Israel – Palestine: The Consequences of the Conflict

The Hisham B. Sharabi Memorial Lecture

I am honored to have been asked to give the annual Sharabi lecture here at the Palestine Center. As all of you know, Dr. Hisham Sharabi helped found this Center, as well as the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. He was a great figure in the study of Arab politics and society. He was also an indefatigable advocate of Palestinian rights. I never met him, but I feel privileged to speak to you today in his memory. My topic is the tragic consequences of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians for them, for their region, for their backers, and for the world as a whole.

The saga of the Holy Land, ancient and modern, reminds someone with no personal connection to it of nothing so much as the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible. There seems to be something about Palestine that afflicts the innocent, tests the righteous, and causes incomprehensible suffering to past and present inhabitants. Israeli Jews and Palestinians both claim descent from the ancient peoples of the lands they now contest. Their competing narratives are at the heart of the perverse drama there. In this drama, the spiritual descendants of Jews who left Palestine assert a religious duty to dispossess the biological descendants of those who chose to remain.

Over the course of centuries, the Jews of the Diaspora were grievously persecuted by Christians. This experience helped to inspire Zionism. It culminated in the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Meanwhile, under Byzantium and the Caliphate, all but a few of the Jews of Palestine sought refuge in conversion to Judaism’s successor faiths: Christianity and Islam. As an ironic result, the homegrown descendants of Palestine’s original Jewish population — the Palestinians — now suffer because newcomers proclaim them to be interlopers in lands they have inhabited from time immemorial. And yet another Jewish-descended Diaspora — this time, Christian and Muslim — has been ejected from Palestine to suffer in exile. Not even the most imaginative writer of fiction could have composed an account of traumatic suffering and human tragedy comparable to that which Zionists and Palestinians have undergone and continue to inflict on each other.

The moral harm that these distant cousins continue to do to each other is huge. So is the damage they are doing to their sympathizers and supporters abroad. The resort to terrorist acts by Palestinians, especially suicide bombings in crowded public places, has caused them to forfeit much of the international sympathy their cause would otherwise enjoy. The massacre of civilians in the West by Arabs enraged by Western support for Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians and other affronts has generated intense European and American suspicion of all Arabs. The diffusion of Arab rage to non-Arab regions of the realm of Islam has aroused global antipathy to Islam even as it has inspired acts of terrorism among Muslims.

Similarly, the cruelties of Israelis to their Arab captives and neighbors, especially in the ongoing siege of Gaza and repeated attacks on the people of Lebanon, have cost the Jewish state much of the global sympathy that the Holocaust previously conferred on it. The racist tyranny of Jewish settlers over West Bank Arabs and the progressive emergence of a version of apartheid in Israel itself are deeply troubling to a growing number of people abroad who have traditionally identified with Israel. Many — perhaps most of the most disaffected — are Jews. They are in the process of dissociating themselves from Israel. They know that, to the extent that Judaism comes to be conflated with racist arrogance (as terrorism is now conflated with Islam), Israeli behavior threatens a rebirth of anti-Semitism in the West. Ironically, Israel — conceived as a refuge and guarantee against European anti-Semitism — has become the sole conceivable stimulus to its revival and globalization. Demonstrably, Israel has been bad for the Palestinians. It is turning out also to be bad for the Jews.

The early Zionists were mostly secular in orientation. So was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But, as the struggle between Jewish settlers and Palestinians proceeded, it became increasingly infused with religious fervor. On both sides, parties espousing sectarian extremism displaced secular nationalist movements. Religious dogmatism transformed what was at first a secular struggle between competing local nationalisms into a Jewish and Muslim holy war for land in Palestine. In holy wars, compromise is equated with heresy. This tragic mutation of the conflict is now reflected in increasing global animosity between Muslims, Jews, and their Christian Zionist supporters. (Christian Zionists perversely support the Jewish state in order to hasten the arrival of Judgment Day, when they expect Israel to be devastated and the world to be purged of its Jews. Such people, however Rube Goldberg-like the theology by which they propose to annihilate the Jews, are strange allies for Zionists to embrace!)

The ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has killed and wounded many people. It has done even graver damage to the humane principles at the heart of both Judaism and Islam. Among Jews and Muslims in Israel and Palestine the golden rule has been largely forgotten. The principle that one should not do to others what one would not wish done to oneself had been integral to both faiths. In the Holy Land, God’s love has been replaced with murderous indifference to the rights of others in a sickeningly bloody bilateral contest to terrorize civilian populations.1 Ethical voices on both sides exist but they are less and less audible. Amoral and unscrupulous zealots have the podium. Their right to speak in their religious community is seldom challenged. Their utterances blacken the reputations of both religions.

