Israelis and Palestinians are at war with themselves, as well as each other. This is Obama's cueby Bernard Avishai / February 28, 2009 / Leave a comment
President Obama may be surrounded by experts, but no one seems to be telling him what he really needs to know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that both sides are divided peoples.
Most people know, roughly, that Palestine is two entities: a West Bank majority, nominally led by the Palestinian Authority—but really by a secular business and professional class in Ramallah—and an Islamist minority, centred in Gaza, run by an arguably pragmatic but unarguably totalitarian Hamas. What we have yet to learn, however, is that Israel is two entities also.
There is a slim secular majority, a Hebrew-speaking republic centred in Tel Aviv that profits increasingly from links with the outside world. This Israel is hawkish about security, but opposed to annexing occupied territory. It is comparatively highly educated and cosmopolitan, vaguely committed to democratic norms and therefore to a peace process. It can imagine a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli one.
But then, set against this, you have Israel’s second state. This is not the one-fifth Arab minority who might never accept a Jewish state. Instead, since 1967 Israel’s Zionist settlement policies and laws privileging orthodoxy have engendered a huge Judean state-within-a-state: anchored in Jerusalem, largely theocratic, and deeply implicated in the ongoing West Bank settlements. Judea is less educated than its Hebrew cousin and instinctively more tribalist. Judeans are largely wards of the state. Most see peace—that is, a return of two million Palestinian refugees to Greater Jerusalem—as the end of their way of life.
Only through understanding the fundamental divides on both sides can President Obama break the deadlock. In Palestine, the West Bank elites want to undermine Hamas, but refuse to fight Hamas supporters for fear of benefiting Israel. Secular Israelis, meanwhile, will not fight the Judeans for fear of benefiting the Palestinians. Both groups of moderates fear the loss of social solidarity with their own side, and so moderate leaders are stuck. Years of vendettas make cynicism about peace sound smart and brave. And given that a quarter of children who entered Israeli schools in 2008 are Arabs, and another quarter are ultra-orthodox of various kinds, it is easier to anticipate a future of ethnic cleansing than of quiet.
Make no mistake: poll after poll shows that a majority of Palestinians want peace with Israel. Ramallah’s elite wants cooperation on business issues, higher education, construction and…