Four obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace (Part 1)


Why have Israelis and Palestinians never made peace? Despite multiple peace accords, the two peoples are still at war. In this two-part episode, we’ll explore the four major obstacles preventing peace: Jerusalem, borders, security, and the refugees. If you’ve heard about the “right of return,” East and West Jerusalem, and security fences/walls, then this episode is for you.

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Remember 2012? 

According to Wikipedia, this was the year that the terms “hot take” and “escape room” were coined. People were weirdly into the Mayan calendar. And, most importantly, then-president of Israel, Shimon Peres, released his first and only single.

An Israeli settler and a Palestinian argue during a demonstration in support of Palestinians in Huwara in the West Bank city of Nablus on March 3, 2023. (Photo by Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Yeah, that was a banger. Kinda wish he’d put out a whole EP, to be honest.

But the 88-year-old president wasn’t just spitting hot fire for the sake of it. His song had a message. Though it might seem naive to us now, Peres truly believed that social media would bring people together. So he launched a campaign inviting anyone and everyone to be his Facebook friend — for peace. Amazing.

Of course, this was before the youths had migrated off Facebook to cooler platforms, I guess. Peres hosted Facebook chats for kids around the world and addressed young people in Arab and Muslim countries. He even opened a Snapchat account shortly before his death at the age of 93, hoping to connect with young people on their level. I can only hope to be that cool. But as adorable as all of this is — and it is freakin’ adorable — I don’t think anyone would call this campaign a success. Not sure it went into his autobiography as ‘the best thing I ever did.’

Social media can be a toxic cesspit of misinformation and anti-semitic bile. And, that is quite the mouthful for a guy who helps lead a media company. (You’ve seen our Unpacked videos on YT and all the places, right?) And after 10/7, peace seems farther away than ever.

But why? And I don’t mean, why are things bad right now, in 2024? Things are bad right now because, several months ago, Hamas launched the most horrific attack in Israel’s history, murdering 1,200 people and kidnapping 253, all in one horrible day. And Israel responded with an intensity the world has seen play out on social media.

But as hard as it feels to remember, there was a time before October 7th. Yes, it was punctuated by flare-ups of violence. By horrific kidnappings. By astonishingly cruel acts of terror.

But there were also moments of hope. Moments where it seemed as though peace was on its way.

Because if anyone could solve a seemingly intractable problem, it’s the Jewish people. Our entire history is one long demonstration of beating the odds. 

Israel made it through the wars of 48. 56. 67. 73. Signed a peace deal with Egypt in 79. With Jordan in 94. Eventually normalized relations with the UAE and Bahrain and Morocco and Sudan. Sudan! Literally the country where, in 1967, the Arab League swore never to recognize or negotiate with Israel. Remember, the Khartoum resolution…yep, in Sudan. Even Saudi Arabia is talking about normalization. Saudi Arabia. A country where it’s illegal to publicly practice any religion other than Islam.

So yeah. The Jewish people and Israel has beaten a lot of odds. But lasting and sustainable peace with the Palestinians, its closest neighbor? That’s Israel’s White Whale — maddeningly elusive.

Maybe it’s the abundance of options. Faced with so many choices, no one can quite decide what’s right. One Israel, river to sea, or one Palestine, river to sea.

One democratic binational state, or one joint Israeli-Palestinian government functioning alongside the two existing governments.

Or else the two state solution, which is still the most popular model in Washington, if nowhere else.

Between all these options, something has to work. After all, countries with much uglier histories have managed to overcome their histories.

The US dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan. Today, they’re close allies. Rwandan Hutus massacred 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbors in one hundred days. 30 years later, Rwanda is considered a model for reconciliation. The border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic was once studded with checkpoints. Today, those checkpoints have been dismantled, and traffic flows freely in either direction. 

So why not Israelis and Palestinians? Why are they still mired in this bitter mess?

