The status quo works

The status quo usually works. It derives from years of experience, and the learned accommodation of different interests to one another.

Not all are happy. Those feeling deprived, and those feeling that features of the status quo are not appropriate demand change, but usually it's not easy to change things in a major way.

All this is true in the domestic and foreign policies of numerous countries. Maybe most of them most of the time.

The principle also holds true for Israel and Palestine, or the Arabs calling themselves Palestinians for those who are offended by a name they think is dangerous.

After years of living alongside one another, the two sides have reached ways of accommodation, even though prominent individuals are constantly chirping or yelling about the need to do something drastic.

Creating a Palestinian state?

It already exists, more or less, although not in the way that many Palestinians and their supporters (Gentiles and Jews) prefer. And many Israelis and Israeli-supporters think that the Palestinians have gotten too close to a state.

As in much of politics, one has to distinguish realities from the theatrics. 

Palestinians are the stars in this political theater, leading their audience to cheers with demands for justice as they perceive it was in 1967, prior to the Six Day War, 1948, prior to Israel's Independence, or 1917 prior to the Balfour Declaration. 

BDS has caught on as the lead flavor for those who like to demonstrate for what they see as justice, or maybe putting the Jews (or the Israelis, or the lackeys of the US) in their place.

One can wonder about American and European officials who continue to host Mahmoud Abbas, declare Israeli settlements to be illegal, send money to Palestine, and aspire to be seen as hosting yet another conference about the future of Palestine.

Somewhere under the noise is a reasonable degree of getting along between Israelis and Palestinians, with Palestinians running their own affairs as well as most in the Third World, which accounts for most countries and most people.. 

It ain't perfect, but in this it joins much of what stands as government policy in the US and the member states of the European Union. 

Individual Palestinians appear to be living better and more secure than residents of American ghettos or the illegal and quasi-legal migrants to the US and Western Europe.

Lots of Palestinians and Israelis live near one another, with many working and shopping in the same places. There is violence and accommodation, and no clear metric to measure the quality of relationships, i.e., whether they are better or worse than across ethnic or racial lines elsewhere.

Overall, Palestine works about as well as any other Muslim country, despite lacking some of the panoply associated with formal statehood.

The West Bank is clearly better off than Gaza, and West Bankers are clearly better neighbors of Israel and Jordan than Gaza is of Israel and Egypt.

What about Israeli occupation and the expansion of settlements?

Both issues depend on perspective, but neither seems to be among the most serious problems encountered in the Middle East, Western Europe, or the United States.

The opponents of occupation and settlement range from those who are bothered by much or a bit of what Israel does, or even Israel's existence. Neighborhoods of Jerusalem are on some lists of what is offensive, but not on other lists. 

Occasionally we hear Palestinians in authority say that they would agree to swaps of territory, and occasionally we hear otherwise from the same people.

Israel's reward for removing settlements from Gaza--expressed in several waves of missiles and responses--figures prominently in the attitudes of many Israelis and the expressions of most Israeli politicians who have been in power since the withdrawal of those settlements. 

Should BDS gather traction, the primary losers are likely to be Palestinians working in Israel or in Israelis industries scattered throughout West Bank settlements. If it becomes necessary to fire any workers, they are likely to be the first.

There are those who think Israeli incursions into Gaza are the height of cruelty, while others see them as a model of restraint, and others insist that they are too mild.

Incursions into Palestinian areas of the West Bank bring forth shrill accusations from leading Palestinians, but they are done with the tacit or active cooperation of Palestinian security services. Mostly they are meant to seize individuals who threaten the Palestinian political establishment at least as much as they threaten Israelis. 

Palestinians also assert that the Israeli settlers are vicious in attacking innocent families and destroying property. There have been murders associated with Israeli settler and religious extremists, but only a tiny fraction of the murders of Israelis by Palestinians. And at least some of the attacks against Palestinians and their property come in retaliation for Palestinian attacks against Israelis and their property. Settlers claim that the police do not provide sufficient protection, and are not sufficiently assiduous in going after Palestinians who steal Israeli agricultural resources or destroy Israeli property. 

It's as hard to define justice any more clearly in the Wild East than in the Wild West of US lore, or in the family feuds of Appalachia famed in stories and songs.

Explanation of the Israeli-Palestinian status quo cannot be complete without reference to the politics in each community. There are Palestinians and Israelis who think they are doing the work of Allah or Elohim in insisting on controlling all the land from the River (Jordan) to the Sea (Mediterranean). They, or political cousins a bit more moderate, have enough clout in each community to keep those in positions of leadership from moving dramatically away from established political postures. 

Politicians in both camps, most prominently Mahmoud Abbas and Benyamin Netanyahu, speak more extremely than they act. They support the status quo more by what they do and do not do than what they say.

Bibi recently provoked the US State Department when he used the term "ethnic cleansing" for the avowed preference of Palestinians for a State of Palestine that would have no Jews. That appears to be an accurate description of what Abbas has said with respect to the Palestine he wants, equivalent to what existed in 1967 or very similar to that, without Israeli settlements. 

What came from a State Department spokesperson was a lecture to Bibi that his terminology was not helpful in reaching the accommodation desired by the United States.

That left me wondering if US officials close to Kerry and Obama are blind to Palestinian political realities, or naive in thinking that Palestinian problems might go away with good words, deeds, and money from Americans,

Or maybe the Americans are simply playing their roles in a theater, where all recognize the power and appeal of the status quo, but are kept from acknowledging it by their own sense of what is politically correct and/or appropriate.

A number of Israeli politicians also jumped on the opportunity to criticize the Prime Minister for going over the top in his rhetoric, and thereby damaging Israel's relations with other countries, especially the US, and spoiling whatever chances there were of reaching an accommodation with Palestinians.

It all seems to be another occasion for various actors to perform their established roles in the ongoing political theater, each seeking to strengthen themselves in the eyes of their own audience.

This note may also be seen as part of the political theater, and whoever in the audience wishes to jeer or applaud is welcome to do so.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem