The Israel-Palestine Conundrum

By: John Simke

The following are class notes for a seminar on the Israel-Palestine problem. The goal of the class is to create an informed discussion among participants who may have no previous experience with the subject.

The way Learning Experiences does its classes is that we present material in chunks of about 5-8 minutes and then pose questions for discussion, for which we allow 10-15 minutes per question. The Israel-Palestine notes represent a 90 minute class, broken into four pieces of 20-25 minutes each.

We attempt to set up a discussion by providing various points of view on an issue, with just enough provocative material to encourage a lively exchange of views. We try not to let our own biases affect the presentation too much.

The Israel-Palestine Conundrum

What underlies the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians?

• The lands that currently make up Israel and the Occupied Territories were part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of WWI. Then the territory became known as Palestine under a British mandate. In 1947 the land was partitioned by a UN vote between a Jewish state and an Arab state.

• The biblical Kingdom of Israel existed in these lands, including the West Bank, until the second nation of Israel was defeated by the Romans in the 1st century AD. The Jewish peoples scattered mostly to Europe. The Central and Eastern European Jews became the Ashkenazi sect of Judaism, while the Iberian Jews became the Sephardis, the other main Jewish sect. As a result of persecution around the 15th century, the Sephardis fled mostly to North Africa and the Middle East but also Southern Europe and even India and the Far East.

• The Jews in modern Palestine were relatively few in number, totaling only about 2,000 in 1800, 25,000 in 1882, 50,000 in 1900 and 85,000 in 1915, at most about 15% of the population. Palestine, despite being the location of ancient Israel, was not an easy place to live, being a poor agrarian society, other than on the coast, where a trading economy existed, with greater affluence.

• Larger numbers of Jews migrated to Palestine before and after WWI, not as formal immigrants, but as settlers who had purchased land, mostly from absentee Ottoman and Arab landowners.

• In 1917 the Balfour declaration gave British approval to a “national home for the Jewish people”, although perhaps not a state per se. The intent is still disputed. In any case, the legitimacy of a declaration of this kind by an imperial power is highly questionable.

• The Palestinians were excluded from the post-WWI peace talks and deals were cut, through fierce lobbying by the global Zionist community, to permit Jewish migration and purchase of land.

• After WWII, the State of Israel was established through a successful UN resolution. Palestine was partitioned between Israel and the West Bank, which was eventually incorporated into Jordan. Obviously, the Holocaust played a role in this. However, the legitimacy of the State of Israel rests heavily on biblical roots.

• There is little doubt that the Arabs came to view this resolution and the mass migration of Jews to Israel as an act of war. The creation of Israel and the subsequent war between the Arabs and Israel resulted in the flight of large numbers of Arabs to neighbouring lands, where they were mostly very poorly treated.

• Israel established a ”right of return” for Jews worldwide to migrate to Israel. No such permission was allowed to the Arabs who had fled.

• Subsequent to the initial UN resolution, Israel has expanded its territory on several occasions and there are those who want to see greater expansion. Expansion has been a key dimension of Israel’s policy, for security and resources, as well as religious reasons.

• Israel would probably prefer that the Palestinians go away and be absorbed into other Arab countries. So far this has not happened, partially because they are not accepted and partially because they want their previous territory back.

• The Palestinians, on the other hand, have never accepted Israel’s right to exist, given that the creation of the country, from their point of view, was essentially an invasion.

Why does Israel need the Occupied Territories?

• Historically, the political entity or peoples occupying the area that is present day Israel have had control over the entire region up to the Jordan River, namely Israel and the Occupied Territories.

• There are three reasons for this:

  1. Security. There is no natural defense to the east of Israel other than the Jordan River and the Jordanian Highlands. If the area to the west of the Jordan River is occupied by another entity or peoples, Israel is vulnerable. Israel lacks the strategic depth unless it controls the land all the way to the Jordan River.
  2. Environmentally. Israel resides in a water-challenged region. Although Israel has done an excellent job of managing water, it cannot do so if it lacks access to the headwaters of the Jordan river and aquifers that are at least partially in the Occupied Territories.
  3. Economically. While less compelling, the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean represents a natural economic entity. The peoples of the coastal plain are naturally complemented by those living in the agricultural interior.

• For these reasons, Israel feels compelled to occupy the West Bank and ultimately absorb it into Israel. However, it cannot do so and give Palestinians living there political rights, unless it accepts that Israel/West Bank become a full democracy with political rights for all, thus compromising the Jewish character of the state.

• There are several scenarios for the future of Israel/Palestine:

  • Two State Solution: Under this scenario, the Occupied Territories would become a Palestinian state, roughly in the territory left after the 1967 war, with land swaps to take settlements into account. This scenario is unlikely and becoming less likely every year, given the large numbers of settlements, the complexity of the land swaps required, the restrictions Israel will place on true sovereignty for any Palestinian state and because Israeli political opinion will not permit it. The Palestinians may unilaterally declare their own state, with global support, but it would be a state in name only, with Israel controlling it in many ways. Israel may be forced to negotiate a more substantive Palestinian state, but it is difficult to imagine that this state would be viable unless it economically integrated with Israel. As noted above, the most logical state is one including both Israel and the West Bank. Overall, the window for a two state solution is likely already shut.
  • Continued Occupation: This is the status quo, with Israel denying Palestinians political or basic human rights, and building more and more settlements. Israel’s strategy here is to hope that eventually the Palestinians give up and accept occupation or just leave the territory. So far, the Palestinians have shown no signs of doing either, and global opinion is not likely to support it. The BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) campaign would get stronger. The level of violence in Israel would increase significantly, and Israel would become even more of a security state.
  • One State Solution: This could, and likely will evolve from the present situation when the Israeli government formally admits that it will never accept the two -state solution, as it more or less did in the recent election. This would initially, perhaps for a decade or two, be a state with political rights only for citizens of Israel. However, the Occupied Territories would be fully integrated into Israel. Global action against this scenario would be intense, with a high level of BDS. Eventually, as in the case of South Africa, this would collapse and a true single state would emerge, with political and human rights for all. However, there would be no “Jewish State” per se, although Jewish elites would likely dominate this integrated state. This scenario would be difficult to achieve because of resistance by the Israeli right. However, it may be forced on Israel eventually, perhaps 10-20 years from now. The question is whether it would be achieved peacefully.

