Insoluble Problems and Imperfect Solutions: the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Adam Klein
Tuesday, December 29, 2015, 9:45 AM

Most days, Moshav Netiv HaAsarah is a tranquil oasis of snug bungalows and Mediterranean-style gardens. Sadly, however quaint the scene, it’s hard to ignore the 50-foot blast walls. Moshav Netiv HaAsarah sits a few hundred yards from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, on the front line of ten years of off-and-on asymmetric war. Beyond the massive concrete walls, which shield the village from incoming rockets, lies a grim no-man’s land: Israeli military posts, electric fences, high-resolution security cameras, remote-controlled machine guns, and finally another bleak wall along the Gaza border. Residents and the IDF fear that Hamas has built a network of tunnels beneath these fortifications, in order to conduct stealth attacks or kidnappings on the Israeli side.

In recent years this area has thrice been an active war zone, with Israeli military units firing and moving into the Strip while thousands of Hamas rockets fly overhead. Between wars, the Moshav’s residents rush to their bomb shelters—a feature of every home—during occasional rocket alerts. They’ve grown somewhat acclimated to the rockets; the knowledge that Hamas commandos could emerge from hidden tunnels to kidnap or kill creates an ever-present dread that is harder to endure.

The walls, and the fear, are not going away.

Recently, I spent a week in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem meeting with Israeli and Palestinian experts as part of an academic conference on the current state of the region. The most notable take-away was not that we Americans can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if only we adopt the right plan and muster sufficient national will to implement it. Rather, it was that the conflict is currently intractable, and that the United States and the parties need to think harder about how to manage that unpleasant reality.

Gaza is perhaps the most prominent of the many stubborn obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Hamas is firmly entrenched and tolerates no democratic opposition, despite having won power in a contested election. Even worse, the most likely beneficiaries of a weakened Hamas would be ISIS-affiliated Salafists, already rampant just across the border in Sinai and gradually gaining influence inside Gaza.

The security challenges of this situation are obvious. But even if Israel and Hamas work out a stable modus vivendi and the border stays quiet, Hamas rule in Gaza remains a political challenge for Israel and the world. The two-state solution remains the lodestar for the international community and the majority of those working to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But a two-state solution is simply not viable if half of the would-be Palestinian state is controlled by Hamas. Hamas’s infamous Charter declares that “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it” and that Hamas is “one of the links in the chain of the struggle against the Zionist invaders.” Perhaps through some process of wrenching introspection and internal reform, Hamas will one day renounce its raison d’etre and accept the Jewish state. Few observers are holding their breath for that day.

Hamas’s control of Gaza is a particularly glaring obstacle to a negotiated peace, but it is far from the only one. Throughout the week, experts offered many more reasons for pessimism: stale and corrupt Palestinian leadership, the rightward shift of Israeli politics, the waves of Palestinian terror attacks that followed previous rounds of failed peace negotiations, violent radicalism among Jewish settlers in the West Bank, instability in the wider Middle East, and the discouraging example of Hamas’s takeover of Gaza after Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal, just to name a few. In short, there are many reasons why the two-state solution is on ice, and no reason to expect it to thaw any time soon.

This is not a novel or surprising view; it was uniformly expressed by every Israeli and Palestinian analyst we spoke with, and Israel’s President said much the same in the Washington Post just a few weeks ago. What was striking in our discussions, however, was the readiness with which even the most ardent two-staters frankly acknowledged that the peace process is comatose, and that there is probably nothing that Israel can do at this point to revive it. Where these experts offered policy prescriptions, they were aimed at preventing the status quo from worsening and preserving room for a future accord, rather than reviving and implementing the two-state solution in the near term.

This blunt pessimism struck an interesting contrast to Washington think-tank culture, which typically disfavors pessimism and demands neat multi-point plans, no matter how intractable or complex the problem. Explaining a problem’s knotty details is less valued than proposing a solution; one rarely hears on the D.C. circuit that a problem may presently be insoluble, or that efforts to force progress would do more harm than good. It’s hard to imagine politicians and U.S. officials snapping up a think-tank report declaring that a pressing national-security problem can’t be solved in the near future, that trying to solve it is likely to make things worse, and that the wisest strategy is to simply endure until things improve. Political rhetoric—particularly American political rhetoric—demands solutions, even when the real world resists them.