Obfuscatory euphemisms are, unfortunately, the norm in the Holy Land. But rhetorical tricks can no longer conceal the protracted moral zero-sum game that is in progress there. A people without rights confronts a settler movement without scruples. A predatory state with cutting-edge military technology battles kids with stones and resistance fighters with belts of nails and explosives. Israel’s Cabinet openly directs the murder of Palestinian political leaders. (There have been about 850 such extrajudicial executions over the past decade.)2 Israel is vigorously engaged in the collective punishment and systematic ethnic cleansing of its captive Arab populations.3 It rails against terrorism while carrying out policies explicitly described as intended to terrorize the peoples of the territories it is attacking or into which it is illegally expanding. Meanwhile, the elected authorities in Palestine — indeed, most Palestinians — associate themselves with suicide bombers and unguided missiles that indiscriminately murder Israeli civilians. Each side has suspended moral constraints in order to cause the other to suffer in the hope that it will capitulate to such coercion. To a distressing extent, moreover, each side has also been able to enlist unreasoning support for its cause and the indiscriminate condemnation of the other by powerful supporters abroad.

As always in such mayhem, truth and the law have been the first to go missing. Israel regularly attributes to others the very things it itself is doing. It has become notorious for its refusal to accept objective scrutiny or criticism. It routinely rebuffs international investigators’ examination of allegations against it, even when mandated by the U.N. Security Council. Instead, it stages self-indulgent acts of self-investigation calculated to produce exculpatory propaganda. As a result, Israeli government spokesmen — who once were presumed to represent the intellectual integrity for which Jewish scholars have always been renowned — now have no credibility at all except among those committed to the Zionist cause. Meanwhile, regional and international respect for the rule of law, especially humanitarian law, has been greatly degraded. This is a special irony.

Humanitarian law and the law of war are arguably the supreme moral artifacts of Atlantic civilization. Jewish lawyers made a disproportionate contribution to the crafting of both. The resulting legal principles were intended to deter the kinds of injuries and injustices that European Jews and other minorities had long suffered and to protect occupied populations from persecution by their occupiers. Both objectives are very relevant to contemporary Palestine. It is, however, hard to find any principle of due process, the several Geneva Conventions, or the Nuremberg trials that has not been systematically violated in the Holy Land. Examples of criminal conduct include mass murder, extra-judicial killing, torture, detention without charge, the denial of medical care, the annexation and colonization of occupied territory, the illegal expropriation of land, ethnic cleansing, and the collective punishment of civilians, including the demolition of their homes, the systematic reduction of their infrastructure, and the de-development and impoverishment of entire regions. These crimes have been linked to a concerted effort to rewrite international law to permit actions that it traditionally prohibited, in effect enshrining the principle that might makes right.

As the former head of the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) Legal Department has argued:

If you do something for long enough the world will accept it. The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries . . . . International law progresses through violations.4

A colleague of his has extended this notion by pointing out that:

The more often Western states apply principles that originated in Israel to their own non-traditional conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, then the greater the chance these principles have of becoming a valuable part of international law.5

These references to Iraq and Afghanistan underscore the extent to which the United States, once the principal champion of a rule-bound international order, has followed Israel in replacing legal principles with expediency as the central regulator of its interaction with foreign peoples. The expediently amoral doctrine of preemptive war is such an Israeli transplant in the American neo-conservative psyche. Neither it nor other deliberate assaults on the rule of law have been met with concerted resistance from Palestinians, Arabs, or anyone else, including the American Bar Association. The steady displacement of traditional American values — indeed, the core doctrines of Western civilization — with ideas designed to free the state of inconvenient moral constraints has debased the honor and prestige of our country as well as Israel.

American determination to protect Israel from the political and legal consequences of any and all of its actions has also taken its toll, not just on the willingness of others to credit and follow the United States, but also on the authority of international organizations and the integrity of international law. The United Nations Security Council was conceived as the ultimate arbiter and enforcer of an international order in which law could protect the weak and vulnerable from the depredations of the strong. The world has occasionally allowed its sympathy for Palestinians, as underdogs, to override its legal judgment, but the U.S. has routinely exercised its veto to prevent the application of well-established principles of international law to Israel. The Security Council has been transformed from the champion of the global rule of law into the enemy of legality as the standard of global governance. Repeated American vetoes on behalf of Israel have reduced the United Nations and other international fora to impotence on fundamental questions of justice and human dignity. Confidence in these institutions has largely disappeared. Thus, the Israel-Palestine dispute has shaped a world in which both the rule of law and the means by which it might be realized have been deliberately degraded. We are all the worse off for this.