Well, I’ve got some thoughts. Or rather, I’ve got some questions. Four of them, to be precise. And I’m not the only one asking them. These are questions that have tanked every peace agreement, confounding Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike. And I’m not talking about major questions like how can we erase decades of hatred and mistrust and indoctrination? Or even, how can each side be sure that the other is sincere?

No, I’m talking about questions of policy. Don’t fall asleep just cuz I said the word, “policy.” I promise this won’t be CSPAN, though shout out to CSPAN. Kinda cool in a counter cultural sort of way. How does one handle the major stumbling blocks that have divided Israelis and Palestinians for so long? Questions like, what do we do with Jerusalem? And who gets the right of return?

So the next two episodes will be divided into four chapters, each focusing on a different major issue – the four major issues. I hope these chapters will illustrate WHY these issues are so divisive. Why there’s no one solution that will please everyone. And at the end, I’m going to present my comprehensive four-point plan to address them all and bring peace to the Middle East…

OK, that last part is a lie. I don’t have the answers. I’m not sure anyone does, I know a lot of people think they do. But I do have lots of questions. And, against all odds, a lot of hope. So let’s begin.

Before I do that, I want to ask for your permission to join me in this conversation. I want to ask for a little more humility and empathy than I normally ask for when listening. Because these topics are complicated, really complicated. They’re personal to many people listening, and important. I was even unsure if we should do this episode, but my team convinced me otherwise, and I think they were right. Let’s explore the issues together.

Chapter 1: Jerusalem, aka al-Quds

Jerusalem is arguably the most famous city on earth. And if not the most famous, definitely top 5…Don’t ask me to list the others, but it’s definitely top 5.

In the words of historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, whose book Jerusalem: An Autobiography is an absolute masterpiece, quote: “Jerusalem is the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions, and she is the only city to exist twice: in heaven and on earth…”

The city even has a syndrome named after it, albeit a controversial one. Jerusalem Syndrome is a religious psychosis – a sort of madness that can overtake you once you visit the holy city. I’m ready for someone to tell me they have Unpacking Israeli History syndrome. That’s how we’ll know we’ve made it, that’s how we’ll know we’re going places.

Whether or not you believe that Jerusalem Syndrome is real, there’s no doubt that the city has captured the world’s imagination. Even today, Jews, Christians, and Muslims are spellbound by their own specific vision and version of Jerusalem. And it’s a vision that they’ll kill and die for. As Montefiore writes, quote: “Everyone has the right to impose ‘their’ Jerusalem on Jerusalem – and, with sword and fire, they often have.”

As I record this, Israel is almost 150 days into a war they’re calling Swords of Iron. The IDF is raining fire on Gaza. All because Hamas brutally invaded Israel in an operation they called Al-Aqsa Flood, after the iconic mosque in Jerusalem.

Swords and fire, indeed.

But why? Why does this small, hilly city, which gets real cold at night, even in the summers, inspire the sort of devotion that verges on madness?

For Jews, it starts in the Bible. God commands the Jewish people to journey to Jerusalem three times a year, during the three pilgrimage festivals. It’s the seat of the Jewish nation, the capital city of the original Jewish kingdom, the home of the two destroyed Holy Temples, the site where many Jews believe the Third Temple will someday be built.

In Jewish tradition, Jerusalem is the center of the universe. This is where God first breathed life into Adam. Where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son. This is the heart of the Jewish people. And so, for thousands of years, Jews have built synagogues to face Jerusalem. It’s in the prayers and the poetry and the artwork. Countless generations of Jews have journeyed to touch the stones of the Western Wall, the Kotel, the closest the Jewish people could get to their ancient holy Temple. For centuries, the Jewish people have ended their Passover seders with the words: “L’shanah haba’ah b’yerushalayim.” Next year in Jerusalem. After I eat bread, I actually make a blessing after the meal, and in that blessing…I talk about Jerusalem. This blessing is thousands of years old. I sometimes wonder if people realize the inseparable connection.

