In the almost century-old conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews, there is no ultimate winner or loser. Despite the enormous human and material losses, Israel cannot celebrate victory; nor do the Palestinians entertain defeat. They have both been losing. It is unfortunate that neither side has seriously considered the option of winning together.
It is possible to destroy and defeat the enemy's army. Israel did so in 1967. It is also possible to defeat a regime (corrupt or otherwise) or to crush armed resistance against occupation. It is less clear, however, how to defeat a nation struggling for freedom or independence. In its attempts to defeat the Palestinians, Israel has resorted to a variety of methods: displacement and dispossession in 1948, the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1967, the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens for over 55 years. Yet ultimate victory still eludes it.
During "Operation Defensive Shield" in April 2002, the Palestinians in the West Bank were placed under curfew for weeks. Israeli tanks and armored vehicles rolled into every city, village and refugee camp, and Yasser Arafat's compound was besieged and almost totally destroyed. Israel's superior military power was plainly visible - it sowed fear and devastation - but the white flags were nowhere to be seen. It seems there is a mysterious power in powerlessness that even the best-equipped army cannot crush. The moral: It takes more than military power to achieve ultimate victory. This "more" has to do with breaking the will of the weaker party. That you are more powerful does not mean that your adversary is less determined to resist and continue the fight. This inability of either side to achieve a conclusive victory constitutes, in my view, the singularity of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Singularity of the Conflict

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict's singularity is the result of the special interplay of politics, religion, history, culture, morality, nationalism and attachment to the land - although, fundamentally, it is a conflict over land and sovereignty over it. To be sure, the conflict shares many important features with other conflict situations. First, it exhibits many characteristics of generic conflicts between immigrants and natives, where the former have created and sustained states. Secondly, it shares obvious features with the conflict in Northern Ireland and with the former apartheid regime in South Africa. Thirdly, it is similar in many respects to the more typical conflict between colonizers and colonized. Fourthly, it is said to share some elements with the encounter between the Muslims and the Crusaders. Finally, it shows most of the main characteristics of relationships between occupiers and occupied. In spite of these many similarities, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains one with a unique characteristic. It is no accident that it has been depicted as an existential conflict between two national groups, two religions, two cultures, two moral arguments and two irreconcilable historical narratives.
The uniqueness of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict springs primarily from the singularity of the Jewish people - their religion; their attachment and historical claims to Jerusalem, in particular, and Palestine in general; their experience in Europe, culminating with the Holocaust; and their disproportionate influence in the United States. This singularity also stems from the fact that the majority of Palestinians still reside inside or close to historical Palestine, with the moral, political and material support of over a billion Arabs and Muslims.
With this analysis of the conflict, it becomes easier to explain two major elements: 1) that it has been related to or contaminated by the major world conflicts for many decades; and 2) that it has resisted the many attempts at a peaceful resolution. Compromise is not an answer when it comes to addressing a singular conflict understood in existential terms. When the contending parties perceive their conflict in existential terms, they either engage in war or prepare for one. Until the late 1970s or early 1980s, the majority of Palestinians and Israeli Jews had subscribed to some version of the existential conflict; some believers in reconciliation were discredited and, in extreme cases, assassinated. It is only during the past decade that such notions as "fair compromise" or "historic reconciliation" have become fashionable.

A Moral, Religious or Political Conflict?

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is essentially neither a moral nor a religious conflict, although it has strong components of both. In essence, it is a political conflict - a conflict between two distinct national groups over the ownership and control of the same piece of land. The Zionists have always wanted to establish and sustain an independent state on this land, with a clear Jewish majority. The Palestinians have always resisted, not because of an innate resentment of the Jews or their religion, but because they grasped from the outset that the realization of the Zionist project would come at their expense.
The founders of the Zionist movement and the Israeli state were the secular Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, and settlement activity in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 was initiated and encouraged by a secular Labor-led government. Similarly, those Palestinians who initiated and led the resistance against the Zionist project were the nationalists, not the religious fundamentalists. There is no doubt that religious sentiments on both sides have fed the conflict; nevertheless, it is not the presumed clash between Islam and Judaism, or the clash of civilizations, that is to blame for the creation or the perpetuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Nor is the conflict a moral one. It is not a conflict between two perspectives on justice or what is right, or a conflict between two peoples who have equally valid moral claims to the same piece of land. That said, moral considerations are relevant to the nature and the ultimate resolution of the conflict. In fact, both sides have been raising moral questions and arguments, voicing complaints based on moral considerations and appealing to the sense of justice of their respective constituencies and the international community at large. However, it is evident that they have been doing so not only to score moral points, but mainly to advance political claims and schemes.
Concerning the relevance of morality, there are three sets of questions to reflect on:
a) Who has a moral right to what in Palestine/Israel? How can one argue that the two parties have equally valid moral claims to the same land? And to what extent are these rights commensurable? What does moral philosophy have to say about the issue of the Jews' "historical rights" in Palestine?
b) Who wronged whom in this conflict and, therefore, who is to be held morally responsible? Is it really possible to restore a moral balance when so many people have been personally affected over an extended period of time? And what about the rights of the innocent people who lost their lives, property and dignity in the course of this protracted and bloody conflict?
c) Is a just solution to the conflict possible? What theory of justice can generate the relevant principles for a fair solution to the major problems?

