Ziad Asali
Cornell University
September 3, 2003 - 12:00am

For a conflict that has been described as intractable, insoluble and “centuries old”, the most dramatic feature about the Palestine/ Israel conflict is the near unanimous agreement about the contours of its final resolution. Think about that.

The majority of the Palestinians, Israelis, Arabs, Jews, Americans, Europeans, and people all over the world as well as global institutions and bodies are in support of an outline that goes as follows:

1. A two-state solution, Palestine alongside Israel, with borders established on international legality defined by UN Resolution 242, with minor mutually agreed-upon adjustments.

2. A shared, open Jerusalem, with the Arab part serving as a capital for Palestine and the Jewish part serving as the capital of Israel.

3. End of occupation and settlements.

4. A fair and equitable solution of the refugee problem, based on international legality, with resettlements, compensation and redress of moral and psychological grievances.

5. End of conflict and a complete cessation of violence between Israel and all Arab States, including Palestine, with open borders and normalized relations for all.

6. A Marshall Plan to rebuild Palestine and provide an underpinning for a lasting peace.

The Alternatives

The alternatives to this solution, one secular state, a bi-national state, continued occupation and apartheid, or mass transfer of millions of Palestinians, are not worthy of serious discussion at this point in our history, although they are bandied about. Jews did not struggle to be free of gentile domination and to have a state of their own only to end up negotiating giving it up to live in a secular state. A bi-national state requires a minimum of cooperation and coordination between equal partners, an option that we do not have at this point in time. Transferring millions of people is a political and physical fantasy that cannot be realized. There is no possible reason to expect that the Palestinian people will give up their national project for independence. They will never accept to live under apartheid nor settle for a rump, truncated or dependent state. All these options are but varying recipes for continued strife.

If the question is when do we achieve the solution rather than what kind of a solution are we to expect, it is supremely frustrating to witness the unending murders, the injuries, the demolitions and the sheer destruction and fear the people of both sides must endure before sanity prevails and peace is restored. It is hard to imagine in these days of turmoil, but it is indeed possible, that both people can live, build, enjoy and contribute to humankind.

Palestinian parents should not live in fear that their children will be killed by an Israeli soldier or a missile while walking on the way to school just as Israeli parents should not live in fear that their children will be blown up by a suicide bomber on the bus that takes them to school.

Why is it, we ask, do we have such a congruity of spoken objectives and paucity of implementation? Why is the will of dedicated extremist minorities in each society able to frustrate the will of the majorities and exercise its veto power with spectacular acts of violence against innocent civilians on both sides? Why are we, here in this hall, like so many hundreds of millions across the globe, concerning ourselves so seriously with a conflict that is thousands of miles away in a small piece of land?

There are no easy answers but there are ways to explore and probe, and it is my intention to do just that today.

A Brief Synopsis


Let me start out by presenting the briefest possible synopsis of the history of this modern conflict: Jewish people, persecuted in Europe and denied elementary justice came to the conclusion that they had to band together and establish a Jewish state free from gentile oppression. They started to immigrate to Palestine around the end of the 19th century, secured a legal foundation for their homeland from the British in 1917, and from the United Nations in 1947. Israel was established on 78% of the land of Palestine in 1948 and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians left and became refugees. In 1967 the rest of Palestine, known as the West Bank and Gaza was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War and has remained under occupation ever since. Around three and a half million Palestinians live under occupation as we speak. This, ladies and gentleman is the longest lasting occupation of modern times and the quest of the Palestinians for their freedom from this occupation and for establishing their own state is at the core of this conflict.

The problem with history is that it has been around for too long. It has provided arguments, based in fact, fiction or perceived wisdom, for each party to the conflict and even to those who seem to have no axe to grind.

The Two Narratives

There are two basic irreconcilable narratives that draw sustenance from history: In the most simplistic terms, the Jewish Zionist narrative, driven by memory of the Holocaust, claims the Holy Land as the Promised Land which is the patrimony of the Jews ordained by God and no one else has the right to it. Expansion, settlement building, expropriation of Palestinian lands, and appropriation of their water resources are natural consequences to this ideology. Security considerations evoked to demolish homes, transfer people or punish cities and towns with curfews, closures, impoverishment and humiliation find a receptive audience in subscribers to this narrative. Extremists in the settler movement and fanatics in political or military circles want to hold on to the dream of Eretz Israel free of Palestinians. They think they can militarily defeat the Palestinians and extinguish the idea of Palestine in Arab minds. They have no patience for those who voice concerns and raise issues of Palestinian national rights, demographics or basic human rights.

The Palestinian narrative, again in its crudest and most elementary form, is that of their dispossession by an alien, more powerful force with a bogus religious claim to the land. It is a tale of suffering from continued land-grab, dispossession, disinheritance, displacement coupled with powerlessness and with the virtual absence of an organized and effective military. It is oblivious to the suffering of the Jews in Europe and to the Holocaust and innocent of any knowledge of pogroms or Ghettos. All it feels is its own victimization and illegal usurpation of what it once had. A sense of justice violated and dignity insulted infuses and sustains its psychology of resistance. This mix has led to, and will continue to feed, a violent and bizarre phenomenon that has defined the Palestinians like no other people: the phenomenon of suicide bombing and political murder of civilians. Extremists, be they secular or religious, have refused to accept the Israel of 1948 or 1967, and hope to liberate the land from Zionism. They view the Two-State solution as a compromise of the weak and have used all means to frustrate a political compromise.

Fear and Loathing


These two narratives have come into clash, and have bred a political establishment, whether religious or secular, in either society, that contributed to a sense of monopoly on victimization. Steeped in fear, anger and frustration, a significant minority of each population has little room for acknowledging, let alone feeling, the pain of the other. Even more starkly, one can say that each segment views the suffering of the other as just revenge and deserved punishment. Compromise sounds to such people like appeasement and weakness if not outright treason. With every act of murderous violence inflicted on civilians people in each society become increasingly receptive to the racist, fascist arguments, sometimes openly stated but more often felt and implied, “They are not human; they understand nothing but force and violence; we should never show them any mercy because they will think it is a sign of weakness; a face for an eye and time is on our side.”

On the other hand, there is a growing sense of battle fatigue; devastated lives and economies, a sense of fear and despair of a better future for the children: the Palestinians fear that they may never have a state, and some Israelis fear that the future of Israel itself is in doubt. There is genuine concern on both sides for the corrupting and decaying influence of the conflict on both societies and their values.

If history has taught us anything, it has taught us this: Left to their own devices the Palestinians and Israeli will simply not be able to resolve this conflict. Period.

The gross imbalance of power between the parties, the erosion of the political clout of the peace camp in both sides and the depth of hostility that breeds a phenomenon like suicide bombing, and the hardening of Israeli attitudes manifested by tolerance of missiles directed at urban centers, are but a few factors that support such a conclusion. Were it a viable option, the rest of the world, as well as some American Administrations including this one, might wish to take a Rhett Butler approach, to walk away and frankly not give a damn. All serious people, however, realize that this not possible.

The Story of Our Times

The Palestine Israel conflict is the central story of our times; it encapsulates in a tiny patch of land, with a small number of people, the sum total of large human conflicts throughout history. An incendiary mix of religions, cultures, civilizations, races and ethnic groups has provided the historical setting for the clashes of modern times: liberation versus oppression; freedom versus occupation; self-determination versus colonialism; fanaticism versus secularism; traditionalism versus modernism; capitalism versus a mix of defunct socialism or feudalism; justice versus power; chaos versus complexity; corruption versus idealism; the third world versus the white man and his proxy; and F16s versus the suicide bomber. Indeed, there are many more elements of drama within and among these societies that do not allow this conflict to be neatly contained and confined to the combatants. At the least numerical assignation, it will pit 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide against the West.


Of all the political and social ills that afflict the Arab and Muslim people, the Palestine story has captured their imagination and touched their core feelings of violation and powerlessness. This is the stuff that breeds terror. A metaphysical, absolutist, cold cadre of operatives seeking self-annihilation is roaming the land. A self-replicating enemy that is driven by issues put to deadly use. An enemy that you can defeat not by annihilation, but by denying it the opportunity to exploit issues that burn in the hearts of young people yearning to fight injustice.

Fear, anger, despair, injustice and an almost exclusive sense of victimization on both sides have their most damaging consequences in narrowing the space needed for policy options. Public discourse is stunted, simplistic and crude. Sloganeering has taken the place of honest analysis in many political and media circles. It is easier in this climate to follow the safe course of demonizing and dehumanizing the “other.” To assume the worst and to impugn the motives of the other is much safer than to explore possibilities of compromise and working out solutions, wherein you run the risk of being labeled as naïve at best, and a sell out at worst. Politicians, even the few with courage, are caught in this logic and find it more prudent to assign all blame to the declared enemies on the other side than to forthrightly address their own constituents. The tried and true policies of the past, built on total mistrust with aggressive intent, are much more convenient to pursue and will bring about yet more catastrophes and mayhem. These fundamentally violent policies have born this rotten fruit. Their logic, which traps traditional decision makers on either side, makes it imperative to have a third party intervene and take charge to lead us all out of this deadly impasse.

U.S. National Interest

Make no mistake: We in this country have a fundamental national security interest in addressing and resolving, rather than merely “managing,” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No single decision we make can top the resolution of this conflict to enhance our national security. We also happen to be the only party in the world that is capable of doing so. We have the leverage with billons of dollars doled out to Israel annually, and a hundred million dollars given to the Palestinians annually. We have the political, military and social tools needed to make our choices and proposed solutions carry the weight we want. We have Media with the global reach to add credibility to the policies that we may chose to adopt. Our longstanding, tried and tested commitment to the existence and well-being of Israel should give it enough assurance that we will stand by our commitment and see it through. The Palestinians have but one party left in the world that can deliver to them a state of Palestine and that is us.

