After more than a week of studied neutrality about the surge of terrorism against Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry finally said something useful to the cause of restoring calm. Though he and other administration officials have at times blamed the Israelis for provoking the spate of bloody terror attacks by building homes or by shooting terrorists, Kerry got to the core of the problem when he noted that the alleged threats to the al-Aqsa mosque are not real. By noting that Israel was opposed to changing the status quo on the Temple Mount, Kerry implicitly backed the Netanyahu government’s assertion that the violence was the result of incitement by Palestinian leaders who have circulated that false charge. He said what was needed was “clarity” about the situation in Jerusalem that would make it clear to Muslims that there was no truth to the blood libel circulated by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas about the Temple Mount. Moreover, Kerry noted that the key point was to make sure Palestinians understood that Israel was supportive of the status quo. But the notion that what Palestinians want on the Temple Mount or anywhere else is the status quo is a misnomer. As has been the case with each stage of fighting during the recent history of the region, both the Palestinians and much of the American foreign policy establishment hopes the growing pile of corpses will serve to increase the pressure on Israel to give up more territory.
It’s taken what is now being called the “stabbing intifada” for even a staunch supporter of the Obama administration’s foreign policy like the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg to recognize that disagreements about settlements and territory haven’t caused the violence. Goldberg correctly links Abbas’s incitement about the Temple Mount to the blood libels circulated by Palestinian leaders in the 1920s. The reason why Israel’s maintenance of a status quo on the Temple Mount that actually discriminates against Jews (they are forbidden to pray at what is the holiest site in Judaism), is that Palestinians see all of Israel, including everything inside the 1967 lines, as an illegal settlement populated by foreign colonists. As occasional COMMENTARY contributor Daniel Gordis also noted in an insightful if depressing column in the New York Daily News, even educated Palestinians who engage in daily friendly interaction with Jewish Israelis view them as usurpers who will be thrown out sooner or later.
But unfortunately, this insight hasn’t penetrated into the consciousness of most of those who comment about foreign policy. A good example came in Monday’s New York Times when the International Crisis Group’s Nathan Thrall wrote that the problem was that there was no sign that Israel would relax the occupation of Palestinians. So long as Palestinian thought that only violence would force Israel to make concessions on land and settlements, terrorism would be seen as a legitimate, even necessary, political tool for an otherwise powerless Palestinian people. He believes if Israel and the United States merely seek to “manage” the conflict rather than solving it, the result will only be more violence since the Palestinians will keep shedding blood until their grievances are addressed.
Thrall is right when he notes that many Israelis dream about being able to completely separate from Palestinians and thus be rid of the nightmare of stabbings, shootings and other mayhem. He says support for separation was also at its highest during the second intifada as Israelis reeled from suicide bombings.
But what he and many other establishment think tank voices fail to understand is that the tumult about al-Aqsa betrays what is at the root of the violence. The talk about the mosque isn’t really so much about a fear that the Israelis will harm it but an ideological/religious commitment to ensuring that this site is made a Muslims only enclave where Jews have no rights. That’s why the PA is also seeking to get UNESCO to recognize the Western Wall as part of the al-Aqsa compound.
Thrall says Palestinians believe a “cost-free occupation” will only serve Israel’s interests and that a sign that the Jewish state will withdraw from more territory would give them reason to stop stabbing Jews. But the only status quo the Palestinians are interested in preserving is the one that existed before the modern Zionist movement began the return of the Jewish people to their land. Palestinian national identity remains inextricably tied to the war against that return, and as far as the Palestinians are concerned it makes no difference whether the “occupied” land under discussion is the West Bank or pre-1967 Israel.
A peace deal that would separate the two people sounds like a good idea in theory, but the results of Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal remain the object lesson in what happens when Israel undertakes such a retreat. The notion of replicating it in the West Bank still strikes the overwhelming majority of Israelis as madness even if they would like to separate from the Palestinians. Nor do they harbor any illusions about such a gesture satisfying the territorial aspirations of the Palestinians.
Israel has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to grant the Palestinians a state in exchange for real peace. But as Gordis and Goldberg both correctly observe, peace will be impossible so long as the Palestinians aren’t prepared to recognize the religious and national rights of the Jews. Those who wish to promote a solution to the conflict would do better to stop talking about settlements (most of which would remain inside Israel in a peace deal) and start telling Palestinians the hard truth about giving up their century-long war. Until they grasp this, managing the conflict is all Israel or anyone else should be trying to do.