Opinion

What the Coronavirus Can Teach Us About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Micah Goodman
Micah Goodman
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A healthcare worker checks the body temperature of Palestinian workers returning from Israel, amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, outside the Israeli-controlled Meitar checkpoint.
A healthcare worker checks the body temperature of Palestinian workers returning from Israel, amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, outside the Israeli-controlled Meitar checkpoint.Credit: MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/ REUTERS
Micah Goodman
Micah Goodman

This is how a society is trapped by patterns of thinking: It conducts a long argument, in which each side entrenches itself with recycled claims. As time passes, the participants in the dispute dig themselves even deeper into these same positions and viewpoints, and independent thinking freezes and becomes paralyzed. But once in a while a crisis appears that shakes up society, breaks its patterns of thought and provides an opportunity to open up to new ideas.

Peter Coleman, a social psychologist and professor at New York’s Columbia University, explains this was the dynamic in most large crises in the history of the United States. He says that oftentimes, when coming out of a major crisis, people are more open and their thinking is more flexible than it was before.

After a crisis, people dare to listen to ideas they had previously rejected out of hand, and to think thoughts they had previously dismissed. This happens because the effect of the crisis is intense and shocking. For those experiencing it, the crisis weakens the emotional connection and identification to who they were previously, before it hit. The weakening of this connection enables them to reinvent themselves.

Will this happen to us too? After the coronavirus crisis, will we feel that the beliefs we had before it belong to other people, and not to us? Maybe a tear in the time continuum creates a rare opportunity for us to break our destructive habits of thought.

If there is a sphere where our thinking has been put to sleep by hypnotizing ideologies and recycled claims, it is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The coronavirus crisis invites us to open our minds and reawaken our thinking from its coma. This is not just because of the liberating effect that characterizes large crises, but also because in coping with the present outbreak, we are practicing with a different way of thinking.

One of the characteristics of our thinking in the face of the coronavirus is that we are not striving to make it disappear. No one has set a goal of zero fatalities from the virus. If a total prevention of deaths was the reason for shutting down the country and the economy, then we should have banned road traffic a long time ago to prevent deaths from traffic accidents.

Palestinian youth queue to receive a portion of soup during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in Gaza City on April 24, 2020, during the the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Palestinian youth queue to receive a portion of soup during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in Gaza City, during the the coronavirus pandemic.Credit: AFP

Preventing COVID-19 deaths is not the reason that governments all over the world have implemented policies that lock in their citizens and paralyze their economy. These aggressive steps are intended to remove the threat to the health care system. An exponential rise in the number of patients in critical condition could very well lead to its collapse. But we need to save the economic system, too. A long-term closure could lead to a deep recession, possibly even undermining the banking system and causing chronic and despairing unemployment. It would take many years to recover from this damage.

It seems we are in a trap. The way to save the economy is to lift the closure – which could then hurt the health care system. The way to save the health care system is to continue with the closure – which will harm the economy. The Israeli government, like the rest of the governments around the world, is trying to find a way to escape from this trap. Experts from all over the world are developing theories that attempt to solve this equation: How to protect the health care system without ruining the economy, and how to save the economy without destroying the health care system.

There are great disagreements in this discourse about the way to address it, but we can see that hiding behind them is a deep and broad agreement, a hidden and unspoken agreement. No one says the objective is to prevent unemployment – there will be unemployed people. The leaders are not trying to hide the two problems, but working to prevent two disasters.

I don’t know anyone who thinks that we need to destroy the health care system to save the economy, and I don’t know anyone who thinks we need to destroy the economy to save the health care system, either. What everyone is looking for is the smart move that will prevent one disaster without creating another disaster. There are sharp disagreements over what this move should be, but there is general agreement as to its double objective.

These days, we are practicing a form of thinking that has two characteristics: It is not utopian and it is not binary. No one is looking for the utopian formula that will eliminate, here and now, the two problems, and no one is proposing a binary formula that will prevent one disaster while ignoring the other one.

This way of thinking is different than the way we are used to thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In normal times, we have gotten used to thinking about the conflict in a utopian way, of looking for the solution after which there will be no more violence, and there will be no more conflict. We have gotten used to thinking about the solution in a binary manner: One side is trying to avoid the large democratic danger inherent in a binational state, and the other side is trying to prevent the great security danger that lies in a withdrawal to the Green Line – Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

Israeli soldiers wait before the one-minute siren marking the beginning of Memorial Day, near Kisufim, on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza, April 2020.
Israeli soldiers wait before the one-minute siren marking the beginning of Memorial Day, near Kisufim, on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza, April 2020.Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

One side cries out – justifiably – that if we remain in the territories, we will endanger the national majority and deteriorate into a multinational chaos, like the situation in Lebanon or Bosnia. The other side cries out – justifiably – that if we leave the territories, we will endanger national security and the Tel Aviv metropolitan area could end up like the communities bordering the Gaza Strip. But are we doomed to think in a binary fashion? Is it decreed that we must treat only one threat with total seriousness while erasing the second threat? When it comes to the conflict, the dialogue is neutralized by thinking that is both utopian and binary.

