Solving the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

Not everything depends on us Israelis; but much does.

Israelis and Palestinians wave flags as Israelis march celebrating Jerusalem Day outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's old city on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Credit: Associated Press/Sebastian Scheiner.
Israelis and Palestinians wave flags as Israelis march celebrating Jerusalem Day outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's old city on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Credit: Associated Press/Sebastian Scheiner.
March 23 2014
About the author

Yoav Sorek is the editor-in-chief of Hashiloach, a Hebrew-language quarterly journal, and the former editor of the Shabbat Musaf section in Makor Rishon.

I’m grateful to the three distinguished thinkers who have responded to my analysis of Israel’s situation and to my suggestions for improving it. Rather than reacting to all of their individual comments, I’ll try to focus on a few core criticisms and arguments.

I should begin by noting the obvious: it is very hard to write about the Arab-Israeli conflict without being drawn into the solutions sweepstakes. In one way or another, once you confront the issues, you’re expected to offer a solution to them or at least to embrace one out of the several already publicly available. I’m no exception: although my essay was written less to propose or endorse a solution than to urge a basic shift in a prevailing Israeli mindset—a mindset for which we Israelis have paid a harsh price—I couldn’t avoid pointing to a few practical instances of a way forward. Regrettably, these have turned into a focus of discussion for more than one of my respondents as well as for others who have commented about the essay on the Mosaic website and elsewhere.


Hillel Halkin is right to place me in the camp of those advocating “a single, Jewish state west of the Jordan with a fairly accommodated Arab minority.” To him, however, this version of a “one-state” solution is as much a fantasy as the “two-state” solution that we both agree is a non-starter. He points to two major obstacles. The first is the “long-standing international consensus in favor of an independent Palestinian state,” which ensures that any Israeli effort to annex the West Bank would be intolerable to world opinion and result not only in harsh economic sanctions but in diplomatic and political isolation. The second is the so-called “demographic problem”: granting citizenship to so many Arabs, he writes, would threaten Israel’s Jewish identity, and conferring any other political or legal status on them would be morally repugnant.

Instead of either a one-state or a two-state solution, Halkin puts forth his own proposal: a confederation, in which the whole territory would be divided in terms of sovereignty, thus allowing the majority in each state to retain its national identity, but would remain a single geographic entity with freedom of travel, labor, and residence for all.

I must say that Halkin’s idea, which he calls “two-states-minus,” is better than any other two-state option, and it rests on sound reasoning. Unfortunately, it strikes me as even more fantastic than mine. I don’t believe that one small territory can hold these two national movements. In my view, it would be easier to restore Palestinians to their former status as “plain” Arabs—and I’m not saying that would be easy, either—than to re-direct Palestinian nationalism into some sort of cooperative political arrangement with Israel.

In any case, however, Halkin has misinterpreted my attitude toward my own or anyone else’s solution. He quotes me accurately enough: “at only a fraction of the effort invested in the ‘two-state solution’ over the last two decades, it would be possible to craft a model of governance that would benefit all parties.” But, to repeat, I never meant that this would be simple or easy to do. The issues are both extremely complicated and of long standing, and any future effort to address them within my proposed framework would necessarily require both a great deal of time and uncommon amounts of creativity. Nevertheless, had Israel invested in “my” option but a fraction of the effort poured into the futile Oslo process, we would likely have already come up with a number of elegant and inventive approaches to the problems it raises.

My point here is a general one, worth dwelling on for another moment. My essay wasn’t intended as a political action item. Instead, I tried to outline a positive vision, to suggest a wider horizon. I firmly believe that adopting such a vision would lead to a better future for my countrymen and also for the Palestinian Arabs. But I’m fully aware—as my mostly sympathetic respondents confirm, each in his own way—that relatively few Israelis or supporters of Israel are prepared to entertain such a vision. Until they are, we can’t expect others to change their views.

Thus, many in the international community are somehow convinced that the Israeli presence in the West Bank is illegal, as if a Palestinian state existed there before 1967 and therefore the land is “occupied.” They are wrong, but somebody needs to say and to show that they are wrong, to say it and show it consistently, steadily, tirelessly, until the message is absorbed and accepted by those with the capability of moving the needle of world opinion.

