Q. Wouldn’t we be wiser—and safer—if we stopped interfering [in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict] and left the tribes to their conflict?
A. No, because this conflict is not fundamentally about two tribes fighting over one piece of land. The conflict is essentially ideological. It’s a clash between a basically free society and movements and regimes hostile to human freedom and progress. Therefore it’s a grave mistake to think that by turning our back on the Middle East and suspending our judgment, we can make ourselves safer. Far from it. Part of what I show in my book, What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, is that to the extent U.S. policymakers disregarded the demands of justice in their approach to the conflict, they made matters worse and empowered our regional enemies. Any sensible policy requires that we be guided by a serious commitment to the principle of justice in understanding the conflict and evaluating the adversaries.
Since the question presupposes a misconception about the nature of the conflict, I’ll start by focusing on that. To view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as just a quarrel over one piece of land fails to recognize the fundamental nature of this conflict. Such a characterization is about as accurate as saying that the American Civil War was about “states’ rights.” It obscures the fundamental moral issue. Clearly, the Civil War was about a momentous issue: the evil institution of slavery. Correspondingly, I show in my book that when you zero in on the actual nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what you find is a clash between freedom and tyranny. And it matters a lot. It’s an inescapable fact that turmoil in that part of the world affects us.
It’s true that Israel and its various adversaries have fought over claims over one piece of land. And, certainly, tribalism—and more broadly, collectivism—does figure prominently in the conflict, a point that I explore in the book (and I’ll say a bit more about this below). But the pivotal question about the land is what each side seeks to do with it, which is a moral-political question. What kind of society does each seek to build on it? And the yardstick that applies here is the moral ideal of human freedom.
Israel’s political-legal system is predicated on the idea that government should protect the lives and freedom of individuals. Even with Israel’s many faults and shortcomings, which I discuss at length in the book, it is the region’s only free society. It respects the rule of law, it protects intellectual freedom—notably, the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. It enables individuals to live and act by their own judgment, protecting their freedom to pursue their own success and thrive. By contrast, a common denominator among Israel’s adversaries across decades is that in their political vision and actual practice, they’re hostile to human freedom and progress. They are dictatorships, monarchies, and theocracies. They are variations on one distinct theme: religious subjugation of the individual.
Go back seventy years, for example, to the war over Israel’s independence in 1948. Israel’s main adversaries then were dictatorial Muslim regimes. The aim of the five invading regimes—Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan,1 and Iraq—was to expand their own dominions by conquering the land known as Palestine. That tract of land is desirable militarily and commercially, offering ports on the Mediterranean and Red Seas. A principal, if not the overriding, aim of these five authoritarian regimes was to arrogate to themselves the spoils of war. Had the invading regimes won, they would have extended their authoritarian and dictatorial rule over the people on that land.
In later phases of the conflict between Israel and its adversaries, you can see some of the same dictatorial regimes and their allies, including in due course the Palestinian movement, seeking to dominate human lives and to “liquidate” Israel.
There’s abundant evidence that the Palestinian movement’s various factions sought to create their own authoritarian regimes—and in fact, they did so to the extent they gained even a modicum of self-rule, for example in the Palestinian Authority (1993–present).
The vanguard of the Palestinian cause is now the Islamists, notably Hamas, and their declared aim is to establish a totalitarian regime under Islamic religious law. That’s the perverse ideal that Hamas has worked to realize within its quasi-state in the Gaza Strip (2007–present). Standing behind Hamas and kindred groups is a leader of the jihadist movement, the Islamic totalitarian regime in Iran.
There’s much more to say about the conflict’s nature, but here’s one important takeaway. The conflict is best understood as a clash between a basically free society, Israel—and regimes and movements hostile to human life and freedom.
Why does this matter to us? Part of the answer I lay out in my book is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become nested within the wider clash between free societies and the Islamist movement.
The fact of the matter is that Osama Bin Laden, the ayatollahs of Iran, and other jihadists have long viewed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of their battlefronts, and they have used it (along with other issues) as a means of recruitment. Their hostility to Israel stems fundamentally from their ideological conviction that Muslims must dominate everywhere, notably including in Palestine. It is this same outlook that shapes their hostility to America (which Iran has long vilified as the “Great Satan”).
The Islamists rail against American foreign policy, including U.S. support for Israel. But neither an American departure from the region, nor even the cessation of Washington’s backing of Israel, would pacify the Islamists. In another essay at New Ideal and in my book, I have argued that their basic objection is that we’re unbelievers, everything we do is an affront, and, in the end, it is they who should dominate, in the name of religious totalitarianism.
Turning our back to this reality cannot advance American interests, precisely because the conflict is far more than a quarrel between two tribes.
The failure of American policymakers to take seriously what justice demands in dealing with the conflict—at times suspending moral judgment, at times practicing moral neutrality—has led to disastrous results. In What Justice Demands I show at length how [U.S.] policy in the region generally, and regarding Israel in particular, has failed to advance our interests. In fact, our policy has sold out the ideal of freedom, while enabling and strengthening our enemies, chiefly the jihadists. Everyone who values freedom should stand alongside genuine freedom-seekers—within Israel, among the Palestinian community, across the Middle East—and against our common enemies.
A version of this article appeared in New Ideal.
To learn more about the proper method of analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and how to bring peace and human flourishing to all of the Middle East, read Elan Journo’s What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.