Monday, March 6, 2017

Progressive American Opinions about Israeli - Palestinian Conflict in a World of Polarization
This post was written as a first conversation with a left-leaning Jewish friend who has succumbed lock, stock and barrel to the good guy-bad guy "occupied Palestine" meme. Memes often contain a grain of truth, or look like they do when taken out of context.  In this case, it's both.  I argue that we have to understand the facts, as complicated and nuanced as the situation is, if peace is ever to come.

Unfortunately, the "occupied Palestine" meme is surging in part because it is now associated with the Progressive left (my own inclination, actually). The result is a lot of under-informed individuals who use the heuristic short-cut, "if those who share my basic ideology think Israel is villainous, then it must be true."  The Progressive framing of the Israel question is unfortunately a by-product of America's choosing up sides as a substitute for educating ourselves about each of the issues.  This short-cutting is called "heuristics" and is entirely human - who's got time to fact-find absolutely every issue on the world table right now?  Instead, we find someone or an organization or a political perspective we generally trust - then we simply adopt their opinions.  The belief that we are rational, making rational decisions based on facts, is being proven too simplistic by modern brain science.  In fact, humans use an assortment of heuristic short-cuts to make decisions, and then cherry-pick from the available facts to support our decisions. This heuristic choice-making sometimes happens without much thought at all, even though really important policy matters deserve more than short shrift.  
I try to teach my students to step back and question their assumptions.  Where do they come from?  Do they really apply here?  If you want to read more about how this works, two of the first works I read on this years ago, and still favorites for their clarity, are "Hazardous Heuristics" (2002) and "Moral Heuristics" (2003), both by Cass Sunstein. 

Getting back to the subject at hand, the situation in Israel is so complicated, so mired in a history that few remember, and so culturally, politically and ideologically locked into the middle east, that modern Americans have trouble "groking" without a lot of study.  So, we rely on others, heuristically speaking, to do the thinking for us.  That, by the way, goes for both sides, the Right and the Left. Therein lies our polarization problem.

Those of you who are already positioned on the Left (the Palestinian "side") of this issue are by now bracing yourselves for an apologistic support piece on Israel.  Forget it.  You won't get that here.  All dynamics take (at least) two to tango, so to speak, and I recognize that Israel has culpability in this matter.  But that is well-documented elsewhere because that story is the Israeli-Palestinian meme of our time.  If you're looking for a journalistic-y sounding piece supporting the Progressive frame, you can get it from this piece, "Everything You Need to Know About Israel Palestine." Unfortunately, what you won't get from the piece is enough factual information to know whether the perspective you're hearing is valid.  You wouldn't even know where to begin asking questions.  It is the counterbalance I hope to shed a little light on here.

No one will be surprised to learn that, as much as possible, I prefer to base my opinions on actual, on-the-ground facts rather than memes, whether those memes be far Left or far Right.  I'm human, and so I know I'm not able to completely avoid my inner bias.  And in particular, I am Jewish, raised to the rousing songs of Israeli nationalism.  It is sometimes difficult to know what lurks in our subconscious.

But that very upbringing set up a tense internal dance, pitting my pro-Israel upbringing against a strong Progressive leaning, forcing me to do a deep internal reflection along with some factual research.  I have tried very hard to draw my perspective from my training as a mediator and facilitator:  I know that to get from here (little peace) to there (better peace), we must start from a place of reality.  Undoubtedly, one of the current realities is that perception is reality for many.  But any mediator knows that parties often walk in with their "best stories," hoping to more easily sway others.  If, however, those "best stories" are a cover for the party's actual agenda - the agenda the other party is keeping to him or herself because it's not as sympathetic, everyone at the table will be brainstorming solutions to the wrong problem - the problem in the story rather than the actual agenda.  The best story frame for the Palestinians is that Israel is an evil occupying oppressor.  And that story appeals to the Progressive Left because we care deeply about the oppressed. Really.  And although it is true that many Palestinians are miserable in current situation, using the "Evil Israel best story" obscures several underlying truths that force Israel to be a recalcitrant peace partner.  In fact, using the Evil Israel story even obscures several truths that make the Palestinians an unwilling peace partner. In fact, some of these very same facts help explain why Palestinian Liberation Organization chief Yassar Arafat was pressured away from a Clinton-brokered peace deal in 1993, after agreeing upon its parameters and historically shaking the hand of his former enemy, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, on the White House lawn. When you've only solved the "spoken agenda," the solution may not be liveable because it still doesn't satisfy the underlying, unspoken agenda.

From this point forward, I want to offer a few "truths" that continue to act as barriers to peace.  As long as we cling to our "best stories," and don't take the time to learn "the rest of the story," as Paul Harvey used to say, we will continue to be very confused as to why Israel is so reluctant to enter into a peace deal. We will continue to sit by as much of the world vilifies Israel and puts forth solutions for problems framed around stark fallacy.  It is my goal in writing this blog post to provide some historical and pragmatic context in the hopes that doing so will bust up some of the erroneous assumptions underlying the Progressive framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  If nothing else, I hope to raise some doubts about the veracity of a straight good guy-bad guy meme, and provide a few factual insights to help us all ask better questions of our policy-makers in the future.