Unfortunately, how the world thinks is very much connected with the way Israelis think, and connected especially with their own lack of confidence in their claim to the land. Their current mindset is the combined fruit of international acceptance of Arab propaganda and a homegrown failure of nerve. Here’s a typical example: when accused by the international court in the Hague of building its security fence on Palestinian land, Israel declined to correct the misconception. In fact the land isn’t Palestinian; indeed, under international law, Israel has the best claim to it. But instead of making that argument, Israel claimed only a “security need” to confiscate land for the fence. Unsurprisingly, it was condemned by the court.

Adopting a different position and sticking to it would not be the work of a year or two. From today’s perspective, the task of placing a new concept of justice on the international agenda seems little short of a mission impossible. But the effort must be made, if for no other reason than that all other solutions are recipes for continued war and rejectionism. Waiting for Arab acceptance is a long-term exercise; trying to negotiate with Arab non-acceptance only makes it longer.

As for the demographic challenge that Halkin cites, here too I have no simple solution, but the threat may not be as dire as some choose to believe. Recent analyses suggest that trends in birth rates are working in favor of the Jews, not the Arabs. Adding an option of free emigration and the possibility of Jordanian citizenship (a possibility ridiculed by Halkin, but which there is reason to believe is not so preposterous as he thinks), one might achieve a net result of a reasonable number of new Israeli Arab citizens, people who have chosen to be part of the Jewish state and don’t want to undermine it.

As I continue to insist, the main factor is Arab rejectionism. If we Israelis are patient enough and determined enough to overcome it, the Middle East equation could acquire a totally new look, issues now unsolvable would yield to reasonable compromise, and rejectionism would be replaced by a notion of the common good. Is this a fantasy? In terms of the present situation, yes. But there’s no reason to think the present situation must last forever, and even less reason to set it in stone.


I like Sol Stern’s formulation of my core idea: Israel should adopt a “principled refusal to accept Arab non-acceptance as a permanent condition.” Unfortunately, he sees this as totally unrealistic. If, he asks, the Christian Arabs living in the West Bank village of Tayibe can’t or won’t bring themselves to cooperate with the Jews of nearby Ofra, how can we even think of any large-scale acceptance?

My answer is simple: there is nothing deep about the refusal or reluctance of the Tayibe villagers to cooperate. Their rejectionism is a function of politics, of attitudes introduced as part and parcel of Palestinian nationalist propaganda and before that of pan-Arab propaganda—and of Israel’s tacit acquiescence in that propaganda. The villagers’ attitudes too can change, and changing Israeli attitudes will help change theirs as well.

Sometimes, dynamic thinking reveals possibilities nobody has noticed or dared to acknowledge. A few years ago, a friend and I met with representatives of the European Union’s agency for humanitarian aid (ECHO). The Frenchman we spoke with in the agency’s Jerusalem office, whose main mission is to deliver EU aid to Gaza, was serenely convinced that Israel—which had long since left the territory—was still acting the role of evil oppressor, exercising its malignant power by obstructing the shipment of goods to the Gazan people. We pointed out that, since Gaza was overpopulated, and since most of its residents were not locals but uprooted refugees, a better way to improve their lot would be to facilitate their move to countries willing to absorb them. According to surveys, 40 percent of Gazans said they would be happy to leave. Why not help them?

His reply was startling in its candor. “Are you kidding? 40 percent? It’s probably 99 percent. All of them want to leave!” Well, we repeated, have you thought of helping them? “No, never.” Why not? “Because if they leave, it’d be like releasing Israel from its responsibility for the nakba.” So—we tried again—you want to keep them there for the sake of a political vendetta. What if Israel admitted its responsibility, and agreed to compensate not only the refugees but their grandchildren?

Our questions were too much for him; he had nothing to reply. So trapped by propaganda was this sincere and pleasant European as to be unable to think of the good of the people he was charged with supporting, let alone the future good of the neighborhood.

