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What are Israel and Palestine? Why are they fighting?
Israel is the world’s only Jewish state, located just east of the Mediterranean Sea. Palestinians, the Arab population that hails from the land Israel now controls, refer to the territory as Palestine, and want to establish a state by that name on all or part of the same land. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over who gets what land and how it’s controlled.
Though both Jews and Arab Muslims date their claims to the land back a couple thousand years, the current political conflict began in the early 20th century. Jews fleeing persecution in Europe wanted to establish a national homeland in what was then an Arab- and Muslim-majority territory in the Ottoman and later British Empire. The Arabs resisted, seeing the land as rightfully theirs. An early United Nations plan to give each group part of the land failed, and Israel and the surrounding Arab nations fought several wars over the territory. Today’s lines largely reflect the outcomes of two of these wars, one waged in 1948 and another in 1967.
The 1967 war is particularly important for today’s conflict, as it left Israel in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, two territories home to large Palestinian populations:
Today, the West Bank is nominally controlled by the Palestinian Authority and is under Israeli occupation. This comes in the form of Israeli troops, who enforce Israeli security restrictions on Palestinian movement and activities, and Israeli “settlers,” Jews who build ever-expanding communities in the West Bank that effectively deny the land to Palestinians. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, an Islamist fundamentalist party, and is under Israeli blockade but not ground troop occupation.
The primary approach to solving the conflict today is a so-called “two-state solution” that would establish Palestine as an independent state in Gaza and most of the West Bank, leaving the rest of the land to Israel. Though the two-state plan is clear in theory, the two sides are still deeply divided over how to make it work in practice.
The alternative to a two-state solution is a “one-state solution,” wherein all of the land becomes either one big Israel or one big Palestine. Most observers think this would cause more problems than it would solve, but this outcome is becoming more likely over time for political and demographic reasons.
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What is Zionism?
Zionism is Israel’s national ideology. Zionists believe Judaism is a nationality as well as a religion, and that Jews deserve their own state in their ancestral homeland, Israel, in the same way the French people deserve France or the Chinese people should have China. It’s what brought Jews back to Israel in the first place, and also at the heart of what concerns Arabs and Palestinians about the Israeli state.
Jews often trace their nationhood back to the biblical kingdoms of David and Solomon, circa 950 BC. Modern Zionism, building on the longstanding Jewish yearning for a “return to Zion,” began in the 19th century — right about the time that nationalism started to rise in Europe. A secular Austrian-Jewish journalist, Theodor Herzl, was the first to turn rumblings of Jewish nationalism into an international movement around 1896.
Herzl witnessed brutal European anti-Semitism firsthand, and became convinced the Jewish people could never survive outside of a country of their own. He wrote essays and organized meetings that spurred mass Jewish emigration from Europe to what’s now Israel/Palestine. Before Herzl, about 20,000 Jews lived there; by the time Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, the number was about eight times that.
Though Zionists all agree that Israel should exist, they’ve long disagreed on what its government should look like. In the most general terms, the Zionist left, which dominated the country’s politics until the late 1970s, is inclined to trade Israeli-controlled land for peace with Arab nations, wants more government intervention in the economy, and prefers a secular government over a religious one. The Zionist right, which currently enjoys commanding positions in the Israeli government and popular opinion, tends to be more skeptical of “land-for-peace” deals, more libertarian on the economy, and more comfortable mixing religion and politics.
Arabs and Palestinians generally oppose Zionism, as the explicitly Jewish character of the Israeli state means that Jews have privileges that others don’t. For instance, any Jew anywhere in the world can become an Israeli citizen, a right not extended to any other class of person. Arabs, then, often see Zionism as a species of colonialism and racism aimed at appropriating Palestinian land and systematically disenfranchising the Palestinians that remain. Arab states actually pushed through a UN General Assembly resolution labeling Zionism “a form of racism and racial discrimination” in 1975, though it was repealed 16 years later.
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How did Israel become a country in the first place?
