What often strikes outsiders about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just its tragic violence, but also its perverse irrationality. Unless the Israelis are driven into the Mediterranean or the Palestinians over the Jordan—neither one a likely or attractive prospect—the only stable long-term solution is for the two parties to divide up the land in question. The Palestinians would give up essentially what they lost in 1948, the Israelis essentially what they won in 1967. Jerusalem would encompass two capitals, with its holy sites controlled by their respective communities. Security guarantees, compensation, and outside aid would help smooth the rough edges. In short, a deal along the lines of the Clinton Plan, or something like it.
This is the kind of settlement that the Oslo process was supposed to be leading toward, which is why most of the world watched the negotiations and interim agreements of the 1990s with a sense of relief. The talks seemed to represent a retreat from maximalist visions on both sides, a mutual acknowledgment of Winston Churchill’s dictum that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” With the failure of the Camp David summit in July 2000 and the resumption of armed Palestinian resistance that October, however—now less a second intifada than a second War of Attrition—a lasting settlement seems further away than ever.
Israelis, having more and thus having more to lose, seem particularly flummoxed—not just by Palestinian terrorism but also by the unclear and possibly escalating objectives behind it. Jewish nationalism—Zionism—moved some time ago from its visionary origins to a more mature, pragmatic stage. “At 50—middle age for a human being, and in this case, a state, too—Israelis see [their] epic tasks largely accomplished and the epic dreams correspondingly faded,” Eliot Cohen noted in Foreign Affairs a few years ago. As the millennium approached, Israel’s national agenda looked set to be economic growth rather than territorial conflict, squabbling rather than heroism, normalcy rather than chosen-ness.
But it takes two sides to call it quits, and Palestinian nationalism, the Israelis are discovering, is still stuck in its visionary phase. It still chooses to pass quickly over depressing current realities while dwelling on more pleasurable daydreams. When Arafat “walked away from Camp David empty-handed,” Deborah Sontag recently reported in the New York Times, Palestinians “applauded him. Better to wait another generation, they said, than to accept an unjust peace after a half-century of struggle.”
Many Israelis have a hard time understanding why Palestinians cannot see that insisting upon, say, the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel is enough to stop discussion before it starts. The irony here is rich, because if anybody should understand devotion to such once-and-future fantasies, it’s a Zionist. In fact, although the barbaric means embraced by Palestinian nationalism have little in common with those of mainstream Zionism, the ends are strikingly familiar—re-establishment of a homeland in the territory between the river and the sea. And a willingness to ignore present obstacles while assuming eventual success is precisely what enabled the early Zionists to proceed with laying the groundwork for Israel rather than abandoning their entire project in despair.
In The Siege, his excellent history of Zionism, Conor Cruise O’Brien quotes a letter written in 1882 by one Ze’ev Dubnov to a brother back in Russia:
My final purpose is to take possession in due course of Palestine and to restore to the Jews the political independence of which they have now been deprived for 2,000 years. Don’t laugh, it is not a mirage … there will come that splendid day whose advent was prophesied by Isaiah in his fiery and poetic words of consolation. Then the Jews, if necessary with arms in their hands, will publicly proclaim themselves master of their own, ancient fatherland. It does not matter if that splendid day will only come in fifty years’ time or more. A period of fifty years is no more than a moment of time for such an undertaking.
When Dubnov wrote that letter, there were 25,000 or so Jews in Palestine, largely pious apolitical types who wanted to die in Jerusalem. By any rational accounting, his plan was ludicrous. Even if he and his colleagues played their parts to perfection, a vast array of unimaginable changes would have had to occur for it to come to fruition: the collapse of the Ottoman and Russian empires, the closing off of immigration to the United States, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, two world wars, and more.
A century and change later, having gone amazingly far toward achieving their community’s goals and having built a rich and thriving modern democracy, most Israelis are content to live in the present rather than in the past or the future. But most Palestinians are not, and their legions of latter-day Dubnovs are prepared to pursue their dreams by strapping explosives around their waists and blowing themselves up in crowded hotels, restaurants, and malls.
Israeli tanks are not much of an answer to such a problem, nor are sporadic American mediation efforts or half-hearted Saudi diplomatic overtures. The only way peace will come to the region is when large parts of the Palestinian community and its leadership decide to accept the half a loaf that could be realistically available and stop pining murderously for the whole one in the clouds. The challenge for everybody else is how to help them get there. The odds on it happening any time soon, unfortunately, are low—which is why things are likely to get worse before they get better.