Stern asks whether I believe Benjamin Netanyahu would actually be prepared to ignite a political war with the American administration and world opinion by pushing for a one-state solution. Practically speaking: no, I don’t think so, even though Netanyahu has already come close to doing precisely that over the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat. But, again, my essay wasn’t aimed at short-term results. In the long run, things do change, sometimes radically, and some of these changes will be late-blooming results of shifts in people’s way of thinking now.

Toward the end of his response, Stern endorses my idea of doing something about UNRWA and the refugee camps in which generations of Palestinian Arabs have been effectively held captive. I thank him for that: as a starting point in a positive process, this definitely has much to commend it; it’s also an example of an issue that might be affected for the good by some prodding from Israel. When I worked with Binyamin (Benny) Elon, then Israel’s tourism minister, on his 2002 peace plan, we initiated an effort to mobilize support in the U.S. Congress for changing UNRWA’s mandate. Some progress was made; the effort continues, and it should be bolstered.


Last but not least, Haviv Rettig Gur challenges my premise that today’s Israelis show a lack of confidence in their national project. He’s certainly right that, when it comes to enterprise in general, and to technological and scientific innovation in particular, today’s Israelis are a marvelously spirited bunch. This has greatly contributed to increased prosperity and well-being.

But this undoubted success has nothing to do with Israeli feelings about the conflict with the Palestinians, an issue over which Israeli society suffers from deep self-doubt—so deep as to raise questions about its own sense of national legitimacy. This is especially true among the ranks of the older elites. My Promised Land: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Israel, the recent best-seller by Ari Shavit—who is considered a mainstream Zionist—exemplifies the effects of this debilitating condition, as both Ruth Wisse in Mosaic and Sol Stern in The Daily Beast have acutely pointed out. Even that supposed warmonger Ariel Sharon, in his last years, referred to Israelis as “conquerors” in their own land. Self-doubt doesn’t go much deeper than that.

While agreeing with my general verdict on the Oslo process, Gur demurs that, at least in conception, it was not “so irredeemably foolish as to impugn the mental faculties of its proponents.” He may be right about that. But I remember vividly the warnings of Oslo’s opponents—precise, well founded, crystal clear, and comprehensively argued, but falling on deaf ears in the euphoria promoted by Oslo’s prophets and promoters.

Important to mention in this context is that, prior to Oslo, Israel consistently deemed the Palestinian national movement to be beyond legitimacy. Negotiating with that terrorist movement, or even meeting its officials, was illegal; so was displaying the Palestinian flag. All of this vanished in the sweeping thrill of imminent reconciliation that turned yesterday’s lawbreakers into today’s peacemakers. This was not rational; it was an irrational attempt, born of reckless impatience, to escape reality—and it entailed the abandonment of any search for a genuine peace. The day afterward, systematic, murderous Arab terror, on a heretofore unprecedented scale, spread across the country.

High-tech ventures are nice, but in the diplomatic and political arena, Israel has been conducting itself in survival mode, not in confidence mode. If the country is under so much international pressure today, that is at least partly the result of decades of willed silence, amounting to impotence, in the face of the arrantly false and defamatory Palestinian “narrative.”

David Ben-Gurion once famously remarked that, in the end, “what the Jews do” is more important than “what the Gentiles say” (or think). As many of my commentators have noted, not everything depends on us; but much does. And what doesn’t depend on us is a challenge we have to face and do everything in our power to overcome.

In the overcoming of challenges, the long experience of Zionism has many still-pertinent lessons to teach us.


Yoav Sorek, an Israeli journalist and editor, and a 2012-2013 Tikvah Fellow, concentrates mainly in the field of Jewish thought and religion, with occasional forays into politics. He was an aide to Binyamin Elon, then Israel’s minister of tourism, on the latter’s 2002 peace plan, “The Israeli  Initiative.” His book, A Brief History of the Covenant (Hebrew), dealing with the challenge of Jewish renewal in Israel, is forthcoming this summer. 

More about: Foreign Policy, Hillel Halkin, Israel, Jewish identity, Jewish State, Oslo Accords, Yoav Sorek