Social and political developments in Europe convinced Jews they needed their own country, and their ancestral homeland seemed like the right place to establish it. European Jews — 90 percent of all Jews at the time — arrived at Zionism partly because of rising anti-Semitic persecution and partly because the Enlightenment introduced Jews to secular nationalism. Between 1896 and 1948, hundreds of thousands of Jews resettled from Europe to what was then British-controlled Palestine, including large numbers forced out of Europe during the Holocaust.
Many Arabs saw the influx of Jews as a European colonial movement, and the two peoples fought bitterly. The British couldn’t control the violence, and in 1947 the United Nations voted to split the land into two countries. Almost all of the roughly 650,000 Jews went to the blue territory in the map to the right, and a majority of the Arab population (roughly twice the size of the Jewish community) went to the orange.
The Jewish residents accepted the deal. The Palestinians, who saw the plan as an extension of a long-running Jewish attempt push them out of the land, fought it. The Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria all later declared war on Israel, as well (albeit not to defend the Palestinians).
Israeli forces defeated the Palestinian militias and Arab armies in a vicious conflict that turned 700,000 Palestinian civilians into refugees. The UN partition promised 56 percent of British Palestine for the Jewish state; by the end of the war, Israel possessed 77 percent — everything except the West Bank and the eastern quarter of Jerusalem (controlled by Jordan), as well as the Gaza Strip (controlled by Egypt). It left Israelis with a state, but not Palestinians.
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What is the Nakba?
The 1948 war uprooted 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, creating a refugee crisis that is still not resolved. Palestinians call this mass eviction the Nakba — Arabic for “catastrophe” — and its legacy remains one of the most intractable issues in ongoing peace negotiations.
Not surprisingly, Palestinians and Israelis remember the birth of the Palestinian refugee crisis very differently (here’s a helpful side-by-side comparison). Palestinians often see a years long, premeditated Jewish campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestine of Arabs; Israelis tend to blame spontaneous Arab fleeing, Arab armies, and/or unfortunate wartime accidents.
Today, there are more than 7 million Palestinian refugees, defined as people displaced in 1948 and their descendants. A core Palestinian demand in peace negotiations is some kind of justice for these refugees, most commonly in the form of the “right of return” to the homes their families abandoned in 1948.
Israel can’t accept the right of return without abandoning either its Jewish or democratic identity. Adding 7 million Arabs to Israel’s population would make Jews a minority — Israel’s total population is about 8 million, a number that includes the 1.5 million Arabs already there. So Israelis refuse to even consider including the right to return in any final status deal.
One of the core problems in negotiations, then, is how to find a way to get justice for the refugees that both the Israeli and Palestinian people can accept. Ideas proposed so far include financial compensation and limited resettlement in Israel, but the two sides have never agreed on the details of how these would work.
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What is the West Bank?
The West Bank is a chunk of land east of Israel. It’s home to 2.6 million Palestinians, and would make up the heart of any Palestinian state. Israel took control of it in 1967 and has allowed Jewish settlers to move in, but Palestinians (and most of the international community) consider it illegally occupied Palestinian land.
In 1967, Israel fought a war with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Israel fired the first shot, but claims it was preempting an imminent Egyptian attack; Arabs disagree, casting Israel as an aggressor. In six days, Israel routed the Arab powers, taking the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan.
Israel has controlled the West Bank since the Six-Day War (as it’s called). For many Jews, this is wonderful news in theory: the West Bank was the heartland of the ancient Jewish state. It’s home to many Jewish holy sites, like the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, that Jews were previously cut off from. In practice, Israeli control of the West Bank means military administration of a territory full of Palestinians who aren’t exactly excited about living under Israeli authority.
The border between Israel and the West Bank would probably have to change in any peace deal. There are about 500,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, many of whom live near the border with Israel proper. In a two-state deal, some of these settlers would have to leave the West Bank, while some border settlements would become Israeli land. In exchange, Israel would give over some of its territory to Palestine. These would be called “land swaps.” No set of Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed on precisely where to draw the border.
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What is Jerusalem?
