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Stephen Gottlieb: The Palestinian Question

There was an interesting event at Albany Law recently.

To open, Rabbi David Gordis explained that thoughtful supporters of Israel actually agree with thoughtful supporters of Palestinians that a solution to their conflict is essential for both of them, that pro-Israelis like Gordis and pro-Palestinians like Columbia history professor Rashid Khalidi were not merely old friends but old allies.

Rashid Khalidi, pointed out that every American president beginning with Carter came to the conclusion that it was important for American national interests to settle the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. On many issues, where Americans perceived our national interests at stake, we had and continue to make decisions that the Israelis dislike. But on the Palestinian issue, despite the agreement of six American presidents, all of them found that doing things that would actually solve the conflict were domestically unacceptable. The Israeli lobby was no match for significant American interests but while Americans do not perceive a significant interest in settling the conflict, the Israeli lobby could stave off any concessions that would be necessary to settle the conflict, stave off anything that would stop settlements, remove travel restrictions within the so-called Palestinian territory, or grant real control to a Palestinian authority. But without those incidents of sovereignty, their dispute could not be settled.

So a major obstacle to peace is the American conviction that the only thing that matters to us with respect to the Palestinians, the only thing that should matter to us, is whatever Israel wants. So does settling that conflict on fair terms to both matter to us here in the United States?

Some analysts make the case that terrorist movements around the globe, and all the al-Qaeda affiliates, stem from local issues that are largely independent of the Palestinian conflict with Israel. And some analysts make the case that American support for Israel is a major tool in recruiting converts to attack the United States. Neither disproves the other. Movements are complex. They have more than one source. But pulling one plug can nevertheless drain the tub.

Some Arabs and Iranians object to the very existence of Israel. But it makes a difference that some of Israel’s neighbors have accepted each other. Egypt and Israel have a treaty. Jordan has long tried to broker peace. Lebanon became a flash point when it suited Syrian and Iranian interests. What they exploited in part was animosity to Israel stoked by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The Palestinians are not the only issue or cause animating the Muslim Middle East toward Israel, but it plays an important part in facilitating the rhetoric and legitimating the actions of those states. Pull the Palestinian plug, and the justification for hostilities weakens.

The Arab Spring forces us to think even more seriously. When the petty dictatorships of the North African and Middle Eastern world fall, as they will, the antipathy toward Israel of the Islamic peoples in the area will have a much stronger impact on their governments. That will affect American national interests in oil, other commerce, major sales and supplies. It will also affect international threats and the resources available to terrorists.

As six presidents have recognized, the time to solve this is now, before the blowback gets worse.

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.


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