Israel’s strength and prosperity depend on American government and private subsidies as well as Washington’s political and legal protection. For Israelis, the moral hazard created by such irresponsible indulgence and unsparing American support has been a tragedy. It has enabled Israel to follow its most self-destructive inclinations by relieving it from the requirement to weigh their consequences. It has bred hubris that encourages the Jewish state to pursue short-term advantage without consideration of the resulting risks to its long-term viability. For the Palestinians, America’s slavish support of Israel has meant an unending nightmare, trapping them in a limbo in which the protections of both law and human decency are at best capriciously applied. For the United States, deference to Israel’s counterproductive policies and actions has become a debilitating drain on American power to shape events by measures short of war. The United States is now so closely identified with the Jewish state that Americans cannot escape perceived complicity with any and all of its actions, whether we agree or disagree with them. In the eyes of the world, Israel’s behavior is a reproach to the American reputation as well as its own.

Perceived American double standards and hypocrisy on matters related to the Israel-Palestine conflict account for much of the recent decline in international admiration and deference to U.S. leadership in the Middle East and elsewhere. In 2006, when free and fair elections in Palestine produced a government that Israel detested and feared, the United States joined Israel in seeking to isolate and overthrow that government, thus setting aside and discrediting America’s long-professed dedication to the spread of democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere. In 2006 and 2008, the United States encouraged Israeli military actions against Lebanese and Palestinian civilians that were both more brutal and sustained than those that Col. Qaddhafi has recently carried out against his fellow Libyans. Far from calling for no-fly zones over Lebanon and Gaza, however, the U.S. government continued to supply Israel with gifts of ammunition, including cluster bombs and white phosphorus, as the IDF expended its stocks of them on Lebanese and Palestinian civilian population centers, facilities, and infrastructure.

U.S. sponsorship of the late, lamented “peace process” began as a demonstration of American diplomatic power, the indispensable role of the United States in Middle Eastern affairs, and the necessity of all interested in peace to defer to America. The “peace process” has ended by discrediting American power and diplomacy. It has failed to deliver either the self-determination for Palestinians or the acceptance of Israel by its neighbors envisaged in the Camp David Accords. Instead, Israel’s deepening commitment to “settler Zionism” has uprooted ever greater numbers of Palestinians while alarming and affronting other Arabs and Muslims. Four decades of American diplomacy is now seen in the region as having been an elaborate diplomatic deception, yielding nothing but the continual enlargement of the Jewish state at Palestinian expense.

This failure of the American-led “peace process” is all the more telling because it occurred despite the existence of a compelling, existential interest in the achievement of a formula for cohabitation on the part of both Israelis and Palestinians. This interest is clearly reflected in the eagerness of Palestinian officials to negotiate a basis for peaceful coexistence with Israel that is revealed in the official record of the Israel-Palestine negotiations recently leaked to and by Al-Jazeera. The abject pleading of Palestine’s negotiators for peace to which these documents attest contrasts with the callous determination of their Israeli counterparts not to take yes for an answer. Yet the security and prosperity of Israelis and Palestinians alike is dependent on each accepting the other. Without Palestinian agreement, Israel cannot define its borders or enjoy acceptance by any of its neighbors. Without Israel’s agreement, Palestinians cannot achieve self-determination within a defined territory. Without mutual respect and tolerance, neither Israel nor Palestine can hope to live in peace for long. Animosity breeds threats, and no military hegemony is forever.

The inability of the United States to build on the obvious shared interests of Palestinians and Israelis is, at best, damning testimony to the incompetence of those Americans who have made a career of processing peace without ever delivering it. At worst, it is compelling evidence of the extent to which they have functioned as “Israel’s lawyers,” rather than as mediators sincerely attempting to produce a mutually respectful and therefore durable modus vivendi between Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs. As such, it is a reflection of the inordinate influence of right-wing Israelis on American policies and the people chosen to implement them. I have had personal experience of this on more than one occasion.

