When it comes to resolving conflicts such as that pitting Israeli Jews against Palestinian Arabs, framing is more important than the facts. Everyone agrees that around 2800 Palestinians and less than 35 Israelis were killed in the Israeli assault on Gaza in December, 2008/January, 2009, and in the two years leading up to it. Most Israeli Jews, however, saw themselves as innocent victims of terror while viewing the Palestinians as terrorists who merely got what they deserved. Palestinians, by contrast, see their dead and wounded as casualties of a struggle for independence and victims of Israeli State Terror. In their eyes, while the Israeli dead were the unfortunate victims of their own government’s repressive policy of Occupation, they, the Palestinians, had been left by both Israel and the international community with little choice but to strike out and resist. Both peoples profess a desire for peace, yet both blame the other for the continuing conflict. These are not minor differences, but the very ground on which political solutions can or cannot be formulated and successfully promoted.

Israel’s “Security” Framing

Israeli governments – all of them, Labor, Likud and Kadima together – have advanced among the Jewish public a framing based solely on Jewish rights and security. Briefly, it goes like this:

The Jews of ancient times (including the Hebrews, Israelites and Judeans, since the term “Jew” appears in the Bible only in the Book of Esther) constituted a nation with all the trappings of nationhood. They had a country that encompassed greater or lesser parts of the Land of Israel, a language, a religion, a national history, a literature and, above all, a tribal sense of identity based on ties of blood. After two abortive revolts against the Romans, the nation-tribe was exiled from its country. For two millennia it existed among the nations as a people apart – alien, persecuted, ghettoized, clinging to its national identity and longing for its return to Zion. In the late nineteenth century, spurred by nationalist movements throughout Europe, Zionism emerged as the national expression of Jews seeking a return to the Homeland from which they had been forcibly expelled so many centuries before. This right of return, of self-determination, conforms to that of all other nations who have sought political independence in the past two centuries.

 

After a period of nation-building, the State of Israel arose triumphantly in 1948, defeating five Arab armies. Since then the tiny state, a Western (albeit Jewish) democracy, has persevered despite constant Arab threats to its existence. Throughout, Israel has aspired to peace, only to be frustrated by its intractable enemies. All its actions against the Palestinians and other Arabs are merely reactions of self-defense foisted upon the small Jewish state. David and Goliath. Israel desires peace, but it has no Palestinian “partner.” The Palestinians want only to throw the Jews into the sea.

What is wrong with this story? First off, if you notice, there is no mention of Occupation, all “Arab” resistance (the term “Palestinian” does not enter into the framing, since it admits to another people living in “our” country which we do not wish to acknowledge) cast as mere “terrorism.” But it also contains elements not stated explicitly, without which one cannot understand Israeli policy. According to mainstream Zionist ideology, the entire Land of Israel “belongs” exclusively to the Jewish people, an assertion that nullified any Palestinian rights or claims to the country, together with their very identity as a people and historic presence in a place called “Palestine.” Since the Palestinians understandably would have none of this, their very assertion of Jewish exclusivity made them, in fact, permanent enemies – at least enemies until such a time as Israel would acknowledge their own national presence. Unwilling to do this, Israel then found itself burdened by a permanent “security threat” which, paradoxically, required it to gain and maintain control of the entire country, thereby eliminating the possibility of a viable Palestinian state and perpetuating the conflict eternally. From right to left Israeli political and military leaders have inculcated among the Jewish public the conviction, almost a fixed assumption, that there is no political solution to the conflict, that one “side” or the other must “win” – and that side has to be, of course, Israel. Needless to say that a broader implication of this is that Israel belongs to the Western world and has little if any interest in integrating into a hostile Middle East. 

This framing has great implications. Since the Arabs – all of them, including Arab citizens of Israel – are presented as Israel’s permanent enemies, there can never be genuine or lasting peace. The best Israelis can expect, then, are tenuous periods of quiet, a fragile security based solely upon their military superiority and control of the entire country “from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea.” Any possibility of peace with the Palestinians is ruled out in this framing; the Israeli public is sentenced to a war with them until they either submit to Israeli dictates or are driven out of the country altogether. All this has given rise to what the Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling (2001:109) calls “civilian militarism,” a central component of Israeli culture. Conflict and war, he argues, have become “a self-evident and routine part of everyday life.”

