Voice

Israel’s War Will Never End

For Israelis and Palestinians, ethnic violence isn't a temporary problem. It’s a lasting identity.

By , the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Israeli soldiers looks on during clashes with Palestinian youth in the city center of the occupied West Bank town of Hebron on April 24, 2021.
Israeli soldiers looks on during clashes with Palestinian youth in the city center of the occupied West Bank town of Hebron on April 24, 2021. HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

Much of the imagery and reporting coming out of Jerusalem, central Israel, and the Gaza Strip in recent days has been stomach turning. The emerging mainstream narrative is that it is all the fault of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is trying to capitalize on the tension and violence in his struggle to remain prime minister; the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s President Mahmoud Abbas for being inept; and the Hamas leadership for pouring gas on a fire to advance its own political interests. There is truth to these assessments. Netanyahu and Hamas have potentially much to gain from the violence.

But the convulsions that began with the evictions of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem speak to something deeper, and more profound: two communities engaged in a struggle to deny each other’s identity. There is not anything particularly new about this, of course, but in the years since the 2014 Gaza conflict, there was a sense among Israelis and Americans that while the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was not at an end, it was contained. This view was only reinforced with last summer’s Abraham Accords. Israel, it seemed, could render Palestine a local issue by dint of force, the PA’s own vast shortcomings, and the confluence of geostrategic interests among Israeli leaders and their counterparts in a variety of Arab countries.

Much of the imagery and reporting coming out of Jerusalem, central Israel, and the Gaza Strip in recent days has been stomach turning. The emerging mainstream narrative is that it is all the fault of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is trying to capitalize on the tension and violence in his struggle to remain prime minister; the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s President Mahmoud Abbas for being inept; and the Hamas leadership for pouring gas on a fire to advance its own political interests. There is truth to these assessments. Netanyahu and Hamas have potentially much to gain from the violence.

But the convulsions that began with the evictions of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem speak to something deeper, and more profound: two communities engaged in a struggle to deny each other’s identity. There is not anything particularly new about this, of course, but in the years since the 2014 Gaza conflict, there was a sense among Israelis and Americans that while the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was not at an end, it was contained. This view was only reinforced with last summer’s Abraham Accords. Israel, it seemed, could render Palestine a local issue by dint of force, the PA’s own vast shortcomings, and the confluence of geostrategic interests among Israeli leaders and their counterparts in a variety of Arab countries.

Yet, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is, at its core, about identity—and thus its mutual denial by the antagonists. This cannot be wished away or smoothed over by well-meaning diplomats armed with confidence-building measures, security guarantees, and development aid. It is why the hope that, during the periodic spasms of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, each will look over the abyss and avoid the worst outcome, is so misplaced. At each moment when the rockets and artillery stop, Israelis and Palestinians are never closer to figuring out how to exist together because they willfully and collectively refuse to recognize the legitimate existence of the other.

Among the more horrifying images coming out of Israel in recent days was video from a traffic roundabout in the city of Lod, where Israeli Jews were stoning the cars of their fellow citizens who are Palestinian. This comes after an Israeli Jewish gunman killed a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and two others also in Lod, as Arab citizens hoisted the Hamas flag, attacked a synagogue, and declared their intention to “Free Palestine!” Lod was not the only case of violence as Israelis—Jews and Arabs—were swept up in intercommunal violence in Ramle, Acre, Nazareth, Haifa, and the picturesque Jaffa. The situation in Lod got so bad that border police had to be redeployed from the West Bank to try to restore order.

It should be quite clear that even after 73 years of efforts not necessarily to integrate Palestinians into Israeli society, but to undermine their identity, have failed. It was bound to; historical memory is strong and simply calling Palestinians “Israeli Arabs,” using a fake Arabic word for Jerusalem, and destroying villages was not going to erase it. Inside the Green Line, Palestinians regard themselves as a remnant of the population that existed before Israel’s creation and thus they share with their cousins in the West Bank and Gaza Strip an identity bound up in dispossession and loss. Why Palestinian citizens of Israel are in the streets now, and were not before, is hard to know for sure, but clearly the combination of events in Jerusalem stirred them to reassert who they are against the power of a state and society whose very existence denies them their reality. This is not to condone violence, but an effort to try to understand where it comes from in this instance.

On the other side, of course, are Israelis who are deeply committed to the historical connection between Jews and the land. The practical and logical outcome of Zionism—the state of Israel—would not have been possible in, for example, Uganda, because the religious dimension and its pull was absent. Israel’s founders were secular-minded, but they understood that without the biblical connection to the land, their claim to it was no better than that of its Arab inhabitants. In this context, the ongoing effort among the Palestinian leadership and supporters of Palestine to undermine that history—of which there is ample evidence—is not an attack on Israel, but on Israeli identity. The response is manifest in the Israeli government’s efforts, along with much of the international Jewry, to underscore the existence of Jewish nationhood centered around Jerusalem––often times with a fervor and ferocity precisely because Palestinians and their supporters deny the legitimacy of these claims. Israelis will neither give up nor apologize for who they are, which is how the evictions of families in Sheikh Jarrah, the stoning of the Arab neighbors, and airstrikes become possible.

The proposals, plans, and roadmaps for resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians can fill a room from floor to ceiling. Yet, for all the time and effort that went into these ideas, they have never come close to bringing peace. Why? There has been bad faith and politics on all sides that have made it more difficult, to be sure, but the broader problem is connected to identity. For either side to concede on any core issue—Jerusalem, refugees, right of return, borders—is to place their identity in jeopardy. Isn’t Jerusalem the eternal capital of Israel and the central focus of Jewish life? Then how can it be shared? How can one have a Palestinian state without Jerusalem as its capital? The Palestinian right of return will dilute the Jewish identity of Israel. The right of return that Jews enjoy as a result of Israeli law further threatens to overwhelm and erase Palestinian identity.

In this context, it is hard to take seriously the idea that the United States can mediate the conflict––though there are certainly those who will insist that it try.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook