Israel, Palestine, and Territorial Partition

Israel, Palestine, and Territorial Partition

In the midst of bloodshed it is hard to keep in mind that in cases of prolonged conflict, peace is achieved, more often than not, after violent convulsions. So it was with the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the peace between Israel and Egypt, and so it was with the first intifada and the Oslo Accord. People often turn to compromise only after failing to impose their maximum demands. Diplomacy, in this sense, is the continuation of war by other means, but (so we hope) aimed at ends cut to realistic size. It is less a product of goodwill than a recognition of impossibilities.

I don’t mean that war leads naturally to peace. It may well lead to more wars. Right now, it is too early to tell which way the Israeli-Palestinian war will lead. Prospects for peace, as I am writing, seem bleak. So far, neither side is seeking a definitive military victory. Instead, the two seem to have the same double purpose in mind: exhausting the other side and winning over international public opinion. Measures are therefore calculated to be painful and provocative, yet limited and controlled. Presumably both sides assume that the first to lose its nerve will either despair and accept defeat or commit some awful atrocity and lose international support. It is, in other words, a dangerously volatile war of brinksmanship.

The leaders now in power are unlikely to promote compromise. Ariel Sharon was elected because of, not despite, his violent reputation, and Yasir Arafat proves himself again and again a permanent eve-of-the-revolution leader. He thrives on apocalyptic rhetoric. Should he commit to the mundane business of compromise, the crest of popular anger that he is now riding is likely to overwhelm him.

The current violence may promote de facto separation of the two peoples or it may lead to a Bosnian entanglement. It may force the two national movements to acknowledge the limits of their aspirations—neither can take possession of the whole territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean—or it may lead to an entrenchment of maximalist fantasies. It may bring the dreams of fanatics on both sides—greater Israel and no Israel at all—up against the rock of reality, forcing the protagonists, in exhaustion, toward a middle ground. Or, it may produce only the mutuality of revenge and endless retaliation.

But violence does not operate in a void. The crucial division that will determine which way the conflict turns is between the forces that promote territorial partition and the forces that threaten or inhibit it. In the long run, the feasibility of physical partition is what stands between us—Israelis and Palestinians together—and a repetition of Bosnia or Lebanon. So, taking the long view, I will discuss here four of the factors that threaten partition and blur the possible boundary between the two nations: the settlers’ movement for a greater Israel, the growing tendency on the Israeli left to misunderstand national aspiration...