Two conflicts, two victims

Israel is under genuine existential threat from a variety of Arab sources. Yet the Palestinians are right to feel victimized.

arab protest 88 (photo credit: )
arab protest 88
(photo credit: )
There is no such thing as "the Middle East Conflict." There are in fact two conflicts, with two different victims. The first conflict is between Israel and the Arabs; the second is between Israel and the Palestinians. In the first conflict, the victim is Israel; in the second, it is the Palestinians. The failure to understand this fact lies at the heart of the region's battered hopes and its bleak prognosis for peace. In the first conflict, between Israel and the Arabs, Israel faces a genuine existential threat. That is, Israel faces enemies who wish Israel to disappear from the face of the earth, who take delight in the murder of innocent Israelis (and often Jews around the world too), and who have no interest in peace with what they call "the Zionist entity." These enemies include Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran; Hassan Nasrallah of Hizbullah; and Khaled Mashal of Hamas. From the perspective of most Israelis, their genocidal intentions, which they make no attempt to hide, are simply the continuation of the century-old Arab unwillingness to grant the Jewish people self-determination in a portion of their historical homeland. There have always been Arabs who have wanted to drive the Jews into the sea. Israel is a tiny Jewish state nestled in an Arab world dozens of times its size, and many of those Arabs simply deny its right to exist. Israel is a victim of these genocidal intentions and actions. In the Israeli-Arab conflict, Israel is the victim. FROM THE Palestinians' perspective, though, it is they who face the genuine existential threat. They are the only people in the Middle East who are currently denied their right to self-determination; Israel, for all the talk of peace since the days of Oslo, still controls their lives in innumerable ways, and continues to build neighborhoods in the belt around Jerusalem that seriously diminish any chance for Palestinian territorial contiguity; and the international community, including the Arab states, while they sometimes make a lot of supportive noises, have never come close to doing anything to make the State of Palestine a reality. Meanwhile, ordinary Palestinians live in desperate economic conditions, often unable to visit relatives or go to work because of Israeli security blockades, and receive what they perceive as collective punishment from Israel for the actions of a few extremists. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Palestinians are the victims. So here you have the problem. Israelis see the Middle East through the prism of the Israeli-Arab conflict; the Arabs see the Middle East through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the Israelis, through their prism, they are correct in thinking that they are the victims; for the Arab world, through their prism, they are correct in thinking that the Palestinians are the victims. And a conflict in which each side thinks that it is the victim is unlikely to be resolved. THE RECENT war in Lebanon can only be understood fully and deeply through the prism of this "double victimhood." From Israel's perspective, the attack by Hizbullah took place over an internationally-recognized border, from a country with which Israel has no territorial disputes, from territory which Israel withdrew from to international acclaim only six years ago. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon, Hizbullah was, in the eyes of many Israelis, put to the test: if their argument with Israel was only about the security zone which Israel had controlled within Lebanese territory, then, logically, once Israel withdrew from that zone to the border, Hizbullah should lose its raison d' tre and become defunct. Hizbullah did not do that; it built up its weapons and continued to attack Israel, and this latest and most devastating attack proved to Israel that Hizbullah will never accept Israel's right to exist, and is therefore an enemy that must be taken on and destroyed before it can pose a more terrible threat. Events since the cease-fire have done nothing to alter this perception. From the perspective of the Arab world, Hizbullah stands up for Palestinian rights as no moderate Arab leader has been able to do, and might succeed in wringing concessions out of Israel that Mahmoud Abbas, Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah can only dream of. Israel's over-reaction to the kidnapping and its subsequent attack on Lebanon prove that it is an aggressive neighborhood bully who will never grant the Palestinians the right to self-determination. Thus Arabs do not understand why the international community does not step in to guarantee those rights and stop Israel. AND THE tragedy is that both the Israelis and the Palestinians are correct. Israel is under genuine existential threat from a variety of Arab sources, and Israelis are right to feel victimized by this threat. And the Palestinians have not yet been granted self-determination and are right to feel victimized by their status vis- -vis Israel. How, then, can the Middle East conflict be resolved? Only by resolving both Middle East conflicts simultaneously. In Israel, unilateralism is dead: Israel can't withdraw from the West Bank (thus trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) because the Israeli-Arab conflict will remain open; withdrawal from the territories will only leave Hamas within rocket range of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. And Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran won't make peace with Israel (thus solving the Israeli-Arab conflict) as long as there is no resolution for the Palestinians. The only viable way forward at this stage is for the international community to create a bold multilateral peace initiative, backed by a serious Marshall-Plan-like rebuilding package, in which the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts are resolved simultaneously. This means that Israel must accept the Geneva Accords (which the majority of its population is probably ready to do), but with a cast-iron international guarantee that its withdrawal from the West Bank will coincide with peace and diplomatic relations with Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran and the disarming of terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hizbullah; and the entire Arab world must be pressured to make peace and establish diplomatic relations with Israel, with an international guarantee that this peace will coincide with the establishment of a Palestinian State. With a creative and sensitive timetable, with appropriate international diplomacy, and with a global understanding of the justified feeling of victimhood on both sides, this might just be possible. But it will only be possible if the world commits to solving the Israeli-Palestinian and the Israeli-Arab conflicts together. The writer is is Chair of the Education Department and Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.