These and many other questions have been raised and debated over the years. The fact remains that neither Zionism nor Palestinian nationalism originated as movements dedicated to moral reform. Neither is dedicated to the pursuit of moral truths or to the search for moral solutions. They are simply two national and political movements with two conflicting sets of goals. Moral considerations, important as they are, are only part of political concerns.
In the case of Zionism, morality served political acts in two ways: first, in providing justification for the creation of the State of Israel; and second, in justifying those practices, policies and plans that manifestly give priority to Jews over non-Jews. Similarly, morality was invoked to serve the Palestinian cause in at least two ways: first, to show that the creation of Israel came at the expense of the Palestinian people; and second, to justify acts and means of resistance to the Zionist project. For the Palestinians, their moral superiority as the indigenous victims of the immigrant state is not in question, but they are struggling to achieve chiefly political, not moral, goals.

The Proposed Political Configuration

Three major Arab-Israeli wars and a series of Palestinian intifadas - the first of which dates back to the late 1920s - have not led to a clear-cut victory for either side, but to continued strife and mounting weariness and frustration. As a result, Palestinians and Israeli Jews are slowly coming to the realization that a political compromise is both possible and desirable, and that it should seriously take into account the following:

1) The determination of the vast majority of Israeli Jews to continue to live in an independent democratic state with a clear Jewish majority;
2) The determination of the Palestinians to rid themselves of the occupation and to establish an independent democratic state that can accommodate the majority of the displaced Palestinians and refugees;
3) Compensation for lost property and for undeserved suffering;
4) Respect for the attachment of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews to the whole land or to specific parts of it;
5) Respect for the commitment and attachment of non-Israeli Jews and non-Palestinian Arabs and Muslims to the city of Jerusalem and its holy shrines;
6) Non-discrimination or equality of citizenship in either state; and
7) The inherent inability of either side to win.

The question remains: What is the most reasonable and feasible political configuration that can accommodate the above-listed elements? It is my firm conviction that the most reasonable configuration is one that creatively combines: a) political separation, b) equal, non-discriminatory citizenship, c) sharing what cannot or should not be divided, and d) compensation for any private property that cannot be restored to its rightful owners. Put succinctly, it is a configuration that combines the two seemingly incompatible components of political separation and far-reaching sharing or partnership. It means one land or country shared by both peoples, but politically divided into two independent states. The element of sharing assumes special significance here for a variety of reasons, the most important being the strong attachment of both peoples to the whole country or to specific places in it, and the demographic reality in the city of Jerusalem - which should remain open and shared, though politically divided.
Sharing one country involves much more than the free passage of people, vehicles and commodities; i.e., it is much richer than the creation and enjoyment of a common market. It is the partnership that makes it possible for me to feel that the whole country is mine, although I am a citizen of one of the two component states. In the other state, I am much more than a tourist, a passerby or a guest worker. On one level, there are things that the two states can or should manage jointly, such as airports, seaports, historical sites, natural reserves, the Dead Sea resorts and other tourist attractions, the environment and water resources, transportation, communication, electricity and the health systems. On another level, there are privileges that should be enjoyed separately by the respective citizens of each state, such as residency rights, social security, property rights and labor rights. On a third level, possibilities for dual citizenship and even some form of autonomy or self-rule for certain groups on both sides of the political divide should be seriously explored. One thing is clear, however: Physical separation between the two states, whether by a fence, a wall or any other barrier is inconsistent with the core idea of sharing. It goes without saying that discrimination on the basis of religious or national affiliation is also incompatible with the sharing configuration.
Sharing is the idea that best addresses the challenges posed by the competing attachment and moral and historical claims of both sides to the whole country. Narrow nationalism and the notion of state sovereignty are clearly not conducive to the realization of the dual concept of separation and sharing. The implementation of the proposed vision requires a political configuration that steers a middle way between the concept of two sovereign states, on the one hand, and one bi-national or federated state on the other. It creates a new situation and a new reality which entitles every Israeli Jew and every Palestinian to say: This is the state of which I am a citizen, but the whole country of Israel/Palestine is mine.
Accordingly, political separation is expected to be less difficult to achieve or accept. This is mainly because the proposed vision entails a shift in attitudes and a revision of positions and priorities, from the obsessive concern with the acquisition of and control over territory to the emphasis on respect for individual and collective rights and personal attachments. And because political separation is only one part of the deal, the quarrel over every inch of land would lose much of its significance and steam.
Finally, the proposed political configuration is a kind of Hegelian synthesis. The unitary state for both Palestinians and Israeli Jews (thesis) has been dismissed by the majority on both sides. The Israeli Jews reject the "secular democratic state" originally proposed by the PLO; the Palestinians refuse any version of exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the whole land. The two-state solution (antithesis) still faces formidable difficulties. It is being challenged by the majority of Palestinian refugees, the majority of Jewish settlers and their supporters and the emotionally loaded issue of Jerusalem with its holy places. The proposed synthesis of political separation and far-reaching sharing implies a modified version of the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan. One could argue that it is a reasonable and feasible solution. Whether it is the truly just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not easy to judge.

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