WASHINGTON – Israelis and Palestinians may someday make peace. But the assumption should be that it won’t happen soon – perhaps not in our lifetimes.
How often have we seen this movie? Palestinian atrocity, Israeli reaction escalating into overreaction, rocket attacks aimed at civilian targets in Israel, airstrikes targeting Palestinian leadership and infrastructure in Gaza, heartbreaking pictures of mangled young bodies on the beach, and Thursday an Israeli ground assault in Gaza.
Palestinians say: We will never forgive the Israelis for killing our children. Israelis say: We will never forgive the Palestinians for forcing us to kill their children.
I applaud President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for diving in and trying to forge a peace deal, if only because history suggests that anything is better than leaving the parties to their own devices. But the obvious two-state solution seems an ever more distant dream.
Hamas cannot be bombed out of existence. Its leaders – and if some are killed by Israeli missiles, others will take their place – have no interest in recognizing the state of Israel and living side by side in peace. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, continues expanding settlements into West Bank territory that would have to be part of any viable Palestinian state. And the Palestinian Authority could never win the battle for popular support against Hamas if its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, accepted any deal that Israel is prepared to offer.
I am not arguing that rocket attacks are equivalent to settlements. I am not arguing that four Israeli lives – three murdered teenagers and one civilian – are equivalent to more than 200 Palestinian lives, including those of four children who died by the sea.
I am simply stating the obvious: Nobody really wants to make peace.
Israel presently feels fairly safe – in relative terms – from the threat of a new intifada. The wall that now cordons off much of the West Bank provides effective protection against would-be suicide bombers. And the Iron Dome system of missile defense is a shield – though not foolproof – against the rockets Hamas fires from Gaza.
I would suggest that this feeling of security is illusory, at least in the long run – and demographic trends back me up. There are about 8 million people living in Israel proper, including about 1.7 million Arabs. There are roughly 4.4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Given current trends, there will come a day when the Arabs in Israel and the territories outnumber the Jews.
In other words, the passage of time is imposing a one-state solution. How, then, will Israel retain its identity as a Jewish state? How can a democracy govern so many people who do not have full rights of citizenship – and remain a true democracy?
If I were Israeli, I’d probably answer those questions by saying that this is not our doing, that we want nothing more than to live in peace. But Palestinians, too, have a right to feel they are in a situation not of their own making. The vast majority of people on both sides are too young to remember the events of 1948, when Israel was founded. Many are too young to remember 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. They know only the echoes of those wars, reverberations that never seem to fade.
I wish I could be more optimistic. I continue to believe that the United States can play a constructive role by encouraging dialogue between Netanyahu and Abbas. Even if the talks go nowhere, Winston Churchill was right: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
But I also believe that realistic U.S. policy in the Middle East should assume that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue indefinitely, punctuated by spasms of active warfare.
The close and unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States remains a given. But friends try not to let friends do stupid things. If there are ways in which U.S. advice might shorten this outbreak of violence or delay the next, Obama – and his successors – must speak up. If there is some way to persuade Hamas that the next volley of rockets will be as useless and counterproductive as the last, we should make the attempt.
No conflict lasts forever, but I remember that in my high school history class we read about the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. I fear the Israelis and Palestinians may eventually set a new record.