Returning from a meeting of historians, I’ve been thinking about the Israeli - Palestinian conflict in historical terms. Israeli settlers in the West Bank are reminiscent of the movement of settlers to our own Indian frontier until the frontier was closed in the 20th century. Settler conflict with Native Americans over land and atrocities on both sides was continual. This isn’t the whole story but it is important.
Allies are crucial. For a century, Britain prohibited settlement west of the Appalachians and protected Indian rights in the territory they had occupied for millenia, largely preventing Indian War, except, of course, against the French. Regardless of our dispute with King George, aspects of British Indian policy were both wise and decent.
As long as Britain and France backed the Indians we fought them largely to a standoff. Once Britain defeated France and we defeated Britain, the Indians were at the mercy of what was called, somewhat inaccurately “The Great White Father.” After the revolution, a flood of frontier settlement began, unhindered by Britain and British notions of Indian rights and ownership of the land.
Today, we’ve backed Israel, and several Muslim nations back the Palestinians. Compromise seems politically unlikely. We won’t back down and Arab populations are increasingly radicalized. Significant segments of Israeli and Palestinian populations view peace as unacceptable and neither shalom nor salaam are legitimate regardless of what both their holy scriptures say. When peace looms, someone is killed, which fans the flames and the leadership feels constrained to withdraw from the peace process.
Allies are crucial, just as were British and French support for the Indians and subsequent French support for the U.S. Israel grossly mishandled Lebanon in the 1980s but both Egypt and Jordan were neutralized long ago. That left Israel’s coastal and northern borders at risk. Iran then became a crucial ally of Hamas in Gaza and Hesbollah in Lebanon.
Americans don’t like to talk, or negotiate, with enemies. Many jump to talk about war and preparations for war. But when I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran, the Shah had very good relations with Israel. Since the Shah’s ouster, our relationship with Iran has been volatile. But we’ve missed opportunities to start repairing the relationship. George Bush famously responded to Iranian overtures for comprehensive discussions with his Axis of Evil speech. We neutralized Iraq for the Iranians without exploring the opportunity for rapprochement. Each missed opportunity makes the situation harder. As President John F. Kennedy told us, “We should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate.”
The Iraeli - Palestinian conflict, however, will not be solved just by talking with Israeli and PLO leadership, with or without Hamas. We need to involve other important players. So far, we are involved in an endless conflict with real risks to ourselves. If the pattern holds, attacks on us won’t lead to rethinking American policy but to more and wider hostilities. I doubt we’ll be more successful than we were in Iraq and Afghanistan against irregular troops without uniforms.
Many more will die in the quixotic quest for dominance in the Middle East. We need some grown up thinking about ending the conflict, not making it worse.