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Impressions from Israel

Having just returned from Israel, I feel the only way to truly process what I saw and what I felt is to write it down in what will likely end up being an incoherent strings of thought association.

First, I was there for a conference organized by my graduate school in conjunction with Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  I suppose whenever you get a bunch of political science professors and graduate students together in Jerusalem, one is obliged to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict happening literally in the backyard.  Therefore I had the “benefit” of having a very academic discussion of the issue coupled with an actual journey into the West Bank to see from a “first hand” perspective what is really going on.

The comment was made during the academic conference that the solution to the problem is known and has been well known: a two-state solution where the borders would be drawn based on the borders of 1967.  It was also suggested that most of the Israeli public and most of the Palestinian public would in theory support such an idea, it is the radical 10% on both sides that are keeping such a solution from happening.  These interpretations seem probable enough.  Until you look at a current map of Israel.  Most maps you see depict the West Bank as being a consistent space with territorial integrity, as if the entirety of the West Bank is controlled by the Palestinian Authority.  You can’t really blame the mapmakers because the reality of the situation is something so complex you can’t easily depict it.  The fact is that the West Bank looks more like this:

If the West Bank was an island nation, this is what it would look like, but what appears to be water on this map is actually either outright Israeli territory or settlements that Israelis are building strategically around the most powerful and concentrated areas of the West Bank- namely Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho.  The Israeli government makes it quite attractive to move there with tax incentives and a highway system that takes Israelis directly to the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (roads that Palestinians aren’t able to use easily).  Meanwhile, Palestinian areas are not provided with infrastructure such as pipelines or cell towers, and much of the Palestinian areas are walled in with large cement fences.  Although I don’t claim to be an expert on Cold War -era Europe, the scene reminded me of all of the pictures and stories you hear of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, with tourists able to pass in and out with minimal trouble from the armed border guards, but those unfortunate enough to live inside the wall unable to move beyond them.  Meanwhile, just outside the concrete fences Israeli settlements are rapidly appearing–some of them looked quite wealthy to me.  Palestinians in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority can easily look up the hills past the walls and see what is going on around them.

The wall that marks the border of Ramallah.

The picture of the checkpoint I was able to get.

Give this situation, I’m actually surprised that there isn’t more violence and resistance on the part of the Palestinians.  Not because I endorse violence as a legitimate political strategy, but because, legitimate or not, sometimes people feel compelled to violence when they see no other way.

I can’t accept that the Israeli government actually wants a two state solution as they actively build settlements in the West Bank.  The effect is that the Palestinians are rapidly losing territory that they would rightly have a claim over if a two-state solution with the 1967 borders would be established.  This is why this solution is impossible:  it would require all the Israelis that currently live in the West Bank to leave unless they want to become residents (or citizens!?!?) of a Palestinian state.  If the Israeli government was interested in this solution, they wouldn’t be making the realization of this solution ever more impossible on a day to day basis.

Two analogies seem appropriate–one from my knowledge of American history and one from the current political experiment going on in Europe.  First, it is useful to think of the West Bank as “cowboy country.”  It is a largely unsettled area and Israelis that move there fancy themselves as pioneers of new and god-given territory, with a purpose akin to Manifest Destiny.  The settlers of the American West didn’t much care that the land was already settled by Native Americans, and as the American government became more powerful, the Native Americans were pushed onto reservations, where much of the remaining Native American population continues to live today.  At first I thought it strange that Israelis would want to live next door to an unfriendly and at times hostile community, but thinking of it in terms of a divinely inspired pioneering spirit helped me to understand.

Fortunately, the Israelis aren't normally shooting at Palestinians.

Now on to the European analogy.  I’m hesitant to use this comparison at a time when the European Union seems to be on the brink of collapse, but the EU has been successful in bringing together people who at one point had centuries-old hatred towards one another into an all-encompassing supra-national governmental structure.  In fact, the Polish foreign minister made an extraordinary statement recently when he seemed to forgive Germany for their expansionist and violent history towards its neighbors in demanding that Germany do something to save the Euro.  Does the European Union provide the basis for a supranational governmental structure that could effectively manage the resentment between the Israelis and the Palestinians?  Could the solution be less state-based on something that seeks to transcend it?  On the one hand, there is already a common currency in Israel/Palestine (they both use the Israeli Shekel).  This was one of the biggest and most difficult obstacles on the way towards European integration (and it isn’t the Euro itself that has caused the current problems, in fact it is the Euro that is keeping Europe together, everyone is fighting to keep the Euro alive and well.  Rather, it is a lack of commonly agreed upon fiscal policies that have caused the current crisis, along with serious financial mismanagement on the part of Europe’s major trading partner (the US)).  There is, to some extent, a common language as well.  Palestinians grow up speaking Arabic, Israelis Hebrew, but both languages, along with English, are present everywhere.  Israelis seem to speak decent Arabic, and one of my many Palestinian cab drivers in Jerusalem spoke fluent Hebrew and decent enough English.  Of course, they don’t have a common religion obviously, and by extension, a lack of a common “culture.”  But such was also the case not too long ago in Europe.  It was only 20 years ago that Berlin, and thereby Europe, was still divided.


