A Case of the Mondays: The Spectrum of Views on the Arab-Israeli Conflict

A lot of the problems in the debates over the Israel-Palestinian conflict stem from a truncated political gamut. The real gamut ranges from more anti-Israeli than Islamic Jihad to more anti-Arab than the settlers in the West Bank. That allows people who favor one side strongly to present their views as moderate and the views of people who want peace on both sides as extreme.

A debate about strategy is inherently one-sided. Debates about Democratic party strategy are intra-Democratic, so the gamut in them runs from very liberal to centrist, rather than from liberal to conservative. Debates about war are the same: international forums like the UN don’t matter much, and intranational ones are similar to partisan ones. Debates about strategy in American foreign policy in the US are always about how to make the US more powerful; Americans aren’t any likelier to be anti-American than Chinese are likely to be anti-Chinese.

Although the debate about Israel and Palestine is ostensibly one of morality—the quintessential question is, “Which side is acting more morally?”—in fact it’s a very strategic one. Serious left-wing Israelis talk mostly about the good peace will do for Israel; the suffering of the Palestinians is only a side issue. Any Palestinian who will talk about the need for nonviolence because terrorism is inherently wrong will be laughed at.

Obviously, there could be a separate political debate divorced from strategy, just as there are political debates between liberals and conservatives. But there are several disanalogies here that in fact favor the intranational debate. First, as I already mentioned, international forums aren’t meaningful enough to be decisive. In the UN it could be possible to strike a balance, but the UN’s authority on any issue, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict, is murky at best.

Second, in those countries that do matter, either there is no public debate, or political prejudices go exclusively one way. In the US, the political elite is strongly pro-Israeli. It’s not because there are no pro-Palestinians in American politics—for example, almost every isolationist in the US harbors some sympathies for the Palestinians—but they are far less influential than the neo-liberals and neo-conservatives. European countries have a more balanced mix of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian views, but the people holding them tend to self-segregate into their own newspapers, academic circles, political parties, and so on, and the issue isn’t important enough to the public to force an open debate. In the Arab world, pro-Israeli views are typically censored, except when the country in question hates the Palestinians more than the Israelis and has nothing to gain from claiming to support the Palestinian cause.

Roughly, on the pro-Palestinian side, the gamut runs from Fatah, to the party-less Palestinian center, to Hamas, possibly with Islamic Jihad on the fringe. On the pro-Israeli side, it runs from Peace Now to Labor/Kadima to Likud/Israel Beitenu, with the settlers on the fringe. Israeli groups left of Peace Now, like the refuseniks, tend to be mostly in accord with Fatah, while Palestinian groups left of Fatah tend to be very much like Peace Now.

On that gamut, I suspect most people who don’t have a nationalist stake in either side will be somewhere between Fatah and Peace Now. That’s the view everyone pays lip service to, at least: negotiations between Israel and Palestine should resume, the Palestinians deserve self-determination, the occupation should end, Israel has the right to defend itself from terrorism, and Palestine should crack down on armed groups other than what will become the state. The exact details differ, but that’s what most people at least pretend to support.

On both sides, the situation has gotten to the same point the African-American civil rights movement did in the early 1960s. Nobody claims to be for terrorism or for continuing the occupation, except a few people in the minority on both sides. But nobody will do anything about either; the Palestinian center has no political party to turn to, leaving only Hamas and Fatah to clash with each other, and the Israeli center is both too spineless to try to end the occupation and too politically weak lately to succeed even if it tried.

Naturally, people on both sides will object to including each other in the entire gamut. To Israelis, including a party that calls for the destruction of Israel is repugnant. Likewise, to Palestinians it’s unacceptable to consider seriously people like Avigdor Lieberman, who has called for bombing civilian targets in Palestine and believes Arab-Israelis are traitors, or settlers who believe it’s their God-given right to stay in the West Bank and to oppress the Palestinian inhabitants of the area.

From a more idealistic centrist point of view, those views can be safely excluded, just as such extremes as fascism and communism are excluded from political considerations nowadays. However, from a realist point of view, democrats never excluded fascism and communism while they were politically alive. It so happens that large numbers of people are taking seriously ideologies that call for massacres or even wholesale exterminations. People rarely take other views seriously because they want to; usually they do because they have to without appearing irrelevant. In the current political climate of the debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict, anyone who doesn’t consider the reality of views ranging from those of Islamic Jihad to those of the most militant settlers is engaging in some form of preaching to the choir.