The decades-long struggle between Israel and the Palestinians is not the world's bloodiest ongoing conflict. And unlike the fight for Kashmir or the slow-motion collapse of North Korea, it doesn't threaten to escalate into nuclear war. But it has nevertheless seized the imagination of millions. Across the Arab and Muslim world, the conflict is seen as an unambiguous morality play, with brutal Zionists cast in the role of villains. Many in western Europe feel the same way, as evidenced by the outraged response to Israel's recent action against a blockade-breaking aid flotilla to Gaza.
In the U.S., in contrast, the consensus view is that Israel is a democracy besieged by violent extremists and that the Israeli military has been highly measured and restrained in its efforts to contain the threat to Israeli civilians. This is a view I share. Yet the tragedy of the struggle is that Israel is locked in a war for international legitimacy, a war that will prove increasingly difficult to win.
We all bring prior biases to how we interpret the Israeli naval raid off Gaza. Though I've been encouraged by the growing number of Palestinians who are turning towards nonviolent strategies for achieving self-determination, my gut instinct is to be very skeptical of claims that Israel acts recklessly or lawlessly as a matter of course. The story behind the aid flotilla looks very different when we approach it from an Israeli perspective. Israel has imposed a maritime blockade on Gaza for the simple reason that it is in a state of war with Hamas, a movement that has launched rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians. The aid flotilla could thus be reasonably interpreted as a deliberate provocation, designed to test the willingness of Israel to defend the blockade. Moreover, there is reason to believe that the violence on the aid flotilla was preplanned.
The fact that Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), the Turkish aid organization behind the flotilla, has explicitly aligned itself with Hamas and has ties to global jihad networks was hardly encouraging, not least because Hamas has been receiving weapons transported by sea. Hamas recognizes that Turkish public opinion is crucial to its efforts to undermine Israel's international legitimacy. After a long and fruitful period of close collaboration between the Israeli and Turkish militaries, Turkey's AK Party government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has bolstered his political standing at home by loudly condemning Israel in international forums, and now his government is demanding that the U.S.condemn Israel. What appears to be a simple humanitarian mission was in fact part of a carefully orchestrated campaign designed to divide the NATO alliance and strengthen Hamas' grip on Gaza. But no evidence will persuade the Turkish public that Israel had every right to enforce its blockade. The country's political elites have every reason to direct the disaffection and anger of Turks away from themselves and towards Israel, a tactic also embraced by rulers throughout the region.
In 2003 Tony Judt published a controversial essay in The New York Review of Books calling for the creation of a binational state that would embrace all Israelis and Palestinians as citizens. Judt was sharply criticized by defenders of Israel and for good reason. A binational state, for all its notional virtues, would represent the end of the Zionist dream of a refuge for the world's Jews, and that is very much something to lament in a world in which anti-Semitism remains a pervasive danger. He did, however, make at least one compelling observation. Zionism began as a nationalist movement not entirely unlike those that aimed to carve out sovereign homelands from the decaying empires of the Habsburgs and Romanovs. Yet the State of Israel was established in a different time and in a different international environment, and so it has been held to a very different standard.
The end of the Ottoman Empire saw massive population transfers between Greece and the new Turkish state, and that legacy continues to fuel mutual enmity between them. All of the new republics created in the wake of the Great War struggled with internal minorities, and some chose to deal with them through expulsion or forced assimilation. The world turned a blind eye, as the ethic of the time was that nation-states were free to do as they chose within their own borders. Even now, in a Europe that aspires to post-nationalist harmony, ethno-religious tensions persist. Yet those tensions are undoubtedly less severe than they might have been if western Anatolia still had a large Greek minority hostile to the Turkish state or if the rival nationalities of the Habsburg empire were still forced to coexist within the same state. Rather depressingly, it is rare for multilingual societies divided by painful historical memories to flourish under the best circumstances, as we see in Belgium.
Yet there is no prospect of a "population swap" between Israel and a Palestinian state. The idea has been floated by a small handful of politicians in Israel, who've been almost universally condemned as the moral equivalents of Slobodan Milosevic. A strategy that was seen as tragic but unavoidable in the first decades of the 20th century is now seen as an affront to common decency. Given the scale of the suffering involved in population transfers and partitions, this is entirely understandable. It does, however, put Israel in a very serious bind.
Israel is a multicultural democracy with a large Arabic-speaking minority that has grown ever more alienated from the institutions and symbols of the state. Indeed, one can argue that the nations of Europe and North America have an unfair advantage over Israel. The U.S. engaged in ethnic cleansing against its American Indian population and the modernizing French state systematically eliminated minority dialects to create a more unified national entity long before the rise of cable news. It is hardly surprising that Israelis bristle at being lectured by critics who live in countries that have profited from such grave historical crimes. But the unfairness of this double standard doesn't change the fact that Israel is extremely susceptible to international pressure.
Those of us who strongly believe that Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself should find this week's events sobering. Hamas and other organizations committed to the destruction of Israel have grown very shrewd at shaping international public opinion, and it's often unclear whether Israel understands how to wage this subtler, more vexing war for legitimacy effectively.