Analysis from Israel

The Fikra Forum published a fascinating poll last week that asked Palestinians for their preferred solution to the conflict with Israel over three different time frames. Queried about the next five years, a plurality chose “reclaiming all of historic Palestine from the river to the sea” as the “main Palestinian national goal”; the two-state solution placed second and the one-state solution third. Moreover, while Palestinians don’t expect this goal to be achieved within five years, they do consider it achievable in the medium to long term: In 30 to 40 years, only a quarter of respondents expect Israel to “continue to exist as a Jewish state,” and in 100 years, only 12 percent of West Bankers and 15 percent of Gazans believe the Jewish state will still exist.

That Palestinians aren’t keen on the two-state solution isn’t exactly news; a poll commissioned by The Israel Project four years ago found that a hefty 66 percent viewed two states as a mere stepping-stone to a single Palestinian state encompassing all of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Nor is this attitude surprising, given another enlightening nugget from the Fikra poll: Fully 81 percent of West Bankers and 88 percent of Gazans asserted that all this territory “is Palestinian land and Jews have no rights to the land.”

If Palestinians truly believe Jews have no rights anywhere in the land where a Jewish commonwealth existed for more than a millennium, their aspiration to eradicate the Jewish state and replace it with their own is natural: Who would agree to permanently cede half his house to a squatter? The logical response in that situation is to play for time, perhaps even by signing agreements you don’t intend to keep, while seeking a way to evict the squatter completely. And that’s precisely what Palestinians have done, and still are doing.

This, however, has serious implications for how Israel should be handling the Palestinian issue. And on this score, the conclusion reached by Fikra Forum director David Pollock falls far short.

“Given these attitudes about the long-term future, there is good reason to wonder if any ‘final status’ agreement will ever truly be final,” Pollock wrote. Therefore, “in applying the widely accepted principle of ‘land for peace,’ responsible policymakers should pay at least as much attention to practical ways of keeping the peace.”

But that prescription ignores three crucial problems. First, experience shows that once you’ve ceded strategic territory, there are no “practical ways of keeping the peace” if the other side doesn’t want to do so. The peace with Egypt held because Egypt chose to keep it. In contrast, Israeli withdrawals over the last 20 years from Gaza, parts of the West Bank and south Lebanon have produced serial wars, because neither Hezbollah nor the Palestinians had any desire to keep the peace.

This experience leads directly to issue number two: Land-for-peace deals shouldn’t be made at all unless your enemy genuinely wants to make peace, because ceding strategic territory simply makes it easier for the enemy to attack you, and territorial concessions are usually irreversible. So the fact that most Palestinians still aspire to Israel’s ultimate eradication actually makes “the widely accepted principle of ‘land for peace’” completely inapplicable.

Third, however, there’s no reason to think Palestinians would even agree to a final-status deal under these circumstances. After all, there’s no final-status deal now, yet the poll shows an overwhelming majority of Palestinians think they’re on track to achieve their goal of eradicating Israel within a few decades. In other words, they think their current strategy of refusing to sign a permanent peace deal is working, so why would they want to change it?

Indeed, that’s precisely why Palestinians have rejected repeated Israeli offers of a state on most of the West Bank and Gaza: Not only isn’t this their ultimate goal, but they don’t even think it’s conducive to their ultimate goal. The only way they would sign such a deal is if they change their minds and conclude that it would actually further their goal of destroying Israel – in which case Israel clearly shouldn’t be signing it.

All this means that there will not and cannot be a final resolution of the conflict in the foreseeable future. Consequently, Israel urgently needs a long-term strategy for coping with a conflict that has no end in sight.

In an essay in Mosaic earlier this month, I described in detail what such a strategy might look like in four different areas:  negotiations, public diplomacy, military action and the home front. But one element of that strategy is particularly relevant to the Fikra poll’s findings: the crucial importance of tirelessly explaining Israel’s legal and historical rights to this land.

As the poll shows, the crux of the conflict is the Palestinian belief that “Jews have no rights to the land.” Palestinians also believe they are succeeding in converting the rest of the world to this view, which merely fuels their conviction that they will ultimately succeed in destroying Israel.

Until both these beliefs change, no solution to the conflict will be possible. And only Israel can make the case for its own rights; nobody else will do so in its stead.

Originally published in Commentary on September 7, 2015

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In today’s world, Orthodox and Conservative Jews should be natural allies

Jewish tradition holds that the Second Temple was destroyed by baseless hatred. Since we’re currently in the annual three-week mourning period for the destruction of both Temples, which culminates in the holiday of Tisha B’Av, it’s a good time to consider a particularly counterproductive bit of baseless hatred: that between the Orthodox and Conservative movements.

Orthodox Jews tend to view Conservative and Reform Jewry as indistinguishable, lumping them both together as “non-Orthodox.” But in reality, there’s a yawning gap between them. The Conservative movement officially maintains that Jews must follow halachah (traditional Jewish law), including by observing Shabbat, kashrut, the Jewish holidays and so forth. The Reform movement rejects the very idea of binding halachah. Thus on the fundamental issue that has preserved the Jewish people for millennia—the binding nature of halachah—the Conservatives are formally on the Orthodox side of the divide.

Admittedly, most Conservative Jews don’t practice what their movement preaches, so one could legitimately ask what value this formal commitment to halachah has if most of its members ignore it. Moreover, this failure to produce and sustain observant communities has led many Jews raised in committed Conservative homes to switch to Orthodoxy (I’m one of them), and if the most observant continue leaving, I wonder how long even a formal commitment to halachah will survive.

But right now, the Conservative movement still contains a traditionalist faction that’s committed to observing halachah as the movement defines it. And because of this commitment, traditionalist Conservatives have far more in common with Orthodoxy than Reform.

Granted, Conservative interpretations of halachah diverge from Orthodox ones in nontrivial ways. But that strikes me as a less serious problem, because radically divergent interpretations of halachah have been common throughout Jewish history.

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