In June 2014, a jihadist group linked to Al Qaeda conquered large tracts of Syria and Iraq. After this swift rise to power, which took the world by surprise, the group declared itself a formal “caliphate,” or Islamist regime. Within the territory it controlled, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, enforced Islamic religious law as a totalitarian system, following in the footsteps of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Iranian regime, and Saudi Arabia.
The eruption of this new jihadist regime had ripple effects far, far beyond the Middle East. The Islamic State rapidly became a magnet for as many as thirty thousand people who flocked to live, fight, and die under its black flag. They came not only from across the Middle East, but also—astonishingly—from across Europe and North America. And beyond the territory it conquered in Iraq and Syria—equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom—the Islamic State proved itself a formidable jihadist force with global reach. Fighters linked to the Islamic State carried out massacres and suicide bombings in Paris, Berlin, Nice, San Bernardino, Istanbul, Orlando, Manchester, London.
Amid an embarrassed scramble to “do something” in response to the Islamic State’s initial rise, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was dispatched to recruit an international coalition to combat the self-styled caliphate. Upon his return home, Kerry told reporters about a crucial lesson he had learned. While seeking coalition partners in the Middle East, he observed that “there wasn’t a leader I met with in the region who didn’t raise with me spontaneously the need to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger.”
By “recruitment,” Kerry meant to the jihadist forces of the Islamic State, at the time perhaps the most galvanizing faction within the wider Islamist movement. The Palestine issue is one prominent theme in the recruitment videos and literature of assorted Islamist factions, and it has been for years.
By “street anger,” he meant public hostility in the region about the unresolved Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is bound up with hostility toward the United States. Why? For more than a quarter century, Washington has been neck-deep in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it has provided both sides with foreign aid—hundreds of millions of dollars every year—and it has assumed the role of a peace broker in countless rounds of diplomatic negotiations.
Kerry is not alone. The fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict festers, many people believe, is a major, if not the chief, source of American (and Western) woes emanating from the Middle East. You can hear variations on that theme from Barack Obama; from Ban Ki-moon, the former secretary general of the United Nations; from President Jimmy Carter, a winner of the Nobel Peace prize; from General David Petraeus, former director of the CIA and U.S. Central Command; from General James Mattis, the secretary of defense under Donald Trump; from leading intellectuals and academics.
Even if you disagree with Kerry’s linkage of the jihadist movement and the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even if you’ve given no thought to the Middle East or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, it’s an inescapable fact that turmoil in that part of the world affects us. What’s more, it’s undeniable that Washington’s approach to unraveling the conflict has come to naught—and arguably, it’s made matters worse.
What, then, should be America’s approach toward the conflict? That’s the central question I address in What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The answer I offer is unique, in two respects.
First, I address active-minded readers who hold widely ranging political-ideological views: whichever tags—left/right or conservative/libertarian/progressive—resonate with you, that’s OK. If, like me, none of those tags fits you, that’s fine too. Nor does it matter how little you know about the conflict, nor what views (if any) you already have about it. What matters is that you’re open to questioning assumptions and forming (or revising) your own conclusions.
Second, the substance of the answer I present in the book is unique. Something crucial is lacking from the public discussion of what America’s approach should be. What’s missing is a frank moral evaluation of both adversaries and of America’s role in the conflict. That moral assessment is what I present in my book. Let me sketch three salient views on what America’s approach should be, and then indicate how my perspective differs.
‘Find the Middle Ground’
The prevailing approach to resolving the conflict calls for rebooting diplomatic negotiations, commonly known as the Peace Process. These negotiations aim at a middle-ground compromise between the adversaries. Even if you are sympathetic to one side (or the other), so the thinking goes, a balanced compromise that both sides could accept would deliver some semblance of harmony, perhaps even peace. Here’s how President Barack Obama put it:
… if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth. The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.
This is widely known as the “two-state solution.” In a nutshell: the Israelis keep their state, the Palestinians gain one for themselves, and in theory the two states co-exist side-by-side, in peace. The two-state solution has been Washington’s policy for the last quarter century. Each administration clung to that basic approach, while tweaking the timeframe, sequencing, terms of the peace process. To reach a compromise, for example, George W. Bush believed the Palestinians had to be nudged to improve their governance, whereas Barack Obama felt that progress could happen only by pressuring Israel.
No tinkering with this basic model, however, has achieved the stated goal of peace. To judge by the body counts, it has only made things worse. And, fundamentally, there’s something profoundly disturbing about a purported solution that pushes aside questions of right and wrong.
Recoiling from that pursuit of “balance,” there are two other salient views on what America’s approach should be. One demands justice for Israel, the other, in its own way, for Palestine.
‘Do Right By Israel’
Many Americans, polls show, are remarkably sympathetic to Israel. One study in 2014 found that, compared with data going back to 1978, “sympathy toward Israel has never been higher.” For some, there’s a generalized benevolence toward the Middle East’s only democracy, beleaguered on all sides by hostile forces, that shares some of our political values. Often that conclusion is impressionistic, lacking detailed knowledge, let alone an evaluation, of Palestinian grievances. So, that pro-Israel stand can, and does, wobble.