So yeah. The city is pretty, pretty, pretty important to Jews. Including, arguably, the most famous Jew of all time…. Who’s that? Jesus. And that means that Jerusalem holds great importance to Christians. It was where Christians believe Jesus walked, where he ministered, where he died, and where he was reborn. European kings sent thousands of Crusaders to Jerusalem, to wrest control of the Holy Land from Muslims (and kill a few thousand Jews along the way…but I digress).

Because Jerusalem is sacred to Muslims, too. 

They believe that Mohammed, the founder of Islam, journeyed from Mecca to Jerusalem in a single night. He landed on the Temple Mount — where the Jewish Holy Temple once stood — and led Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer. From there, he ascended to heaven to speak to God. In the Quran, Mohammed’s journey takes him from Mecca to “the furthest mosque” or, in Arabic, al-Masjid al-Aqsa. That’s why Muslims refer to the entire 35-acre Temple Mount complex as “Al-Aqsa.” That complex includes two mosques. Yup, two. The first is the al-Aqsa mosque. The second is the Dome of the Rock, with its iconic golden roof. 

That beautiful golden dome. For me, and for so many others, it’s the crowning feature of Jerusalem’s skyline. Though, nerd corner alert: the dome hasn’t always been gold. It was once covered in tiles, and then blackened lead. The Jordanians are responsible for its glow-up in 1959, which, in Jerusalem terms, is basically yesterday. Nuts, no? 

It’s hard to imagine the Jerusalem skyline without that gleaming dome. And I don’t know how I feel about that. Because the Dome of the Rock was built directly on top of the ruins of the Jewish Holy Temple. Cities on top of cities. Holy places on top of holy places. A metaphor for Israel? A metaphor for world history?

Even though the Temples were destroyed, replaced by another religion’s house of worship, generations of Jews nonetheless continued to pray at the Western Wall. And they didn’t stop until the Jordanians seized control of the Old City during the War of Independence in 1948. The Jordanians barred Jews —not Israelis, Jews — from visiting the Western Wall and other holy sites. They vandalized the ancient graves on Har Hazeitim, the Mount of Olives, and destroyed much of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, including almost all of the synagogues. Except for the ones they repurposed as stables or chicken coops. 

For 19 years, the city was divided, split between the Jordanian East and the Jewish West. The seam between the two was a battleground, stray bullets whistling past whenever it got too quiet. Israelis and Jews were denied their right to worship freely or visit the graves of their ancestors. And then came the Six Day War, and the reunification of Jerusalem for Israel. But you’ll hear more about that in our three-part miniseries on the 1967 Six Day War, coming in just a few weeks.

For many Israelis, the Jordanian occupation is a cautionary tale — a haunting reminder of what could happen if Israel loses control of Jerusalem again. Because Jerusalem is more than just a city. It’s a symbol. 

Of what? Depends on who you ask.

But that’s why it inspires such madness. Why it’s been used to justify conquest and slaughter. Symbols are powerful, and the older a symbol, the more power it commands. Jerusalem is ancient. And that makes it very, very powerful. Powerful enough to kill for. Powerful enough to die for. 

Remember our episode on the Hebron riot of 1929? (Link is in the show notes.) Stop me if this sounds familiar: Muslim leaders whipped up their community with a baseless rumor that the Jews were trying to “take over” or “destroy” Al-Aqsa. The mob responded by massacring Jews.

Lather, rinse, repeat. The oldest trick in the book.

It worked in 1929.

It worked in 2000 as a pretext to launch the Second Intifada.

It worked in 2021.

It worked on October 7, 2023.

“Al-Aqsa” has become a rallying cry, calling Muslims all over the world to “defend,” and I put that in quotes, this religious site from the Jews. 