In late November 1988, shortly after the election of George H. W. Bush as president, I was invited to lunch by a senior Israeli official with whom, in pursuance of U.S. policy, I had worked closely to expand Israel’s diplomatic and military presence in Africa. I had come to like and respect this official. He wished to thank me, he said, for what I had done for his country. I was pleased. Over lunch, however, he asked me what I planned to do in the new administration, adding, “tell me what job you want. We can get it for you.” The casual arrogance with which this representative of a foreign power claimed to be able to manipulate the staffing of national security positions in the U.S. government was a stunning belittlement of American patriotism. Twenty years later, I was to be reminded that agents of foreign influence who can make appointments to national security positions in the United States can also unmake them.

Under the circumstances, the consistent pro-Israel bias of American officials charged with the management of the Israel-Palestine conundrum and their lack of empathy for the Palestinians are in no way a surprise. A passionate attachment to one side is inconsistent with mediation of its disputes with another. The absence of empathy is fatal to the craft of diplomacy. Such disabilities account, at least in part, for the failure of the decades-long labors of American officials to produce anything but political cover for the ongoing displacement of Palestinians from their homes. The ultimate achievement of American peace processors has been to bring great discredit upon themselves and the United States. American diplomacy on the Israel-Palestine issue is becoming less and less relevant to events in the region and increasingly unacceptable to the world as a whole.

A new milestone in this journey to diplomatic ignominy was reached on February 18 this year, when the United States vetoed a resolution in the U.N. Security Council that had been cobbled together from earlier official American statements. The resolution condemned the expansion of Israeli settlements and called for it to end. In doing so, it echoed numerous previous Security Council resolutions as well as the “Road Map.” All fourteen other members of the Council, including America’s closest allies, spoke vigorously in favor of the resolution, which had been sponsored by 130 member states. The debate and the vote on that resolution were an unambiguous vote of no confidence in American as well as Israeli policy.

This repudiation of U.S. leadership and Israeli expansionism seems certain to be reiterated even more unmistakably when the General Assembly convenes in September. The international community will then take up the question of whether to underscore its near-unanimous rejection of Israel’s claim to any territory beyond its pre-1967 borders by recognizing an independent Palestinian state there and admitting that state to the United Nations. The United States no longer has the political credibility necessary to control the diplomatic context in which Israel operates.

The displacement of the United States from its previously unchallenged primacy in Middle Eastern diplomacy comes amidst other momentous changes in the strategic landscape in the region. The U.S. government’s failure to stand by its longtime protégé, Hosni Mubarak, convinced leaders elsewhere who, like Mubarak, had linked their fate to America that Washington is a faithless friend and impotent protector. The decades-long inclination of conservative Arab rulers to curry favor with Washington by acquiescing in American policies has been gravely impaired, perhaps irreparably. But the deep disenchantment with America of the dissidents who overthrew Mubarak was not overcome by the Obama Administration’s belated abandonment of him. A majority of Egyptians want to annul the Camp David Accords. Whether Egypt does so or not, a much larger majority of Egyptians want their country generally to decouple its foreign policy from that of the United States. As goes Egypt, so very likely goes Jordan. Arab deference to American — and hence to Israeli — interests and dictates will manifestly be much less in future than in the past.

There is a great deal of apprehension in Israel over these developments and not a little consternation in Washington’s think tanks and belief tanks about them. The storm warnings are up, and for good reason. Had Israel and the United States planned it, we could hardly have contrived a status quo less likely to be accepted as legitimate by a democratized Middle East. If contemporary Israel represents the future, it is certainly problematic. But as is so often the case with clouded situations, there may be a bright side to the changes in progress.

Given the protracted failure of U.S. diplomacy in the Israel-Palestine arena, Palestinians and others may be forgiven for believing that it is time to entrust peacemaking to other parties who are more objective, less politically constrained, and less emotionally biased. Others in Europe and elsewhere have taken alarmed note of the adverse effects of the unending conflict on Israel, on the Palestinians, on Arab politics, on regional stability, on inter-religious relations, on the moral standing of global Jewry and Islam, on Arab and Islamic relations with the West, on international law and organizations, and on world order. Media outside the United States have taken progressively more balanced and nuanced note of the human suffering in the Holy Land. Europeans and others now evidence a considerably greater sense of urgency about these problems than Americans have done. The notion that only Americans have the capacity to manage conflict resolution in the Middle East will no longer withstand scrutiny. One recalls the role of Norway in crafting the Oslo Accords. Perhaps, now that the United States has struck out, it’s someone else’s turn at bat.

