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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Physicians, Heal Thyselves

It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.

Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.

He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.

The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?

This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.

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