Eight years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to express a preference for force over diplomacy in dealing with groups like Hamas. As chairman of the Knesset in 2006, Netanyahu said in a speech before the country’s legislature: “If the Arabs lay down their arms there will be no more war, but if Israel lays down its weapons there would be no more Israel.” Yet is this view, which drove many rounds of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians even before the current Gaza war, really the only approach to the conflict? Will there be peace if Hamas puts down its arms? Will Israel perish if it uses diplomacy and dialogue instead of military force?
During the 1982 Lebanon War, the civilian suffering caused by Israel’s siege of West Beirut provoked President Ronald Reagan to telephone Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and accuse him of perpetrating a “holocaust.” Between December 2008 and January 2009, a 22-day battle between Hamas and the Israeli military resulted in massive civilian casualties, the destruction of property, and huge economic losses. This summer, Israel’s month-old military campaign, Operation Protective Edge, has caused even more human suffering and economic damage. Perhaps more importantly in the long term, it has widened the gap in understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, putting peace even further out of reach.
When it comes to the wide asymmetry of power between Israelis and Palestinians—militarily, economically, and technologically—Israel clearly has the upper hand. But the Palestinians have something Israel needs and can’t get through military force—only they can provide Israel with the legitimacy and moral tranquility that would come with an end to the conflict. The Palestinians also have assets they can offer Israel, such as the recognition of a Jewish state and the acceptance of Israel by Arab and Muslim countries. In fact, that’s what makes a negotiated settlement possible.
What stands in the way of such a settlement, however, is the deterioration of empathy and trust brought about by the use of force. The persistent denial of respect to the other side, and the inability to understand and appreciate the other side’s perspective, isn’t unique to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; indeed, it has echoes in America’s own experience. In the 1990s, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara visited Vietnam and met with former Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach. McNamara, who oversaw much of the U.S. war in Vietnam, asked Thach whether the war could have achieved the same results—Vietnam’s independence and the unification of the north and south—without the deaths of roughly 3 million Vietnamese and approximately 58,000 American soldiers. “You were fighting to enslave us,” Thach replied, according to McNamara’s recollection in the documentary The Fog of War. “And we would fight to the last man.” McNamara told him this was an absurd view of U.S. war aims. But, reflecting on the exchange later on, McNamara came to understand what Thach meant. “We saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War,” he told documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. Thach had been trying to tell him that, for the Vietnamese, the war was for independence and liberty.
The Israelis and the Palestinians, too, are fighting from different perspectives and with different goals. The Holocaust implanted in the Jewish psyche a feeling of insecurity and a fear that it could happen again. On the other side, the Nakba of 1948 ingrained in the Palestinian psyche a sense of loss and subjugation. Consequently, Israelis have been seeking security, while the Palestinians have been seeking their own sanctuary in statehood. These differing conceptions of the conflict are perhaps most apparent when the two sides choose not to fight. When Israelis feel secure, they push for peace and opt for dialogue, as they did in negotiations leading up to the 1993 Oslo Accords, when they recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as a partner for peace after long viewing the group as a terrorist outfit whose hands were stained with Jewish blood. But when Israelis feel insecure, as they do under the threat of suicide bombers and rocket fire, they opt for building walls and displaying their superior military power. Many Israelis believe they are fighting Islamic fundamentalist terrorism to achieve security. At the same time, many Palestinians believe they are fighting a foreign occupier to secure their very survival.
In contrast to the American view of the Vietnamese in the 1960s, many Israelis today do understand where the Palestinians are coming from, but they’re not sure where the Palestinians are going—whether they will settle for a two-state solution or take Palestine and continue to fight Israel. Netanyahu himself has expressed this uncertainty: “The Palestinians want a state, but they have to give peace in return. What they’re trying to do … is to get a state without giving Israel peace or … security.” Meanwhile, the Palestinian people have made huge sacrifices in their struggle for liberty, and they have accepted the pain because they believe they are fighting for their right to self-determination, for their dignity, for their self-respect—not for Hamas or Fatah. Thus, for the Palestinians, the conflict is not about opening Gaza’s borders to goods and people, or realizing the dream of an international airport, as much as it is about statehood, about independence, about hope.