Far more stable, however, is the fervent backing of one vocal bloc of voters, Evangelical Christians. Arguably they constitute the backbone of pro-Israel sentiment in America. John Hagee, the pastor of a megachurch in San Antonio, Texas, has made being pro-Israel his signature issue. Hagee celebrates the post-World War II establishment of Israel as a state with a distinctively religious identity. “Every Christian in America,” he explains, “has a biblical mandate to stand in absolute solidarity with Israel and demand that our leaders in Washington stop recommending Israel’s withdrawal as the solution to every conflict” (meaning: Israeli concessions to the Palestinians).
He insists that “the man or the nation that has blessed Israel has been blessed of God, and to the man or the nation that cursed Israel the judgment of God came in spades.” God, the ultimate authority on justice, commands us to back Israel, and rewards those who obey.
Only those of a particular faith could find this view compelling, and if you were to examine it closely, leaving the appeals to the supernatural aside, you’d still come away with at least two thorny, unanswered questions: What are we to make of the morally-freighted claims and grievances of Palestinians and the movement that claims to represent them? (Hagee has no patience for the Palestinians and marginalizes them by rewriting the conflict’s history.) And, what if we identify Israeli policies that are unjust; how could it then be just to lend it uncritical support?
‘Do Right By the Palestinians’
A widespread opposing view holds just that: To do right by the Palestinians, we must begin by recognizing that they have suffered a double injustice: not only from Israeli policy, but also from Washington’s “Israel First” policy, especially in its role as broker in the peace talks. Instead of seeking a fair outcome, we hear, America exhibited a blatantly pro-Israel bias, providing Israel with largely unconditional support, while short-changing Palestinians. At minimum we have to take our thumb off the scales, allowing them to tilt away from Israel and back toward the Palestinians, who suffer acute poverty, unemployment, hopelessness.
Step into a college lecture hall, and you’ll hear that justice demands even more. From their professors and from campus activists, many students learn that the mighty Israel ill-treats the weak, impoverished Palestinians—and we Americans enable it to punch downward. They learn that Israel has persistently thwarted the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian cause—and we arm Israel. They learn that by conniving in Israel’s maltreatment of the Palestinians, we stoke hostility against us.
Thus the pervasive indictment: America is way too supportive of Israel—and it should not be. Justice demands doing far more to support the Palestinians, and distancing ourselves from the “war-crimes”-inflicting “apartheid” regime in Israel, which deserves (at least) boycotts, divestment, and sanctions to compel it to mend its ways.
This outlook, so resonant with many people, is built on powerful moral claims. But, if we take justice seriously, there are fundamental problems with this outlook. Here’s one: Do the facts warrant the claim that Washington has pursued a blindly pro-Israel policy? (The facts, as I show in the book, tell a different story.)
And another: This outlook declares its concern about the grievances of specific Palestinian individuals, but then regards the Palestinian movement as their legitimate agent, fighting to redress those wrongs. Is that assumption about the Palestinian movement warranted? No, I argue, that assumption is belied by the movement’s actual goals and nature. There’s no genuine wrong that can be righted by the creation of a dictatorship or an Islamist theocracy—the goals, respectively, of Fatah and Hamas, the leading Palestinian factions.
Taking Justice Seriously
In sharp contrast to these salient views about what America’s approach should be, I present a distinctive viewpoint. That viewpoint is the result of taking seriously the principle of justice.
My moral framework is not religious, but secular; it’s concerned not with collectives, but with the lives of individual, irreplaceable human beings; and it holds certain values—human life, freedom, progress—as objective: values for everyone, at all times, in all places. This secular, individualist moral framework helps us make sense of an intimidatingly complex conflict.
From this vantage point, the book identifies the essential nature of the conflict, presents an argument about what’s at stake in it, and indicates a path toward resolving it. Has American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict been unjust? Has our policy fomented anti-American hostility, especially among jihadists?
Yes and yes—but not for the reasons you may have heard. The actual injustice is that America has sold out the region’s only free society, Israel—along with freedom-seeking people across the Middle East and among the Palestinian community—while empowering jihadist forces. And it is this injustice that hurts us.
The book’s theme is that America should be strongly supportive of freedom and freedom-seekers—but hasn’t been, much to our detriment. To demonstrate that point, I show why it’s necessary to rethink the widely accepted moral assumptions about the conflict’s moral landscape. Fundamentally, most of us rely on a conception of justice that’s wrong. Only when we apply a proper conception of justice, can we evaluate both adversaries objectively.
In doing so, we have to take on the hard issues—on both sides. For example, we need to examine several episodes in the conflict’s history to understand the origin and goals of the Palestinian movement and foundational Palestinian grievances (where we find cases of genuine wrongs, we note how these might be redressed). We also look at the inner tension over Israel’s “Jewish” and “democratic” character.
What, then, does justice demand of us in this conflict? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has indeed become nested within the wider clash between freedom and the Islamist movement. Like our society, Israel has flaws and shortcomings. Yet, also like our society, it protects the freedom of individuals. It is the only free society in the Mideast. And its chief foe — the jihadist cause — is also ours.
So if you value human life, freedom, and progress, then you should stand with Israel—as well as with everyone else in the region who seeks genuine freedom, including those among the Palestinian population who do. On principle. We should support Israel precisely because (and to the extent that) it respects and upholds freedom. By the same token, we should stand against the movements and regimes hostile to freedom.
The conflict is solvable, and we can attain American interests in that tumultuous region. But only by taking justice seriously can we begin down the path toward a truly just solution.