Below I lay out some of the lesser known pieces of information that help inform the situation on the ground... about the settlements, the 1967 borders, water scarcity (which equates to life), foreign powers blocking Palestinian peace, and so forth.  In each case, I provide reading materials, rather than typing it all out. You will have to judge for yourself the value of the reading materials.  I've looked for unbiased sources, but where an author is accurate, in the interest of time, I've adopted sources that may in fact be biased.  If I'd had, say, a week to work on this, it would be different.  Maybe I'll back-fill some day.  

Spoiler alert:  At the end, I make an under-developed plea for strong economic and community development in the Palestinian territories, which I believe can drastically shift the prospects for peace between Palestinians and Israelis in a way that nothing else can. I believe that enhancing the quality of Palestinian life will embolden Palestinians to urge their leaders to reject the ideologies of foreign Imams using this conflict for their own larger agendas in favor of Palestinian state-building and collaboration with its neighbors, Israel and Jordan.  
Does Israel need to get out of its own way to help make this happen?  No doubt.  If anyone asked me, I'd suggest that they envision an economically and socially healthy Palestine and then identify all the assets available to achieving it, and begin removing the obstacles blocking it.  I've provided a couple of optimistic articles about how this might happen, one of which is a very old World Bank report that I would dearly love to see updated, and the other is a young academic's optimistic thesis.  

# # #

Dear old friend,

You raised the settlement issue.  I think it's really important to keep in mind that there are two echo chambers here - the strong anti-settlement echo chamber as well as the strong pro-settlement echo chamber.  

I am just as wary of the framing by the Left as I am by the Right.  Both of these frames are problematic.  Israel's rights - or lack of rights - to the settlement areas are not as cut-and-dried as either of the factions would have you believe.  And there are far bigger obstacles to making peace than the settlements - really.  

Water Scarcity.  Did you know, for example, that one of the reasons Israel refuses to return to the 1967 borders is because when Syria had control of that area, the Arab states co-funded the diversion of the Jordan River, Israel's main water source?  Think of this.  Diverting the water away from Israeli accessibility is not a small task.  It required engineers and funds and equipment and time.  It's not like digging a tunnel under the border for an sneak attack on a farm community, digging secretly, out of the public view, quietly in the night.  No. The entire world watched while the Arab states discussed and then funded the diversion of this life-giving water, and made barely a squeak as Syria attempted to dry up Israel.  How the world could stand by and watch is a good question, but not that hard to believe, because it was not many years before that the world met at Evian, France to discuss "the Jewish Problem," and left without a solution other than Hitler's Final Solution.  These events leave me to wonder how much antisemitism remains in today's world.  If you are interested enough to read further, you will learn that the Syrian use for this diverted water was recreational, e.g. as in boating and swimming, and therefore it's not an argument about who needs the water more.  Syria's water sources are elsewhere. 

1967 Borders:  So, no, there's just no way that Israel is going back to those old borders.  And - while we're discussing this, you might ask, what exactly do the 1967 borders represent - these borders that "everyone" wants Israel to return to?  Historically speaking, the borders, weren't actually "borders." They represented the boundary of Arab military aggression, 
called "the Green Line," at that point in time.  It's interesting that the world wants to give the Palestinians control over what amounted to "conquest territory" (conquest by the Arab nations, not Israel, at that time) but has always insisted that Israel return its conquered territory. 

I've provided a couple of articles going over the actual historical facts here, and here.  I chose these articles for their historic accuracy, rather than the publications' ideological neutrality.  While the publication in both cases may be pro-Israel, these articles are no less factual for that.  These facts shed a different light on what's going on in Israel, and why the Israelis haven't backed down. 

In other words, let us not roll over and adopt everything the anti-Israel left is saying. 

Myth of the Two State Solution:  Did you know that much of the far Left is pushing for a one-state solution rather than a two-state solution?  The one-state solution is sometimes sold on the idea that Israel should be a straight up democracy - Jews and Palestinians living together with equal political power, rather than a Jewish state with a form of democratic government.  Those of us who love democracy, can envision a kumbaya nation, with swords beat into plowshares.  But others have a very different idea.  Here is a quote from Al-Jezeera:

"[I]n a unified Israel, Arabs would be the majority if afforded the same right to return that the Jewish diaspora has; there are 3 million registered Palestinian refugees in LebanonSyria and Jordan. And demographic projections suggest Jews will soon be the minority even without considering the Palestinian diaspora. Accordingly, Palestinians would have much more leverage in a one-state scenario; their quest would then be for equitable power sharing and civil rights." From "Israel & Palestinians need a one-state solution," by Musa al-Gharbi, Jan. 6, 2015.  You can Google this and find that this guy's opinion isn't a minority in many Arab countries.  

Myth of Apartheid.  I admit it is difficult to square the Progressive Left's embrace of the rise of the Latino population in the United States.  We on the Left are not bothered by the shift in skin color on the light-to-dark continuum.  We don't understand why the Israelis want to keep the Palestinians out or down or wherever.  Isn't this apartheid?

