A picture taken on August 9, 2018 shows a smoke billowing during an Israeli air strike on Gaza City. Photo: PA

The Prospect editorial: When the facts change

Conflicts become intractable when both sides cease to believe in the possibility of there being reasonable people on the other
August 17, 2018

“I’ve always been a supporter of Israel,” wrote the Conservative peer Daniel Finkelstein in The Times this summer, “ever since my mum told me about the people who had left Belsen with her on the train and found themselves homeless.” That isn’t a perspective to be casually dismissed. Nor is that of Nasser Nawaja, the Palestinian Donald Macintyre met in the West Bank. His father was displaced as a toddler by the state’s creation; he was then carried from his own home on his father’s shoulders when the settlers arrived, and he could soon be forced to uproot his own toddler in turn.

Conflicts become intractable when both sides cease to believe in the possibility of there being reasonable people on the other. Many families have stories which constitute a powerful argument for Zionism; many others have an inheritance that means they are almost bound to oppose the idea of Israel. The anti-semitism row in the Labour Party reflects many things: faction fighting, individual bigotry and institutional indulgence.

But another aspect is the inability of pro- and anti-Israeli opinion to engage. Even in the remote safety of the UK, the debate is caught in a trap: one side equates Zionism with racism, the other anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Engendering mutual empathy within Israel/Palestine itself—where personal freedom, security and prosperity are at stake—is tougher still.

Looking back to the Oslo accords after 25 years, it now seems remarkable how close we came to a two-state settlement. But as the former Knesset Speaker, Avraham Burg, and Macintyre both report, the ingredients for a two-state deal have since been squandered: Israeli bulldozers have crushed the space an independent Palestine would require; the Palestinian leadership has fractured, with a tired and self-serving clique on the West Bank, and the desperate population of blockaded Gaza in the hands of Hamas.

Within the whole territory, a large and growing proportion of the population—the occupied Palestinians—cannot vote in the only parliament that counts. Even if things were somehow unlocked, unlikely on Planet Trump, Burg believes events have simply drifted too far for two states to be viable. Occupation, injustice and fury could be locked into the Palestinian present, with who knows what implications for Israel’s future.

But Burg isn’t selling despair: he has a new plan. Both communities would govern themselves, within a single overarching state that enshrines rights for all. Palestinian nationalists will object, as will Israelis who, after millennia of persecution, want a Jewish-majority state guaranteed in perpetuity. Despite his formidable CV, Burg’s views place him on the Israeli fringe—for now. And yet if, as he says, the conventional wisdom is dislocating from reality, then there may come a time when the unthinkable has to be thought.