Perhaps the coronavirus pandemic will cure our patterns of thinking. The pandemic is getting us used to thinking differently, to asking new questions. Instead of asking, “how will the problem disappear,” we ask, “how can a catastrophe be avoided”; instead of asking, “what is the solution,” we ask, “what is the right move”; instead of taking only one disaster seriously, we are taking two disasters seriously – at the same time. Once we find the move that will save the health care system without destroying the economy, we can resume discussing the conflict and searching for the move that will prevent Tel Aviv from becoming Sderot without turning Israel into Bosnia. Don’t think in a binary way, think in a corona way.

Sometimes you don’t have to look far. The desired move is right there in U.S. President Donald Trump’s deal of the century. If we take a fresh look at the plan, through the eyes of those who have gone through the coronavirus crisis, we will have to make some changes in it, mainly to remove its utopian elements: Take out the sections dealing with signing a peace agreement that ends the conflict, giving up the left’s utopian dream, and also take out the elements about annexation, giving up the right’s utopian dream.

What will remain of the plan once the aspiration of achieving these two utopian dreams is subtracted? Quite a lot. Without peace and annexation, it will become an effective move that will prevent a slide into a one-state situation and a loss of the Jewish national majority, without risking a dangerous withdrawal and the loss of national security.

How will it work? The plan calls for Israel to transfer sections of Area C to the Palestinians. For the first time in many years, the Palestinians would be able to expand their towns and villages. In addition, a new and expensive system of roads would be built for the Palestinians, which would create full sovereign contiguity of movement. For the first time, Palestinians would be able to travel from Hebron to Jenin without encountering a single Israeli soldier because they would drive the whole way on roads under Palestinian sovereignty. The plan also creates full Palestinian economic independence, and outlines the infrastructure arrangements and administrative structure that would enable the Palestinian economy to freely export and import goods.

The plan gives the Palestinians freedom of movement, freedom of economy and freedom of construction. This would mark a dramatic leap in the scope of Palestinian independence, as for the first time it would remove the three elements that together produced the experience of occupation in daily life.

An inllustration of a woman drawing the green line on a map.
Credit: Eran Wolkovsky

This plan gives the Palestinians something they do not currently have: a critical mass of governance. However, the security arrangements in the deal of the century are very conservative. Security responsibility throughout the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River will remain in Israel’s hands. Israeli warning stations will remain deep within the Palestinian state, Israel will remain in the Jordan Valley, and the Israel Defense Forces will retain the ability to give chase in order to thwart terror attacks.

The strict arrangements ensure that the risks taken in the plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip in 2005 will not be replicated in the deal of the century. Admittedly, these maximalist security components will greatly limit Palestinian sovereignty, and therefore critics who will say the plan only offers the Palestinians almost a state and not a state are correct.

The combination of increased Palestinian independence and sovereignty with security arrangements that limit Palestinian sovereignty creates an optimal situation for Israel. A real and independent Palestinian entity will come into being; 2.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank will live in a political entity that is separate from Israel. However, because of the security arrangements, this entity will not be able to threaten Israel. This move will succeed in doing what many considered impossible: neutralizing the demographic problem without creating a security danger. And so, in one move, Israel would move away from the one-state disaster without falling into the danger entailed in the two-state solution.

The Palestinians are not required to pay for their increased independence by recognizing Israel, forgoing the right of return and signing a “termination of the conflict” document. The Israelis are not required to pay for the separation from the Palestinians by taking strategic risks. Removing peace and annexation from the deal of the century lowers its expectations. It transforms it from a plan about fulfilling dreams into a plan about preventing disasters: a demographic disaster and a security disaster.

And this approach offers an unexpected bonus: This more modest plan, rather than the utopian version, would satisfy the silent political consensus in Israel. Most Israelis do not want to rule over the Palestinians, but they worry about any move that would expose them to a Palestinian threat. These two wishes clash, making this hidden Israeli consensus rest on a painful internal contradiction. But in its post-coronavirus incarnation, the deal of the century would optimize the two seemingly incongruous Israeli desires. It would dramatically reduce the scope of Israeli rule over the Palestinians without reducing the scope of Israelis’ security.

The deep right will reject this move because it increases Palestinian sovereignty in the territories, while the deep left will reject it because it does not completely remove the Israeli presence from the territories. It is very hard to let go of patterns of thinking, but try not to think in a binary way – think in a corona way. Faced with the pandemic, we are searching for the correct dosage, the precise amount and type of restrictions – enough to preserve the health care system without mortally wounding the economy. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, too, we must change our way of thinking and make the switch from a qualitative wish to a quantitative question: What is the move that will give the Palestinians enough sovereignty to be independent and separate from Israel, but not enough sovereignty to threaten Israel?