This, then, helps explain why 85% of Israeli Jews support the construction of the Wall and more than 80% supported the assault on Gaza. It addresses a question frequently asked by visitors when they view the suffering and destruction caused by Israel in the Occupied Territories: “Why, especially given what the Jews have suffered in the past, does the Israeli public allow this?” The answer is framing, a combination of an exclusive claim to the land, denial of the rights and very existence of another people there, and an entrenched notion that the “Arabs” are and will always be Israel’s enemy – and no reference at all to occupation or any form of oppression that might explain – or justify – Palestinian resistance. 

Finally, the security framing leaves out, or misrepresents, the issue of power. Israel has managed, in a wonder of framing, to successfully present itself as the victim, the hapless little kid in what Netanyahu calls “a tough neighborhood of bullies.” This is a crucial part of the security framing since it relieves Israel of all responsibility. A victim, after all, is a victim and cannot be held accountable, since his or her actions come merely out of self-defense. Being a victim, however, is a very powerful place to be. Israel can be a regional superpower and an occupying power, yet have responsibility. Indeed, it is the flight from responsibility that impels the security framing.

Casting itself as the victim only distorts the power balance between Israel and the Palestinians and the fundamental fact that only Israel can end the Occupation and thus, through good-faith negotiations with the Palestinians, the conflict as a whole. Israel, and the pre-state Zionist community that preceded it, has always enjoyed disproportionate power, control – and responsibility. Israel is the regional super-power. It is a state recognized by the international community with an economy three times larger than Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon put together, more than 40 times the size of the Palestinians’ ($80+ billion compared to less than $2 billion). It has a formal military alliance with the world’s largest superpower, from which it receives more than $3 billion in annual military assistance. It is the world’s fourth largest nuclear power, possessing between 200-500 nuclear warheads. And it is an occupying power. The Palestinians, by contrast, have no state, no functioning economy, no army, not even the ability to move freely from village to village within their own areas. This asymmetry of power, even within the Arab world as a whole – a world with which it has largely achieved peace, at least on the governmental level – thrusts upon Israel an asymmetry of responsibility.

A Rights-Based Reframing of the Conflict

Needless to say, as progressive Israelis who do not accept the notion of “permanent enemies” or other attempts to mystify the conflict for self-serving reasons, we find Israel’s security framing neither acceptable nor true; neither is it helpful for achieving a just and lasting peace. Our reading of the history of the region, our understanding of how the security framing justifies and enables Israel’s Occupation, our experiences with Palestinians who certainly do desire peace if it is accompanied by a just solution to the conflict which includes their own narrative and national claims, as well as our commitment to the prophetic Jewish values of social justice, all lead us to a very different framing, one based on universal human rights and a conviction that every political conflict has a solution. It is a reframing that offers hope of a better future for both peoples rather than ceaseless conflict and suffering that envisions one side “winning” over the other.

Our reframing, then, starts with the obvious proposition that two peoples live in Palestine/Israel, each aspiring to national self-determination yet each having to recognize the collective existence and rights of the other. While holding different visions of desirable and possible solutions to the conflict – some of us favor a two-state solution, some a bi-national or democratic state, others a regional confederation – we share the belief that the conflict can be ended in a way that respects and protects both sides (although we tend not to accept the notion of “sides;” one of the slogans of the Israeli peace camp is: “We refuse to be enemies”).

We reject, then, not only the premise that the “Arabs” are our permanent enemies but even the proposition that Jews and Arabs have been enemies “from time immemorial” or that we are embroiled in a “clash of civilizations.” We reject as well the notion that terrorism lies at the root of the conflict. Both the PLO and the Arab League, after all, have recognized Israel within the 1967 borders, Israelis and Palestinians have engaged in prolonged negotiations in the past and Israel has achieved peace with many Arab and Muslim countries and is steadily expanding its relations throughout the Arab and broader Muslim worlds. We also insist, in opposition to the security paradigm which asserts that Israel’s policies and actions are only defensive in nature, which they are not. There is no reason why Israel should not be held accountable for an Occupation which is pro-active and intended to establish permanent Israel control over the entire country while denying the Palestinians a viable state of their own. 

Framing is a powerful weapon. Our task, if we aspire to bring about peace and security for both peoples, is to debunk the security framing while replacing it with a more constructive and inclusive one based on universal human rights. Reframing is not easy. In any debate, the party which succeeds in framing the issue and determining the terms of the discussion (such as “terrorism”) wins, since by capturing the logic of the debate its arguments lead inexorably to its desired conclusions. Here Israel enjoys a great advantage. Its framing, lavishly funded by state agencies, painstakingly constructed by PR agencies and communicated by professional spokespeople, benefits from a grossly unbalanced access to the media. The other side to the discussion, that of the Israeli peace camp or the Palestinians themselves, lacks the resources, access and image to make their voices heard. We are thus thrust into the weak position of refuter, left only to respond to Israel’s charges yet without the space to present a coherent, credible and persuasive alternative framing of our own. Confined to countering the arguments of the “framer,” respondents (called the “negative side” in debates) invariably come across as defensive, inarticulate and unconvincing.

Given Israel’s success in presenting its case in a clear and concise manner, it is imperative that we step back from merely rebutting in order to present a coherent and compelling “reframing” of our own. In contrast to Zionist exclusivity and Israel’s security framing, our alternative rights-based framing (though it is by no means the definitive one) may be put as follows:

Two peoples defining themselves in national terms and claiming the right of self-determination are locked in a bloody contest over both fundamental claims to the country and ways in which they can share it. Both consider themselves the native inhabitants. Here the symmetry ends. We must break the narrative of “both peoples” so as to see the very different positions of each side and the asymmetry of power between them.

 

Israeli Jews represent the dominant party and have since well before 1948. They possess a state that has been recognized, by the Palestinian leadership, the Arab League and the international community alike, on 78% of the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Since neither its national existence nor its right to live in security within the “Green Line” is challenged, the cause of Israel’s continued war against the Palestinians is over control of the entire country, coveted by Israel for religious and national reasons, as well as (it claims) security concerns. Israel seeks to be a Jewish state which nevertheless permanently controls all of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). Israel’s attempt to deny its occupation and to make its presence permanent flies in the face of international law which defines an occupation as a temporary situation of conquest that has to be resolved through negotiations, and is patently illegal. Israel has adopted a unilateral position, backed by its policy of creating “facts on the ground,” that prevents, or at best stunts, any Palestinian state, since Israel has never officially acknowledged the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. Similarly, the right of Palestinian refugees’ to return to their country and homes is guaranteed in international humanitarian law. Israeli insistence that they may return only to a Palestinian state (if there is one) violates those rights.

 

The Palestinians’ position, though lacking today an authoritative voice due to deliberate attempts on the part of Israel to either fragmentize their leadership or eliminate it, does not present as clear and comprehensive a framing as the Israeli one. In principle, it sees the entire country as Palestine but recognizes the existence of Israel as a given and is willing to accept a two-state solution by which the Palestinian state encompass all the Occupied Territories, the 22% of the country conquered by Israel in 1967 (with some minor border adjustments). Israel must also recognize the refugees’ Right of Return and acknowledge its role in creating the refugee problem, although the Palestinians are willing to negotiate the actual return. The two-state solution is far from just (leaving the Palestinians with less than a quarter of their historic homeland). Still, all Palestinian factions – including Hamas – have indicated it is one with which they could live. It represents a compromise that could be “sold” to both peoples, but if Israel continues to resist it, we must be prepared for a transition to a one-state struggle for equal civil rights. Only the Palestinians can signal that switch.

 

This re-framing rests on a number of key re-conceptualizations:

·       Israel as the strong party in the conflict. Re-casting Israel as the strong party in the conflict rather than as a victim enables us to demand accountability under international law – demanding, in particular, that the Fourth Geneva Convention be applied – as well conformity to UN resolutions. It also facilitates effective campaigns of boycotts, divestment and sanctions on the part of citizens and governments aimed at bringing pressure to bear on Israel to change its policies.

