A hajji's door in the Old City
The Palestinian right wing looks like this: In 2008, a 26 year-old Palestinian man from Jabel Mukader in East Jerusalem killed eight students in their yeshiva. A poll found 84% of Palestinians supported the attack. As one walks around Ramallah, and even East Jerusalem, one sees posters of martyrs, including those who attacked Israeli civilians inside Israel. Posters at Abu Dis University as well in refugee camps proclaim, “Haifa, we are coming,” implying that refugees and their descendants should view 1948 Israel as their land. At Hamas anniversary celebrations in December, leader Ismail Hanina said, “We affirm that armed resistance is our strategic option and the only way to liberate our land, from the sea to the river.” This month Hamas has fired at least nine rockets from Gaza into Israel.
The Israeli right wing: A teacher at an Israeli national religious school I interviewed recently said that most teachers and students at her school would consider Arabs the enemy. The school would not even think of having meetings between their students and Palestinian students with Israeli citizenship. Recently a Jewish settler in Hebron, asked by visiting students what he thought the solution was to the hostilities in Hebron, answered, “to encourage the emigration of our enemies.” Last week Hebron settlers attacked a Palestinian woman’s home, burned Palestinian cars, and beat two Palestinian men. More broadly, in the last two years Israelis have killed 259 Palestinians; Palestinians have killed 19 Israelis.
I’ve often heard Israeli centrists and leftists say that the Israeli right is playing for the long term. Keep pushing – take a few more homes, intimidate a few more Palestinians, build a few more settlements – until there is a large Jewish majority in all of mandate Palestine, and the Palestinians who live there are a small and dwindling minority. I’ve also heard Palestinian centrists and leftists say that the real strategy of the Palestinian right is to hang on, to tough it out for the long term. The Israelis are just the latest in a series of imperial powers, they reason, and they too will eventually weaken and leave.
The right on each side seems to agree: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a zero sum game in which neither group can compromise and where each group is playing a long game for massive majority status and absolute governmental control in all of historic Palestine. This does not have to be the case, of course: beneficial co-existence has succeeded among many other hostile groups in the past, and real peace is the ultimate “value added” solution. But putting that to the side, there is one huge difference between the Israeli and the Palestinian right wings. The Israeli right has accurately predicted the future of a no-compromise policy, and the Palestinian right has badly misunderstood the character of Israeli presence in the land.
Israel holds almost all the cards: a gdp per capita ten times the size of the Palestinian territories, close to absolute backing by the world’s sole superpower, a highly effective army, a populace willing to continue with the status quo, and a sophisticated legal, political and administrative structure allowing them to move forward with oppressive policies without pushing the U.S. or their own population into outrage over injustices. Palestinians hold almost no cards. Palestinian violence only strengthens the Israeli right. Palestinians don’t have the money, the connections or, it seems, the sophistication to get their message out to the U.S. The surrounding Arab states have either made separate peaces (Egypt, Jordan), and/or are caught up in their own internal politics (Syria, Egypt, Lebanon). In any case, these countries have never been effective advocates of the Palestinian cause. Most obviously, the Palestinian territories are, well, occupied. Describing the situation as asymmetric is a deep understatement.
The vision of the Palestinian right will never come true; they need to reduce their goals sharply and unite with the Palestinian center and left and with the Israeli left. They need to forge a broad national consensus of absolute non-violence, giving up all arms, absolute rejection of a claim on 1948 Israel, and a policy of zero-tolerance for anti-Semitic talk. They need to throw themselves on the mercy of the international community on the issues of East Jerusalem and right of return or compensation for refugees. They need to make it clear that they will take whatever they can get, today. As a friend of mine said, “They need to be Israel in 1948. ‘You’re giving us swiss cheese? Great! We’ll dance in the streets!’”
The Palestinians have to make this sharp shift because the Israelis are not an imperial power. They have no homeland, no capital of London, Constantinople, Cairo or Damascus to which they will return. They are not here due to a combination of economic interest and colonial hubris. They feel this to be home more deeply than perhaps any other people on earth. To Palestinians, who look back a mere 160 years to when 96% of the population was Muslim or Christian and 4% was Jewish, the Israeli identification with the land seems unbelievable – but it is deeply, psychologically true. Waiting, in the best case for the Palestinians, will simply do nothing to lessen Israeli presence. We are, however, far from the best case for the Palestinians. Instead the Palestinians will be moved: one detour in the wall, one hilltop settlement, one secretly purchased Old City house, one demolished terrorist’s home at a time.
Both right-wings are, ethically, deeply in the wrong. For reasons of justice, human rights, concern for the other, and their own people’s humanity, both side should change their views and behaviors radically, in my opinion. But if these ethical arguments do not resonate, and one takes a narrow, identity-based, zero-sum view, only one party must change – the Palestinian right-wing.