Only in Israel, or Only in Palestine?

The world is enjoying an era of unprecedented peace, so why are Israel and the Palestinians unable to reach an agreement? Here are the three anomalies of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Yuval Noah Harari
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Yuval Noah Harari

In the early 21st century, the world is enjoying an era of unprecedented peace. Not only has there been a sharp decline in the number and intensity of international wars, but the very definition of peace has changed. Once upon a time, peace meant simply “the absence of war.” Even when two kingdoms or tribes were “at peace,” the outbreak of war between them was still a plausible scenario. An iron law of international relations posited that “for every two nearby polities, there is a plausible scenario that they will be at war with one another within a year.” If Germany and France were at peace in 1913, it was completely reasonable to assume that by 1914 they would be tearing each other to pieces.

In the 21st century, this law of the jungle has been broken, and the concept of “peace” has taken on a new meaning. Today, peace isn’t just “the absence of war,” but rather “the implausibility of war.” This new kind of peace exists between most countries in the world. It is highly implausible that a serious war will break out next year between Spain and Morocco, Malaysia and Thailand, or Brazil and Uruguay. When the Brazilian government convenes to discuss the 2015 budget, it’s unimaginable that the Brazilian defense minister will rise from his seat in the middle of the session, bang his fist on the table and shout “Just a minute! And what if we want to invade and conquer Uruguay? You didn’t take that into account. We have to put aside a few billion dollars so we’ll be able to finance this conquest.”

Of course, there are a few places where defense ministers are still saying such things, and there are places where the new peace has failed to take root. But these are the exceptions. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of these exceptions. Three factors make it a unique phenomenon in the relatively serene world of the early 21st century: the anomaly of Israel; the anomaly of the occupation; and the anomaly of the refugees.

The anomaly of Israel

Throughout history, most political entities lived under perpetual existential threat from their neighbors. Whether you were Poles, Mohicans, Zulus or residents of the biblical Kingdom of Israel, you knew that at any moment, your neighbors might invade your country, defeat your army, subjugate or exile you, and wipe your kingdom or tribe off the face of the world.

In the 21st century, there is still a plethora of border disputes, territorial conflicts and civil wars. But the vast majority of states no longer find their very existence threatened by their neighbors. The Greeks do not fear that the Turks will wipe them off the map; India doesn’t plan the conquest of Pakistan; and Peru is not plotting to swallow up Ecuador.

Although there have been a few cases since 1945 in which a state was occupied by force, such as the Soviet occupation of Hungary and the American occupation of Iraq, the Soviets and Americans continued to recognize the existence of Hungary and Iraq, and were content with replacing the local regimes.

When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the Russians enjoyed an overwhelming military superiority, and seemingly could have done to Georgia whatever they wanted. But they just flexed their muscles. They conquered a few border areas, which they later evacuated; they refrained from occupying the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi; and they didn’t even try to replace the pro-Western government of Mikheil Saakashvili with a pro-Russian regime. How would Attila the Hun, Peter the Great or Stalin have acted in Putin’s place?

Since 1945, it never happened that a member state of the UN enjoying broad international recognition has been eliminated by brute force. Saddam Hussein tried to do just that to Kuwait, but an international coalition foiled his plans and made it clear to Saddam that we are no longer living in the days of Nebuchadnezzar or Genghis Khan.

This protection was granted even to states that were formed by arbitrary agreements between imperial powers, that lacked any genuine national identity, and that existed in theory more than in practice. For instance, over the course of the past few decades several African states – such as Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – have disintegrated into complete chaos. Although their neighbors often intervened in the affairs of these foundering states, backed local rebel groups and even invaded their territory, it never happened that the neighbors exploited the situation to eliminate the failed state altogether. For instance, after Tanzania occupied Uganda in 1979, it was content to bring down the tyrannical regime of Idi Amin, at which point the Tanzanian forces simply withdrew.

Israel is the only country in the world that enjoys broad international recognition but that nevertheless faces an existential threat from its neighbors. Most of the countries in its vicinity refuse to recognize its right to exist, and frequently declare their intent to wipe it off the map.

The anomaly of the occupation

Throughout most of history, diverse political models coexisted side-by-side on Earth. If you were to go back to the year 1000, you would find huge empires in the Middle East and China, feudal kingdoms in Western Europe and Africa, independent city-states in Italy and Central America, tribal confederations in Central Asia, and countless principalities, tribes and independent bands scattered around. You would even find expansive tracts of land that belonged to no one. If you were to go back one century to 1914, you would still find a variety of competing political models on Earth. In Europe and America the dominant model was the sovereign state, but much of the world was divided into imperial colonies.

Since 1945 a new global order has evolved which recognizes, at least in theory, only one legitimate political arrangement. For the first time in history, every individual and every country on Earth are subject to the same type of political model. The victorious model is the sovereign state.

