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This Will Not End Well for Israel or the U.S.

May 21, 2021
By Amb. Patrick Theros

As of this writing nearly two hundred people have died in the violence consuming Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies or – in the case of the Gaza Strip – it blockades. For the first time in twenty years the violence has now spread to set Israeli citizens, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, tearing at each other’s throats. While the most urgent need is to bring the fighting to a halt before hundreds of bodies become thousands of bodies, that is not enough. Once again, we have allowed a toxic combination of Israeli and American domestic politics and our preference to kick the can down the road take priority over trying to address the issues.

Without fear of contradiction, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s campaign to stay in power as Prime Minister can be considered the proximate cause of today’s bloodshed. He has drummed up intercommunal hatreds such as his blatantly racist electoral campaign urging Jews to vote because too many Arabs are “flocking to the polls.”  Courting the right-wing, he has encouraged settler organizations, many of them funded by wealthy Americans, to dispossess Muslim and Christian Israeli citizens of their property. The current crisis ignited when an American-financed organization took advantage of a law that allows Jewish Israelis to reclaim land lost in Israel’s War of Independence of 1948 but does not extend the same right to Muslim and Christian Israelis. For the record, I have worked to help the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem fight the same battle against the same organizations seeking to confiscate the properties of the Patriarchate as well as of the Catholic, Armenian, and Coptic Churches.

Given the one-sided law, the court cases naturally went against the property owners. They were about to be evicted when violence erupted. Hamas, the equally extremist political party ruling Gaza, exploited the crisis to burnish its political credentials by firing rockets at Israeli towns. The Israeli military responded with massive air and artillery bombardment and now threatens ground action. This time, however, the violence spread to Israeli towns with mobs of Israeli citizens, Jews vs. Muslims and Christians, attacking each other. While Netanyahu has denounced the intra-Israeli violence, his police have mostly stood aside when Jewish vigilantes attack their fellow non-Jewish citizens but always protect Jews from violence.

The Biden administration, which had tried to pivot American strategic attention and involvement away from the Middle East, wants to avoid engagement. He has reverted to the default position of American policy: denounce violence, express platitudes about bringing it to an end while insisting that it is up to the Palestinians to give in first. This has few short-term political downsides among the American electorate. We have done about the same with almost every previous such outbreak in the region since I was old enough to follow the news (a very long time). Nothing changes and a few months or so later, people again start dying.

However, change comes inevitably and the fixation of American and Israeli politicians on the short term, guarantees we will not be ready when the long term turns to bite us. Furthermore, the politicians seem to ignore the qualitative differences from the past crises. The level of intercommunal violence, Israeli citizen pitted against Israeli citizen, has no precedent. At the risk of sounding banal, I quote Abraham Lincoln about "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Israel must, before it becomes too late, decide if it wants to become an apartheid South Africa or live up to the dreams of its founders to establish a democratic state that would be an example to the world. It does not take a professional historian to tell you how long apartheid South Africa survived.

Israel should also consider the likelihood that the images of Israeli police attacking worshippers at al-Aqsa, one of the holiest mosques in Islam, on a holiday as sacred to Muslims as Easter is to Christians, will undo Israel’s single most important diplomatic triumph of the 21st century. The four Arab states that Trump persuaded to recognize Israel in 2020 may not be democracies but even autocrats dare not disturb the religious sensibilities of their subjects. Israelis should also realize that the violence has just removed almost all pressure from Iran and seems to have accelerated the willingness of those states who ‘normalized’ with Israel against Iran to ‘normalize’ with the Ayatollahs instead.

Finally, Israel should seriously contemplate the fate of Turkish-American relations. The U.S consistently supported Turkey regardless of its actions, such as the pogrom against Greeks in Constantinople in 1955, the closing of Christian schools and Churches, and the frequent massacres of Kurds for decades. Successive Turkish governments lulled themselves into believing that U.S. support had no limits. Ultimately, Turkey so angered the U.S. that today it finds itself with no friends in Washington.

American and European politicians should also remember that violence begets violence. The terrorists of 9/11 may have had other motives, but their battle cry included the “liberation of al-Aqsa.”  Dead Palestinians have relatives who will seek revenge and who will remember that American-made warplanes delivered the bombs that killed them. Innocent Americans and Europeans will almost certainly pay the price of American and European government acquiescence with Netanyahu’s policies. The current violence emboldens Iran, opens the door to Russian and Chinese influence in the Moslem world, and makes Turkey’s Erdogan into a local folk hero for challenging his nemesis, Netanyahu.  

If history is any guide, the violence will slowly subside. Nothing significant will have changed and in the not-too-distant future people will start the killing again. Would it not be better to really try to resolve these issues, even if it’s hard work?

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