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Stephen Gottlieb: Israel and the Palestinians

American politicians have been tumbling over each other promising they would support the government of Israel by all means necessary. But I wouldn’t vote for Netanyahu if I could and don’t want this country marching to his orders.

Both sides in this Middle Eastern brawl have been behaving badly for decades. The Palestinians have been lobbing mortars and shooting bullets at Israeli citizens – men, women and children, farmers, commuters, schools and kibbutzim – since 1948. The only proper word for that is terrorism, the proper designation for the deliberate targeting of civilians for political purposes. Many of those attacks have been timed to scuttle peace talks by making the compliant Israelis pull out. Netanyahu and his predecessors did their bidding by remote control.

But Israel in response killed not the perpetrators but civilian stand-ins, flunking Machiavelli and every tome on suppressing conflict. Palestinians lob mortars or rockets, Israel responds with artillery, tanks and bulldozers. At some point it became impossible to tell who was doing what in response to whom. Even the Hatfields and the McCoys figured out how to end their war. Instead of pacifying the Palestinians, Israel enrages them. Instead of confining the conflict, Israel broadens it. And instead of honoring agreements not to settle in the West Bank, Israel continues to permit and defend new settlements. Those strategies turn the Palestinian problem into the Palestinian disaster, leading everyone to take up arms.

So, two outrageous combatants give us little moral ground to choose. But the continued war makes us vulnerable to continued terrorism directed at the U.S.  So, cooler, smarter heads should do something.  We have only one choice, because only the Israelis are almost completely dependent on us. Frankly, if someone else is willing to supply them, that would take the U.S. out of the conflict. But if not, as I suspect, then it is to the Israelis that we should be sending ultimatums.

Middle East experts have been telling us for years that the terms of a settlement are clear and well understood. The problem has been that no one was ready for the political pain of agreeing to those terms. We can demand Israeli action on the settlements, honoring agreements already made, and Israeli agreement on those well-understood terms, on pain of our letting them out to dry – not words and so-called messages but actual insistence and a clear policy shift, with all the machinery to put restrictions in place.

If Israel complies, we can insist on the Palestinian side of the bargain, preparing to support their state if, but only if, they comply. It will take a good deal of self-restraint on our part because there clearly are factions on both sides who would do their best to scuttle any deal by killing whoever they believe would most effectively result in an end to any peace process. At that point isolated attacks have to be addressed by the criminal process, not by armies. If Hamas or the PLO refuse, then, and only then, after sensible, gutsy and determined efforts to settle a dispute that has been embroiling the U.S. ever since the end of World War II, we can return to the defense of Israel and support for its military.  We have a right to try to get out of this thing, a moral obligation to our own people to stand up for peace, the peace that Israelis and Palestinians both claim are among the highest obligations of their sacred texts, the peace of Shalom and Salaam.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

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