Mar 13th 2013

The Self-Imposed Ideological Siege

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

Brief synopsis: The most puzzling aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be that after 65 years of violence, enmity and suffering, it remains unresolved when coexistence is inevitable and a two-state solution remains the only viable option. Although there are many contentious issues that must be specifically addressed, directly impacting every conflicting issue is the broader psychological dimension of the conflict making it increasingly intractable. To mitigate the conflict, we must first look into the elements that inform the psychological dimension and how to alleviate them as prerequisites to finding a solution.

Even a cursory review of the core ideologies of right-of-center Israelis and extremist Palestinians strongly suggests that regardless of the dramatic changes of the political landscape since 1948, they remained ideologically besieged, making the conflict ever more intractable. Since Israelis and Palestinians know that coexistence under any scenario is inescapable, the question is what it would take to modify their ideological bent to achieve a political solution to satisfy their mutual claims to the same land.

The contradiction between Israel and the Palestinians, in connection with “the land of Israel” as defined by right-of-center Israelis or “Palestine” as classified by Palestinian Islamists, is starkly evident in Likud’s and Hamas’ political platforms. The Likud platform states, “The Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza are the realization of Zionist values… Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel[emphasis added] and constitutes an important asset in the defense of the vital interests of the State of Israel. The Likud will continue to strengthen and develop these communities and will prevent their uprooting.”

Hamas’ platform affirms that “Palestine is Arab and Muslim Land; Palestinians are one nation regardless of location; the Palestinian People are still in the process of National Liberation and have the right to use all means including armed struggle to achieve this goal.”

Insisting on these principles amounts to a political dead-end, as neither can force the other by any means to relinquish their claim to the same land short of catastrophe. The question is, can they modify their ideological stances without abandoning their core ideological positions? Ideology is often understood to be “the process whereby social life is converted to a natural reality” (Eagleton, Ideology 1991, p. 2). As such, ideology becomes “the indispensible medium in which individuals live out their relations to a social structure.”

In either case, there are consistent efforts by Israeli zealots and Palestinian extremists to legitimize their respective ideologies by adopting a different strategy. As Terry Eagleton points out, “A dominant power may legitimate itself by promoting beliefs and values [ideology] congenial to it; naturalizing and universalizing such beliefs so as to render them self-evident and apparently inevitable; denigrating ideas which might challenge it; excluding rival forms of thought… andobscuring social reality in ways convenient to itself” (1991, p.5).

Thus, to understand the depth of the Israeli and Palestinian contradictory positions we must look briefly at the evolutionary development of the conflict from its inception. The Jewish community sought to establish a state of its own early in the twentieth century, which was subsequently granted by the UN partition plan in 1947, thereby legitimizing the Zionist ideology to establish a Jewish Home in the ancient biblical land. The Palestinians refused the partition plan along with the rest of the Arab states, who waged a war on the nascent state resulting in the loss of more territory and the mass exodus of Palestinian refugees. Although the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which led the Palestinian revolutionary movement, and Israel recognized each other at the Oslo Accords in 1993, Hamas (established in 1987 likely as a result of 20 years of occupation) continues to object to Israel’s existence altogether.

Immediately following the 1967 war, Israel offered to return all the captured territories (except East Jerusalem); the offer was rebuffed by the Arab League (AL). Convening in Khartoum, Sudan in the same year, the AL submitted their three infamous NO’s: no peace, no recognition, and no negotiations with Israel. That response was seen by the Israelis as an outright rejection by the Arab states of Israel’s very existence, despite the Israelis’ willingness to relinquish the captured territories, which continues to resonate in the minds of many Israelis.

In the process, both sides moved to act to enforce their ideological beliefs. The Israelis consistently pursued settlement policies, and the Palestinians, especially Hamas, held onto their militant resistance. The continuing violent confrontations, in particular the second intifada and the Israeli crackdown on Palestinian terror attacks, further deepened the gulf between them while intensifying mutual distrust.

Ideological and political factionalism in both camps has made the conflict increasingly intractable. Since the creation of Israel political parties have mushroomed, reaching at one time more than 20 parties. As a result, all governments have been coalition-based, consisting of several deeply conflicted parties with little consensus on how to address the Palestinian problem and the disposition of the occupied territories. In the last election, 12 parties passed the threshold (receiving at least two percent of the electoral vote to qualify) and are currently represented in the Israeli Knesset.

Although weakened in the last election, the right-of-center parties still represent nearly half of the Israeli electorate and hold significant sway over settlement policy. What started with the building of a few settlements to protect Jerusalem has now become a major enterprise embedded in the ideology that “the land of Israel” is the Jews’ inherent historical land. The settlers’ movement became a powerhouse and now enjoys tremendous influence on any government, regardless of its ideological makeup.

