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Why the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Refuses to Be Resolved

The author argues that peace remains elusive because the conflict is unprecedented in human history.

The question in the headline should ostensibly be directed to a Middle East expert, a political scientist, or even a foreign historian, not a writer whose expertise is his imagination. But because the question is a real one that is painful to everyone in the region regardless of his nationality, I will try to propose an answer.

This question is serious and disturbing for two reasons. First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the longest-running conflicts in the modern era. If we mark its beginning at the start of Zionist settlement in Palestine in the 1880s, the conflict has been active, in blood and fire, for about 130 years.

Israeli soldiers withdrawing from Lebanon at the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. A helmeted soldier in a military vehicle with machine guns is in the foreground of the photograph, The background is a blaze of bright-orange flames and of smoke.
Nir Kafri

Second, this is not a remote conflict in a godforsaken place, but one constantly at the center of international awareness. That means it is one of the most extensively dealt-with conflicts in the world. In the past 45 years alone, the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis has been the subject of serious attempts at mediation by many countries and respectable international organizations. Presidents of the United States have tried to mediate personally between the sides. Heads of government from all over the world devote their attention to it; high-level emissaries come to the region to try their hand at mediation and compromise. All this is on top of tireless initiatives by organizations and individuals on both sides in well-meaning symposia and meetings. Studies, books and innumerable position papers have been written and are being written all the time.

And although the sides have come to partial agreements in direct, secret and open talks, and although the formulas for a solution have seemed clear and acceptable, and even though these are two small nations that are ostensibly subject to international dictates, the conflict still contains an inner core that stubbornly refuses to surrender to peace.

It's true that there have been many mistakes and missed opportunities on both sides throughout the years. And because this conflict is cyclical rather than linear - in other words, time does not necessarily bring us closer to a solution, but peace approaches and recedes at historical junctions in the past and future - there is reason to wonder what makes this conflict unique compared to other conflicts, what causes it to persevere so zealously. I do not presume to intimate that my answer is the exclusive one, but I will try to put it to the test.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict refuses to be resolved because it is a conflict unprecedented in human history. There is no precedent for a nation that lost its sovereignty 2,000 years ago, was scattered among the nations, and later decided for internal and external reasons to return to its ancient homeland and re-establish sovereignty there. Therefore, if everyone considers the modern return to Zion a unique event in human history, that means the Palestinian people or the Israeli Arabs have also been forced to face a unique phenomenon that no other nation has confronted.

In the early 19th century there were only about 5,000 Jews in the Land of Israel, compared with the 250,000 to 300,000 Palestinian Arabs. At the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 there were about 50,000 Jews compared with 550,000 Palestinians Arabs. (These numbers are from the Jewish Encyclopedia. ) And by 1948 there were about 600,000 Jews versus 1.3 million Palestinian Arabs.

The Jewish people thus quickly ingathered from all corners of the world. They did not want to expel the Palestinians, and certainly not to destroy them, but neither did they want to integrate them into Jewish society as other nations did with the local residents. Moreover, there was no attempt here to impose a colonial regime, since the Jews had no mother country that had sent them on colonial conquests, as in the case of Britain or France. Here something original and unique in human history took place: A nation arrived in the homeland of another nation to replace its identity with an ancient-new one.

That is why at its most profound level, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a question of territory, as in the case of many historical conflicts between nations, but a battle over the national identity of the entire homeland - every stone and every part of it. For both sides, and mainly for the Palestinians, the size of the nation confronting them is not clear - whether it consists only of Israeli Jews or the entire Jewish diaspora. And the Israelis don't know whether they are confronting only the Palestinian people or the entire Arab nation. In other words, the demographic boundaries of the two sides are not clear either. This is therefore a fundamental conflict that constantly creates primal and profound mistrust between the two peoples, preventing a possible solution.

Is it still possible to resolve the conflict without ending up in the trap of a binational state? I believe so, but because this is a question I haven't been asked, I won't answer it now.