On the sympathy scale, it is good to be a Palestinian, but not so good to be a Kurd, Uighur, Tibetan, Copt, Yezidi, Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar, or West-Saharan, whose land has been occupied by Morocco since the Seventies. This is the short list of those who are oppressed or slaughtered, but are hardly worthy of attention.
Today, as the missiles are reaching Tel Aviv and the Israeli Army readies itself for a ground assault, demonstrations in favor Uighurs, Saharans et al are on the low side or non-existent. The war between Israel and Hamas has triggered the classic reflexes in the Western press. If rockets are flying, it must be the fault of Israel, the usual suspect.
It’s a standard script: Evil settlers who want to expel Palestinians from their ancestral abodes in Jerusalem; a power-crazed Israeli prime minister who hopes to keep his office by unleashing war; an “apartheid state” that that will use any excuse to terrorize the victims of Israeli colonialism. The aggressor must be punished, and so a New York Times columnist has appealed to the American government to reconsider its copious aid to the Jewish state. Case closed.
Old Middle East hands know that the case is not open and shut — and that nothing is ever as it seems in a region where peace has for ages been a pause between two wars. Let’s start from the bottom up and go to the Jerusalem quarter the Arabs call Sheikh Jarrah, and the Israelis Shimon ha-Tsaddik.
Jews had bought places there in 1874 and were expelled by British and Jordanian forces in 1948. Arab squatters moved in. Though the IDF unified the City in 1967, the status quo persisted until the descendants of the expellees, titles in hand, sued to regain their properties. The case is now before Israel’s Supreme Court.
So, in this benighted region, a plea for restitution under the law is yet another provocation, another heinous attempt to “Judaize Jerusalem.” One might question the wisdom of raising the matter after six decades, but “colonialism” this is not — unless due process is. Given the rockets and a looming IDF incursion into Gaza, the Supreme Court has postponed a decision.
Next level up is the labyrinth of Mideast politics that is too complex for journalists and politicos to navigate. Better to apply the simple good-vs-evil template. Hounded by the courts, Prime Minister Netanyahu is using war to shore up his crumbling position at home. Not quite: Well aware of the annual clashes on Jerusalem Day, the government deployed army and police to separate Jews from Arabs as marchers on both sides claimed true title to the “City Upon a Hill.”
Keeping them apart might have worked if two deadly enemies on the Palestinian side had not decided to make their own points. It started with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, who had postponed, sine die, yet another election scheduled for 22 May, using the brewing conflict over Jerusalem as subterfuge.
Seeing itself as the predestined winner, what could Hamas do to counter the Fatah gambit? How about starting a little war against the Yahud, which promised several benefits?
First, Hamas could posture as only defender of the faith and of Palestinian dignity, which would make it shine as true leader of the flock in both Gaza and the Westbank. This struggle has tortured the Palestinians ever since Hamas grabbed power in 2006.
Second, a little — or not so little — war would bring Palestine back to center-stage whence it was being banished while the Great Realignment of the Middle East unfolded, as one regional potentate after another tucked tail and decided that a common Arab-Israeli front against Iran was more important than the will-o’-the-wisp of Palestinian statehood. Fatah and Hamas were successively being pushed offstage. In an attention economy, the limelight is precious.
Third, start a conflagration, and the international fire brigade will rush in to chastise the Israelis and appease the Palestinians. President Biden promptly dispatched an emissary, and the Russians and Europeans won’t be far behind. The expectation? Israel will be upbraided, and money will be showered on Gaza and Ramallah, two failed states. Back to square one.
And then what?
The problem of the Palestinian leadership is — and has always been —two-fold. For one, this Israeli “apartheid state” — an obscene term, when the Arab List, known as Ra’am, almost played kingmaker in Israel’s coalition wars — will not go away as Anglos and Afrikaaners did after losing power in South Africa. Nor did Pretoria protect black lives as, metaphorically, Israel is doing in going after Jewish extremists.
Second, Israel towers over the chessboard; soldier for soldier, the IDF is unmatched in the world, and Israel’s per-capita income is slightly above France’s or Japan’s. No number of anti-Israel op-eds can change these realities, not to speak of the soft power accruing from the Arab-Israeli realignment.
Will yet another American-sponsored peace parley end the Hundred Years War? Not as long as Palestinians say “Hebron” and mean “Haifa.” Not as long as domestic machinations on either side dwarf the logic of coexistence in this narrow strip between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Abba Eban’s fabled line about the Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity by now goes for Israel, as well.
Will Hamas, Fatah and Israel sit down in earnest? It seemed so when Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat sat down with Bill Clinton in Camp David 21 years ago. The “Rais” went home and launched the Second Intifada, which claimed 1,000 Israeli and 3,000 Palestinian lives. And they blamed it on Ariel Sharon.
Mr. Joffe is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution