The wisdom of pessimism in the Israel-Palestinian conflict

It's time to acknowledge there will be no peace between Israel and Palestine

Gaza City.
(Image credit: Illustrated | REUTERS, iStock)

There are plenty of conflicts in the world that feel stuck, immobile, trapped in amber. Think of the Korean peninsula. Or Taiwan. Or Kashmir. But nothing feels quite as hopelessly fixed in place like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Certainly nothing about this week's violence in Israel and Gaza has done anything to change that impression. On the contrary, it has given us renewed reason to recognize the wisdom of adopting an attitude of studied pessimism about the possibility of resolving the conflict anytime soon.

There are two layers to the stasis of the moment. At the deepest level, the parties are fighting about an event — the founding of the modern state of Israel — that happened on this day (May 14) exactly 73 years ago. That's a long time for the parties in a dispute to remain committed to resolving it exclusively to their own advantage, especially when nothing that's happened in the intervening years has meaningfully changed the power dynamic between the parties. The Palestinians are too weak to defeat the Israelis, but they are strong enough to inflict periodic pain. The Israelis could defeat the Palestinians, but doing so would be morally unacceptable to most Israelis and their allies, so Israel inflicts the pain it considers necessary to maintain the status quo with minimal losses on its own side.

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On top of this long-term holding pattern has been added another layer of fixity over the past 20 years. The source of that inertia — which emanates from the psyches of Jewish Israelis — is painful disappointment at the dashing of the optimism that swept through the region and the world during the 1990s.

As author Damir Marusic argued in an important essay that was published two years ago but has been circulating online this week, the 1990s were a heyday for high hopes on many fronts. Liberalism was spreading around the world. Democracies would eventually replace autocracies everywhere. Once that happened, peace would break out as well, since democracies never go to war with each other. Conflicts big and small could be resolved through rational negotiation. Just talk it out, hold an election, and everyone would get along.

The Oslo “peace process,” along with expectations for a “two-state solution,” grew out of these hopes. But then Yasser Arafat turned down an Israeli offer of a Palestinian state (within constraints set by concerns over Israel's national security) at the Taba Summit in early 2001 and launched the Second Intifada that eventually produced massive, indiscriminate terrorist bombings throughout Israel, with Israeli Arabs often demonstrating support for the attacks. Then, in 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from its occupation of Gaza and dismantled its settlements there. The Arab population responded by electing Hamas, an organization explicitly devoted to the defeat and destruction of Israel.

Everything that's happened since has been determined by these events and the hopes that they scuttled. That very much includes the electoral collapse of the Israeli left and the cratering of support for attempts at a peace agreement with the Palestinians. And the rush to complete the border wall and network of roads isolating Arabs living in the West Bank. And the Gaza blockade. And the perfecting of the Iron Dome missile defense shield. And recurring talk of outright Israeli annexation of the West Bank. And the Hamas rocket attacks and the IDF's retaliatory pummeling of Gaza in 2008-9 and again in 2012 and again in 2014 and again (twice) in 2019 and again this week. (This most recent bombardment has so far been much milder than the worst of these previous clashes.)

Every time the cycle repeats itself, liberals and progressives throughout the Western world, very much including in the United States, react with rage on behalf of the Palestinians, including when American presidents respond with diplomatic boilerplate about how Israel has a right to defend itself. The rage is understandable in moral terms, but it is politically senseless — every bit as politically senseless as Arafat's rejection of a deal in favor of ... 20 more years of statelessness with Palestinian leverage diminishing further with every passing year. What, exactly, do the indignant critics think Israel should do as thousands of missiles fired from Gaza destroy Israeli homes, buildings, and lives? Just stand there passively because, I guess, the country and its people deserve to suffer for their sins?

But that's absurd. No nation in the world or in human history would respond that way, and Hamas knows it. The reason they launched this most recent volley of rockets was that violent protests erupted over property confiscations in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem and they wanted a part of the action — with “action” defined as provoking an inevitable military response from Israel that would lead to civilian deaths in densely populated Gaza, which would give Hamas the only victory it knows how to achieve, which is a propaganda victory with Western liberals and progressives, who respond by verbally attacking Israel and sending donations to pro-Palestinian organizations.

That, too, is just more of the same. And like all the previous rounds, this latest one has moved the Palestinians not one millimeter closer to achieving a just and lasting settlement with Israel. On the contrary, each round hardens Israeli resolve, confirming in the minds of its citizens that the country's enemies have no interest in peace — just as each military loss, on top of all the daily indignities of living in a stateless limbo under control of an occupying power, adds to the stockpile of fury built up over decades for the Palestinians.

What might break us out of this dynamic? I truly have no idea. Israel's position in the region has never been stronger or more secure. It has a growing list of allies united by the common enemy of Iran, which makes the Palestinians more of an afterthought than ever. The most ominous development of the past week, from the Israeli standpoint, is probably the vicious violence that broke out between Jewish and Arab Israelis on the streets of Lod and other cities. That could portend further unrest down the road, but it certainly won't make the Israeli electorate more interested in contemplating peace talks with the Palestinians. And Western liberals agonizing about how much they'd like for this to change won't make one bit of difference.

That leaves us roughly where we were five years ago, and five years before that, and five years before that — stuck in an unjust holding pattern with no end in sight.

That's why a reasonable assessment of the situation calls for pessimism. Sometimes there is simply no hopeful path forward toward justice or peace, and no viable solution to be had. In such cases, the raising of expectations can make things even worse, by ratcheting up demands for the impossible that spill over into pointless bloodshed. Someday something better will become possible. But until that day arrives, we need to resign ourselves to a reality that falls far short of what all people of good will would wish to see in the world.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.