Four obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace (Part 2)


Welcome to the second part of our two-parter about the four seemingly-impossible obstacles that confounded Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike. Why have Israelis and Palestinians never made peace? Despite multiple peace accords, the two peoples are still at war. In this episode, we’ll explore the second two major obstacles preventing peace: security and the refugees. If you’ve heard about the “right of return” and security fences/walls, then this episode is for you.

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Welcome to the second part of our two-parter about the four seemingly-impossible obstacles that confounded Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike. If you haven’t listened to the last episode, go back and listen, please! You’ll need the context to understand this episode.

Last week, we talked about the first two issues. The first, Jerusalem, which both the Israelis and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital. The second, borders. Israelis and Palestinians can’t agree on where a future Palestinian state should go.

And now, let’s get into it.

The security wall separating Israel and the West Bank. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Chapter 3: Security

In the wake of October 7th, what can possibly be more prominent in Israeli consciousness than security? And Israel is normally really good at security. It’s a world leader in military technology, intelligence, and tactical operations. I mean, Taylor Swift, shoutout to my daughters, has an Israeli bodyguard. 

But critics of Israel say that Israeli security comes at Palestinians’ expense. A physical barrier separates the two populations. Palestinians must pass through checkpoints, which are often clogged and often miserable, in order to get anywhere. Got a job in Israel? The checkpoint can add hours to your commute. Want to get from your home in, say, Jericho to your friend’s place in Shechem, aka Nablus? Gotta go through a checkpoint, even though both cities are inside the West Bank. And then, of course, there’s the profiling. 

Palestinians say all this is a serious violation of their rights. But Israelis argue that these security measures are necessary. They point out that these limitations weren’t always there. The first checkpoint sprang up in 1993, during the wave of terror that accompanied the signing of the Oslo Accords. Between 1993 and 1996, terror attacks claimed the lives of 200 Israelis, over half of whom were civilians. The attacks grew fiercer and more frequent during the Second Intifada, which cost 1,000 Israeli lives. Some months were particularly brutal. In March 2002, for example, 12 suicide bombings killed 139 Israelis. Think about that for a second. Over 100 people murdered in a single month. More attacks meant more checkpoints. More barriers between Israel and the West Bank. And with each barrier, each checkpoint, each obstacle, life becomes safer for Israelis… and harder for Palestinians.

So if we want to create an internationally recognized Palestinian state that can live side-by-side in peace with Israel, what can a security compromise actually look like?

One possibility is a demilitarized Palestinian state, at least for the foreseeable future. I mean, it worked in Japan and Germany after World War II, right? 

But what does that even mean? True, the Palestinians don’t exactly have an army, but I wouldn’t call either the West Bank or Gaza “demilitarized.” Will a new Palestinian state be powerful enough to prevent any militant groups within its borders? (It never has before.) Will it be allowed to have an armed police force? If not, how will it police its people? How will it stop those militant groups from forming?

And let’s assume Palestinian leaders are actually ready to agree to completely demilitarize in order to gain international recognition of a Palestinian state. Would that even be enough for Israel? Maybe not. In a recent Tablet article, cynically but cleverly entitled “The Two-State Delusion” (sorry, love me a good pun), Elliott Abrams argues that even a demilitarized Palestine would not be enough to assuage Israel’s security concerns. He says, quote:

“Perhaps there will be no standing army. But when the Palestinians decide to ‘upgrade’ their police by purchasing armored personnel carriers or night vision goggles, or ‘defensive’ weapons like drones or submachine guns, who will stop them? If your answer is ‘surely, Israel,’ you may be right–but Israel will no longer be able to do that the way it now does, by patrolling the West Bank. Instead its only recourse would be invading or attacking the new sovereign state. Would those Israeli measures to enforce demilitarization be applauded and defended by the British and the Germans and the U.N. secretary general? Will they be defended in Washington? Or will they be called acts of war across sacred international boundaries? Wait until the International Court of Justice gets the case.”

Ouch. And not only that, if the Palestinians do get a state, what’s to stop it from turning into Gaza 2.0? Or, like Lebanon, becoming a puppet state for Iran? Who will inspect diplomatic pouches from Iran or Syria, delivering who-knows-what to terrorist cells within Palestine?

It seems like the very nature of becoming an internationally recognized country automatically brings with it a whole bunch of giant security threats that Israel may be unable to address.

On the other hand, security isn’t just an Israeli issue.

Many Palestinians see no reason to trust Israel. Why would they? As of March 2024, when I’m recording this, Israel is pounding Gaza relentlessly. Yes, it’s 100000% clear to me that the war is Hamas’ fault. But that doesn’t make the bombardment any less awful. And it doesn’t make Palestinians feel any safer or fonder of Israelis.

