Center for Strategic Decision Research

Professor Avishai Margalit, Insitute for Advanced Studies, Princeton
and Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Professor Avishai Margalit
George F. Professor, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Security in the Middle East: Views from Israel and Palestine

When people in the Anglo-Saxon world start a speech, they start with a joke. When people in the Far East start a speech, they start with an apology. I come from the Middle East, where there are not many jokes and very few apologies, so let me start with something else—namely, with the nature of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.


There are two types of conflicts: One is a conflict between states; the other is inter-communal strife. The conflicts between Israel and Jordan, Israel and Syria, and Israel and Egypt are all conflicts between states. They are about territory, water, security, etc. The interests are well defined and they are either solved or dissolved, but the issue is clear and the conflict is clear. The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, however, is about everything. It is about the identity of the two communities; it is about who they are.

They dialectically understand each other by the conflict and it is a bitter conflict. The nature of the conflict is currently undergoing a transformation, from a predominantly ethnic national conflict into a more religious conflict; Religious conflict is more absolutist. The stakes are higher, the day of payment is postponed. The political scale and the range are very different. While secular national conflicts usually last five or ten years at most, religious conflicts have a very different nature. In the case of the Crusades, for example, it took us 200 years to get rid of the crusaders.


Both the Israeli and the Palestinian communities are increasingly viewing the conflict as a type of religious warfare, especially with Hamas in Gaza. The conflict is therefore becoming more and more intractable. Ambassador Primor very clearly explained the paradox that we all face: It is a conflict where the solution is clear-cut. Put in a nutshell, the solution is 48 for 67. That is, the international community will recognize Israel at its 1948 borders if Israel gives up and renounces what it gained in the 1967 war. That is basically the formula. It is clear to all, not just to the educated classes and the political classes; it is practically understood by all. There is a majority in both communities including by all indications in Gaza that can live with this solution. They will not advocate it; they are not happy with it, but they can live with it grudgingly. And when it comes to compromises, it is what we can live with that is important. So how come we have not reached a solution?

One reason is, as Ambassador Primor discussed, fear: There is the feeling that the Oslo Accords, which were advocated by the left, failed us and then the evacuation of Gaza, which was advocated by Sharon, failed us again. Therefore there is no solution and we are stuck. This is definitely part of the story. However, it is not the only problem. I believe that about 70% of the people in each community can live with the solution I just described, but 30%, and especially the 30% who are in power, do not always agree. In both communities, there is a much stronger ideological element among the power elite than among the people. So the issue is partly because of the nature of the conflict and the understanding that it is about everything.


Another element is the change in the geopolitical situation. In the past, the other main powers in the region were Egypt, with its population and culture, and Saudi Arabia, with its strong economy. The Americans, with their Pax Americana, always sought to combine all three key attributes—security/military power for Israel, population and culture for Egypt and a strong economy for Saudi Arabia. However, there is currently a shift underway from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Iran and Turkey as the main power brokers in the region. These are Muslim countries in the outer ring, and this is part of a shift in the balance of political Islam and is a serious issue.

Most people, I think, gave up on the idea of getting rid of Israel, but there is now a new move to try to do so. One way of sidelining Israel is by delegitimizing its friends, making it a pariah state and equating it with outlaws or pirates. This does not help. Now that there is the possibility of a nuclear Iran, the fear should be of a different nature; It is not that the Iranians really want to use a nuclear weapon or hand it over to terrorists. The issue is that if both Israel and Iran face each other with such intense mistrust, there will be no hotline between the two; thus, they can easily misinterpret the other’s intentions and war could break out by sheer misunderstanding. This is the most likely scenario and is the real danger.

Can Europe do something about this? Most people, as Ambassador Primor rightly pointed out, do not believe that the Israelis and the Palestinians can extricate themselves from the conflict. There is no outside power to force them to. There were high expectations placed on Obama from both sides, but I am not sure that the Americans are going to take on this role. In terms of what Europe can offer Israel, I think that the possibility of joining NATO, especially with its Article 5 clause, as well as joining the Common Market—I am not talking about the EU but the Common Market—in exchange for withdrawing from the territories is something that could greatly help the inner debate within Israel. In this sense Europeans for the first time could be major Western players in the conflict because they really have something to offer, at least to the Israelis. I am sure that there is something else that could be offered to the Palestinians—It is for the Palestinians to say what this might be.

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