It’s not hard to see why Israelis would prize realism over utopianism, while Americans favor problem-solving over problem-enduring. From its beginning, Israel has faced existential threats from well-armed enemies bent on its extermination. Because of its unenviable strategic geography, its margin for policy error is close to zero. This is particularly true of the West Bank, which Israelis call Judea and Samaria. The West Bank’s hilly terrain looms above Israel’s narrow coastal plain, home to most of its population and industry. Rockets in Gaza can terrorize isolated farming communities in Israel’s south; rockets in the West Bank could paralyze Tel Aviv and shut down the country’s sole international airport. In Israel’s precarious strategic position, avoiding mistakes and surviving another year are accomplishment enough. Utopian experiments are a luxury it can’t afford.

The United States faces threats, of course, but not an unrelenting, desperate fight for survival. American foreign policy happens overseas; thankfully, we haven’t fought a major war on home soil, or along our borders, for 150 years. Even better, for more than a century we have been a great power; for 60 years, a superpower; and for more than 20 years, the sole superpower. With vast strategic depth and overmastering military power, we’ve learned to expect safety at home and success when we venture abroad. Mistakes, when they occur, are setbacks rather than existential disasters.

The American impulse for problem solving is, on balance, a beneficial (and widely admired) element of our national character. But there are policy areas where strategic patience rather than bold solutionism might be warranted. Two, in particular, come to mind.

The first is what the 9/11 Commission termed the “generational challenge” of defeating Sunni Islamist terrorism and the extreme ideology that spawns it. Fourteen years after 9/11, that ideology is arguably stronger than ever, despite an enormous American effort to shift the prevailing currents in the Arab and Muslim worlds. This experience may counsel that American policy has limited ability to influence deep, tectonic movements within Islamic civilization, and that it is difficult for us to accurately predict the effects of our interventions there. If so, the logical policy prescription would be to focus on defense (homeland security, intelligence, targeted counterterrorism operations, domestic counter-radicalization, support for non-radical regimes) rather than offense (aggressive intervention in support of fundamental social change in the Muslim world). As Philip Zelikow put it, “quarantine the chaos and immunize neighboring states.” Or, in the words of the counterterrorism scholar Peter Neumann, “aggressive containment” rather than seeking to deal a decisive blow.

Second, and most relevant here, American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would almost certainly benefit from a dose of pessimistic incrementalism. Round after round of failed final-status talks—“talking endlessly about issues on which agreement has repeatedly proved unachievable”—have not brought peace. To the contrary, they may have “actually increased” tensions between the sides by creating fresh resentments and repeatedly reminding the parties of what each finds most objectionable about the other. Perseverating over an unlikely final-status accord also crowds out less-ambitious initiatives that wouldn’t produce Nobel Prizes but might generate concrete improvements on the ground: prioritizing “Palestinian economic development, sewage treatment and other environmental issues,” allowing the Palestinian Authority greater “political control in substantial parts of the West Bank,” reducing restrictions on Palestinian movement within the West Bank, permitting more elderly Palestinians to enter Israel to work, and otherwise loosening the constraints on Palestinian daily life. Most importantly, such incremental measures could prevent the situation from becoming even worse, by stemming violence, propping up the creaky but irreplaceable Palestinian Authority, and reducing the appeal of Islamist groups.

One Israeli with whom we met spoke of “peaceful nonreconciliation.” Long-term, this is not a substitute for a two-state solution or some other mutually agreed end-state. But as an interim staging point, peaceful nonreconciliation is better than violent nonreconciliation.

None of this is to say that the parties or the United States should publicly write off the two-state solution. As Elliott Abrams has noted, Israel in particular would alienate key allies were it to declare the two-state solution defunct. Still, as Abrams advocates, “a stated policy of seeking a two-state solution” can be “combined with pragmatic efforts to improve Palestinian life.” Meanwhile, on the political level, such efforts would allow the parties to build trust, gradually improve Palestinian self-governance, and cautiously experiment with new political arrangements. One Palestinian with whom we spoke described this approach as “baking the bricks before designing the house.”

Bottom-up institution-building might, in the long term, prove a more effective alternative to climactic final-status negotiations, allowing the parties to gradually advance toward a stable, mutually acceptable end state. Or perhaps not—there may be no substitute for one sweeping negotiation that dishes out all the pain, and all the rewards, in one go. Today, however, that grand bargain is almost certainly a long way off. In the short term—in which millions of Israelis and Palestinians must find a way, however uncomfortably, to endure one another—incremental improvements can stave off despair and preserve space for future reconciliation, even if they don’t facilitate a final accord. If a decisive, lasting peace is presently out of reach, perhaps tomorrow can at least be a bit better than today.