So why would they agree to demilitarize when they feel they’ve spent the last 100 years being ethnically cleansed, even genocided, by their far more powerful neighbor? Why would they give up an iota of security when their enemy has the most fearsome army in the Middle East, not to mention nukes? Nukes, guys. (Link in the show notes.)

I don’t need to agree with the Palestinian reasoning to understand it. I get why Palestinians are wary about giving up their arms. And I really get why Israelis demand it. I watched some of the videos from October 7th, before I realized what I was seeing. Of course Israelis don’t want their Palestinian neighbors bearing serious weapons. The more you go down the rabbit hole, the more security seems like it may be yet another zero-sum issue.

Okay, I’m starting to get a little bummed. Good thing I saved the most complicated for last. Welcome to the hot-button topic of…

Chapter 4: Refugees. 

That’s right, I think the refugee issue is the most severe speedbump on the road to peace. Actually worse than a speedbump. Worse than LA traffic. Worse than a New York City pothole. It’s more like a giant gaping lava-filled chasm in the middle of the freeway.

So let’s back up. What exactly is the refugee issue? 

Well, as you know from our episodes on 1948, Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, creating a state within the borders proscribed by the UN Partition Plan.  The very next day, five Arab armies invaded. By the time the war ended in an armistice in 1949, Israel controlled 78% of Mandate Palestine – a lot more than the 56% it was originally granted under the Partition Plan. 

So what happened to the Palestinians? Well one thing is for sure, the Palestinians did NOT get the state they were promised under the Plan. Some of the land earmarked for their future state was now under Israeli control, but most of it was divided between Egypt, which occupied Gaza, and Jordan which annexed the West Bank. 

Now, you may be wondering why Jordan would annex the West Bank instead of giving it to the Palestinians to declare a state. And why would Egypt occupy Gaza and not grant Palestinians self-determination? Great questions. A cynic might answer that they cared less about creating a Palestinian state, and more about preventing a Jewish state. But we’ll get to that. For now, the refugees…

During this First Arab-Israeli War, roughly hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became homeless. How many hundreds of thousands? What does became homeless mean? I’m leaving that language purposefully passive and vague. Because the real story depends on who you ask. As you might imagine, this is one of the biggest areas of disagreement between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s an extremely emotional topic, and each side has their own take on what happened.

According to the most extreme Israeli version, Palestinians were basically complicit in the attempted genocide of the Jews and the fledgling Jewish state. As the story goes, the invading Arab armies warned the Palestinians to leave their homes, just for a day or two. Y’know, just long enough for the armies to massacre all the Jews. Then the Palestinians would be able to return to their lives, free of those pesky Jews.

Like I said, this is the extreme version. Could it be true in some cases? Sure, yes. But there are plenty of reasons that Palestinians might’ve left their homes without necessarily being cheerleaders for genocide. Like, for example, not wanting to get caught up in a war zone.   

Unsurprisingly, Palestinians tell a different story – the most extreme version of which goes something like The Israeli military showed up and kicked us all out of our homes. Violently. They call it an ethnic cleansing, claiming that thousands of innocent Palestinians were heartlessly massacred by roving Israeli death squads. The Jews looted their property and destroyed their villages. This is what Palestinians call the “Nakba” – an Arabic word that literally means “the catastrophe.”

Now I want to say, I’m not taking sides on these two different accounts. I want you to hear the two different accounts. That’s my job here, for you to hear them. This may be the most important thing I say this entire episode, so let me repeat it. Just because I don’t want to believe some of the worst stories about the Palestinian Nakba, doesn’t mean many of their stories are not true.

Yes, there were expulsions earlier on in places like Lydda and Ramle, and it’s important to note that the Jewish mayor of Haifa begged the Palestinian Arabs to stay there. So broadly speaking, there were many who fled, some who were expelled, and ultimately a lot of people who moved to different areas for different reasons. Yes, both sides have strategic reasons to play up their tragedies. Both sides have reasons to craft narratives that center their perspective and justify their actions. But both sides have experienced real tragedies. And until both sides recognize the other’s stories as legitimate and valid, we’re never gonna agree on anything. 

I know that’s a lot to grapple with. The idea that any Palestinians suffered unjustly as part of the founding of the modern state of Israel is deeply troubling. Later in this episode we’ll spend some time grappling with it. But first, let’s talk about those refugees.

