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What Kirsten Powers Gets Wrong About Israel and the Palestinians

Kirsten Powers is a thoughtful liberal who’s willing to challenge the party line. At times, though, her arguments strike me as misguided. Such is the case with her column in The Daily Beast titled, “What Evangelicals Get Wrong About Israel and the Palestinians.”

Ms. Powers quotes Todd Deatherage, co-founder of the Telos Group, an organization that “works with American evangelicals to help positively transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” According to Mr. Deatherage, “What a lot of Christians don’t understand is the importance of realizing both people [the Israelis and the Palestinians] have legitimate connections to the land.” American evangelicals, we’re told, need to “understand the Palestinian perspective.” 

“Palestinians have a need for dignity and respect, and a deep attachment to the land,” according to Deatherage. As for Powers, she criticizes American evangelicals for their “blind loyalty to Israel, with little to no regard for the plight of the Palestinian people.” She then asks, in the context of the Palestinians, “Since when is dehumanizing people—God’s creation—an acceptable Christian view?”

The answer, of course, is never. But it seems to me that both Powers and Deatherage are missing some important points.

Let’s start with some historical ones.

From 1948 through 1967 Jordan and Egypt controlled the West Bank and Gaza—and during that time neither nation lifted a finger to establish a Palestinian state. The Arab world seemed strangely indifferent to the Palestinians’ “deep attachment” and “legitimate connections” to the land. In fact, in 1970 King Hussein of Jordan slaughtered tens of thousands of Palestinians and eradicated the PLO from Jordan. And for those who maintain that the animosity against Israel is because of the occupied territories and settlements, there is this inconvenient fact: the PLO, whose declared purpose was the elimination of Israel, was founded in 1964—three years before the West Bank and Gaza fell under Israeli control. And what explains the 1948 and 1967 wars against Israel, before the occupied territories and settlements ever became an issue?

The land Israel did win in 1967—including the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai desert and the Golan Heights—was the result of a war of aggression by Arab states against Israel. After its victory in the Six-Day War, Israel signaled to the Arab states its willingness to relinquish virtually all the territories it acquired in exchange for peace—but that hope was crushed in 1967 when Arab leaders met in Khartoum and adopted a formula that became known as the “three noes”: no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, and no recognition of Israel.

The wave of anti-Israeli rage never subsided. Thirty-three years later, in 2000, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered up an astonishing set of concessions to Yasir Arafat, including having Israel withdraw to virtually all of the 1949-1967 boundaries, so that a Palestinian state could be proclaimed with its capital in Jerusalem. Yet Arafat not only turned down the offer but responded with an intifada against Israel. And in 2005 then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Israel did what no other nation—not the Jordanians, not the Egyptians, not the British, not anyone—has ever done before: provide the Palestinians with the opportunity for self-rule. In response, Israel was shelled by thousands of rockets and mortar attacks. 

The record also shows that when Israel has an Arab interlocutor that is interested in authentic peace—such as Jordan and Egypt under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak—it is quite willing to make peace and return land for peace (see the Sinai Desert, which Israel returned to Egypt and which is three times the size of Israel and accounted for more than 90 percent of the land Israel won in the 1967 war).  

I detail this history because it’s highly relevant to what is happening in the here and now. For while some “rejectionists” do exist among evangelical Christians in America and among some Jews in Israel, the reality is this: A two-state solution is the official policy of Israel. The obstacle to a Palestinian homeland doesn’t have to do with evangelical or Israeli rejectionists; it has to do with the inability of Hamas and the Palestinian leadership to make their own inner peace with the Jewish state of Israel. As long as that’s the case, it’s perfectly appropriate to distinguish between what Churchill called the fire brigade and the fire. And as the most recent conflict in Gaza has once again demonstrated, Hamas not only targets innocent Israeli civilians; it does everything it can to cause the deaths of innocent Palestinians (by using them as human shields) in order to score propaganda victories. Israel, on the other hand, takes extraordinary steps to try to prevent civilian deaths. Denying these realities—constructing a false narrative that fits a false hope—makes peace less, not more, likely.    

This doesn’t mean that every Israeli action and every Israeli government has acted wisely. Israel itself is constantly engaged in a lively discussion about its approach to everything from settlements to roadblocks. My point is simply that in the totality of its actions, facing organizations and nations dedicated to its destruction, Israel has acted in estimable ways. People demand of Israel what they demand of no other nation, and the moral double standard that is applied to it is repulsive.   

I want to turn, finally, to what it means to be genuinely pro-Palestinian. The old paradigm argues that to help the Palestinian people means applying pressure on Israel to hand over new land. But in Gaza we have just tested the proposition that the Palestinians, if given self-rule, would govern responsibly. The result wasn’t just escalated violence against Israel; it was destitution and suffering for Palestinians who lived under the leadership of Fatah and then (after a brief and bloody intra-Palestinian civil war) Hamas. Which brings us to a larger truth: the Palestinian people, many of whom are bone weary of war, have suffered horribly at the hands of other Arab nations, who have used them as pawns; and at the hands of a corrupt and malevolent Palestinian leadership. The few responsible Palestinian leaders who have emerged in recent years have proven to be much too weak to shape the course of events. 

Those who profess solidarity with the Palestinian people and want them to live lives of dignity and peace—which is an admirable and humane impulse—should focus their energy and efforts less on Israel and more on replacing the political elite and reforming the political culture of Palestinians who will not let their burning hatred for the Jewish state dim, even for a moment. Unless and until that happens, no amount of Israeli good will and no amount of territorial concessions will lead to peace. It will, in fact, only inflame the passions of Israel’s enemies and draw the Jewish and Palestinian people closer to days of violence, days of mourning, days of war. Surely that is something that those who long to be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation should understand.


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