‘In Israel, the group which has sketched out its bold vision of the future most clearly, invested resources at scale, and done the daily incremental work required to transform reality has undoubtedly been the settler movement.’ In this reflective essay, European Director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) John Lyndon sets out how the two-state camp in Israel, and the secular Palestinians, have chosen short-term gains over long-term goals. If the peace camp is to return to its height of the early 1990s, Lyndon argues it must heed the lessons of long-termism of the settler movement and re-learn how to implement real change in Israel.
November 2017 saw the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, that critical and controversial milestone on the road to Israel’s establishment. Six months later came the 70th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel, the War of Independence and the ‘Nakba’: the centrifugal events that have powered the conflict and their parallel narratives ever since. And just a few months ago we marked the 25th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, the flawed attempt to create a new paradigm within which those narratives could co-exist and be — if not reconciled — then perhaps softened, until disagreement about the past no longer precluded agreement on the future.
But 1917, 1948 and 1993 did not appear out of thin air. Like most significant moments of socio-political transformation, each was the culmination of long-term processes of incremental change driven by the collective actions of dedicated and determined people.
Balfour could not have happened without the growth of modern Zionism during the preceding decades, the investment of economic, political and diplomatic resources, and the catalytic power of the First World War. Equally, the establishment of Israel would have been impossible without the incremental progress that Zionists made on the ground in Mandate Palestine. ‘One more dunam, one more goat,’ was a winning strategy, as was the gradual, methodical and efficient creation of the apparatus of state by the Yishuv, painstakingly paving a road upon which sovereignty became the logical next-step.
The Oslo Accords may have seemed to arrive out of the sky like a cosmic monolith in 1993, but in reality, it was the logical outcome of a chain of events starting with the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) acceptance of two-states five years earlier and the impact of the First Intifada in clarifying the unsustainability of the status quo to many Israelis, paving the way for the Likud’s defeat in 1992.
In short, these transformative moments in the conflict had deeper roots, and were the products of tremendous investments of time, resources and political capital. Those who shaped these outcomes understood what was needed: an audacious, improbable (but tantalising) strategic goal; and the dedication, the willingness to sacrifice and forgo, to spot opportunities and seize them through a tactical discipline that keeps peoples’ eyes on the prize, whilst their limbs make incremental, measurable progress towards that goal.
In that light, let us ask a question: what will the historians of the future say about our own period? Who has been making the often little-noticed but tactically astute moves, day by day, to shape the next transformative moment in this region? For supporters of a two-state solution, the answers to these questions are not pleasant, but they need to be confronted.
Zionism and the long-termism of the Settler Movement
In Israel, the group which has sketched out its bold vision of the future most clearly, invested resources at scale, and done the daily incremental work required to transform reality has undoubtedly been the settler movement.
In an excellent op-ed lamenting the end of the Oslo era, Lara Friedman, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, recalled her time serving at the (recently shuttered) US Consulate in East Jerusalem. These were the days of hope, when we two-staters, to borrow a phrase, ‘were the future once’:
Not long after the signing of the Oslo Accords, I travelled with a colleague to meet a settler leader at his office in the settlement of Psagot. The world may have its peace process, this man argued, but we, the settlers, have concrete plans that will prevent it. He showed us map after map depicting bypass roads and massive infrastructure that would enable the settlements to continue growing, and connect settlements to each other, and connect all of this seamlessly with Israel proper. One day soon, he argued, settlements will be so much a part of Israel that nobody will be able to talk about giving up land to the Arabs. My colleague and I drove away shaking our heads, marvelling at this man’s ability to operate in such a deep state of denial about political realities. In retrospect, I marvel today at the very long game he and his fellow travellers, both in the United States and Israel, were playing, and their incredible success.
A tiny fraction of ‘Greater Israel’ acolytes were willing to use extreme violence, as in the massacre at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994 and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, events that shifted the course of Oslo in ways that are hard to over-estimate. Many more, however, created change through the infiltration of institutions, the slow creation of ‘facts on the ground,’ and the gradual alteration of public opinion, laws and norms.
What has happened to the Likud Party is a very good example of this dynamic. The settler movement recognised that the mainstream party most aligned with its vision could always be more aligned. The YESHA Council has long encouraged its members to join the party and vote in ways that strengthen the settlers’ agenda, pushing sympathetic aspiring Likud leaders further up the party’s list for the Knesset. In Hebron and Yitzhar, two settlements noted for extremism and violence, there were almost five times as many Likud members as Likud voters in 2013. This methodical and dedicated tactic made possible the unanimous passage of a landmark Likud Party resolution in 2017 supporting unlimited settlement construction and annexation of parts of the West Bank.
The Israel Defence Forces (IDF), perhaps Israel’s most venerated institution, has not been immune from such phenomena. Last year I visited the settlement of Eli, located far beyond the Separation Barrier in the centre of the West Bank, and in land that must make up a Palestinian state in any possible two-state agreement. Eli is also home to the Bnei David pre-military Mechina academy, training some of the most able recruits in the IDF. The Mechina was founded in 1988, and trains 500 students a year, 40 per cent of whom become officers in the IDF, with the vast majority of graduates serving in combat or elite units within an IDF that has ten times as many Orthodox men graduating from officer training programmes than was the case in the 1990s. Whilst most of these graduates likely live within the Green Line, and hold a variety of political views, a 2017 PEW survey found that Orthodox Israelis were more than twice as likely to favour settlements than their secular counterparts.
This sort of pioneering dedication was once the hallmark of secular Labor Zionism. Within three years of the Holocaust and the extermination of six million Jews, Israel sacrificed one per cent of its population in the War of Independence, defeated all of its neighbours and founded a state. Within 18 years of that state being founded, it was the sole nuclear power in the region. A year later, it could beat all of its neighbours in just six days, and over the intervening decades, it increased its population to around 8.5m, its GDP per capita to $40k — higher than the UK’s — and established itself as the most powerful state, economy and military in the region. The level of sacrifice, determination, and long-term vision that is required to accomplish such a feat is stunning.
As Michael Walzer has written in The Paradox of Liberation (reviewed in Fathom by James Bloodworth), the phenomenon of secular national liberation movements being superseded by religious successors is not unique to Israel. However, the settler movement’s political vision is not limited to the nature of Israeli society. It has a clear territorial agenda that is nothing short of transformative in its implications for Israeli democracy, regional security, and global geopolitics. And through dynamism and diligence — and despite the great odds stacked against them — it is succeeding.
In 1999, when Ehud Barak, the most recent Labor Zionist prime minister, was elected, there were around 385,000 settlers living beyond the Green Line. Today — despite the presumably disincentivising events of the Second Intifada with regards to the attractiveness of moving one’s family to the West Bank, and the evacuation of 9,000 settlers from Gaza and northern parts of the West Bank in 2005 — there are more than twice that number, with over 800,000 people living beyond the Green Line. That increase was not accidental. It was the result of a long-term strategy executed with tactical discipline and with a willingness to sacrifice much in the short-term in order to achieve it. These are methods those of us serious about peace must study and re-learn.
The Palestinian National Movement and the long-termism of the Islamists
Equally, whilst many may bristle at the comparison, the Palestinian national movement in its earlier phase shared some characteristics with Zionism. It too resurrected a dormant national identity: it’s important to remember that in the two decades following 1948, the ‘Palestinians’ were barely acknowledged as that, scattered across refugee camps, with Gaza and the West Bank absorbed respectively by Egypt and Jordan, and the world largely seeing theirs as a humanitarian plight rather than a national one. In the aftermath of 1967, the Palestinian cause evolved from a small group of fedayeen, mounting attacks on isolated infrastructure in Israel, to a dynamic movement under the control of Fatah and its chief, Yasser Arafat. It was sufficiently popular and effective enough to make King Hussein fearful of it taking over the Kingdom of Jordan, while the State of Israel was preoccupied with its capacity to foment revolt in the Occupied Territories.
Within months of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, Arafat was on the cover of TIME Magazine (the first of 12 appearances). Seven years later, the PLO was the sole entity capable of representing the Palestinian people, had seats on several international bodies, and Arafat was addressing the UN General Assembly, where the PLO had observer status. None of this was accidental. Set against the slow moving, conservative and inefficient states that made up much of the Arab world at the time, the PLO’s dynamic progress from a very low base — amplified by the frequent application of outrageous acts of violence — was undeniably impressive.
With the desperately poor refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as its recruiting ground, the PLO still managed to raise large sums for its operations. With interesting parallels to how early Zionism leveraged the Jewish diaspora to achieve its goals, between 5-10 per cent of the salaries of roughly 300,000 Palestinians that were working in the Gulf states by the mid-1970s was taxed by the PLO, augmented by donations from the Gulf monarchies, who were markedly more keen to fund the PLO then than they are to support the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority (PA) now.
There was also an evolving pragmatism, seen most clearly in the acceptance of a two-state solution in Algiers in 1988, and in the signing of the Oslo Accords and recognition of Israel, showing a determination to achieve some semblance of territorial control, even if initially limited to Gaza and Jericho.
However, just as in Israel, the recent past, the present and perhaps the future have not been kind to the secular, pragmatic nationalists, whose fate around the entire Arab world — and beyond, as Michael Walzer has shown with reference to India — has been perilous. Instead, reflecting those same regional developments, it has been the Islamists who have seemed to have the whip hand in the evolution of Palestinian national politics.
Like the settler movement, the Islamists can look back on inauspicious beginnings, when their chances of success seemed remote. Yet, again like the settlers, they understood the need to build gradually but measurably over the long-term toward a goal that — by its inherently outlandish nature —would be some way off. For the dynamic forces that began to gather in Gaza in the early 1980s, inspired and connected to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, that goal was the Islamisation of Palestine, which they saw as necessary to defeating Israel, but also as a temporal and spiritual priority in its own right.
They spent those early years providing social services — schools, clinics, welfare — and were aided by the largesse of benefactors in the Gulf, the small-dollar zakah donations of pious Muslims at home, and a degree of tacit approval from Israel, which saw Islamist groups as a counterweight to the PLO. The provision of services bound these nascent Islamic groups to their communities and allowed them to win hearts and minds. They were filling a void, not only due to the effects of the on-going occupation, but also as a result of the PLO’s increasingly remote presence, having by the mid-1980s moved its operational hub ever-further from the land it sought to liberate, fleeing from Jordan to Lebanon, and then to Tunisia, 3,000 km from Jerusalem. It was this vacuum of leadership that helped to catalyse the First Intifada in late 1987, and Hamas was officially born nine months later, publishing its infamous anti-Semitic charter.
Hamas quickly began creating a network of institutions beyond their schools and clinics. Islamic banks, media outlets, research institutes and mentorship programmes proliferated.
As early as 1990, Hamas was demanding 40 per cent of the seats in the Palestine National Council (PNC), as a reflection of what it believed to be its popular support, a demand Arafat rejected. By the mid-1990s Hamas was mounting horrendous attacks like the 1994 Dizengoff bus bombing which killed 22 people and was at the time the most deadly suicide attack in Israeli history, and was timed to coincide with — and disrupt — the Israeli/Jordanian peace treaty. They failed to prevent Prime Minister Rabin and King Hussein from making peace, and many still saw such acts as the desperate, murderous death-throes of a movement that was on the wrong side of history. Yet a closer examination of the evidence told a different, more ominous story of where Palestinian society and politics was headed. A poll conducted in 1996, eight years after Hamas was founded, and two years into its devastating suicide bombing campaign, found that 90 per cent of students at An-Najah University in Nablus identified as religious, with only 8 per cent identifying as secular or leftist. This, despite all ten factions that make up the PLO self-identifying as both secular and leftist.
Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Parliamentary elections shocked the world, but looking back over the previous two decades the reasons for their success were clear enough. Their anti-corruption appeal to the electorate spoke to the genuine frustrations of Palestinians, and they also claimed, with some justification after Israel’s Gaza withdrawal in 2005, to have liberated more Palestinian land with acts of violence than the PLO had by engaging in diplomacy.
Equally, though their cruel stewardship of Gaza since 2007 has seen three deadly wars and resulted in an economy and society perilously close to collapse, they have managed to repel efforts by Israel, the PA and the international community to topple them, building an arsenal of rockets, a network of tunnels, and a loyal mercantile support base. In fact, in a 2017 visit to Gaza I was struck by the levels of anger many young people had towards the PA rather than Hamas and left with the troubling feeling that any immediate challenge to their rule would likely be from more extreme Islamist groups outflanking them, rather than the PA reasserting itself.
The short-termism of moderates
When one excludes Meretz and their five seats, Israel’s Zionist opposition parties seem to have abandoned any talk of peace, instead fighting on territory determined by the orthodoxies of the right-wing. When Benjamin Netanyahu won the 1996 election, he felt the need to use the word ‘peace’ in his campaign slogan. Today, if we are lucky enough to hear the Labor Party, which birthed the peace process, address the conflict, it will be via ‘separation from the Palestinians,’ an idea that has not only been demonstrated to be electorally ineffective, but also serves to further attenuate relations with the 20 per cent of Israel’s population that are in fact Palestinian, and whose votes are worth three times as many Knesset seats as Labor are currently projected to secure in April.
It additionally weakens the very concept of conflict resolution — the only guarantee of Israeli security in the long-term — in favour of unilaterally imposed security measures, which an unimpressed electorate can see having spectacularly failed in Gaza. If the word ‘peace’ signals naivete, then the word ‘occupation’, despite having been in Ariel Sharon’s vocabulary, has almost become shorthand for anti-Zionism. With election season now upon us, it is a safe bet that Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz and Avi Gabbay will each studiously avoid such language, remaining vague about what sort of answer they have to Israel’s central political question, and vaguer still on how they intend to get there.
On the Palestinian side, the strategically shrewd and tactically deliverable state-building initiative pioneered by Salam Fayyad is long dead. Today, Fatah can be relied upon to react rather than act, to avoid condemning — and to sometimes glorify — acts of Palestinian violence in the West Bank, and to allow or encourage the denial of a Jewish connection to the land, only serving to strengthen the appeal of their rejectionist rivals in both polities.
Neither of these defensive strategies will win the hearts and minds of young Israelis and Palestinians. They are both driven by fear, a sense of ideological retreat, a lack of creativity and a reluctance to disrupt that betrays an anxiety that, as bad as things are now, any radical change will probably break heavily against one’s interests. Meanwhile, those on what was once called the radical fringe in both societies are now in power, collecting the profits accrued from the shrewd investments made a generation ago and benefiting from an environment in which too few make the opposing case. The international community is too distracted and dysfunctional to re-assert once-obvious norms and realities. Yet those realities need to be restated: there is no zero-sum outcome that is realisable or just. Israelis and Palestinians cannot wish each other away, and the growing and mutually reinforcing rhetoric of expulsion is both ethically disgraceful and politically toxic.
Those amongst us who favour inclusive compromise over the chimera of exclusive ‘victory’ must dust ourselves off and take concrete, measurable steps toward the reality we want to build. We must also be bold and creative in developing a vision that can appeal not only to the self-interest of Israelis and Palestinians, but also to their imaginations, one framed by peace, mutual respect and cooperation, as well as a genuine, reciprocal empathy for the dignity and rights of the other. Such ideas are the jet-fuel of political and social movements, yet progressives in both societies have been running on empty for almost two decades.
That future may seem far off, but surely the idea of a thriving Jewish democracy was more far-fetched when those early Zionists took their first steps. Surely the notion of Arafat speaking at the UN, where 70 per cent of the members now recognise Palestine, must have seemed outlandish to Palestinians in the aftermath of the defeats of 1948 or 1967.
We can see that the forces that have shaped this narrow stretch of land for the last century have had imagination and a vision of what can be achieved in the long-term; but also the tactical discipline and determination to work every day toward achieving it. The staff and volunteers of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP)’s members, drawn from many of the most dedicated people working in both the cross-border and shared society realms, embody that spirit. Within their ranks is the grit, strategic vision and daily determination that is so sorely lacking amongst political leaders. Being amongst them allows one to see a very different, embryonic Israeli-Palestinian reality.
ALLMEP’s network now includes over 100 organisations. They include members such as Sikkuy, whose tireless advocacy resulted in billions of shekels of funding for Palestinian citizens of Israel from the most right-wing government in the country’s history. Or the Parents Circle and Combatants for Peace, whose Alternative Memorial Day creates a space for both Israelis and Palestinians to mourn those lost in conflict, with 8,000 people attending the 2018 ceremony addressed by David Grossman. These movements are leaving an institutional footprint, creating the sort of instruments and empirical milestones that can have a long-term, generational impact.
Together, our members are doing the methodical spade-work necessary to open up new vistas of what is possible in this land. They are the indispensable pre-requisite of any societal change, but they lack scale, and political leaders ready to amplify and champion their vision. We cannot create the latter out of thin air. But succeeding in the former – exponentially growing these kinds of movements and ideas until their influence is felt throughout both societies – can foster an environment that incentivises and incubates the emergence of such leaders, both locally and nationally.