Jerusalem is a city that straddles the border between Israel and the West Bank. It’s home to some of the holiest sites in both Judaism and Islam, and so both Israel and Palestine want to make it their capital. How to split the city fairly remains one of the fundamental issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians — and on December 6, President Donald Trump weighed in on Israel’s side.
For the first 20 years of Israel’s existence, Jerusalem was divided. Israel controlled the parts of Jerusalem and its suburbs inside the red dotted line on this map, while Jordan controlled everything outside of it (blue dotted lines separate Jerusalem proper from suburbs):
Jordan controlled the Temple Mount, a hill in the map’s brown splotch. The hill hosts the Western Wall, a retaining wall of an ancient Jewish temple and one of Judaism’s holiest sites, and two of Islam’s most important landmarks, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Israeli Jews weren’t allowed to pray in the area while Jordan controlled it. During the 1967 war, Israel took control of East Jerusalem.
Israel calls Jerusalem its undivided capital today, but almost no countries recognizes it as such. UN Security Council Resolution 478 condemns Israel’s decision to annex East Jerusalem as a violation of international law and calls for a compromise solution.
The United States consistently refused to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, believing that a formal announcement could spark violence and would fatally undermine the US’ position as an honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians. President Trump decided to change that longstanding position in December. The new American policy recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and begin the process of moving the embassy, but still allows for negotiations over what parts of the city would be permanently Israeli and what parts would be given to Palestine in the event of a peace agreement.
Assuming Trump’s policy doesn’t completely derail any chances for a peace process, there are still serious practical issues surrounding the division of Jerusalem. Not only is there an issue of ensuring Israeli and Palestinian access to the holy sites, but Jews have moved in and around Jerusalem in huge numbers. They now make up about two-thirds of the city:
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What is Gaza?
Gaza is a densely populated strip of land that is mostly surrounded by Israel and peopled almost exclusively by Palestinians. Israel used to have a military presence, but withdrew unilaterally in 2005. It’s currently under Israeli blockade.
The sporadic rocket fire that’s hit Israel from there since its pullback has strengthened Israeli hawks’ political position, as they have long argued that any Palestinian state would end up serving as a launching pad for attacks on Israel.
Egypt controlled Gaza until 1967, when Israel occupied it (along with the West Bank) in the Six-Day War. Until 2005, Israeli military authorities controlled Gaza in the same way they control the West Bank, and Jews were permitted to settle there. In 2005, then–Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pulled out Israeli troops and settlers unilaterally.
Gaza is governed by the Islamist group Hamas, which formed in 1987 as a militant “resistance” group against Israel and won political power in a 2006 US-based election. Hamas’s takeover of Gaza prompted an Israeli blockade of the flow of commercial goods into Gaza, on the grounds that Hamas could use those goods to make weapons to be used against Israel. Israel has eased the blockade over time, but the cutoff of basic supplies like fuel still does significant humanitarian harm by cutting off access to electricity, food, and medicine.
Hamas and other Gaza-based militants have fired thousands of rockets from the territory at Israeli targets. Israel has launched a number of military operations in Gaza, including an air campaign and ground invasion in late 2008 and early 2009, a major bombing campaign in 2012, and another air/ground assault in the summer of 2014.
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What are settlements, and why are they such a big deal?
Settlements are communities of Jews that have been moving to the West Bank since it came under Israeli occupation in 1967. Some of the settlers move there for religious reasons, some because they want to claim the West Bank territory as Israeli land, and some because the housing there tends to be cheap and subsidized. Settlements are generally considered to be a major impediment to peace.
About 500,000 Israelis live in the settlements, of which there are about 130 scattered around the West Bank. Roughly 75 percent of settlers live on or near the West Bank border with Israel. Some of the settlements are vast communities that house tens of thousands of people and look like suburban developments. Some look like hand-built shanty outposts.
Settlements create what Israelis and Palestinians call “new facts on the ground.” Palestinian communities are split apart and their connection to the land weakened, while Jewish communities put down roots in territory meant for Palestinians. In effect, it blurs or constrains the boundaries of any future Palestinian state. For some settlers, this is the point: they want the West Bank fully incorporated as Israeli territory and are trying to make that happen.
The settlements and military occupation required to defend them makes life really difficult for Palestinians. Palestinians are excluded from certain Israeli-only roads and forced to go through a number of security checkpoints.
Most international lawyers (including one asked by Israel to review them in 1967) believe settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of population into occupied territories. Israel’s government disputes that.
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What is the Palestinian Liberation Organization? How about Fatah and the Palestinian Authority?
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) is the national representative of the Palestinian people. It runs the Palestinian National Authority (PA), the semi-autonomous government tasked with managing the Palestinian territories until it makes a deal with Israel. Fatah, the secular nationalist political party that’s dominated Palestinian politics for decades, controls the PLO and PA.
In practice, the PLO runs the government in the West Bank but not in Gaza, which is governed by Hamas. It also conducts peace talks on behalf of the Palestinians, but its authority to implement those deals has in the past been hampered by poor relations with Hamas.
In the first decades after its 1964 creation, the PLO sought to destroy Israel and replace it with an entirely Palestinian state. Fatah’s founder, Yasser Arafat, employed military tactics toward this end, including attacks on Israeli civilians. This changed in 1993, when the PLO accepted Israel’s right to exist in exchange for Israel recognizing it as the legitimate representative of Palestinians. That was the beginning of real peace negotiations between the two sides.
The PLO’s current chair is the relatively moderate Mahmoud Abbas, whose opposition to violence played a role in de-escalating the second intifada. Frustrated by the failure of peace talks, particularly Secretary of State John Kerry’s push in 2013 and early 2014, Abbas is also pursuing international recognition of Palestinian statehood. As a result, Palestine now has non-member state status at the UN; it also joined the International Criminal Court on April 1, 2015.
The statehood push is meant to put pressure on Israel. The US opposes it.
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What is Hamas?
Hamas is a Palestinian Islamist political organization and militant group that has waged war on Israel since the group’s 1987 founding, most notably through suicide bombings and rocket attacks. It seeks to replace Israel with a Palestinian state. It also governs Gaza independently of the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas’s charter long called for the destruction of Israel. It was revised in 2017 to allow for acceptance of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip rather than the entire territory, though Hams still refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli state.
Hamas led the charge in using suicide bombings against Israel in the 1990s and 2000s, though in recent years it has shifted to rockets and mortars as its weapons of choice. The organization also offers Palestinians a robust network of social services, which it developed as an alternative to deeply corrupt PA institutions.
In 2006, Hamas won a slight majority of the seats in the Palestinian Authority legislative elections. This would have put Hamas in a commanding position for both the West Bank and Gaza, but there was a problem: Hamas refused to accept previous deals that the PA had made with Israel. That lead Western powers to freeze out aid, which the PA depends on, to any Hamas-led PA. Tensions between the PLO and Hamas eventually escalated to outright war between the two factions, which ended up with Hamas governing Gaza independently from the West Bank–based PLO.
Unity talks between Hamas and the PLO have broken down repeatedly, which means there is no unified Palestinian authority, complicating peace talks significantly. In late 2017, the two sides reached a preliminary unity agreement, but it’s still unclear whether this will lead to an actual united government of any kind.
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What were the intifadas?
The intifadas were two Palestinian uprisings against Israel, the first in the late 1980s and the second in the early 2000s. The intifadas had a dramatic effect on Israeli-Palestinian relations; the second, in particular, is widely seen as marking the end of the 1990s era negotiating process and ushering in a new, darker era in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
The first intifada was a largely spontaneous series of Palestinian demonstrations, nonviolent actions like mass boycotts and Palestinians refusing to work jobs in Israel, and attacks (using rocks, Molotov cocktails, and occasionally firearms) on Israelis. Palestinian fatalities dramatically outpaced Israeli ones, as the Israeli military responded to the protests and attacks with heavy force.
The second, and far bloodier, intifada grew out of the collapse of the peace process in 2000. Negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat broke down, and the intifada began shortly afterwards. Typically, Israelis blame a conscious decision by Arafat to turn to violence for the intifada’s onset, while Palestinians point to an intentionally provocative visit to the contested Temple Mount by Israeli politician (and soon to be Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon. While both Arafat and Sharon played some part, the central cause was likely a basic mistrust between the two sides that made war inevitable after peace talks broke down.
The spark that lit this powder keg was a series of Palestinian demonstrations that Israeli soldiers fired on. Palestinian militants subsequently escalated to broader violence, and the PA refused to rein them in.
Unlike with the first intifada, Palestinian tactics centered on suicide bombings, rocket attacks, and sniper fire — which Israel met with even deadlier force. The conflict petered out in 2005, but not before about 1,000 Israelis and 3,200 Palestinians were killed.
The second intifada, together with the wave of rocket fire from Gaza after the Hamas takeover, had a transformative effect on Israeli attitudes toward the conflict. The Israeli peace camp’s traditional argument, that Israel would be eventually rewarded for trading land for peace, became significantly less popular. Skepticism of the peace process grew, complicating future efforts to arrive at a two-state agreement.
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How are other Middle Eastern countries handling the conflict?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a huge issue in the region. Israel has fought multiple wars with each of its four neighbors, all of whom nominally support the Palestinian national cause. Today, it has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, but its relations with its other neighbors, Syria and Lebanon, are fraught. There are large, mistreated Palestinian refugee communities in all of Israel’s neighbors but Egypt. Outside of its immediate neighbors, the three most important regional states in the conflict are Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Here’s a guide to each country’s role.
Egypt: Egypt’s 1978 peace treaty with Israel, the first signed by any Arab state, is underwritten by massive amounts of American aid to both Egypt and Israel. The treaty also forbids Egypt from a military presence in the bordering Sinai Peninsula, which has helped militant and criminal groups flourish there.
Syria: The Syrian government is still quite hostile to Israel. Syria is aligned with Iran, Israel’s greatest adversary in the region today. Syria also wants the Golan Heights, militarily useful land Israel seized during their 1967 war, back.
Lebanon: Lebanon is home to Hezbollah, a virulently anti-Israel Shia Islamist group funded by Iran. Hezbollah is a major force in Lebanese politics, so Lebanon is unlikely to play any role in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the near term.
Jordan: Israel’s eastern neighbor both has a peace treaty with Israel and houses the largest concentration of Palestinians refugees. It’s also the one of Israel’s neighbors where Palestinians have full citizenship rights. Despite this, many refugees are shoved into crowded camps and generally poorly treated, which is why Palestinians are skeptical of their neighbors’ claim to support the Palestinian cause.
Iran: The Iranian government believes Israel is fundamentally illegitimate and supports the most hard-line anti-Israeli Arab factions. Israel sees Iran as a direct and existential threat, as it has provided significant military and financial backing to Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria — the so-called “Axis of Resistance” to Israeli and Western interests in the Middle East.
Turkey: Long on good terms with Israel, Turkey has become increasingly pro-Palestinian in recent years. Its Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has positioned himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause for ideological, domestic, and geopolitical reasons. Israeli-Turkish conflict over an Israeli raid on a Turkish aid mission to Gaza severed diplomatic relations between the two countries for years. They renormalized in 2016, but are still fragile.
Saudi Arabia: The kingdom donates hundreds of millions of dollars to the Palestinian Authority and is the driving force behind an Arab League peace plan floated as an alternative to traditional Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Though Saudi Arabia has yet to recognize Israel, the two nations’ mutual hostility toward Iran has led to an unprecedented working relationship between the Saudi and Israeli governments.
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Why are the US and Israel so friendly?
That’s a hugely controversial question. Though American support for Israel really is massive, including billions of dollars in aid and reliable diplomatic backing, experts disagree sharply on why. Some possibilities include deep support for Israel among the American public, the influence of the pro-Israel lobby, and American ideological affinity with the Middle East’s most stable democracy.
The countries were not nearly so close in Israel’s first decades. President Eisenhower was particularly hostile to Israel during the 1956 Suez War, which Israel, the UK, and France fought against Egypt.
As the Cold War dragged on, the US came to view Israel as a key buffer against Soviet influence in the Middle East and supported it accordingly. The American-Israeli alliance didn’t really cement until around 1973, when American aid helped save Israel from a surprise Arab invasion.
Since the Cold War, the foundation of the still-strong (and arguably stronger) relationship between the countries has obviously shifted. Some suggest that a common interest in fighting jihadism ties America to Israel, while others point to American leaders’ ideological attachment to an embattled democracy. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that the American public has, for a long time, sympathized far more with Israel than with Palestine:
One very controversial theory, advanced by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, credits the relationship to the power of the pro-Israel lobby, particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Critics of this theory argue that AIPAC isn’t as strong as Walt and Mearsheimer think. AIPAC’s failure to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama administration underscored the critics’ point.
Regardless of the reasons for the “special relationship,” American support for Israel really is quite extensive. The US has given Israel $118 billion in aid over the years (about $3 billion per year nowadays). Half of all American UN Security Council vetoes blocked resolutions critical of Israel.
Despite this fundamentally close relationship, there are occasionally tensions between Israeli and American officials. This was particularly true under US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the two leaders clashed regularly over issues like settlements and Iran. The relationship reached a particularly nasty point when Netanyahu planned, with congressional Republicans, a March 2015 speech to a joint session of Congress that was highly critical of Obama’s approach to Iran. The Obama administration was furious over what it saw as Netanyahu conspiring with Obama’s domestic political opposition to undermine his policies.
The Trump administration has led to renewed warmth in the Israeli-American relationship, culminating in Trump’s December decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The stark difference between Obama and Trump approaches to Netanyahu reflects a growing partisan gap inside the United States, with Republicans taking an increasingly hard-line “pro-Israel” position. If Democrats end up concomitantly becoming more willing to criticize the Israeli government, Israel may well end up a partisan issue in America — which actually would threaten the foundations of the US-Israel alliance.
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How does the world feel about Israel/Palestine?
Non-Muslim countries recognize Israel’s legitimacy and maintain diplomatic relations with it, but most are critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and ongoing occupation of the West Bank. Global public opinion at present is generally more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, creating real concern among Israelis that an international boycott movement, called BDS, could pick up some support.
Eighty-three percent of the world’s countries, and almost every country that isn’t Arab or Muslim majority, recognizes Israel:
That being said, Israel is extremely unpopular worldwide. In one BBC poll of 22 countries, Israel was the fourth-most-disliked nation (behind only Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea).
It’s clear that West Bank settlements are a key cause of Israel’s poor global standing. Most of the world believes that Israel’s continued control of the West Bank is an unlawful military occupation, and that settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. Though this view is supported by most legal scholars, Israel and pro-Israel conservatives dispute it. They argue that the West Bank isn’t occupied, and even if it were, the Fourth Geneva convention only prohibits “forcible” population transfers, not voluntary settlement.
The BDS movement, which coalesced in 2005, aims to capitalize on international anger with Israel. The movement’s strategy is to create costs to Israel’s Palestinian policy through boycotts of Israeli goods and institutions, divestment from Israeli companies, and sanctions on the nation itself (hence the name BDS).
BDS plans to continue boycotting Israel until 1) all of the settlements are dismantled, 2) they believe Palestinians have been given equal rights inside Israel’s borders, and 3) Palestinians refugees are granted the “right of return,” which means to return to the land and homes they used to inhabit in what is now Israel.
That last goal has led BDS’s critics to label it a stealth movement to destroy Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. While BDS does not take an official position on Israel’s existence, the size of the Palestinian refugee population means that if it gets what it wants on the right of return, Palestinians could potentially outnumber Israelis, ending Israel’s status as a Jewish state and giving Palestinians the power to dismantle the Israeli state.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a supporter of the two-state solution, opposes BDS. He, as well as a number of liberal Zionists such as the writer Peter Beinart, supports a boycott targeted only at goods made in the West Bank settlements.
As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drags on, many Israelis worry that BDS will become more mainstream. Former Secretary of State John Kerry warned that BDS could end up being a real problem for Israel if it fails to come to terms with the Palestinians.
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What is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
Sometimes called “Oslo” after the 1993 Oslo Accords that kicked it off, the peace process is an ongoing American-mediated effort to broker a peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians. The goal is a “final status agreement,” which would establish a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank in exchange for Palestinians agreeing to permanently end attacks on Israeli targets — a formula often called “land for peace.”
Many people believed the peace process to be over in January 2001. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had just rejected his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak’s peace offer (there’s huge disagreement as to just what that offer entailed). Moreover, renewed talks failed to generate an agreement, and worsening violence during the second intifada violence made another round of talks seem impossible.
Despite the 2001 failure, the general Oslo “land for peace” framework remains the dominant American and international approach to resolving the conflict. The Bush administration pushed its own update on Oslo, called the “road map,” and the Obama administration made the peace process a significant foreign policy priority. The Trump administration has not formally abandoned this formula, but has yet to take any significant actions to advance it.
Any successful peace initiative would need to resolve the four core issues that have plagued the peace process: West Bank borders/settlements, Israeli security, Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem. So far there’s been little success, and there are three major hurdles to any agreement.
First, Israel continues to expand West Bank settlements, which Palestinians see as a de facto campaign to erase the Palestinian state outright. Second, the Palestinians remain politically divided between Fatah and Hamas, and thus are unable to negotiate jointly. And even if it worked, Israel still has shown zero indication that it would negotiate with a government that includes Hamas.
Third, and finally, it’s not actually clear how to get talks started. The current right-wing Israeli government is skeptical of concessions to the Palestinians. The Palestinians, having essentially decided that Israel isn’t serious about peace, have launched a campaign for statehood in international institutions aimed at pressuring Israel into peace — which might well backfire by convincing Israelis the Palestinians are done with the US-led peace process.
To restart talks, the US needs to somehow get the two sides to start taking each other’s commitment to peace a little more seriously. It’s not at all clear how it could do that, or even if the Trump administration wants to.
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How do the current Israeli and Palestinian governments approach the conflict?
Warily. Neither side thinks the other is in any position to make a real deal, and it’s not exactly clear how the US government could change their mind.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t trust the Israeli government, which is currently led by a right-wing coalition. Settlement expansion is one of the main reasons; settlement construction reached a seven-year high under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership. Abbas sees the rapid expansion during Netanyahu’s time in office as strong evidence that Israel is attempting to make a Palestinian state impossible. While Netanyahu did freeze settlement expansion everywhere but Jerusalem for 10 months starting in November 2009, Palestinians wanted a total freeze, and so only sat down to talk in the ninth month (the talks went nowhere).
Netanyahu has been a critic of a two-state solution to the conflict for decades, and while he’s expressed support for one now in theory, many believe his commitment isn’t genuine. He’s the first leader of Likud, Israel’s major right-wing party, to endorse a two-state solution while in power, which he did under heavy American pressure in 2009.
But while campaigning during the 2015 Israeli election, which his party won fairly resoundingly, Netanyahu announced that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch. It’s a statement he’s tried to walk back, but one that’s consistent with his long-held belief that Palestinians can’t be trusted to be peaceful neighbors.
Israel has real reasons to be skeptical of the Palestinian side. One major one is the Hamas-Fatah split. Since Hamas took control of Gaza, Israel has been concerned that any peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority wouldn’t stick in Gaza, where it has no real control. That’s especially worrying for the Israeli leadership given Hamas’s public commitment to Israel’s destruction. Moreover, it’s not clear that Abbas could sell Palestinians on the concessions he’d inevitably need to make in order to make a deal with Israel.
The two sides’ basic skepticism of each other’s willingness and ability to make peace is the fundamental reason that the peace push led by US Secretary of State John Kerry fell apart in April 2014. Since then, the Palestinians have turned toward a pressure campaign designed to isolate Israel internationally and put pressure on the Israeli leadership to make peace, which has had little success.