The general consensus is that more than 700,000 Palestinians fled, were expelled, or some combo, unable to ever return home. For Palestinians, this is a grave injustice that demands a, quote, “right of return” – meaning a right to come back and live within the current borders of Israel where their homes used to be.

You might be thinking: “Okay. Big deal, Noam. It’s been over 70 years, how many of those original 700,000+ people are even still alive? And by now most of them are probably already happily re-settled in new countries with new lives, right? Israel can handle figuring out whoever’s left and letting them move back to Israel, can’t they?”

If only that were true. But here’s the catch: according to many people in the Palestinian world, there are currently around 5.9 million Palestinian refugees who must be granted a right to return to Israel. 5.9 million

There are a little over 9 million Israelis. Roughly 7.2 million are Jewish. You don’t have to be Einstein to realize that welcoming 5.9 million Palestinian refugees would immediately destroy the Jewish majority and the entire point of Israel as a self-determining Jewish state. So the Palestinian position on refugees is basically a non-starter for the Israelis, and…we’re back to zero-sum.

Now, if you’re thinking to yourself, this is already way too much math for a history podcast, consider this your trigger warning, because we really need to understand the story behind how more than 700,000 Palestine refugees 76 years ago has somehow transformed into 5.9 million today.

The key to understanding that is to first explore the question of what it means to be a refugee. And to understand that, let’s go back to the end of World War II. Historians estimate that as many as 65 million people were forced from their homes during the war. I’m betting that you, listening, maybe know, or knew, some of those people. Maybe they’re your grandparents, or members of your extended community. My wife’s grandmother, Sophie, was booted from her home to a labor camp in Siberia. She survived that hell only to give birth to my father-in-law in a DP camp. Eventually, they made their way to NYC… and now my daughter Liana Tzophia is named for her. 

And that’s considered a happy ending. Because a significant number of these people didn’t live to be called refugees. They were murdered instead.

After the war, the world reeled from the massive death toll and refugee crisis. So the United Nations created the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Its job was to protect refugees and assist in their resettlement. Ideally, they’d return to their homes, if that was possible. But if it wasn’t, then they’d get resettled and integrated into a new country. 

The entire point of UNHCR is to make itself obsolete. In other words, their goal is to take every refugee and make them, duh, not a refugee. ’Cuz once they’re re-settled in a new place, they’re no longer homeless or stateless. And that’s exactly what should have happened to those hundreds of thousands ofPalestinians.

But here’s the thing. The UNHCR is in charge of taking care of every single refugee on Earth. EXCEPT… Palestinian refugees. They’ve got a whole separate UN agency just for then. It’s called UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. And if you’re like, hey, I know that name, well, you must follow the news, because UNRWA is in a lot of hot water lately. I’m not going to distract us from the task at hand, but we’ve dropped some links in the show notes if you want to know more.

Why, you may ask, is there one agency just for Palestinians, and another agency for every other refugee on Earth? And even more pressingly, why does UNRWA literally have its own definition for a refugee that doesn’t apply to anyone else in the entire world? See, under UNRWA’s rules, a Palestine refugee is someone who lived in Palestine between June 1, 1946 and May 15, 1948, and who lost their home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict. OK, sounds reasonable, right? But there’s another clause in that definition. Because it also includes every descendant of male Palestinian refugees. That’s right. If your dad or grandpa or great-grandpa was displaced as a result of 1948, you’re technically eligible to register as a Palestinian refugee, even if you are a citizen of another country.

There are high ranking officers in the US military that are technically Palestinian refugees. You know the Hadid sisters? They’re technically eligible to register as Palestinian refugees. In theory, a Palestinian-American can be elected President of the United States and still be considered a refugee by UNRWA. 

One of the loudest voices on this topic is Dr. Einat Wilf, who has been talking about this for a very long time. She blames UNRWA for perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem and calls this one of the greatest obstacles to peace. 

According to Wilf, quote: 

“If the descendants of the Arab refugees from the Arab-Israeli war were treated like all other refugees, including the Jewish ones, they would not qualify for refugee status because almost all of them (upward of 80 per cent) are either citizens of a third country, such as Jordan, or they live in the places where they were born and expect to have a future such as Gaza and the West Bank.”

And that last point is a critical one. It’s a real head-scratcher. Why are there “refugee camps” in Gaza and the West Bank, where Palestinians are not fleeing war, not seeking refuge, and are considered full citizens of Palestine under the Palestinian Authority?