How to start taking long-term steps
Israelis, Palestinians and international actors concerned with disrupting the current trajectory need to re-learn how change happens and begin building instruments and movements that can transform the reality that our passivity has facilitated. That is why ALLMEP is campaigning for an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, modelled on the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) that lead British negotiator Jonathan Powell called ‘the unsung hero of the peace process’ in Northern Ireland, seeding over $1.5bn into social and economic projects to combat hatred and mistrust. Per capita, that is almost ten times what is spent on similar projects Israel/Palestine. In 1987, its first year of operations, there were more conflict-related deaths than in Israel/Palestine in 2017, despite Ulster’s population being one-sixteenth the size. Yet over the following decade the IFI helped to transform communities and create constituencies resilient to violence, and ready for the that peace that was secured in 1998.
The International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace would be a brand-new institution focused on supporting social and economic projects that aim to answer one question: what are we doing to ensure that the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians do not grow up to fear and hate one another? Our members succeed in that mission every day at a micro level. Robust studies, including a landmark 2017 study commissioned by BICOM have demonstrated that these programmes work. Yet doing so at a national scale in both societies can open up a parallel political universe and produce a generation of leaders capable of capitalising on such a context.
In the US, ALLMEP has worked with key Congressional officials from both sides of the aisle to secure a bipartisan piece of legislation that promises to commit $50 million per annum toward such an instrument and we are delighted that the UK Middle East Minister, Alistair Burt, announced his support of the fund in early 2018, with the French government looking likely to join them in 2019.
The fund gives an example of the sort of practical and realisable interventions that the international community can make to catalyse change where it really needs to happen: on the ground. The guiding principle in both societies must be the re-establishment of reciprocity, and the overturning of the dominant zero-sum paradigm that only serves to empower the very worst actors and ideas.
In Israel, the peace camp must reinvent itself, and redefine its make-up. Its best chance of achieving power again is via a genuine partnership with Palestinian citizens, who make up 20 per cent of the electorate and were a critical constituency in the coalition that allowed Rabin to pass the Oslo Accords, and Ariel Sharon to disengage from Gaza. Civic participation must be reenergised and incentivised, with new inclusive institutions that can inspire and engage, disrupting the political apathy and atrophy of recent years. All of this should be focused on values: equality, democracy, peace, the rule of law and the unsustainability of the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza. These ideals are coherent, inspirational and can also appeal to many religious Israelis who have felt excluded by the stuffy, transactional and elitist reputation of the ‘old Left’.
For Palestinians, a generational transition is long overdue. When the average age of the PLO Executive Committee is 70, their preference for short-term politics should not be a surprise. The long-term belongs to the young, and with an average age in the West Bank of 19 and in Gaza of 16, Palestine is one of the youngest societies in the region, and also one of the best educated, with literacy levels rivalling some OECD members, and enrolment in higher-level education increasing by an incredible 940 per cent between 1993 and 2011. A genuine democratisation of Palestine, not just the holding of long-overdue elections, but the empowerment of communities and civil society groups who have suffered from centralisation and repression by the PA in recent years must be a priority. As must be a reckoning with the twin maladies of anti-normalisation and denial of Jewish connection to the land, both of which make a genuine peace between Jews and Arabs unlikely. A new generation of Palestinian leaders should confront and overturn these taboos, which would in turn create profound impact in Israel.
The tragic reality is that a final status deal that ends occupation and delivers peace and security to both Israelis and Palestinians looks unlikely in the near future, with almost all of the local and international variables misaligned. In retrospect, that diagnosis may have been broadly accurate, if less acute, since Rabin was assassinated 23 years ago. Yet we have remained focused on a short-term strategy regardless, believing one more round of shuttle diplomacy, or one more White House summit was all that was required, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, in a process that has latterly begun to resemble magical thinking.
Twenty-three years is the long-term, even in a land burdened with so much history. As we have seen, less helpful actors have used that time to build social, economic and political facts that buttress their mutually incompatible zero-sum visions. It is time that we remember how real change happens, sketch out a vision founded upon mutual dignity, peace and security and begin building every single day with vigour and determination toward that reality.
One more goat, one more dunam. There are no shortcuts.