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What are the “two-state solution” and the “one-state solution”?
These are the two broad ways the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might end.
The “two-state solution” would create an independent Israel and Palestine, and is the mainstream approach to resolving the conflict. The idea is that Israelis and Palestinians want to run their countries differently; Israelis want a Jewish state, and Palestinians want a Palestinian one. Because neither side can get what it wants in a joined state, the only possible solution that satisfies everyone involves separating Palestinians and Israelis.
The “one-state solution” would merge Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip into one big country. It comes in two versions. One, favored by some leftists and Palestinians, would create a single democratic country. Arab Muslims would outnumber Jews, thus ending Israel as a Jewish state. The other version, favored by some rightists and Israelis, would involve Israel annexing the West Bank and either forcing out Palestinians or denying them the right to vote. Virtually the entire world, including most Zionists, rejects this option as an unacceptable human rights violation.
Most polling suggests that both Israelis and Palestinians prefer a two-state solution. However, the inability of Israelis and Palestinians to come to two-state terms has led to a recent surge in interest in a one-state solution, partly out of a sense of hopelessness and partly out of fear that if the sides cannot negotiate a two-state solution, a de facto one-state outcome will be inevitable.
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What happens if the peace process fails?
If the peace process fails, Israel, the West Bank, and potentially even Gaza could become a single de facto state, as it’s not clear how separate Israeli and Palestinian states could be established absent some kind of legal agreement to keep them distinct. That means one of two things: either Israel ceases to exist as a Jewish state, or the Palestinians become permanent second-class citizens in an Israel that includes the West Bank and potentially even Gaza.
Arabs will eventually outnumber Jews in Israel-Palestine, if they don’t already. For Israel, which sees itself as both Jewish and democratic, this poses an existential crisis. If Arabs outnumber Jews and are allowed to vote, then it’s the end of a Jewish state. But if Arabs outnumber Jews and aren’t allowed to vote, then Israel is no longer a democracy.
That’s the force of the South Africa analogy many commentators have used: a Jewish state that represses an Arab majority would feel an awful lot like a form of apartheid. The comparison is particularly troubling for Israelis, who are concerned about being boycotted and sanctioned in the international sphere in the way South Africa’s racial regime was before its demise.
Israeli conservatives often contest these demographics. They argue that Palestinians overstate their numbers for political reasons and that the Israeli population tends to grow faster than experts think. However, the mainstream view is that Israel’s demographic problem is real, and Israel faces a choice between three outcomes: a two-state solution, a non-democratic state governed by a Jewish minority, or the end of a Jewish state.
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What else should I read on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
If you want to learn more about the rising power of settlers and the settlement movement inside Israel, David Remnick wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker.
A solid introduction to the pro-Palestinian community, and particularly its internal divides, is Ben Smith’s profile of the fraught personal relationship between two leading advocates for Palestinian rights. Ali Abunimah, perhaps the most prominent advocate of both BDS and the one-state solution, and Hussein Ibish, a leading Arab supporter of the two-state solution, used to be close friends. Smith’s account of their bitter split says a lot about the various arguments on both sides of the internal pro-Palestinian divide — and how, in the case of Israel/Palestine, how the political always becomes personal.
If you want to learn about the close and sometimes vexed relationship between American Jews and Israel, Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” is one of the most influential — and controversial — essays on the topic in recent memory. It doesn’t take too long to read; after you’re done, read Jason Zengerle’s breakdown of the heated, surprising debate Beinart inspired.
If you’re interested in how demographics are forcing Israel to either leave the West Bank or abandon its dual Jewish/democratic identity, Israeli demographer Sergio DellaPergola, breaks the issue down clearly here.
If you want to understand why the Israeli right is skeptical of peace with Palestinians, eminent Israeli historian Benny Morris’s piece on Palestinian “rejectionism” is as clear an articulation as you could hope for.
f you want to understand why Palestinians are skeptical of the two-state solution, read Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi’s take on the current state of the conflict.
EDITED BY Zack Beauchamp
2017-12-06 11:19:00 -0500
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