THE BLOG
07/30/2014 02:16 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2014

Israelis and Palestinians at Harvard: Part 2 of 9

The Question of Blame
According to the Muslims I spoke to, Israel was dropped on Muslims in 1948 by the UN and it has not treated Palestinians fairly ever since. However, Palestinian lands did not constitute a country, or a nation-state or anything remotely close to a state in 1948 said one Israeli man. While Arabs and Jews don't agree on whose land it is, they both are adamant that the other is at fault.

Anyone who spends time investigating the reason that there is no peace between Arab and Jew will likely find that the fingers point both ways and at times towards the U.S. If one were to spend time with people representing both points of view, very legitimate and very convincing arguments can be made to support each point of view.

Conflict in the region is said to stem from the conflict in Israel and Palestine and interference from the U.S. An Egyptian economist named Ahmed said about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that:

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the core problem of the Middle East; I don't have to think twice about this. This is not only for the people in Palestine but for the whole region. Sometimes it is used as a justification for terrible things in other countries... it is destabilizing everything. As far as the U.S.'s role, there is a general consensus among Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East that Israel is the main ally in the region, but no one knows why.

When I asked about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, Dima, a Muslim woman from Lebanon studying international development at Harvard, responded:

The cornerstone of the U.S. policy in the Middle East is: Unconditional support for Israel despite its continuous violation of human rights and UN laws in Palestine and Lebanon. The "rate of return" of this policy however is extremely low for the U.S. The U.S. is gaining more enemies as a result of this policy. Additionally, Israel realizes that this support is in fact unconditional and thus has no incentive to cooperate with the U.S. on the Palestinian and Lebanese issues in return.

And when I asked Dima what is the two biggest problems in the Middle East are, and what should be done, she responded:

The biggest problem is Israel's occupation of Palestinian Lebanese and Syrian territories and its continuous violation of human rights in Palestine and Lebanon. The second problem is the U.S. policy in the region. Arab states must have a unified stance regarding this issue which would give them the leverage to lead with the U.S. a fair and comprehensive peace negotiation process between the Israelis and Palestinians.

We can think of Israel and Palestine as having been subjected to an arranged marriage imposed by others. Andrea, an Israeli citizen who immigrated to Israel from Russia told me that splitting-up the land to create a two state solution would be like divorce; there is no clean split from your ex-spouse, there are still going to be problems to deal with after. "Everyone is so desperate to reach a two state solution; it is kind of like that will be the end of the conflict. I don't believe that." Another Israeli woman I spoke to, Orna, a passionately spoken mid-level Israeli government employee who studied at Harvard, said that:

There are so many obstacles [to creating a two state solution] and the main problems are trust and culture. Both sides very much want peace; they want to be in a place where there is no war and live in a decent way; this is a majority. The problem is that leaders create something else; we sometimes don't hear the people's voice but the leaders' voice.

Other Israelis agreed with this notion of trust and culture as being obstacles for peace; dissent is rare. But sitting across from me at a table in the Kennedy School forum was Barak, an Israeli man who had experience working in the security services beyond his two-year obligation, noted that Palestinians don't trust Israelis either, and surprisingly this Israeli man viewed Israelis as oppressors.

For Palestinians, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was an insult and illegal act by the international community. Maurice, a Lebanese student at Harvard Business School, said that "Arabs have been stupid; they had the upper hand in dealing with Israel. What they did was went to the extreme of not recognizing Israel's right to exist and so got alienated from the rest of the world very quickly... and so today the balance of power is tipped towards Israel... it was a complete blunder."

According to Palestinians international law is the guiding principle of a two-state solution, UN General Assembly Resolution 181 legitimizes the principle of two states, i.e. Israel and Palestine. I was told numerous times that any Israeli presence in post-1967 areas is illegal citing UNSCR 242. "Two forty two makes Arabs angry. Look at the language. It is land and lands. Arabs understand that 242 you give back all of the land, but Israelis understand that you give back the lands, not all the land; excuse me, are talking about words?" said one Palestinian.

To get Israel to 'ease-up', Palestinians have told me that a "genuine American and international pressure" is necessary but may not be sufficient. Making Israel realize that the "long-term cost-benefit of these [current] policies are not bringing Israel anything" is something that the U.S. and the international community must help Israel realize.

Meanwhile, the Israelis that I spoke with told me very convincingly that Palestinians need to get over the idea that 100 percent of the pre-1967 land will be granted to establish a Palestinian state. They pointed out that it is very normal for a country to keep land it acquired after winning a war. For Palestinians, accepting the 1948 mandate to create the state of Israel, they have already conceded 78 percent of historic Palestine. Therefore, to yield more land is to make a 'concession on a concession' and to give a pass to a violation of international law found in UNSCR 242.

When I asked an Israeli about 242 and pointed out that a Palestinian told me that 80 percent of the fence was being built in "West Bank" territories, the Israeli disagreed and said that the vast majority of the fence was being built on the 1967 line in accordance with international law. Agreement or the lack thereof of basic facts is another obstacle to overcome. But facts don't always matter, and especially here. There are situations where emotion and investment trump facts and reason. This is not limited to the Middle East or this situation; we see a disregard for facts in the U.S. with respect to gun and homicide rates, tax rates, the death penalty and murder rates, abortion, and a host of other contentious public policy issues.

The issue is not over who is going to keep than majority of the West Bank; the debate is will Israel get 3-4 percent or will Palestine get 98-99 percent; splitting hairs means so much to so many. We are not talking about a lot of land, but more than land is at stake here. We are talking about principle and pride: Palestinians have been right all along -- Israelis have been right all along. Both are right by virtue of historical reference, international law and religion.

Dr. Chuck Freilich, a former Deputy National Security Advisor to Israel, noted that he was working in the Israeli government in 2000 and intelligence reports he read indicated that six months prior, Arafat was contemplating launching a second Intifada (the first being in 1987) if he did not get 100 percent of his demands; but it was Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount that was the spark that ignited what had already been primed. Dr. Freilich continued that Arafat succeeded in "extorting more Israeli concessions... 91% went up to 97%, with a 1-2% land swap, meaning Israel was giving up 98-99% of the West Bank" which would have been a complete division of Jerusalem on its ethnic/national lines, "and again, he [Arafat] says no." Three years later, Israel withdrew from Gaza and it did not get anything in return except thousands of rockets because "peace was the last thing in the world Hamas wanted."

Several Israelis I spoke to note a hypothetical: even if Israelis gave 100 percent of what Palestinians wanted there would be no one who could deliver on the Palestinian end of the arrangement. Dr. Freilich said to me "in the real world, when someone offers you almost 100 percent of what you want, you take it. And you take it and maybe you swallow hard -- and this requires some tough compromises for the Palestinians -- but you take it... and maybe in the future, circumstances will present themselves which will enable us to get more." Dr. Freilich and other Israelis noted to me that even if a peace agreement were agreed upon, Palestinians would not be able to enforce it; it seems there will always be some rogue elements that will try to derail peace.

PAUL HEROUX previously lived and worked in the Middle East, was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, and is a frequent guest on TV and radio stations discussing the Middle East. Paul has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.

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