 Y’know, I can’t help but point out that the first Arab-Israeli War also resulted in a ton of Jewish refugees. 800,000 Jews were kicked out or fled from Arab countries where they faced persecution and pogroms, meaning state sanctioned violence. If the UN set up a special agency just for all these Jewish refugees using UNRWA’s definition of refugee, how many Jewish refugees would there be today? How about if we add all the Jewish refugees from countries occupied by the Nazis during World War II? Again, I’m not a math guy, but I think, if we use the UNRWA rules, the majority of Jews alive today would be considered refugees.

For every other refugee on earth, it seems the UNHCR is designed to reduce the number of refugees, whereas UNRWA seems designed to do the opposite. How does this make sense?

According to many critics of UNRWA, it actually makes perfect sense… if your goal is to refuse to let Israel exist as a Jewish state. It makes perfect sense if your biggest goal is to completely reverse everything that happened in 1948. It makes perfect sense if you think you only win if Israel loses.

And there it is. 

According to its harshest critics, UNRWA’s mandate is a feature, not a bug. It was designed to preserve the claim that Israel, as a country, is illegitimate. It aligns perfectly with the ideological goal of rejecting Israel’s existence at all costs. Not only is this bad for Israel, it’s also really bad for Palestinians. The refugee issue is not just zero-sum, it’s lose-lose. 

To add fuel to the fire, Palestinian refugees have been treated terribly by several Arab countries in the region that have refused to absorb them or grant them full rights as citizens. For example, Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon are barred from many jobs, including medicine, law, and engineering. And yet, strangely enough, no one marches in the streets accusing Lebanon of Apartheid. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad bombed Yarmouk, Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, destroying most of the camp and killing innocent Palestinian civilians. Jordan’s King Hussain fought the PLO so violently that his campaign to expel them from Lebanon became known as Black September – definitely need to do an episode about this one day. And today, March 2024, Egypt continues to shore up its border with Gaza, refusing to take in a single Gazan while decrying Israel for the war.

Bret Stephens, writing in the New York Times, recently described the cruel way that Palestinians are kept as perpetual refugees as a way to delegitimize Israel and preserve the, quote: “fantasy that someday their descendants will exercise what they believe is their ‘right of return,’ effectively through the elimination of the Jewish state.”

And this is how Haviv Rettig Gur described it on a recent episode of the podcast “Call me Back” with Dan Senor:

“The Arab world through this UNRWA definition has kept the Palestinians suffering for the Arab world’s own ideological resistance and recoiling from an Israel existing for generations, and UNRWA’s definition is fundamental to this reality.”

Can you really call this a Pro-Palestinian position?

And yet, despite all of this, I can still understand and acknowledge what a deeply important and emotional issue this is for Palestinians. The “right of return” is arguably the single most important issue that has mobilized Palestinian refugees into a political movement. It has defined the Palestinian struggle and become part of the Palestinian identity.

Many Palestinians still hold the keys to the houses where they or their grandparents used to live. Some even wear the keys around their necks. Mohamed Issi Khatib is a Palestinian refugee who created a “Museum of Memory” in a refugee camp in Lebanon. His museum has photocopies of Ottoman and British land deeds, old 1940s radio sets, and keys. Khatib wishes his family never left the land. He says: “Our fathers and grandfathers should have stayed, even if they felt themselves in danger, they should have stayed on their land even if they died.”   

And I get it. Part of what has always connected the Jewish people to each other is our connection to the land of Israel. We’ve been talking about Jerusalem for thousands of years, no matter where we lived around the globe. We shouldn’t be surprised that Palestinians feel that same connection in their way. Many had lived in the region known as Palestine for centuries. And whether you’ve lived somewhere for five years or 500, what matters most is the story you were raised with. For Jews and Palestinians alike, statelessness has been a defining narrative. We should be the people most willing to understand and empathize with each other. And it hurts that we don’t.

So those are your four final status issues in a nutshell, and here are your five fast facts:

  1. The first Israeli-Palestinian peace accords didn’t actually promise peace. They just set up the conditions for an eventual solution, kicking thorny issues down the road. Four MAJOR issues have been at the core of every potential peace deal, even if they weren’t talked about.
  2. The first issue: Jerusalem. Jerusalem is extremely important to both Judaism and Islam, and Christianity, and both the Israelis and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital.
  3. The second issue: Borders. Israelis and Palestinians can’t agree on where a future Palestinian state should go. And the most extreme factions on either side believe the other has no right to exist.
  4. The third issue: Security. Israel takes security extremely seriously. But Israel’s security measures often come at the expense of Palestinian freedoms. It’s difficult to imagine either side trusting the other enough to let its guard down. 
  5. The fourth issue: Refugees. The First Arab-Israeli War displaced roughly more than 700,000 Palestinians. But the UN has a VERY liberal definition of “Palestinian refugee,” which means that today, there are nearly 6 million “refugees” all over the world who claim the right to return to their homes in what is now Israel.

