Ask your average American or member of Congress what the fundamental characteristic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is and your apt to hear boiler plate explanations of inherent hostilities between Muslims and Jews and catch-phrases like “ensuring Israel’s security in a bad neighborhood.”
But these are not what the conflict boils down to. The defining element in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that one group of people decided to colonize a land that already belonged to another people. Even in the most propagandized framing of the conflict, this central component cannot be glossed over, which is why it is so amazing it is entirely absent from American commentary.
In a political sense, the most straightforward explanation for why there is still no peace is that Israel (with crucial US support) has blocked the widely accepted two-state settlement because it insists on continuing its campaign of colonization in what is left of historic Palestine (namely, the West Bank). A two-state solution is unacceptable to Israel because the land truly belongs to the Jews, or so goes the thinking. So, Israel maintains the military occupation of the West Bank (or, as Israelis deliberately refer to it, Judea and Samaria) and continues to bulldoze Palestinian homes, seize control of the water resources, and subsidize Israelis to live in newly constructed Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.
The post-1967 status quo, as Rashid Khalidi documents in his new book Brokers of Deceit: How the US has Undermined Peace in the Middle East, is based on the stipulations laid down by Israel’s right-wing Likud Prime Minister from 1977-1982, Menachem Begin. In the Likud Party’s 1977 platform, it was declared that “the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is eternal and indisputable,” and “[t]herefore, Judea and Samaria will not be handed over to any foreign administration. Between the sea and the Jordan River there will be only Israeli sovereignty.”
“This is clear as well from Begin’s handwritten notes sketching out his ideas for Palestinian autonomy prepared around the time of the Camp David summit in 1978,” writes Khalidi. In those notes, Begin wrote, “Under no circumstances will Israel permit the establishment in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza district of a ‘Palestinian state.'”
And here we have our insurmountable conflict. This has been official Israeli policy ever since, as has been especially demonstrated during Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure, with the settler population vastly increasing, the subjugation of Palestinians intensifying, and explicit threats being made to physically isolate Palestinian East Jerusalem from the West Bank and bisect all of Palestinian territory (making a contiguous state impossible). Despite American and Israeli rhetoric of “peace talks” and “two states for two peoples,” Israel quite clearly has no plans to allow any Palestinian sovereignty west of the Jordan River.
Israel’s intransigence on this central point is not insuperable, as it happens. They are empowered by unmatched US support in the economic, military, and diplomatic realm. Plainly, they would be unable to deny Palestinian rights to statehood – the same rights Israelis insist on for themselves – without US support. Until and unless that support is withdrawn, the conflict will continue to be stalemated and the slow ethnic cleansing of Palestine that began in the early 20th century will continue.
Obama’s speech in Israel last week was thought to be strong in its advocacy of Palestinian rights. “Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer,” he said. But he made clear he would never use America’s leverage over Israel to pressure it to stop pursuing the goal of Greater Israel. That’s not only a gloomy picture for Palestinians, but it helps ensure the continued absence in America of any real understanding of what the conflict is actually about.