A new game is clearly beginning. A self-confident, religiously tolerant but secular Turkey has emerged as a major influence on regional affairs and as an inspiration to its democrats. Arab diplomacy is being invigorated by the aftereffects of the revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere. There is mounting pressure on all Arab governments to accord greater deference to popular opinion in both domestic and foreign policy. The Middle East will no longer allow itself to be the diplomatic playground of great powers outside it. There will, however, be new opportunities for interested outside parties to forge diplomatic partnerships with those in the region. Most are looking for new beginnings, new relationships, and new ideas. All see an urgent need to end the racist oppression and humiliation of Arabs in the Holy Land. These injustices are at the root of regional instability. They empower extremist and terrorist movements in the Middle East and beyond. They threaten the future of the Jewish state.

Diplomatic partnerships between outside powers and Arab governments for the purpose of crafting a durable peace in Palestine — as opposed to stabilizing the iniquitous status quo — have long been conspicuous by their absence. In 2002, the Arab League announced a revolutionary peace proposal in Beirut. Israel and the United States shelved it with minimal acknowledgment. Its potential remains unexplored. It has a limited shelf life but there may still be an opportunity to make use of it.

The Arabs are thinking anew. It is time for Israel to engage in new thinking of its own. Israel has shown great skill at deflecting the peace proposals of others and subjecting them to campaigns of diplomatic attrition. It has never made its own specific proposal of peace to the Palestinians. It has demanded respect for the dignified autonomy of its Jewish identity but has offered no reciprocal recognition of Palestinian identity. Perhaps it is time for Israel to do these things. Its changed strategic environment, the diminished capacity of the United States to protect it from the political and legal consequences of its conduct, and changing attitudes toward it in the Jewish diaspora foretell an end to the moral hazard from which the Jewish state has suffered. For the first time in decades, Israel will have to take into account the risks to its future as it contemplates actions in the present. In the interest of its own survival and prosperity, it may begin to make wiser and more farsighted decisions. We must hope so.

There can, of course, be no peace between Israelis and Palestinians unless there are governments that can commit both sides to terms. Part of the Israeli strategy of deferring peace so as to seize more land for settler Zionists has been a multifaceted effort to ensure that no one has the authority to speak for all Palestinians. The United States has effectively colluded in this strategy of divide and rule, especially since the 2006 elections brought Hamas to power. If Israel is to have peace, however, rather than perpetual rejection by both Palestinians and other Arab and Muslim neighbors, it needs a unified Palestinian leadership with which to strike a deal. Thanks to the skill of Egyptian diplomacy, such a Palestinian government of national unity is now a real prospect. In the interest of peace, the region and the world should welcome and encourage Palestinian unity rather than succumb to Pavlovian impulses to condemn it.

However distasteful they may find it to do so after all that they have suffered at Israeli hands, Palestinians, including Gazans, must collaborate with Israel to achieve peace. But it is equally true that there can and will be no peace for Israel until there is peace for the Palestinians, including those in diaspora. The United States has proven incapable of creating strategic circumstances conducive to serious, as opposed to make-believe negotiations between the warring parties in the Holy Land. Perhaps, however, such circumstances are nonetheless finally emerging, allowing Palestinians and Israelis to attempt a fresh start at achieving peaceful coexistence. They must look to themselves, to others in the region, and to new, non-American mediators to accomplish this.

That Palestinians and Israelis find a mutually agreeable basis for peaceful coexistence is essential not only to their own well-being but to that of the wider world. Only they can make the decisions necessary to achieve this. But, in our own interest, the rest of us must help them as best we can. The adverse consequences of the Israel-Palestine conflict have penetrated and extended far beyond the two parties to the holy war now raging in Palestine. The benefits of peace there would be equally deep and wide.

1 According to Al-Zaytouna Centre in Beirut, from September 28, 2000, through January 31, 2011, 1,676 Israelis died at the hands of Palestinians (including 306 women and 123 children), while Israelis killed 7,406 Palestinians (including 583 women and 1,300 children) and another 401 died as a result of denial of medical care at Israeli checkpoints. Meanwhile, over 51,000 Palestinians were injured by Israeli soldiers or settlers.

2 Over the referenced period, Al-Zaytouna Centre reports that there were 841 such assassinations of Palestinians, in which an additional 354 bystanders were killed.

3 Over this period, Israel is reported to have razed nearly 11,000 Palestinian homes and confiscated about 110 sq. miles of Palestinian property.

4 Daniel Reisner, cited in Jeff Halper, “The Second Battle of Gaza: Israel’s Undermining of International Law,”

5 Asa Kasher, cited ibid.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Washington, DC

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