Those are the facts, but here’s one enduring lesson as I see it. And this is a bold one. Those four final status issues I talked about – Jerusalem, Borders, Security, and Refugees – are not really the final status issues. I say this because as long as we see them as zero sum issues, they’re impossible to solve. The real issue, the only issue, is how to get past zero sum thinking.

And for that, we can learn from… the business world.

Yeah, I know. People sometimes get sensitive in the education world when applying business principles, but let’s try one on for size. This book: Getting to Yes.

That’s the name of a book by Roger Fisher and William Ury, both professors and members of the Harvard Negotiation Project. They developed “principled negotiation” or “mutual gains negotiation.” Some of the tenets seem self-explanatory, if difficult, like separating people from problems. In other words: trying to be objective rather than judgmental towards the people you’re negotiating with.

There are other principles, but the one that interests me most is this one: Know Your Best Alternative. Called BATNA. Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement.  In other words, both sides have to understand their best Plan B. Sure, Plan A is the ideal. But if negotiations fall through, what’s your best alternative? Are you ready to take a solution that isn’t perfect, so you can get at least some of what you want? Or are you going to hold out forever, letting the “perfect” be the enemy of the “good”?

There are no perfect solutions. It sometimes feels like there are no good solutions. But one thing is clear. Neither side can continue living on the sword.

October 7 upended the status quo, and no one is quite sure yet what that will mean for peace. It’s too soon to speculate. Too soon to know what will happen next. Both sides are still bleeding. Israeli hostages are still in captivity. Gaza is in ruins. Tens of thousands are dead. Millions are displaced.

But this war will end, and please God, soon. We need to be ready for the next day. Ready to avoid past mistakes. Ready to find new ways, new risks, new steps away from competition and toward collaboration. 

For me, that points us directly toward one issue. The only issue. Narratives. Learning from each other’s stories. Respecting each other’s traumas. Acknowledging that everyone is a human with their own narrative.

It’s only through education that we can shift perspectives away from zero-sum. That we can nudge ourselves closer to the best alternative, even if it’s not perfect.

And here’s where I think we can start on the Israeli side. I believe it’s time for us to grapple with the Nakba. Publicly. I think Israel is strong enough to own its mistakes. 

Israel has done this before, many times. For example, in October 2021, Israeli President Isaac Herzog issued an official apology for a 1956 incident known as the Kafr Qasim massacre – link to that episode in the show notes.

Israel can acknowledge that some Palestinians were expelled in 1948. That at least some injustice occurred. Israel is strong enough to look at itself honestly and acknowledge its role.

I know that this is a scary idea. I’ll tell you why it scares me: I know that Israel’s critics and Israel’s enemies will use that to delegitimize the very existence of Israel, like they already do. It plays right into all of the worst, blood-libel-y narratives about Israel as an evil, oppressive, colonial regime that must be decolonized and dismantled. I know all of this. And yet, I still think that there’s real value to acknowledging many aspects of it. We have to validate each other’s stories as the first step in seeing each other as human beings. The first step in replacing the fists with handshakes.

But look, if we’re ever going to escape zero sum thinking, it’s not just on Israel. We absolutely need a paradigm shift from the broader world, and from the Palestinian side. And that, too, can only come from education. 

It’s not a secret that Palestinian children are indoctrinated to hate Jews and Israelis from a very early age. The first piece I ever published in my life was in 2006, about the Palestinian indoctrination of their students to hate Israel. That was ’06, this is ’24. Anti-Israel rhetoric is embedded in Palestinian school textbooks and woven into the entire Palestinian educational system. History textbooks contain antisemitic ideas, like the Jews control the banks and media. Other materials accuse Israeli soldiers of laughing while killing Palestinian children. What’s the prospect for peace when you frame it that way, when that’s what you show, that’s what you teach the next generation? I’ll put the link to some of this stuff in the show notes, so you can see it for yourself.

Generations of Palestinians have been taught to believe that they can only win if Israel loses. And this is the issue. This is the greatest single obstacle to peace. Because we can never get to any other final status issues until we find a way to replace indoctrination with education. We need brave activists to raise their voices in dissent. We need fearless leaders to reform the Palestinian education system to teach peaceful co-existence instead of struggle and resistance.

Then, and only then, can we finally make Shimon Peres’ 2012 plea a reality. We can make peace. The situation is complicated. I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t. But a wise man once said that If you will it, it is no dream. And I will it. With all my heart and all my soul, I will it. Listeners, friends, no matter your politics: do you?

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