a convenient trap to avoid doing anything significant in moving the peace process forward.

Doing nothing, in my opinion, is to throw up one's hands and to accept the ongoing sacrifice of yet more generations of children into the bubbling cauldron of hate and despair that is today's Middle East.

That, in very brief summary, is my reaction to Hart's powerful piece of writing. Let's see if we can achieve any solid resting spot both of us can stand on in discussing this constantly volatile topic.

Her reply:

[My response] must be pretty obvious by my newsletter postings and the facts of the numerous international violations by Israel (in the hundreds), the disproportionate amount of daily aggression against the Palestinians, stealing land that doesn't belong to them, murdering and imprisoning children. What are the Palestinians supposed to do: bend over and say "thank you for killing my relatives and family? I'll never send another crude rocket into Israel again? Thank you for taking what the international community tells you does not belong to you? Thank you for stealing not only our land, but our water as well? Thank you for bombing our schools and hospitals? Thank you for cutting off crucial food and medical supplies," and so on and so on. I cannot imagine anyone over here in the U.S. allowing anyone to do a tenth of what the Israelis do to the Palestinians without retaliating. There's not a scintilla of equality going on in Israel, or here, since the Zionists now have control over our country in not just foreign policy, media, education, Wall Street, banking, every branch of government and military, you name it, and why things are getting progressively worse, because of our partnership and collusion with this mother of all monsters. Now ask me how I really feel. It's the injustice of it all, and even worse, that no one is doing a thing about it above lip service....


I replied:

[Without responding to your over-the-top language about Zionist influence], I share much of your (and Hart's) righteous anger. But, in a certain sense, it doesn't matter any more who is more "right." These two peoples (who are linked by their Semitic heritage and DNA) are locked, and have been locked for more than 60 years, in a battle from which they cannot extricate themselves, even if they wanted to. And neither side wants to; each thinks that with a bit more violence, the Other will give up and slink off into the byways of history.

So I come at this from a different perspective, trying to figure out a way to stop the slaughter, to give future generations of kids and grandkids, on both sides, something other than permanent war and permanent hatred.

Yes, I know that disproportionate violence has been meted out by Israel -- even to the point where an international commission determined that Israel had committed gross war crimes in Gaza. That commission likewise determined that the Palestinians had committed war crimes as well, but of a far less deadly variety, by firing rockets into civilian towns in Israel. That slaughter wheel keeps turning and the two parties seem incapable of stopping it. Some outside agent, with some clout, will have to step in and help shepherd the parties to the negotiating table.

...If I'm correct that no amount of violence/injustice from Israel directed at the Palestinians will make the Palestinians give up the fight and vanish, and that no amount of Palestinian retaliatory bombing and rockets will make the Israelis call it quits and disappear, what options are there? Do those of us who support the right of Palestinians to a nation-state all their own say "just keep fighting, maybe 60 years from now you'll achieve your victory?" That is an invitation to a continued regimen of slaughter, with entire generations of young men lost on both sides, not to mention the civilians who will die. What, in PRACTICAL terms, can and should be done?

There has got to be some way out of this horrific ongoing slaughter. Using what both sides have agreed to in principle over the past decade or so, I've proposed a scenario that seems to make sense. I'd love to hear, beyond the anger and denunciations (valid though they may be), what your position is about finding a way to peace in the region through that scenario or another you might propose.

Her response:

Nothing will be accomplished until Israel/U.S. ends their murderous, lawless occupation, and returns the stolen land to its rightful owners. It isn't complicated, it's the crux of problem. If you don't believe it, ask anyone in the Middle East who is not part of the problem.


My reply:

Ending the occupation is indeed the crux of the problem and was one of the central required planks in the scenario I outlined. But I want to make sure we're talking about the same thing. If "return the stolen land to its rightful owners" refers to the occupied territories (Gaza, West Bank, East Jerusalem), that seems to be eminently doable. Both sides in various negotiations over the years have agreed to this in principle. But if "return the stolen land to its rightful owners" refers to all of Israel, obviously there is no hope for that scenario.

Her response:

I was referring to the '67 borders. Most agree this would be fair, but it isn't going to happen unless the international community intervenes. I don't see this happening either, since the U.S. is going around deposing governments, installing U.S.-friendly leaders and (what is it now?) 700 military bases and increasing in number? Who is going to fight ours and Israel's superior weapons and military advantage? Maybe down the line China and Russia with help from Latin America, Chavez...Iran. The Israelis will never agree to give up the land they've stolen. They'll hold on until the bitter, bottom, end, what and whenever it comes. The outrage is building.


My reply:

Thanks for clearing up the border question. The situation does seem hopeless, but sometimes at the most hopeless-looking times, significant changes are possible.

Her response:

Maybe in an individual, but for the collective whole, the wheel turns slowly and sometimes not at all. Today it's in retrograde motion thanks to Zionist United States of Israel.

And that's where we left the conversation. My correspondent, dedicated to the proposition that Israel is wrong and must pay the penalty for being wrong, seems resigned to a continuation of the conflict until Israel is defeated.

To my mind, to get to a true peace, each side is going to have to give something to get something. But, since neither side is capable or desirous of making a peace, the international community in some fashion must intervene and move them to the negotiating table for final talks. My correspondent said as much.

As you can read for yourself, whenever I tried to move the online discussion to how the parties can move toward peace, my correspondent wanted to stay on the war crimes of the Israelis and the need for them to be punished for their brutal behavior. I've heard something similar from Israelis when I argue with them about the need for them to withdraw from the Occupied Territories: "The Palestinians are brutal terrorists and can't be trusted; they must be taught a harsh lesson for their violent behavior." It's a closed blaming-loop that gets us nowhere.

I take two positives out of this debate. The first is that, even given the heat generated, my correspondent and I can talk in civil, respectful ways to each other. And the second is that both of us agree that Israel will have to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, and that unrelenting international pressure will be necessary to get to that stage. Those are good starting points for a serious negotiation. Israel wants security and recognition, Palestine wants a secure nation-state and an end to occupation. There is a pathway to peace there, if the will is there to find it and walk it to a peace treaty -- or, at the very least, to a long-lasting truce.

Who will take the first step? And who will help the warring parties take that first step? Perhaps, you, dear reader, have creative solutions worth considering.


Copyright 2010 by Bernard Weiner

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, and has written numerous articles on the Middle East conflict ( A former writer/editor for two decades with the San Francisco Chronicle, he now serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers ( To comment: .

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