The fact is that we are the one indispensable party to the solution. We have historically leaned heavily towards Israel. It has been an emotional issue, a domestic policy issue. We have managed to steer it in such a way that it has not adversely affected our relations with the Arab and Muslim governments but certainly not with their people. The seething anger of the Arab and Muslim people had not manifested itself to us prior to 9/11 and the power of incitement of Arab satellite TV stations had not channeled the anger of the masses against us so visibly before. The Palestinian issue has not motivated Bin Laden and Al Qaeda but it is the key to diffusing and containing their influence. It is in our interest as Americans to do so. Dealing seriously with this issue is not, as some claim, caving in to terrorism; on the contrary it is precisely the best tool to defeat it.

Our choice to support a State of Palestine alongside Israel, as voiced by the President on many occasions, should be the beginning of establishing a genuine democratic, constitutional state, with modern tools of governance, transparency, free speech, free enterprise, and free men and women protected by law. This, more than any other decision, will help steer that region away from the scourge of terrorism and fanatical religious extremism. The United States itself has lacked credibility in its failure to be an honest broker in the past; Tenet, Mitchell, Zini, and now the Roadmap are proposals and agreements that were crying out for implementation. None of them is perfect, however, it is now our challenge to implement what we proposed, adopted and celebrated: the plan of the day is the Roadmap, which both the Palestinians and the Israelis have accepted.

We, like all enablers, have let violations of this agreement go unpublicized, unchecked and unpunished. We have condemned terrorism with every breath we exhale and asked the Palestinian Authority to “do more” to eradicate it. All successive Prime Ministers of Israel have been unable to root out terrorism, including Sharon who placed no limits on his army as they dealt out collective punishment to the whole Palestinian society. No Palestinian Authority can accomplish this task outside a political framework. Viewing and dealing with this conflict exclusively as a security problem without resolving the political issues simultaneously has been a miserable policy failure. It is, in fact, a recipe for extending the period of suffering and mayhem.

What is to be done?

It is time that we think more of our children’s future than our father’s past. Should we decide to measure up to the task of resolving this conflict in our time we have the following steps to ponder:

1. We need to agree clearly on objectives such as the proposed historic compromise of a two-state solution based UN resolution 242. Confidence building measures that are supposed to lead us to an “End Game” are doomed because the parties involved have consistently failed to demonstrate any measure of good will that justifies confidence.

2. We need to establish bridges among people and institutions that support the historic compromise of all religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Such bridges need to develop into political mechanisms and tools to impact decision making.

3. We need to isolate extremists, secular and fundamentalists, and to expose their threat to peace and to universal values of equality of people. Each group has a special obligation to speak out against extremists within its own ranks and to condemn their actions.

4. The United States can begin to seriously resolve this conflict only if it has the political will to do so. Its credibility will be measured by the public and effective measures taken to:

  a. Support a two-state solution based on U.N. Resolution 242.
  b. Lead the parties to implement the existing agreements and bring to a halt any and all measures, including the wall/fence, that preclude the compromise.
  c. Provide for and oversee a program for security in the West Bank and Gaza under American supervision. Security will never be provided by any of the local combatants and it has to be a third party domain.
  d. Oversee an International Economic Aid package to rebuild the country and secure the peace.

5. Palestinian leaders, in and out of office, should promulgate and generate support for a document about their own vision of the “Final Status”. Clear positions need to be articulated about the controversial issues like Jerusalem, refugees and borders. All acts of violence against civilians should be condemned and must cease. Honest communication with the people about the needed compromises cannot be avoided much longer. This process should lead to debate, reform, and elections.

6. Arab leaders must also share the collective responsibility for compromise and those who shirk this responsibility must face political consequences. They should engage their public and the world in support of the Beirut Arab League resolution to end the conflict.

7. Israeli supporters of the historic compromise, in and out of office, should organize and state their position in public. Renunciations of metaphysical claims that justify land grab are fundamental to the package that leads to the end of conflict with no further claims. Occupying other people’s land and lording it over them cannot be sustained. Incremental land grab that precludes the formation of a viable Palestinian State must cease. Violence against civilians must cease. Jewish people in Israel and all over the world must hold those who perpetrate the measures taken in their name into account.

8. We, all of us, need to push in every way we can for expanding the scope of freedom in the Arab and Islamic World. This cannot be done by forcing a grotesque emulation of Western democracies, but rather by a steady program of opening up and securing economic opportunities, educational reform and accountable governments. The West can genuinely help rather than pontificate and condescend. The Palestinian issue should be removed as an excuse or justification for all the actions that Arab governments undertake.

9. American and international institutions and individuals should organize a superfund to support the private sector and provide humanitarian aid to rebuild the Palestinian society.

The measures just outlined can lead to resolution of this conflict.


This is not a good versus evil saga. It is rather a sad tale of two peoples caught in a web of debris from an unkind history.

Nothing we do, however, can substitute for a serious understanding of the issues, one that keeps our grasp on universal human values intact as we labor in our quest to do the best we can. This issue has become too serious to be left to politicians alone. When future historians write about our era, they will either ask what went wrong or how catastrophe was avoided. It is up to us, all of us, to provide them with an answer.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017