Factionalism within the Palestinians has made it also impossible to speak in one voice. Following the 1993 Oslo Accords, however, a growing majority of Palestinians began to realize that they must find a way to co-exist with Israel, which subsequently became the official policy of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. Hamas, which controls Gaza, continues to struggle to find a way to reconcile with the reality of Israel. Yet, despite the growing pragmatic view, a significant constituency of Israelis and Palestinians continues to reject one another on ideological, religious and political grounds.

The question is how to reconcile ideological ethos with certain irreversible realities on the ground—Israeli-Palestinian coexistence—and their mutual claim to the same territory. History and experiences suggest that regardless of how deep an ideological conviction may be, it cannot be sustained if it does not enshrine justice, fairness and human rights at its very core. An ideological shift will become inevitable due to:

Inevitable failure: Notwithstanding the success of right-of-center parties in Israel and Hamas’ continued resistance, both will realize that failure is imminent. The falsity of the Israeli position to help to legitimate a dominant political order and the socially useful (or necessary) illusion will backfire. Indeed, there are certain conditions on the ground which neither can change, in particular their coexistence. Ideological divergence notwithstanding, their fate is intertwined and they must choose between reconciliation or mutual self-destruction.

Changing political wind: The changing political landscape among Israelis and Palestinians suggests that both camps are undergoing a gradual ideological shift. Fatah came to the conclusion that violence as a means by which to achieve political objectives has failed and began to focus on a solution by peaceful means. Hamas, however, has adopted a two track approach. On the one hand, they began to signal their readiness to establish a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders under condition of no war and no peace (hudna), while maintaining a military approach (armed struggle) as an option, primarily for domestic consumption.

Arresting shift to the right: The recent election in Israel indicated that there has not been a further shift to the right and, in fact, a significant segment of the population moved to the left-of-center, which calls for an end to the conflict with the Palestinians. While hardcore ideological positions continue and systematic distortions of communication (for example in connection with national security and its linkage to the final borders) do exist, the new political map may well slow the settlements’ incursion due to the growing strength of the constituency that rejects the status quo.

The demographic factor: As a result of the rapidly changing demographic ratios between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel is facing an imminent danger of losing its Jewish majority. Sooner than later Israel must choose between a true democracy with a sustainable Jewish majority or a democracy in name only, as discrimination against the Palestinians becomes a tool of necessity to maintain its Jewish dominance. If Israel refuses to relinquish much of the West Bank, it will have little choice but to resort to an apartheid state, inviting international censure, condemnation and sanctions.

The failure of armed struggle: Unless a negotiated agreement with Israel is reached, no armed struggle will dislodge Israel from its current position. The peace process, however, has evolved to a point where the PA has given up on armed struggle and instead resorted to unilateral actions, guided by the belief that it is the only way to advance its goal and force Israel’s hand. The Palestinians were successful in their efforts to upgrade their diplomatic status to “non-voting observer state” at the UN General Assembly, and Hamas, though it occasionally challenges Israel by the use of force, also recognizes that armed struggle has lived out its usefulness.

No gains but increased vulnerability: In the clash of ideologies, however, there comes a point where neither side is making any gains but is actually becoming increasingly vulnerable. Israel is becoming ever more isolated and the Palestinians are watching the territory of their future state usurped to make room for more settlements. The forecast for both sides appears to be bleak and further worsening. In the long term, however, Israel will end up on the losing side as the Palestinian cause will continue to garner overwhelming international support.

The potential for massive violent explosion: Given the simmering situation and the frustration over the stalemate, a violent eruption may well become inevitable. Ideology aside, the average Palestinian is edging ever closer to challenging the occupation. They understand that Israel has the capacity to quell such a violent challenge but they are now prepared to emulate their counterparts in Syria and other Arab countries, who have sacrificed themselves for their freedom. For Israel, this would represent a major dilemma as cracking down on Palestinian demonstrators will evoke international outrage, as the majority of the world views the Palestinians as the victims of immoral occupation.

Israelis and Palestinians can certainly introduce a modified version of their ideological bent, as the reality allows for a gradual shift without sacrificing their ideological principles and without losing face. The Palestinians can establish a state on a part of their homeland and Hamas will also recognize the inevitable and may well follow the PLO and come to terms with Israel’s existence. The Israelis must accept the fact that Israel will be limited to the 1967 borders with some land swaps. This is not to suggest that all issues will readily be resolved, but the realization that coexistence is not negotiable will trump the ideological ethos of both sides.

The alternative is the continuation of this self-imposed ideological siege which is bound to fail the test of time at a price that neither side can afford to pay.

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