By Matti Friedman
Jan. 16, 2019
If you are reading this, you’ve most likely seen much about “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” in the pages of this newspaper and of every other important newspaper in the West. That phrase contains a few important assumptions. That the conflict is between two actors, Israelis and Palestinians that it could be resolved by those two actors, and particularly by the stronger side, Israel. That it’s taking place in the corner of the Middle East under Israeli rule.
Presented this way, the conflict has become an energizing issue on the international left and the subject of fascination of many governments, including the Trump administration, which has been working on a “deal of the century” to solve it. The previous administration’s secretary of state, John Kerry, committed so much time to Israeli-Palestinian peace that for a while he seemed to be here each weekend. If only the perfect wording and map could be found, according to this thinking, if only both sides could be given the right dose of carrots and sticks, peace could ensue.
To someone here in Israel, all of this is harder and harder to understand. There isn’t an Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the way that many outsiders seem to think, and this perception gap is worth spelling out. It has nothing to do with being right-wing or left-wing in the American sense. To borrow a term from the world of photography, the problem is one of zoom. Simply put, outsiders are zoomed in, and people here in Israel are zoomed out. Understanding this will make events here easier to grasp.
In the Israeli view, no peacemaker can bring the two sides together because there aren’t just two sides. There are many, many sides.
Most of Israel’s wars haven’t been fought against Palestinians. Since the invasion of five Arab armies at the declaration of the State of Israel in May 1948, the Palestinians have made up a small number of the combatants facing the country. To someone here, zooming in to frame our problem as an Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes as much sense as describing the “America-Italy conflict” of 1944. American G.I.s were indeed dying in Italy that year, but an American instinctively knows that this can be understood only by seeing it as one small part of World War II. The actions of Americans in Italy can’t be explained without Japan, or without Germany, Russia, Britain and the numerous actors and sub-conflicts making up the larger war.
Over the decades when Arab nationalism was the region’s dominant ideology, Israeli soldiers faced Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Iraqis. Today Israel’s most potent enemy is the Shiite theocracy in Iran, which is more than 1,000 miles away and isn’t Palestinian (or Arab). The gravest threat to Israel at close range is Hezbollah on our northern border, an army of Lebanese Shiites founded and funded by the Iranians.
The antiaircraft batteries of the Russians, Iran’s patrons, already cover much of our airspace from their new Syrian positions. A threat of a lesser order is posed by Hamas, which is Palestinian — but was founded as the local incarnation of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, affiliated with the regional wave of Sunni radicalism, kept afloat with Qatari cash and backed by Iran.
If you see only an “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict, then nothing that Israelis do makes sense. (That’s why Israel’s enemies prefer this framing.) In this tightly cropped frame, Israelis are stronger, more prosperous and more numerous. The fears affecting big decisions, like what to do about the military occupation in the West Bank, seem unwarranted if Israel is indeed the far more powerful party.
That’s not the way Israelis see it. Many here believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened around us in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors, Syria and Iraq, into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
When I look at the West Bank as an Israeli, I see 2.5 million Palestinian civilians living under military rule, with all the misery that entails. I’m seeing the many grave errors our governments have made in handling the territory and its residents, the construction of civilian settlements chief among them.
But because I’m zoomed out, I’m also seeing Hezbollah (not Palestinian), and the Russians and Iranians (not Palestinian), and the Islamic State-affiliated insurgents (not Palestinian) on our border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. I’m considering the disastrous result of the power vacuum in Syria, which is a 90-minute drive from the West Bank.
In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea — “like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation — if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.
But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.
The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunni and Shiite; between majority populations and minorities. If our small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.
Misunderstanding the predicament of Israelis and Palestinians as a problem that can be solved by an agreement between them means missing modest steps that might help people here. Could Israel, as some centrist strategists here recently suggested, freeze and shrink most civilian settlements while leaving the military in place for now? How can the greatest number of Palestinians be freed from friction with Israelis without creating a power vacuum that will bring the regional war to our doorstep? These questions can be addressed only if it’s clear what we’re talking about.
Abandoning the pleasures of the simple story for the confusing realities of the bigger picture is emotionally unsatisfying. An observer is denied a clear villain or an ideal solution. But it does make events here comprehensible, and it will encourage Western policymakers to abandon fantastic visions in favor of a more reasonable grasp of what’s possible. And that, in turn, might lead to some tangible improvements in a world that could use fewer illusions and wiser leaders.
Matti Friedman, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of “The Aleppo Codex,” “Pumpkinflowers” and the forthcoming “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.”