Matti Friedman explains what should be obvious when he says that there is no Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
There isn’t an Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the way that many outsiders seem to think, and this perception gap is worth spelling out. It has nothing to do with being right-wing or left-wing in the American sense. To borrow a term from the world of photography, the problem is one of zoom. Simply put, outsiders are zoomed in, and people here in Israel are zoomed out. Understanding this will make events here easier to grasp.
Zoom out and you will see, Friedman explains, that only a minority of Israel’s enemies, historically and currently, are Palestinian Arabs. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and even Yemen joined with the Palestinians in an attempt to snuff out the newly-declared State of Israel in 1948. Today Iran and her Shiite proxies – Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iraqi militias entrenching themselves in Syria are Israel’s most formidable enemies, with Hamas, the Qatari-financed offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, playing a secondary role.
Compared to the Palestinians, Israel looks strong, Goliath to their David. But in the context of the overall Muslim Middle East, Israel, with its relatively small population and lack of strategic depth, is threatened.
And this, says Friedman, is why the peace processors don’t get it. Clinton, Bush, and Obama were all “Zoomed in” on Israel and the Palestinians, while not understanding the broader context. Although we haven’t heard Trump’s proposal yet, it will likely have the same defect.
Friedman is right, as far as he goes. He doesn’t mention the reason that five Arab armies invaded the new state of Israel in 1948, or the reason the “peace” agreements with Egypt and Jordan are cold, pragmatic deals that greatly benefit the autocratic regimes of those countries, while not moving a centimeter in the direction of the normalization of everyday relations between the nations that was supposed to follow. It certainly isn’t because these countries care about the welfare of Palestinians. The invaders of 1948 did not turn over the areas that they controlled to Palestinian Arabs, and indeed treated them quite cruelly. It was Israel, not Jordan, that created the autonomous Palestinian Authority, and it was Israel, not Egypt, that turned over control of Gaza to the Palestinians.
Of course there are the usual geopolitical explanations for the broader conflict, but they are not sufficient to explain its persistence or its virulence. While it’s clear that Iran is hostile toward Israel for geopolitical reasons – Israel is seen as an outpost of American power in the region that Iran wishes to dominate – there is also a special degree of hatred that is reserved for Israel above other Iranian opponents. Iran does not threaten to destroy Saudi Arabia, a closer and more immediate rival. Iranian demonstrators rarely if ever chant “death to Saudia.”
I believe that the ultimate source of this enmity is the principle – literally an “article of faith” in the Muslim Middle East – that a sovereign Jewish state in the region is an abomination to Allah, and it is their religious duty to destroy it. This religious/racial principle is sometimes expressed verbally by saying “Israel is a cancer” that must be excised from the Middle East, a sentiment expressed both by the Iranian regime and in Palestinian Authority media. This is Muslim rejectionism.
But I think even this analysis doesn’t go far enough. Resentment and hatred of Jews, deeply ensconced in Christian tradition, is found throughout post-Christian Europe. While in most of Europe the moral principles of Christianity have been transmuted into a kind of universalist humanism (much like Reform Judaism), the visceral hatred of the Jew that “killed their God” hasn’t disappeared; it’s just been turned toward the Jewish state, today the bearer of the guilt of Judas, with the suffering Palestinians taking on the role of the crucified Savior. Of course the irony in this is that the Muslims that are besieging Europe today are as almost as hostile to non-Muslim sovereignty there as they are against the Jewish variety in the Middle East (ordinary Europeans are beginning to understand this, although many of their leaders don’t seem to get it yet).
I suggest that to really understand the conflicts surrounding Israel since its coming into being, one needs to zoom out even further than Friedman does. One needs to take into account that not only Arabs and Muslims are viscerally opposed to the concept of Jewish sovereignty, many Europeans and even some circles in America are too. Although they might not go as far as to compare Israel to a malignant tumor, they are quite comfortable saying that the creation of Israel was a mistake. Friedman’s lens must be widened to include not just the greater Middle East, but much of the Western world.
And this enables us to understand why the “peace” proposals based on Israeli concessions to the Palestinians keep coming, despite the fact that they have repeatedly been shown incapable of ameliorating the real problem, Muslim rejectionism of Jewish sovereignty. Even those in the West who do not completely reject the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in a sovereign state, adhere to a milder form of rejectionism: they may accept the idea of a Jewish state, but they firmly believe that the conflict surrounding it is a result of its being an alien element that doesn’t belong in its neighborhood. Therefore the solutions they choose always involve Israel adapting herself to the region and not the opposite. And this always means Israel meeting the demands of her neighbors. Of course, those demands will never end until there is no more Israel.
I can’t leave Friedman’s article without noting one jarring paragraph, possibly written as it was at the request of his NY Times editor:
When I look at the West Bank as an Israeli, I see 2.5 million Palestinian civilians living under military rule, with all the misery that entails. I’m seeing the many grave errors our governments have made in handling the territory and its residents, the construction of civilian settlements chief among them.
Suddenly we are back to “settlements” and “military rule” (actually, this is incorrect, since around 95% of the Palestinians in Judea/Samaria live in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority). Friedman, who has shown himself capable of understanding the strategic imperatives of Israel’s military control of the land, is nevertheless still stuck in the Sisyphean mud of the “2-state solution” (just like my fictitious Uncle Max two Passovers ago). Is Friedman himself guilty of the mild rejectionism that demands that Israel should pay the price for her neighbors’ violent racism?
Despite this – the obligatory mea culpa of every Jewish liberal or centrist writer on the subject – we should take Friedman’s advice and zoom out to see the conflict in its true, worldwide and historical context. And stay out of the mud.