The Israeli-Palestinian Dispute Is Only Partly About Land

The White House can’t end the conflict by expecting one side to surrender unconditionally.

Palestinian children watch a band perform from the rubble of a building destroyed by Israeli air strikes.
Palestinian children watch a band perform from the rubble of a building destroyed by Israeli air strikes. (Mohammed Salem / Reuters)

Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fundamentally about land and territory? It is certainly partly about that. But when you hear the objections and grievances of both sides, the issue of who has what part of which territory doesn’t necessarily figure all that prominently.

I recently took part in a study tour on religion and nationalism in Israel and the West Bank organized by the Philos Project. One Palestinian official whom we met told us, “I’m not going to compromise my dignity.”

The problem with what we know of the Trump administration’s “peace plan” is that it asks Palestinians to do precisely that. The entire Donald Trump approach seems to be premised on calling for unilateral surrender. It is premised on destroying the will of a people, and on hoping that despair might one day turn into acquiescence. This is the only way to interpret Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s insistence on prioritizing economic incentives over political progress, but this misunderstands most of what we know about human motivation.

I have a bias: I don’t tend to think that people are primarily motivated by measurable, quantifiable things. To the extent that territory becomes a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, it matters, but it matters as a proxy for other, deeper issues. As my Brookings Institution colleague Shibley Telhami put it: “To assume that the promise of economic improvement would outweigh ordinary human aspirations of a people who have painfully struggled for decades is to miss the nature of the human condition.”

Our Palestinian interlocutor’s refusal to cede his dignity wasn’t a performance; it was despair. It felt to me like an epitaph. There have been conflicts in which leaders have made compromises that may have seemed like betrayals, only for history to view them as both bold and necessary. But those conflicts are not this conflict.

The Israelis’ narrative is quite different from the Palestinians’, and on its own terms, it’s not necessarily wrong. According to this perspective, Arabs, from the founding of Israel in 1948 onward, have either longed for the Jewish state to disappear or taken action to actually make it disappear. This relates to the Israeli refrain that there is no Palestinian partner for peace; the most moderate Palestinians may accept Israel’s existence as an unfortunate fact, this argument goes, but not even they believe in Israel’s right to exist as the national homeland for the Jewish people.

In their long history together, Muslims knew Jews less as an ethnic group than as adherents of another religion, different from Islam but also like it. In The Jews of Islam, Bernard Lewis noted that when Muslims expressed negative attitudes toward Jews, they were “usually expressed in religious and social terms, very rarely in ethnic or racial terms.” In conversation, many Palestinians express discomfort with the idea that Jews are both a people and a religion, and Israeli Jews tend to view this lack of recognition as sinister and evidence of Arab irreconcilability.

Many of the early Zionists were secular, so their vision for a State of Israel did not depend on a shared religious faith. It depended, instead, on being a people. The moniker “Jewish state” itself captures this, since a Jewish state can be a secular home for Jews, whereas an “Islamic state”—to use another legalistic religion—suggests a religious mission and theological premises.

Divergent histories and narratives shape the interpretation of otherwise factual questions about what actually happened and didn’t happen at key moments. For example, Israeli politicians attack Palestinians for squandering Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s “generous offer” of 2000, and so a story of Arab and Palestinian recalcitrance builds uninterrupted, with each new rejection confirming the previous one: First, Arabs rejected the 1947 United Nations partition plan. Then Arab nations waged war against the new Israeli state. Decades later, when they finally had their chance, Palestinians rejected Barak’s offer. Then they rejected Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer, and so on.

To put it mildly, Palestinians do not share this interpretation of what went wrong. They believe the offer was far from generous, coming after six years of “more Israeli settlements, less freedom of movement, and worse economic conditions,” as the senior Clinton-administration adviser Rob Malley and Hussein Agha argue in one of the definitive accounts of the 2000 Camp David negotiations. In practice, Barak, the dove, wasn’t much of a dove. As Malley and Agha write: “Behind almost all of Barak’s moves, Arafat believed he could discern the objective of either forcing him to swallow an unconscionable deal or mobilizing the world to isolate and weaken the Palestinians if they refused to yield.”

Palestinian activists tend to speak in terms of justice. An injustice was done, so it must be undone. Christopher Hitchens, in his valediction for the Palestinian American author Edward Said, wrote that his friend’s “feeling for the injustice done to Palestine was, in the best sense of this overused term, a visceral one. He simply could not reconcile himself to the dispossession of a people or to the lies and evasions that were used to cover up this offense.”

Pro-Palestinian protesters often chant the mantra of “no justice, no peace.” One former Israeli official we spoke with in Jerusalem had a different view. He said, “If we make this about justice, there will not be peace.” Too many Palestinians celebrate victimhood—fueled by a profound sense of injustice—rather than overcome it, he suggested.

But then we return to the question of dignity. No one should be asked to overcome their victimhood by giving up their dignity, the one thing even an occupier shouldn’t be able to take away. That might sound naive and impractical, especially for those who would rather Palestinians just get on with it, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

If I were advising the Palestinians, I’d tell them to reject Kushner’s offer, but they don’t need anyone to tell them what’s already painfully obvious. If someone doesn’t understand anything about the history of the Palestinians, their grievances and their narratives, then what’s the point? The outgoing French ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, described Kushner this way: “He is so pro-Israeli also, that he may neglect the point that if you offer the Palestinians the choice between surrendering and committing suicide, they may decide the latter. Somebody like Kushner doesn’t understand that.”

Because the two sides are so far apart and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, the United States—if it’s unwilling to put serious pressure on Israel or take seriously Palestinian objections—is better off disengaging from an imaginary peace process, rather than lending legitimacy to Israel’s behavior or giving the illusion of progress without the substance. Otherwise we are all just wasting time, at least until a new president attempts to fundamentally rethink America’s sometimes well-intentioned but almost always tragic role in one of the world’s most enduring conflicts.