What the left gets wrong about the Israel-Palestine conflict

Respect Palestinians by acknowledging their agency

Gaza rockets
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

A pillar of progressive foreign policy has always been searching for oppressed victims. That is not inherently a problem. The world is full of such people. I grew up in Iran.

But I have always found American progressives' search for victims both misguided and condescending. Discussing Iran, they always point the finger at the behavior of the United States. Iran's sponsorship of terrorism? It is because of U.S. sanctions. Killing American troops? It is because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The 1979 hostage-taking? It is because of the ousting of Mohammed Mossaddeq in 1953. It is never Iran's fault, always America's. They are simply reacting to our aggressions.

The same problem is seen in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and especially during the current violence in Israel and Gaza. The more reasonable takes, like those offered by The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof and Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) are usually along the line of "both sides are acting imperfectly." Yes, I agree. But 10 and 90 percent imperfection are both imperfections, yet the difference is day and night. Less reasonable politicians and media figures argue that "Israel is more powerful, so it should be more restrained." The worst arguments justify Hamas' targeting of Israeli civilians by saying Israel's conscription law means that everybody is a potential combatant, hence nobody in Israel is really a civilian. I will not bother to explain why this one is inherently immoral.

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All of these arguments have one thing in common, though, which is they all view Israel as an aggressor. Some argue that Israel's settlements policy is an act of aggression. Others go as far as claiming that Israel is a colonialist power in somebody else's land. This is at least logically consistent with their position, while the first point is answered by simply responding that Palestinian terrorism predates Israeli settlements in the West Bank. On the question of to whom the land belongs, it has belonged to Jews, to Arabs, to Romans, to Ottomans, and to Jews again. Both Jews and Palestinian Arabs have legitimate claims to the land according to history. What matters is that they both reside in the land, and neither is going to leave it.

But these arguments are all a dodge from the real issue, which is the actions of the Palestinian leaders. In the 1990s, Israeli-Palestinian peace seemed to be in sight. A deal for a Palestinian state was offered by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Yasser Arafat in 2000, but Arafat rejected it, just like the Palestinian leaders rejected the 1948 United Nations partition plan that Israelis had accepted. Why have peace when conflict is keeping you in power and enriching your pockets from foreign aid? In 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Israeli Defense Forces soldiers literally dragged Jews out of their houses in Gaza. Formerly a pariah, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was received as an international hero at the United Nations General Assembly that year. What Israel got in return was an armed seizure of Gaza by Hamas militants following their victory in the 2006 elections. The subsequent blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt — it is almost always omitted that Egypt is a participant in the blockade because it complicates the "colonialist" narrative for an Arab nation to participate in the strategy — was a consequence of the Iran-sponsored militant regime dedicated to the destruction of Israel taking power.

The left's inability to see the situation clearly stems from the progressive focus on identity and an inadequate understanding of self-determination. Many supporters of Israel cite the silence of anti-Israel voices on the left about oppressive regimes around the world as a sign of anti-Semitism. Not to dismiss anti-Semitism as an issue, but many of those voices object to Israeli policy because it is, they argue, one people oppressing another. If the oppressor were to share an ethnicity with the oppressed, that would not be ideal, but it would be much more likely to be seen within the bounds of self-determination. In the U.S. and around the world, from college campuses to the intersectionality and social justice movements, to a United Nations commission, one can find cries for help for the Palestinian Arabs. Meanwhile, similar efforts on behalf of people in North Korea, China, Iran, and other tyrannical states are difficult to find.

Other factors that play a role are an ideological commitment to "liberation," the romanticization of victimhood, and the belief that power necessarily leads to oppression. The weak are, by nature, always reacting to the powerful. In other words, the weak lack agency. This, in turn, feeds into the focus on identity. Non-white people are the victims of white people — even though Israelis are mostly Mizrachi and not white, their prime ministers have always been Ashkenazim, as are most American Jews, so Israel is perceived as a white nation. All of these arguments are to suggest that Palestinians lack agency and cannot be held accountable for targeting Israeli civilians.

The reality is this: Palestinians and their leaders, including in the Middle East, have more to do with their fates than anybody else or history do. As long as progressives are unwilling to accept this, they are an obstacle to solving problems in the region.

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