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Howard Morry: Unraveling the puzzle at the heart of the Arab Israeli Conflict

by Howard Morry posted here March 27,2020

This is an excerpt from a longer paper presented by Howard Morry to the Arab Jewish Dialogue (AJD). Howard and Ab Freig, co chairs of the AJD, recently made a presentation on the conflict to the Friends of Israel. The thoughts expressed here are Howard’s alone. 

Masking the Problem

At the same time that the Jewish people were trying to return to their national homeland the Arab people were throwing off the yoke of colonialism and establishing a series of Arab nation states throughout the Middle East. So it is not surprising that the creation of Israel, the nation-state of a people who were indigenous to the areas but dispersed over much of the world for two millennia, might be seen by people of the region as an alien if not a European project.

There is no evidence that at the time the UN voted to create a Jewish state, the Arab world saw Zionism as a struggle for self-determination, not unlike their own national struggles. There is also no record that any Arab leaders at the time thought to forge the two national narratives (Arab and Jewish) into one story that was big enough to allow both peoples to live in peace and coexistence in the region. .

The Arab-Israeli conflict started as a simple case of Israel's neighbors rejecting her claim to self-determination in Palestine as part of an epic struggle to reclaim its historic homeland. But a number of changes in the dynamic of the conflict have made it difficult to turn back the clock in an effort to reconcile the Arab and Jewish narratives.

Among them: 

1. Arab leaders have described Zionism in expansionist terms, suggesting that the Jews would not stop until they controlled their Arab neighbors.

2. Arab leaders have used delegitimization of Israel to deflect attention from their own legitimacy and authoritarian policies. .

3. The Arab world imported from Europe the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the trope that Jews are out to control the world.

4. The splintering of the anti-Israel front into multiple political and militant factions changed the politics of the conflict.

5. The introduction of Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel (whether as a Jewish state or not) and says they will restore Palestine to Muslim control through "jihad".

6. The use of terror to achieve political aims, which led to Israel using aggressive strategies to counter and confront terrorism aimed at Israelis.

7. The anti-Israel tropes have been picked up by non-Arab countries with majority Muslim populations like Turkey, Pakistan and especially Iran, who see this as a way to assert leadership in the Muslim world.

8. Iran is working with proxies surrounding Israel (Hezbollah and Hamas among them) under the guise or "resisting" Zionism.

9. Islamists have said that Israel is on land given by God to the Muslims, an Islamic wuqf or patrimony; Hamas has adopted this view in its constitution, which says that "no one can renounce" God's claim to the land.

All of these factors have made it much more difficult to resolve the conflict today. There are more players, more strategies and more fronts in this war to end Zionism, and there is little trust between the parties.

Moreover, the story of the Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced out of their home in 1947 to 1949 has been used to counter the reality that Israel is a democratic country with values that rival most Western countries. Historians agree that in some cases Arab residents left out of fear of being caught in a war zone; in fact the Arab armies warned them to leave and then return after the massacre of Jews. In other cases Palestinians left because of fear of what the Jews might do to them.

After the war ended in 1949, Palestinians who stayed in Israel during the war eventually gained full rights of citizenship. But the Palestinian Arabs who left were not allowed to return. Israel based its decision not to let them back in on the fact that they were still at war with the Arab world. This was the beginning of the refugee problem. But as bad as the problem is, the United Nations has made it worse by including in their definition of Palestinian refugees not only the original refugees, but their descendants, regardless of whether they become citizens of other countries, which is unique in the world.

The UN defines Palestinian Arab refugees as the original refugees and their descendants for eternity, when in all other conflicts they define refugees as only the original refugees who remain stateless. Thus, the UN recognizes five million Palestinian refugees when in fact there are only about 20,000 original Palestinian refugees of the conflict. This number could double to 10 million or more over time. Add to that the fact the Palestinian national movement is opposed to any resettlement of refuges or their descendants and claims a "right of return" to Israel, not only for the 20,000 original refugees but also for their millions of descendants, most of whom have never lived in the land their national movement claims on their behalf.. If Israel were to accept this claim, it wouldn't end Israel, but it would end Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, or as a democracy. This is a poison pill for the Zionist dream that can only be neutralized by accepting two states for two peoples, with Palestinian refugees being redefined (as they are elsewhere) as the original refugees, or by settling descendant "refugees" in other countries or in a Palestinian nation-state, as the Trump plan proposes.