If you open a map of the world, you will see that, in contrast to the situation in the year 1000 or 1914, aside from a few minor exceptions – like the Vatican City and the American unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico – the world map is divided into colorful blocks, each of which represents a sovereign state. True, in places such as Somalia and Afghanistan, the sovereign state is more a fantasy than a reality, but the international system is not willing to recognize anything other than that fantasy.

There are, however, two places on Earth that give cartographers a big headache: Antarctica – and Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. Antarctica is not a sovereign state, and according to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty no state lays claims to extending its sovereignty there. Yet Antarctica has no indigenous human population, and is populated mainly by ice and penguins, and so the cartographers simply color it white.

The story of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip is much more complicated. Millions of people live in these areas, but not a single state has extended its sovereignty there. Jordan and Egypt have relinquished any claim to these areas, Israel has never annexed them (except for East Jerusalem), and Palestine doesn’t yet exist.

Practically speaking, the territory is governed in a somewhat similar manner to a 19th-century colony. However, the global order of the 21st century is unwilling to recognize such a political model, and is prepared to put up with it only by portraying it as a “temporary situation” waiting for a “solution.” Judea, Samaria and Gaza are therefore the only settled areas on Earth that so acutely stray from the norms of the dominant global order.

Many areas in the world are disputed between two states. For instance, both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir for themselves. Both Russia and Ukraine are declaring that Crimea is theirs. Cyprus claims that the northern part of the island is an integral part of its territory, while Turkey believes that North Cyprus is an independent sovereign state. Yet a territory populated by millions of people, that no state claims as its own? Such a thing can be found only in Israel. Or only in Palestine.

The anomaly of the refugees

The global order prefers compromise and peace over justice. It is difficult to solve political problems by rigidly adhering to the principles of justice. It is patently clear that the borders of most states in Africa and the Middle East were fixed by European diplomats in Berlin, London and Paris, in blatant disregard of the history, economies and wishes of the local populations. Yet it is also clear that any attempt to redraw more “just” borders would lead to infinite disputes. So the global order has opted for the pragmatic solution of consecrating the existing boundaries, whatever they may be.

The global order has taken a similar position on refugees. Although there is a wide variety of circumstances, for the most part it is more important for the global order to provide refugees with food, homes, jobs and citizenship than with justice. When the new global order was forged in the wake of World War II, Europe and Asia were awash with refugees. Over 12 million Germans lost their homes in East Prussia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Some seven million Hindus and Sikhs were displaced from Pakistan, and about seven million Muslims fled India. One-and-a-half million Poles were uprooted from the Soviet Union, half a million Ukrainians from Poland, and some 350,000 Italians from Yugoslavia. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors were uprooted from the lands of their birth. Some 700,000 Palestinians were uprooted from Israel, while a similar number of Jews were uprooted from Arab states. The vast majority of these refugees put down new roots in their various asylum countries, and although they and their descendants still bear scars and at times continue to suffer from discrimination and poverty, they are no longer refugees.

Only the Palestinian refugees, who at present number upward of five million people, are still considered refugees, nearly 70 years after they were uprooted. For a wide variety of reasons, their host countries, as well as international organizations, preferred to perpetuate the refugee status of the Palestinians, so that today it has become a permanent status handed down from one generation to the next. In theory, in the year 2114 there could be tens of millions of Palestinian refugees in the world.

In order to comprehend how unique and how dangerous this situation is, let’s suppose that Germany and Austria had perpetuated the refugee status of the 12 million Germans who were displaced in the mid-1940s from Eastern and Central Europe. How would European politics have looked if, on the outskirts of Berlin, Munich and Vienna, you could today find 20 million German refugees living in tin shacks and mud huts, suffering from poverty and hopelessness, dreaming of the day when they will return to their grandmother’s house in Königsberg (Kaliningrad), Breslau (Wroclaw), Danzig (Gdansk) or Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary)?

These three anomalies are, of course, interconnected. Israel uses the existential threat hanging over it to justify both the occupation and its unwillingness to compromise on the refugee problem. Many Arab and Muslim countries, meanwhile, use the occupation and the refugees to justify their existential threat to Israel. As for the refugee problem, it has been so tightly bound up with the occupation that, although in theory they are separate issues, each with its own solution, in practice it would be difficult to resolve one without the other.

Ostensibly, since the conflict is founded upon such blatant violations of global norms, it should be fairly easy to resolve it. All that is needed is to apply these norms. Israel’s neighbors should recognize its existence, the Israeli occupation should end, and the Palestinian refugees should be allowed to strike roots, even if that falls short of giving them justice. In practice, as we all know, none of this is happening.

The truly great anomaly of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the global order has been willing to allow these anomalies to fester for decades, as if they were perfectly normal.

Dr. Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”

The articles that appear in this section have also been published in Hebrew and Arabic