Europe at one point in its history was also deeply divided over religion.  It seems to me that one of the reasons that a two-state solution hasn’t been realized yet is because what both Palestinians and Israelis know about the classic nation-state: it is sovereign, it tends to be wildly defensive if not unchecked by forces external to it, it operates on the assumption that other states are slightly paranoid and potentially violent.  This is exactly NOT what EITHER the Palestinians or the Israelis want right next door to one another.  Israel is already paranoid with Iran only a hop, skip and a jump away, and rightly so.  And with Arab dictators falling like dominoes due to the Arab Spring, dictators who were kept in power mostly because they had agreed to leave Israel be, the Israelis are even more paranoid than normal.  Therefore, the Israelis need assurances that once Palestine is given statehood, it isn’t going to act like a classic nation-state.  Well, that’s a pretty impossible demand, statehood without acting like it.  But this is what Europe has done so well: it has preserved the best parts of  statehood while trying to curve the worst (with varying degrees of success).  European states retain light borders that are vaguely drawn along ethnic and language lines, but movement between these states is relatively easy.  There is a near guarantee of peace between European states due to monetary and political integration, and the fact that European states have entered into supranational political institutions and agreements that make such a possibility nearly moot.  I can’t say what a Israeli/Palestinian Union would look like precisely.  But such an arrangement wouldn’t force the Israelis who are currently living in settlements in the West Bank to move, because both Israelis and Palestinians would be citizens of a larger political Union (much like how it is pretty easy for a German to go live in Hungary, of for a Dane to live and work in France).  Palestinian citizens would vote for representatives both to their state government as well as to the Union government, and vice versa for the Israelis.  Israel and its allies would need not worry as much about the possibility of an extremist party taking over Palestine, because democracy at the local, state, and suprastate levels keeps extremist parties in check.  There are extremist parties in Germany, but they rarely get any actual political power.  Parties like Hamas would either have to moderate or be forced out of the process.  As for Jerusalem, this is perhaps the most difficult issue, but could it not be a neutral capital city for the Union?  Something like a Washington DC (but with voting rights and representation in government)?  Or an internationalized Brussels, an idea that is floating around in Europe these days?

On a lighter note, there seems to be consensus that the Palestinians must somehow demonstrate their capacity to govern themselves before any solution, two-state or suprastate, can be realized.  In particular, they have to prove this to the West.  They seem to be doing a relatively good job; when I was there things were chaotic but in a controlled way, much like the open air markets you see in Morocco and parts of Turkey.  The infrastructure isn’t exactly modern or up to Western standards but it seems to work well enough.  There were policemen controlling traffic.  There were people on cell phones.  We were approached by a group of young men who spoke English and were genuinely interested in why we were there.  It isn’t a dirt poor place by any means.  There are churches in Palestine that cater to Arab Christians.  There wasn’t an obvious lack of “statehood” except for the concrete walls.  Heck, they are performing the part of Western-esque state so well they even have a Starbucks!  Well, a Palestinian version: Stars & Bucks.  Which I find so wonderfully multilayered:  it signals a nuanced acceptance of the some of the more superficial signs of (western) statehood while simultaneously playing with it and criticizing it.  The Stars & Bucks not only served all of the staples of any semi-serious European cafe (cafe this and cafe that, latte this and latte that) as well as quite a large selection of flavored tobacco for smoking a hooka.  The intersection of East and West was strange and fantastic.  If the Israelis and Palestinians could somehow find a solution along the lines of the European Union, it would be a merging of the East and West in a much more substantial way than Stars & Bucks.  But perhaps Stars & Bucks is a decent first step.

Brilliant Irony or attempt at legitimate statehood?

An Update:

The BBC is reporting today that the US Ambassador to Belgium is under fire for his public remarks on a “new antisemitism.”  Essentially, he is identifying worldwide frustration over the Israeli-Arab conflict and the fact that a solution is always out of reach.  This frustration, he says, has the potential to be expressed in antisemitic ways towards Jews worldwide.  The response was predictable: Republicans as well as many Democrats are calling for his resignation.  It is predictable because criticism of Israel in the United States is tantamount to flag burning–any criticism of Israel or its policies, no matter how fact based or whether the criticism is coupled with an equal criticism of the Palestinian Authority, is equal to antisemitism.  This equation has gotten so out of control that it is easier for Americans to criticize their own government with ridiculous and extreme rhetoric, such as comparing Obama to Hitler, than it is for Americans to criticize Israel.  I’m not sure I agree with the Ambassador’s remarks- I see no evidence that those that disagree with Israeli policies are slipping into classical antisemitism.  Very few of these critics, from what I know, go so far as to delegitimize the state of Israel.  However, he points to something that needs to be said more often, especially in American circles.  Israel and its policies towards Palestine, its inability to move towards a solution, is perhaps the biggest long-term threat to Israel.  Israel, being the state in the equation that is supported by the West, has the resources and the infrastructure and the power, is the state that needs to make a move towards a solution.  It is in Israel’s long-term interest to find a solution, because the longer the situation prevails as such the longer the international community will become frustrated with Israel.  It may not be antisemitism, but it will be something that can easily become antisemitism.





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