Unfinished Business

Israel is portrayed by its enemies as sui generis. If Israel is like any other state in history, they assert, it would be South Africa or Nazi Germany. But the reality is that Israel is a normal democratic nation-state, like today's Germany or Italy, a state for all its citizens and a homeland for a people with a large diaspora. Where it differs is that Israel's neighbors have never accepted its right to exist as a nation-state, and as a result, Israel has had to continue to justify its existence in the court of public opinion.

Zionism realized its original goal in 1948. But the ultimate goal of Zionism was not only to create and build the Jewish nation-state; it was also to be accepted as a "normal" country in the community of nations. As long as the anti-Israel movement continues to delegitimize Israel, Zionism has unfinished business.

The problem is that the Muslim world has said it will not accept Israel's legitimacy unless and until the Palestinians are granted a nation-state of their own (on specific terms), and Israel will never accede to that demand until the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish nation-state. It would be much easier for the Palestinian people to grant that recognition if the world had not granted the PLO status as their "sole, legitimate representative ", which has effectively given the PLO a veto over ending the conflict. Since the PLO is a movement and not a country, it can ignore the will of their people in a way that a democracy never could.

Accepting Zionism

The Trump Deal has changed the paradigm by effectively making separate, conditional offers to Israel and the PLO. Israel's offer gives it everything it asked for and more, including a united Jerusalem and sovereignty over settlements and the Jordan Valley. Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. conditioned the offer to the Palestinians on, amongst other things, recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, in effect saying accept Zionism or you will not get a state.

Accepting Zionism, however, does not mean that the leaders of the Palestinian national movement have to become Zionists in order to end the conflict. When peoples are at war over 11 irreconcilable differences, unless one side defeats the other, the solution since 1648 has not been to accept the legitimacy of the other state; more often than not it has been to agree not to undermine the “national interest” of the other state.

That Westphalian idea also applies to the Arab Israeli conflict. Israel's national interest is to be a homeland for the Jewish people and a democratic state where all its citizens can live safely within secure borders, with equal rights for all. Palestine would have to agree (credibly and definitively) not to do anything to undermine Israel's national interest, i.e. to be the nation state of the Jewish people.

It is impossible to believe that the PLO will accept Zionism, in effect give up its ultimate dream of liberating all of Palestine. In fact Abbas recently said "a thousand times no" to the Deal of the Century, and is hard at work trying to gain allies in the "resistance", perhaps not realizing that the Trump team may have gotten there first, and is playing with much stronger cards than Israel has. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example, have already gone on record encouraging the PLO to sit down with the United States based on the Trump parameters. If they don't they may find that their veto over a just settlement of the conflict will be given to the Palestinian people through a referendum.

As Anita Shapira put it in Israel: A History:

… at the present stage of history the Palestinians are prepared to suffer Israel's existence in the Middle East as an inalienable fact but not to see it as justifiable. Hence their difficulty in reaching a peace agreement, since Israel demands reciprocity and acceptance of its basic demands: that the Arabs relinquish the myth of the "right of return" and the eternal nature of the conflict and recognize Israel as the Jewish national state.

If the Palestinian national movement is prepared to compromise on their objective of liberating all of Palestine and accept that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people - like Italy and Germany - the door would open to an historic reconciliation between the two peoples, especially now that Israel has been offered the security it craved through Trump's conditional offer. But if the PLO is not prepared to sit down with the United States, they may find themselves sidelined, as Israel's Arab neighbors, especially those who are most concerned about Iran, normalize relations with Israel even without a Palestinian state, which in turn could provide cover for Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America and even parts of the Muslim world to fully accept Israel into the community of nations.

Perhaps, if the PLO is sidelined, and the stars align, the Palestinians will even get the state offered in the Deal of the Century. But for that to happen, the Palestinian people around the world - the real flesh and blood Palestinians who are pawns in the PLO's utopian vision - will have to be asked, perhaps through a free and fair referendum, to enter history by accepting Zionism and voting in favour of two states for two peoples.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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