The idea that Israel must ‘defeat’ the Palestinians by demoralizing them until they accept whatever solution is forced upon them is gaining traction on the Right.
By Nathan Hersh and Abe Silberstein
The idea that instead of negotiating with the Palestinians Israel must first “defeat” and thoroughly demoralize them until they recognize its permanent presence in the region, has emerged from center-right policy circles in recent months. This broad idea takes many shapes, the most of extreme of which is articulated in Daniel Pipes’ front page essay in Commentary Magazine, and will presumably have some appeal to the incoming Trump administration. But if President-elect Trump is serious about sealing “the ultimate deal,” a Palestinian-Israeli peace accord, he will reject this line of thinking. Even in its most moderate dressing, it makes little sense.
In an article for Haaretz, Einat Wilf, a former centrist Israeli politician and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, offered a conflict resolution strategy along these lines that, paradoxically, amounts to conflict perpetuation. In Wilf’s words, Israel’s strategy should be to compel the Palestinians to “surrender and acknowledge that they aren’t going to get the whole of Palestine.”
On this matter, we come as the bearers of good news: Not only did the P.L.O recognize Israel in 1993, it has also not tried to “get the whole of Palestine” in any of the negotiations that have taken place since. Indeed, in their much-condemned “unilateral moves,” the P.L.O. leadership has sought no more than the territorial compromise that underpins the two-state solution — a return to pre-1967 borders, with the possibility of mutual land swaps. The recently-passed United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which was voted through 14-0 with the U.S. abstaining, also condemned terrorism against Israel, and is based on the two-state solution as well.
Still, there is cause for concern. The recent postponement of municipal elections in the Palestinian territories, for example, should worry all supporters of the two-state solution who want to see strong Palestinian institutions. But the “defeat them” paradigm is wholly inappropriate for anyone seeking a resolution to the conflict.
For one thing, how will Israel “defeat” the Palestinians? It’s clear enough what advocates believe defeat would entail: Palestinian recognition of Israel, a milestone reached over 20 years ago, and the forgoing of any right of return. But if 50 years of occupation, 40 years of settlement expansion, two major wars in Gaza, and the suppression of at least two popular uprisings have not “defeated” the Palestinians, what exactly will?
Furthermore, it is erroneous (and perhaps self-destructive) to define the two-state solution as a defeat for the Palestinians. Doing so characterizes a peace agreement as a situation imposed by Israel and not the result of negotiations. Even as someone like Wilf acknowledges that dividing the land would be the best end result, she frames it as a Palestinian concession to Israel.
In other words, this position represents a refusal to negotiate, a stance once referred to as “rejectionism.” It means applying one’s own understanding of a best-case scenario by force — an approach so rigid that any attempt to negotiate it would yield a dissatisfying result.
This represents a crucial difference in the framework of negotiations. In their seminal book “Getting to Yes,” Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiating Project point to the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1978 in order to distinguish between their negotiating positions and their underlying interests.
Egypt and Israel held incompatible positions during those negotiations: both insisted on maintaining a presence in the Sinai Peninsula while the other withdrew completely. It was consideration of their interests that broke the deadlock. Israel was concerned with security and Egypt with sovereignty, both of which were addressed by demilitarizing the Sinai. The “defeat them” position, conversely, is non-negotiable: the Palestinians must admit total defeat and accept Israel’s position as the final word.
This would be a counterproductive strategy for Israel to follow, considering its interests. Assume, for a moment, that the following analysis of the Palestinian position is correct: Israel is not a legitimate state and the right of return is inalienable. What should Israel’s response be? Continue the occupation indefinitely, thereby making Israel vulnerable to the one-state solution and forcing it to eventually choose between its Jewish and democratic characters? Unilaterally withdraw only from Palestinian areas of the West Bank while retaining control of Area C, a move which will garner international condemnation and bolster calls to reconsider the two-state solution?
The creation of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 lines would not be an Israeli gift to the Palestinians, nor a Palestinian surrender to Israel. It will be the product of negotiations or of Israel’s realization that it cannot maintain an occupation forever and benefit from the settlements it built in defiance of international law. Peace can follow from both scenarios; it will not, however, come if independence is seen as a humiliating act for Palestinians rather than an empowering one. It is important for the United States to seek this outcome in any talks it launches or mediates.