During the time last week when Egypt was brokering a truce in Gaza, televised news reports said that the proceedings were going slowly because the two sides – Israel and Hamas – refused to face each other in the same room. Whatever one side said had to be conveyed by messenger to the other. This sort of mutual intolerance more or less symbolizes why there is no peace in Palestine. The most basic requirements for negotiation have not been met.
The conventional wisdom, today as in the past, is that a two-state solution is inevitable, but the road to getting there hasn’t been found. The US has been viewed as an honest broker during the entire Palestinian standoff, going back to the Nixon era, until the Iraq War aroused tremendous anti-American hostility on the Arab side. As events swing back and forth, as hostilities rise and fall, conditions on the ground have remained remarkably the same as they were in 1948 when the state of Israel was founded.
At that moment a yawning gulf was established between a new country that sees itself as Western, democratized, and advanced and a dispossessed mass of refugees who are poor, backward, and politically chaotic. The cultural mismatch was extreme, as it remains today. Over time, the possibility for peace was made impossible for one simple reason: Neither side wants it enough.
Peace isn’t arrived at when one side has suffered enough pain to give up or has been forced by armed might to surrender. If it were, Israel would have prevailed long ago. The defiance of the Hamas leadership who taunted Israel to invade last week is the same kind of suicidal impulse that drives fanatical jihadis to strap bombs to themselves. Peace isn’t arrived at through exhaustion, either; time always brings a new generation ready to rearm and throw themselves into the fray. Peace isn’t arrived at because one side owns the moral high ground. In this case, Israel has the moral high ground when it says it wants merely to survive as a state – that’s a basic claim no one can deny. But at the same time the rise of the religious right in Israel means that both sides claim that God is on their side. Moral persuasion fades when religious fundamentalism is in force.
The reality on the ground is a state of perpetual non-peace, and the fact that both sides can live that way is testimony to the endless ability of humans to adapt. Israel lives behind a wall, recruits its citizens into universal conscript, acquires advanced military systems, and carries on being a Western -style democracy. The Palestinians carry on as a defiant ghetto culture, perpetually aggrieved, helpless to better their lot until families find a way to emigrate somewhere else. The ghetto could be turned into a prosperous region with a fraction of the oil revenues amassed in the Arab world, but their neighbors have their own differences with the Palestinians and prefer to have a rhetorical weapon that can be used against Israel.
Both sides are so well adapted that they don’t want peace enough to pursue it. On television one sees rage, frustration, pain, panic, and intransigence – Israel and the Palestinians pay a price for non-peace. The price is never-ending stress. Since peace is never achieved through pain, the stress level will rise and fall, as it has in the past. Truces will be made and broken. At intervals blood will be shed. The only chance that peace will have, in some far-off tomorrow, depends on a culture of peace arising on both sides. Such a culture is possible. Germany and Japan arrived at one after catastrophic defeat. America has a percentage of the population dedicated to one, and if there is ever a tipping point, peace already has millions of voice to counter militarism, arms dealing, nuclear stockpiles, and a taste for war among the right wing. The culture of peace has yet to prevail anywhere. A shift to peace consciousness is the best hope for the world and the only hope for the Middle East, however long it takes.