·       The Occupation as a pro-active policy. A peace and human rights reframing must place the Occupation properly at the center of the political discussion over the conflict. It must then go on to make a telling point: rather than simply defensive responses to Palestinian terrorism, Israel’s occupation policies represent a pro-active claim to the entire country. Below I will make the claim that no major element of Israel’s “Matrix of Control” – settlements, infra-structure, the closure, land expropriation and house demolitions, the destruction of Palestinian agriculture and other policies of economic de-development or the construction of the Wall – can be explained in terms of security and defense. The contention that Israel would be willing to meet Palestinian demands for self-determination if only Palestinian “violence” ends is simply wrong. The issue is Israel’s exclusive claim to the entire country, not security.

·       Only a win-win scenario will secure a just and lasting peace. Whatever the ideological claims or disparities of power between the sides, one thing is certain: neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will defeat the other. The notion that Palestinians and Israelis are enemies, that they constitute two irreconcilable “sides,” leads nowhere. It ignores the political sources of the conflict, without which there is, indeed, no solution. It also contradicts the global realities in which we live: the inadmissibility of neo-colonialism, intertwined economies, international law and much more. The fall of the Soviet Union, of apartheid South Africa, of the Shah, of Marcos, of the Latin American generals, of the Greek colonels, of Milosevic – all exemplify the ultimate inability to sustain unjust regimes over time. Only a win-win scenario based on universal human rights can address the fundamental elements underlying the conflict and offer ways out.

·       The Israeli people do not support the settlements or seek a “Greater Israel.” The pro-active, expansionist policy of Occupation, it must be stressed, does not represent the will of the majority of Israelis. Palestinian citizens of Israel aside, polls consistently show that two-thirds of Israeli Jews desire “separation” from the Palestinians – “us here, them there” as Barak’s election slogan had it – even if that means dismantling the settlements. True, the second Intifada and subsequent events strengthened Israeli distrust of the Palestinians, expressed in wide popular support for the construction of the Wall and attacks such as those on the cities of the West Bank and on Gaza, but it arises from a simple desire for personal security rather than from any ideological aspiration to control the “Greater Land of Israel.” Israel’s unique system of proportional elections also tends to disenfranchise the public by granting tremendous autonomy to the political parties that make up all government coalitions. It gives far greater power to tiny single-issue groups, such as settlers, than to large but less organized sectors of society. Thus the “disconnect,” so evident in the 2009 elections that imposed on the public an extreme right-wing government, between a populace desiring peace and territorial compromise (albeit with “separation”) and its governments’ policies of territorial expansion and military “victory” over the Palestinians. 

·       Both the Palestinians and the wider Arab and Muslims worlds support a just peace. The contention that the Arabs do not want peace, a view that makes sense to people given Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, not to mention the post-9.11 stereotype of Arabs and Muslims as supporters of terrorism, finds no empirical support. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and other Palestinian “rejectionist” groups that reject peace with Israel and have turned to violent means of resistance represent about the same proportion of Palestinian society in the Occupied Territories – say 15-20% – that extreme settler and other right-wing rejectionist groups represent in Israeli society. In the 1996 elections to the Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, Arafat and the supporters of the Oslo process, who conceded 78% of historic Palestine to Israel, won more than 90% of the vote. We must also be careful not to confuse resistance to Occupation and a struggle for liberation – even an armed struggle employing controversial tactics – with a rejection of peace itself. While Israel succeeds in framing Palestinian resistance as mere terrorism and uses it to argue that the “Arabs” are not “partners in peace,” Palestinians cannot allow themselves to be imprisoned forever in an apartheid-style Bantustan with no hope of any future for the coming generations. This is why the adjectives “just” and “viable” are integral parts of any sustainable “peace,” as evident in the acceptance by Hamas and Islamic Jihad of the Prisoners’ Document,” forged among all the Palestinian factions in 2006, in which peace with Israel is agreed to in exchange for all the Occupied Territories. That Israel has a long-standing peace treaty with Egypt and Jordan and functional ties with many other Arab and Muslim nations must also be factored in.

·       An emblematic conflict with global impact. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is emblematic of Western (and especially American) neo-colonialism to the broader Arab and Muslim worlds, and has a direct impact on the instability of the entire Middle East and North Africa which, in turn, affects the global system as a whole. If it wishes to avoid a genuine Clash of Civilizations in which a localized Israel/Palestine conflict becomes a theological conflagration resistant to any political solution, the international community must treat it with the seriousness and urgency it deserves.