• Interestingly, a growing number of Palestinian youth are abandoning the idea of a “Palestinian State”. Rather, they are favouring the idea of becoming full citizens of Israel, enabling them to live productive lives as normal citizens with normal rights, rather than focusing on a political objective that likely will never be realized.

What are the geopolitics of the Israel-Palestine situation?

• Since its inception, the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been part of a bigger geopolitical game. Initially, both the U.S. and Soviet Union supported the creation of Israel in order to gain influence in the Middle East, and in the latter case, also for ideological reasons.

• From the early 1950s, the Soviets aligned themselves with the Arabs because they saw an opportunity to expand their ideology to a whole new region as several Arab countries, notably Egypt and Syria, embraced socialism. Strangely, this was the only era in which the U.S. adopted a somewhat even-handed approach to the Israel-Arab conflict, although they still favoured Israel as a bulwark against Soviet influence.

• From 1967 onwards, U.S. support for Israel became unquestioned, and Soviet support for the Arabs became the norm. However, the U.S. influence in the region was far stronger than any other power, because the region was of critical importance to the U.S.

• The end of the cold war saw Soviet influence further diminish, such that geopolitically, the Middle East was under the sole domination of the U.S. which became the prime influencer of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The U.S. orchestrated peace talks at various points, such as Oslo (1993 onwards), Camp David (2000) and the abortive John Kerry attempt of 2013-2014.

• The current “peace process” is being orchestrated by the “Quartet”, namely the U.S., EU, UN and Russia. This has gone nowhere.

• Given the complexity of and threats within the Middle East in general, and domestic politics, it is unlikely that the U.S. will do much to address the Israel-Palestine issue during Obama’s remaining term. However, Obama is going to change the tone of U.S. relations with Israel. He may withhold a U.S. veto over UN votes for a Palestinian state. Also, the nature of Jewish support for Israel in the U.S. is changing, with less unquestioned support, particularly amongst younger Jews.

• Russia has re-entered the picture, with alliances with Iran and Turkey. It is possible that Russia will gradually have a bigger influence in the Middle East and be part of a global coalition to pressure change by Israel. The EU, while not a big influencer in foreign affairs, is already strongly for a Palestinian state. The EU could change the game with a strong BDS campaign in response to Netanyahu’s recent statements. Israel is heavily dependent on imports from and exports to EU nations, and an effective BDS campaign would hurt Israel, perhaps seriously. (Europe makes up 44% of Israel’s exports, compared with 12% to the U.S.)

• Looking at the bigger picture, oil politics are changing. The biggest customers of Middle East oil are now China, Japan and India. The U.S. is oil self-sufficient. Gradually, the U.S. interest in the Middle East is declining as it faces the China challenge, an assertive Russia, an increasingly independent Latin America and a whole set of new unaligned powers such as India, Indonesia, Brazil and Turkey. None of these countries views Israel in a particularly positive light. In short, the U.S. need to support Israel unquestioningly as an ally for energy reasons is diminishing, and there are other nations who are more likely to want to keep oil suppliers happy.

• Paradoxically, it is some of these oil suppliers who are emerging as supporters of Israel, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, as part of the struggle against Iranian hegemony and because they see Israel as a bulwark against radical Islamism. Nevertheless, Israel faces an implacable enemy in Iran and an emerging enemy in Turkey. These are the two biggest powers in the Middle East today.

• The emerging picture is global isolation of Israel, the exceptions being the U.S. Republican Party, Tony Abbott and Stephen Harper.

• One thing that is likely to retard any settlement of this situation is the extreme chaos in the broader Middle East. While the “Middle East conflict” used to refer to Israel and Palestine, this has almost become a side show to the Islamic State, the Syrian War, potentially failed states in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, and the Iran nuclear negotiations.

• The Islamic State (IS) is a potential disruptor of whatever scenario might otherwise emerge. Although Israel and the Occupied Territories have not yet been directly affected by IS, there is the possibility that IS could have an important, and negative effect on the situation. Active IS sympathizers could emerge amongst Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and even in Israel, and commit terrorist acts that would further destabilize the situation. The more serious threat could be that IS is able to invade Jordan, taking control of a portion of that relatively weak state. In such circumstances, there is little doubt that Israel would intervene militarily, probably putting any settlement with the Palestinians further out of reach.

• In this context, it is unlikely that external pressure will be brought to bear on Israel, one of the few relatively stable spots in the Middle East. Netanyahu must go to sleep every night grateful for IS.


John Simke, Founder of Learning Experiences

John is a former international management consultant, & partner for over 20 years at PricewaterhouseCoopers. After retiring from PwC, John founded & led a management educational institute in partnership with Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto and co-founded the World Studies program at the LIFE Institute of Ryerson University.

He has developed & moderated over 50 courses, focusing on international relations, politics, urban affairs, economics, finance, energy, the environment, & technology. He currently leads 1-day seminars and multi-week courses through Learning Experiences, a non-profit academy that he founded in 2014. He also participates in international relations and economics programs at Cambridge University & the London School of Economics.

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1 Comment

  1. Awni Koudmani

    Thanks John. Very thourough unbiased summary.

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