Now, let’s be clear. Israel took control of the Temple Mount in 1967. But ten days after the war, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan returned jurisdiction to the Muslim religious authorities in Jordan. (And yes, you’ll hear more about this in our Six Day War miniseries.)

Jews are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, though they are allowed to visit. But of the 7 million Jews in Israel, only 13 to 15,000 visit each year. The ones who do are passionate about their right to worship freely. Because there is something a little weird about the fact that Jews aren’t allowed to pray at our holiest site, which is located in Israel but administered by the religious authorities of a foreign country. A number of lobbying groups have made it their mission to pressure the government into allowing more Jews to visit the site. But they’re fairly marginal. Even more marginal are those who advocate for the rebuilding of the Third Temple, but they do exist.

Moshe Dayan didn’t cede the jurisdiction of the site to the Waqf because he hated Judaism. He did it because he knew exactly how spicy this issue could get. It was a well-intentioned decision, no matter how you feel about it.

So I won’t pretend that every Jew is just hunky-dory with the status quo. But very, very few are upset enough to do something about it. And that’s why, tbh, it grinds my gears to see salacious headlines about Jews “storming” or “attacking” the Temple Mount. I’m not just talking about headlines on Al Jazeera or on your tiktok feed. Even mainstream news sources like CNN use this charged language, which doesn’t seem to acknowledge that (1) most Jews aren’t storming at all. They’re just… standing there. And (2) most Jews have no real interest in visiting the Temple Mount, if the number of visitors per year is any indication.

And still, Hamas has capitalized on the narrative that Jews are plotting to seize Al-Aqsa. There’s a reason they named the October 7th attack “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.” The mosque’s name is a shorthand — a symbol of everything that Muslims need to resist.

The “Al Aqsa is in danger” conspiracy theory has resulted in so much death and hatred over the past century. And it’s also created a very ugly desire in the Arab world to erase any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount. To deny the Jewish historical claim to Jerusalem by any means necessary. 

It wasn’t always like this. The Jewish narrative and the Muslim narrative used to be way more compatible. Under the Ottomans, Jews and Muslims didn’t worry about who Jerusalem “belonged” to. Palestinian sources from the time referred to the Temple Mount as the site of “King Solomon’s Temple.” And yet today, many Palestinians deny that Jews have ANY connection to Jerusalem. They’ve gone so far as to intentionally destroy artifacts from the Temple period!

Like so much else in this conflict, Jerusalem has become a zero-sum game. The city, and specifically the Temple Mount, is either Jewish or Muslim. Israeli or Arab. It can’t be both. 

Both sides claim Jerusalem as their capital, and the city is nearly evenly split between Jewish and Arab residents: 40% Palestinian, 60% Jewish. Can they divide the city in half, with East Jerusalem becoming the Palestinian capital? If so, where exactly will the border be? Can you imagine the Western Wall being in “Israel” while the Temple Mount is in “Palestine”? It sounds like a logistical, diplomatic, and military nightmare. And what about the Israeli citizens caught on the quote, unquote “wrong” side of this new border? 

I don’t have the answers. No one does, and stop pretending like you do if you think you do, please. The original 1947 partition plan proposed that Jerusalem be an international city, administered by UN forces. It’s a solution I imagine both sides hate. Because in a zero-sum game, there can be no win-win. One side can win, or both sides can lose.

Which brings us to our next chapter in the difficult issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians and the barriers to peace. 

Chapter 2: Borders

Borders are kind of step one to being a country. It’s hard to think of any issue that is more zero-sum. I mean, by definition, any piece of land is either in Israel or it’s in what would be Palestine. It can’t be in both, right? 

And after 10/7, it’s winner-take-all. That’s what it feels like. At the time of this recording, 65% of Israelis think the best solution is one state: Israel. 64% of Palestinians feel exactly the same way, but in reverse. For them, the best solution is, quote, “Continued struggle until the liberation of all of historic Palestine.”

This flavor of one state solution is one way to solve the problem, I guess. 

It’s not all that different from what exists now. Though the “State of Palestine” was admitted to the UN General Assembly as an observer state in 2012, I don’t think many would argue that it’s a sovereign state. There’s Gaza, which until very recently was ruled by Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist group. (And duh, link in the show notes.) And there’s the West Bank, which is largely self-governing but not exactly autonomous. Ya know, Areas A, B, and C. Links in the show notes. 

This isn’t a sustainable status quo. But what is?

How can a binational state, or a confederation, or even a two-state solution work when nearly two thirds of both Israelis and Palestinians wish the other side would just… disappear?

So let’s pretend, for one glorious second, that both sides are willing to entertain a solution that doesn’t involve one party magically packing up and leaving. 

What does that even look like?

There was the Peel commission in 1937, which gave the Jews only 17% or so of the land. The Jewish Agency reluctantly agreed in principle, but it was kinda moot, because the Arabs rejected it. Ten years later, in 1947, the UN had a new idea. The OG Partition Plan, aka Resolution 181, which carved up the land into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem as a separate entity under international control. 

But the borders it proposed were, as we said in the 90s, wack. And though the Jews reluctantly accepted them, no one will ever know how those borders would have worked out. Because one day after the Jewish state declared independence, five Arab armies showed up like, oh no you don’t. Against most bet-takers, but at a terrible cost, Israel survived. The Jewish state lost 1% of its population in that war… but ended up with way more territory than it had been originally allotted in the Partition Plan. Instead of controlling 56% of Mandate Palestine, it now held 78%. 

These new borders were both porous and controversial, in that the neighbors didn’t acknowledge them as borders at all. The official position of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria was that these were merely truce lines separating legitimate states from an entity that had no right to exist, which is truly the pettiest way to approach geopolitics.

But after Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War, and stunning is a descriptive word, it was stunning no matter who you asked,  the Jewish state quadrupled in size.. You don’t need to listen to our upcoming three-part miniseries to understand that this was wild (though you should, because the story is bonkers.) After June 1967, Israel controlled East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. And its leaders were sure that finally, the neighbors would accept peace in exchange for their lost land.

But that’s not what happened. Yes, Egypt accepted a peace deal in 1979 (link in the show notes), once Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula. And Israel did pull out of Gaza in 2005. (Again, link in the show notes.) But the Jewish state still controls the other territories it won in 1967: East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. All are contentious. And all raise questions about the borders of a potential Palestinian state.

We just talked about how seemingly impossible it will be to divide Jerusalem. That’s just one example of the extremely tricky border question, one small part of a giant question mark. But other territories are nearly as contentious.

Take the West Bank, aka Judea and Samaria / Yehuda and Shomron, depending on who you’re asking. This is the land west of the Jordan River, originally slated to be part of a proposed Palestinian state. Jordan annexed that territory in 1948. In 1967, it came under Israeli control.

Which raised an important question. What about the one million Palestinians who lived there?

Unfortunately for everyone, those Palestinians were represented largely by highly militaristic leaders. If there were once peaceful or moderate voices, they were silenced by the extremist factions of the PLO, whose entire reason for existing was to destroy Israel through so-called “armed resistance.” Like massacring high school kids and hijacking planes. 

Meanwhile, after 1967, Israelis started establishing civilian communities all over the West Bank. Many hugged the Israeli border. But some lay deep in the heart of the West Bank, a defiant message to the world: we’re here, and we’re not going away.

And, in their eyes, why should they? The region has a long, rich Jewish history. This was the home of the Judean kingdom, the burial place of so many of our Biblical ancestors, the battleground where Bar Kokhba made his doomed last stand against the Romans. It’s because of this long history that so many Jews call the region by its Biblical name: Judea and Samaria.

Whether you know it as the West Bank or as Judea and Samaria, the territory is currently home to roughly 500,000 Jewish Israelis. You’ve probably heard of the places these people live as “settlements.” But a settlement sounds rough and unformed: a handful of tents, a trailer, the bones of a town. And most of these communities are officially recognized and permitted by the Israeli government. They have infrastructure: libraries and schools and wineries and municipal pools and universities. Busses. Mail services. Most of the people in them live wonderfully boring, normal lives in wonderfully boring, normal towns. They’re going to be hard to uproot.

So what happens to the Jews of the West Bank if there’s ever a Palestinian state? What’s the plan? Palestinians have no interest in carving these Jewish towns out of their future state, creating a border that looks like a jigsaw puzzle. But Israelis in the West Bank will be up in arms if Israel forcibly uproots them and expels them from their homes. 

I mean that literally. Because as they say in Israel, kvar hayinu baseret hazeh. We’ve already seen this movie, back in 2005, when Israel expelled roughly 8,000 Jews from their communities in Gaza (of course, link in the show notes). 

We all know who took over Gaza in 2007. We all know what they’ve been doing for the past 17 years. And after October 7th, we all know what horrors they’re willing and able to unleash.

Regardless of where they live, most Israelis just aren’t willing to give up their homes in exchange for less, rather than more, security.

But let’s pretend for a moment that Israelis aren’t traumatized and scarred by the uprooting of Jewish communities in Gaza and the subsequent Hamas takeover. Could Israeli towns in the West Bank simply…. remain under Palestinian rule in a future Palestinian state? Would the Palestinians be okay with that? Would Israelis? Hold that thought. We’re gonna come back to it. 

And what about all of the Jewish historical and holy sites all over the West Bank? Would Jews still be allowed to visit their sacred places? What about the West Bank city of Hebron, which is deeply sacred to Jews? Low key, the three posters in my childhood bedroom were of Hebron, Michael Jordan and Tupac…You might remember from our episode on the Hebron Riots that the city was home to a small Jewish community for centuries, until their neighbors turned on them in 1929. For decades, Hebron was free of Jews. But after the Six Day War, Jews returned to their ancient city once again. This time, they have no intention of leaving. The tiny Jewish community of Hebron is ultranationalist. Many are driven by the sentiments of Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, who in May of 1967 criticized the Israeli government for giving up any part of the Holy Land. Or, as he put it: “Have we the right to give up even one grain of the Land of God?”

Religious hardliners on both sides truly believe that it’s a sin to give up even an inch of this sacred land. So what happens to the deeply religious Jews in places like Hebron? Will they be allowed to stay put in their homes, regardless of who is in charge? Would they remain citizens of Israel or of Palestine? 

And if they even are accepted as citizens of Palestine, how will they be treated?

The current situation in Hebron isn’t exactly the greatest model for co-existence. Israel keeps very strict control over the city’s mostly-Palestinian population in order to protect the tiny Jewish minority. Hebron’s Palestinians say they’re treated like second class citizens at best… and prisoners at worst.

And that’s just the West Bank. There are plenty of other disputed areas in and around Israel. Take the northern border, home to the Golan Heights. Before the Six Day War — seriously, guys, I’m so excited for you to listen to this upcoming series, it’s like all I’m thinking about — the Syrians spent their time shelling the Israeli villages below. For obvious reasons, the Jewish state isn’t keen to give up the Golan any time soon – especially not to Syria’s current dictator. But other than Israel itself, as of this recording in March of 2024, the U.S. is the only country to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. What happens to the Golan Heights if there’s ever a Palestinian state? 

And then of course there’s the practical issue that Palestinians are divided between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which aren’t even connected to each other. How the heck is that supposed to work!? Do we build a bridge? Dig a tunnel? (Too soon?)

It’s a thorny issue. And part of its thorniness comes from the problem Israel is most obsessed with, for obvious reasons. And that…is security. Tune in next week, where we’ll unpack the last two seemingly-difficult issues we’ll have to solve for peace.

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