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Saving Israelis and Palestinians from Themselves

The still-unfolding human catastrophe in Gaza confirms that the Israelis and Palestinians, left to their own devices, are intrinsically incapable of ending their eight-decade-long war. The world’s great powers, led by the United States need to impose a settlement by coercion, if necessary. Why? Because they caused the tragedy and letting it fester will harm their vital interests.

Some three decades back I told a joint Israeli-Palestinian peace process meeting that they had better resolve their dispute quickly before their anger turned into the kind of hatred I had seen between Turks and Armenians. That prediction has now become reality. Two peoples, both claiming a single small piece of earth as their exclusive homeland and denying the humanity of the other with religiously-driven messianic fury cannot end this conflict by themselves. American bromides that “the parties should sit down and solve it between themselves” has only resulted in more carnage. Unless we accept this reality, tens of thousands more innocents will continue to die in vain.

Sadly, this mutual hatred derives from the fact that both peoples were pushed into an existential confrontation by outside forces over which they had no control. The Holocaust, an unspeakable crime perpetrated by Europeans, drove the Jews to Palestine, in turn displacing and subjugating several million other people, the Palestinians, who had lived on that land for generations. Fifty-six years of occupation have erased the early promises of compromise and symbiosis. Those seeking compromise on both sides have had their voices silenced by the fanatics. Mutual hatreds have made the ethnic cleansing of the other the bottom line for each side. They have left no room for compromise.

Sadly, if there were ever a good example of the adage, “if you seek revenge, dig two graves,” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fits it.

The great powers of the world, led by the United States, can impose a solution, but it will probably require coercion. “Why should they bother?” one might ask? They should bother because these same powerful countries created the conflict, exacerbated it, and will suffer from it if they leave it unresolved. The British governments that separately (and secretly) promised a land which they did not own to two different peoples, fomented conflict between them to sustain control and then alternately fought both Arabs and Jews, deserve a special level in Dante’s Inferno. A European country, Germany, created the Holocaust, with the active or tacit support of many other Europeans. The United States and the Soviet Union, the first two major powers to recognize the Jewish state, converted the conflict into a tool to use against each other during the Cold War.

Many Europeans today support Israel out of guilt for their silence, or worse, during the Holocaust. Arab governments exploited Palestinian suffering to prop up their authoritarian regimes.  What we called the Third World focused on Israel to fire up their campaigns against colonialism. Given what both Palestinians and Israelis have lost, one can empathize with their fears and irrationality; the outside powers that created, exacerbated and exploited the conflict have no such excuse. The outside powers created the conflict and have both moral and practical obligations to end it.

Left unattended, the conflict will claim thousands more lives, erode external support for Israel’s survival, and widen the conflict in a region vital to the world’s economy. (Even Donald Trump has joined left-wing Democrats in blaming Netanyahu.) Europe has a special responsibility, not just to history but to its own people, to resolve the conflict. If EU leaders cannot now cope with the waves of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, what happens when two million Gazans join the surge? Nor should we ignore the very real possibility that the violence can spread across the region creating a worldwide energy crisis, as happened under similar circumstances in 1973.

Israel has two options in Gaza, (1) conquer Gaza inflicting horrible human loss and then occupy it indefinitely, paying an incredible price in blood and treasure, or (2) reduce Gaza to rubble, and cut its losses by declaring victory, withdrawing, reimposing a blockade and waiting for Hamas, or someone just as lethal, to restart the bloody cycle. Neither option has an end game.

Let us imagine that the U.S. rallied a coalition of major world powers to stop the carnage, secured a UN Resolution creating a receivership for Gaza, and assembled an international military force (‘peace-making’, not ‘peace keeping’) strong enough to demilitarize Gaza and guarantee the security of both Gazans and Israelis against future incursion. The interventionist powers could offer Gaza a bright economic future through trade with Europe – with appropriate sweeteners from the EU – and the exploitation of already verified natural gas fields in Gaza’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The UN and the international community could guarantee democratic self-rule in Gaza and future international recognition. Israel would instinctively oppose the deal, but the U.S. could make it clear that this is in Israel’s interest, whether it likes it or not. Russia might veto it in the Security Council, so this might need UN General Assembly approval. China might well support such a project given that its primary interest, the unfettered flow of oil, coincides with that of the U.S. and Europe. Why should China and the U.S. reject an opportunity to work together in their common interests?

Coordinated Great Power intervention has a mixed history. It is not a panacea, but it can prevent a disaster, as in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina. More successfully, U.S. coercion fostered the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. If successful, could not a Gazan intervention provide a blueprint for resolving the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  Besides, what’s the alternative?

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