Well, actually, no, it is not apartheid.  Israel is a full-on representative democracy that welcomes political participation by its Arab citizens.  Consider this: Israel's Arab population is roughly 20 percent of the whole population, and its 17 Arab Knesset members are roughly 15 percent of the Knesset membership.  Female representation, at just under 25 percent of Knesset membership, fairs worse than the Arab representation - but surprisingly better than in the US, where women fill 20 percent of our Senate seats and 19.3 percent of our Congressional seats.  I could go on, but the link above has your data.  Skin color discrimination and anti-Muslim discrimination are hot-topics among the Progressive Left. We care about it, are looking for it.  If you're a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.  Nobody would try to deny that religion- and skin-color based discrimination occurs in Israel - like everywhere else - and it should be eradicated.  But do you want to call that apartheid?  If so, then the USA had better start looking in the mirror.  Well, we should be looking in the mirror.  But not because we're an apartheid nation.  Yet.

Safe Haven for Jews.  The more critical question is not about apartheid, religious discrimination or skin color.  The big question for Israel is, what happens to the status of Israel as a safe haven for the Jewish people if the country loses its Jewish majority?  Israel was 60 years in the making, but the final push came from America itself, in the personage of President Harry Truman, whose main motivation was to create a safe haven for the Jewish people.  When I was at Spertus College, taking Judaic Studies classes, I remember being told by one of my professors that, over the course of written history, there has never been more than 200 years between genocide attempts.  Purists will say that we should all live in peaceful democracies that don't see skin color, religion, and other differences, except for the richness and diversity that they bring.  Pragmatists like myself say, prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.  The past is grim.  This week's threats to Jewish institutions around the United States and the increasing number of antisemitic incidents in the U.S. and elsewhere suggest that we not fool ourselves. Why should Israel be anything other than the safe haven it was conceived to be at its founding?  

Outsiders Pulling Palestinian Strings.  Did you also know that much of the terrorism that Israel is confronting in Gaza and the West Bank is not actually Palestinian but driven by foreign governments who use Palestinians as a ploy in their larger games against the west?  The Brookings Institute writes about Iran's financing of Palestinian aggression toward Israel, and it's easy to find other articles about Iran and other Arab countries doing the same thing.  It would be easy to write this off as a Muslim big brother helping the oppressed Jews, but it's become increasingly clear that is not the case. Radical imams around the middle east are not providing funds because they care about Palestinian lives, well-being or community.  They care about using Palestinian territories to promote their own agendas, which include, for example, digging tunnels from the territories into Egypt - not Israel - in order to undermine Egypt's current moderate regime.  Hamas, which is funded by these outside influences, has contributed to the number of Palestinian casualties by creating curfews that force Palestinians to stay in place when Israel has warned of upcoming military action by peppering buildings in the action zone with paper and cell phone warnings telling residents to leave the area.  These outside funders are not interested in peace with Israel.  They're not even interested in peace with other members of the Arab world.  Until we understand that this tiny little strip of land is a tool in a much bigger drama, we will continue to point at least some of our fingers in the wrong direction.  Again, this does not mean that I am a huge Netanyahu fan, or that Israel is blameless.  Only that solutions start from reality, not from meme.  

In conclusion.  I am not defending Israel's acts of injustice, and there have been and no doubt there will continue to be plenty.  But those are well-documented and I don't need to debrief them here.  My point has been to demonstrate that there is factual basis for another side of the story, a strong side. And that we must be careful about taking sides based on heuristics.  We don't really have the full story most of the time... Until the other parties - us included - get out of the way and let the actual Palestinians (not their Imam sponsors and not the US and not Europe) work out something both sides can live with, we are unlikely to have peace.

Having said that, I don't think that the other parties will get out of the way until the Palestinians themselves have a reason to push their leadership to get rid of those outside influences - and primarily they need economic security and stability.  I am a big believer that the right way to settle the Palestinian issue is to build the Palestinians' economic well-being, so that it's population is less interested in fighting and more interested in finding collaborative well-being with Israel.  This can actually happen.  Check this World Bank report on economic development for peace in the Palestinian territories, and this paper by Nieme Ayoub on the same topic.

And we in the diaspora need to do what we can to further the dialogue between Israel and Palestinians, by insisting that any money and support we give Israel will be rewarded by a true search for economic and community-based solution that allows Palestinians a quality of life so many are clearly denied.  Unfortunately, we are dealing with two societies who are progressively less interested in peace, or it seems so to me.  The further away Israel is from its roots, the more distrust and anger has built up and has been built-in to the education of young Israelis and young Palestinians - making peace even harder to achieve.  

Thinking of an analogy, imagine your cousin is arrested for murder, but is claiming his innocence.  Unfortunately, the mere fact that he was arrested makes many people think your cousin is guilty, because otherwise, why would the police have taken him into custody?  The world will believe him guilty once the hand-cuffs go on, and even some of your family members may begin to entertain the possibility of your cousin's guilt.  It is a long haul between the arrest and the trial, and during that time, many people will assume your cousin is guilty. Fortunately, today's criminals can rely on DNA evidence to prove their innocence.  Isn't it equally important that we rely upon historical fact as upon public sentiment when drawing lines for Israel?  

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