Introduction to
What Justice Demands

America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

by Elan Journo


In June 2014, a jihadist group linked to Al Qaeda conquered large tracts of Syria and Iraq. After this swift rise to power, which took the world by surprise, the group declared itself a formal “caliphate,” or Islamist regime. Within the territory it controlled, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS,1 enforced Islamic religious law as a totalitarian system, following in the footsteps of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Iranian regime, and Saudi Arabia.

The eruption of this new jihadist regime had ripple effects far, far beyond the Middle East. The Islamic State rapidly became a magnet for as many as thirty thousand people who flocked to live, fight, and die under its black flag. They came not only from across the Middle East, but also—astonishingly—from Austria, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Australia, and the United States.2 And beyond the territory it conquered in Iraq and Syria—equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom3 —the Islamic State proved itself a formidable jihadist force with global reach. Fighters linked to the Islamic State carried out massacres and suicide bombings in Paris, Berlin, Nice, San Bernardino, Istanbul, Orlando, Manchester, London.

Amid an embarrassed scramble to “do something” in response to the Islamic State’s initial rise, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was dispatched to recruit an international coalition to combat the self-styled caliphate. Upon his return home, Kerry told reporters about a crucial lesson he had learned. While seeking coalition partners in the Middle East, he observed that “there wasn’t a leader I met within the region who didn’t raise with me spontaneously the need to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger.”4

By “recruitment,” Kerry meant to the jihadist forces of the Islamic State, a particularly galvanizing faction within the wider Islamist movement. The Palestine issue is one prominent theme in the recruitment videos and literature of assorted Islamist factions, and it has been for years.5 By “street anger,” he meant public hostility in the region about the unresolved Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is bound up with hostility toward the United States. Why? For more than a quarter century, Washington has been neck-deep in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it has provided both sides with foreign aid—hundreds of millions of dollars every year—and it has assumed the role of a peace broker in countless rounds of diplomatic negotiations.

Kerry is not alone. The fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict festers, many people believe, is a major, if not the chief, source of American (and Western) woes emanating from the Middle East. You can hear variations on that theme from Barack Obama; from Ban Ki-moon, the former secretary general of the United Nations; from President Jimmy Carter, a winner of the Nobel Peace prize; from General David Petraeus, former director of the CIA and U.S. Central Command; from General James Mattis, the secretary of defense under Donald Trump; from leading intellectuals and academics.6

Even if you disagree with Kerry’s linkage of the jihadist movement and the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even if you’ve given no thought to the Middle East or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, it’s an inescapable fact that turmoil in that part of the world affects us. What’s more, it’s undeniable that Washington’s approach to unraveling the conflict has come to naught—and arguably, it’s made matters worse.

What, then, should be America’s approach toward the conflict?

That’s the central question of this book.

The answer I offer in the following pages is unique, in two respects.

First, I address active-minded readers who hold widely ranging political-ideological views: whichever tags—left/right or conservative/libertarian/progressive—resonate with you, that’s OK. If, like me, none of those tags fits you, that’s fine too. Nor does it matter how little you know about the conflict, nor what views (if any) you already have about it. What matters is that you’re open to questioning assumptions and forming (or revising) your own conclusions.

Second, the substance of the answer I present in the book is unique. Something crucial is lacking from the public discussion of what America’s approach should be. What’s missing is a frank moral evaluation of both adversaries and of America’s role in the conflict. That moral assessment is what this book offers.

Let me sketch out three salient views on what America’s approach should be, pointing out how each is inadequate, and then indicate how my perspective differs.

“Find the Middle Ground”

The prevailing approach to resolving the conflict calls for rebooting diplomatic negotiations, commonly known as the Peace Process. These negotiations aim at a middle-ground compromise between the adversaries. Even if you are sympathetic to one side (or the other), so the thinking goes, a balanced compromise that both sides could accept would deliver some semblance of harmony, perhaps even peace. Here’s how President Barack Obama put it:

For decades then, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers, for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders, as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth. The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.7

This is widely known as the “two-state solution.” In a nutshell: the Israelis keep their state, the Palestinians gain one for themselves, and in theory the two states co-exist side-by-side, in peace. The two-state solution has been Washington’s policy for the last quarter century. Each administration clung to that basic approach, while tweaking the timeframe, sequencing, terms of the peace process. To reach a compromise, for example, George W. Bush believed the Palestinians had to be nudged to improve their governance, whereas Barack Obama felt that progress could happen only by pressuring Israel.

No tinkering with this basic model, however, has achieved the stated goal of peace. To judge by the body counts, it has only made things worse. And, fundamentally, there’s something profoundly disturbing about a purported solution that pushes aside questions of right and wrong.

Recoiling from that pursuit of “balance,” there are two other salient views on what America’s approach should be. One demands justice for Israel, the other, in its own way, for Palestine.

“Do Right By Israel”

Many Americans, polls show, are remarkably sympathetic to Israel. One study in 2014 found that, compared with data going back to 1978, “sympathy toward Israel has never been higher.”8 For some, there’s a generalized benevolence toward the Middle East’s only democracy, beleaguered on all sides by hostile forces, that shares some of our political values. Often that conclusion is impressionistic, lacking detailed knowledge, let alone an evaluation, of Palestinian grievances. So, that pro-Israel stand can, and does, wobble.

Far more stable, however, is the fervent backing of one vocal bloc of voters, Evangelical Christians. They’re a significant factor in U.S. politics. By an overwhelming margin, they backed George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, and they helped usher Donald Trump into the White House in 2016.9 Arguably they constitute the backbone of pro-Israel sentiment in America. For example, John Hagee, the pastor of a megachurch in San Antonio, Texas, has made being pro-Israel his signature issue. Hagee celebrates the post-World War II establishment of Israel as a state with a distinctively religious identity. “Every Christian in America,” he explains, “has a biblical mandate to stand in absolute solidarity with Israel and demand that our leaders in Washington stop recommending Israel’s withdrawal as the solution to every conflict” (meaning: Israeli concessions to the Palestinians).10 He insists that “the man or the nation that has blessed Israel has been blessed of God, and to the man or the nation that cursed Israel the judgment of God came in spades.”11 God, the ultimate authority on justice, commands us to back Israel, and rewards those who obey.

Only those of a particular faith could find this view compelling, and if you were to examine it closely, leaving the appeals to the supernatural behind, you’d still come away with at least two thorny, unanswered questions: What are we to make of the morally-freighted claims and grievances of Palestinians and the movement that claims to represent them? (Hagee has no patience for the Palestinians and marginalizes them by rewriting the conflict’s history.12) And, what if we identify Israeli policies that are unjust; how could it then be just to lend it uncritical support?

“Do Right By the Palestinians”

A widespread opposing view holds just that: To do right by the Palestinians, we must begin by recognizing that they have suffered a double injustice: not only from Israeli policy, but also from Washington’s “Israel First” policy, especially in its role as broker in the peace talks. Instead of seeking a fair outcome, we hear, America exhibited a blatantly pro-Israel bias, providing Israel with largely unconditional support, while short-changing Palestinians. At minimum we have to take our thumb off the scales, allowing them to tilt away from Israel and back toward the Palestinians, who suffer acute poverty, unemployment, hopelessness.

Step into a college lecture hall, and you’ll hear that justice demands even more. From their professors and from campus activists, many students learn that the mighty Israel ill-treats the weak, impoverished Palestinians—and we Americans enable it to punch downward. They learn that Israel has persistently thwarted the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian cause—and we arm Israel. They learn that by conniving in Israel’s maltreatment of the Palestinians, we stoke hostility against us.

Thus the pervasive indictment: America is way too supportive of Israel—and it should not be. Justice demands doing far more to support the Palestinians, and distancing ourselves from the “war-crimes”-inflicting “apartheid” regime in Israel, which deserves (at least) boycotts, divestment, and sanctions to compel it to mend its ways.

This outlook, so resonant with many people, is built on powerful moral claims. But, if we take justice seriously, there are fundamental problems with this outlook. Here’s one: Do the facts warrant the claim that Washington has pursued a blindly pro-Israel policy? (The facts, as we’ll see, tell a different story.) And another: This outlook declares its concern about the grievances of specific Palestinian individuals, but then regards the Palestinian movement as their legitimate agent, fighting to redress those wrongs. Is that assumption about the Palestinian movement warranted? No, I will argue, that assumption is belied by the movement’s actual goals and nature. There’s no genuine wrong that can be righted by the creation of a dictatorship or an Islamist theocracy—the goals, respectively, of Fatah and Hamas, the leading Palestinian factions.

Taking Justice Seriously

In sharp contrast to these salient views about what America’s approach should be, this book presents a distinctive viewpoint. That viewpoint is the result of taking seriously the principle of justice.

The moral framework I apply in this book is not religious, but secular; it’s concerned not with collectives, but with the lives of individual, irreplaceable human beings; and it holds certain values—human life, freedom, progress—as objective: values for everyone, at all times, in all places. This secular, individualist moral framework helps us make sense of an intimidatingly complex conflict. From this vantage point, the book identifies the essential nature of the conflict, presents an argument about what’s at stake in it, and indicates a path toward resolving it.

Has American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict been unjust? Has our policy fomented anti-American hostility, especially among jihadists?

Yes and yes—but not for the reasons you may have heard. The actual injustice is that America has sold out the region’s only free society, Israel—along with freedom-seeking people across the Middle East and among the Palestinian community—while empowering jihadist forces. And it is this injustice that hurts us. The book’s theme is that America should be strongly supportive of freedom and freedom-seekers—but hasn’t been, much to our detriment.

To convince you of that, I show why it’s necessary to rethink the widely accepted moral assumptions about the conflict’s moral landscape. Fundamentally, most of us rely on a conception of justice that’s wrong. Only when we apply a proper conception of justice, can we evaluate the adversaries objectively. We start by evaluating the moral standing of Israel (Part I) and of the Palestinian movement (Part II); then we look at what America’s approach to the conflict has been and what it should be (Part III).

Much of what we need to know about the moral character of the adversaries is to be found by looking at them in the present tense: at who they are, what they seek, how they behave. But we will look at some of the conflict’s backstory to put certain important issues in their historical context. For example, we will examine several episodes in the conflict’s history to understand the origin and goals of the Palestinian movement and to understand the inner tension over Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” character.

Though we’ll explore key elements of the conflict’s dizzyingly intricate history, this is not a book about that history (many books deal well with that subject). History matters a great deal. By itself, however, it cannot tell us enough to form a moral evaluation of the adversaries. Nor is the book’s aim to provide a comprehensive account of every derivative feature of the conflict. Instead, this book’s delimited aim is to clarify the conflict’s essential nature and moral significance, which entails questioning commonly held views about justice. To do that, we focus on aspects and issues that are causally basic; that are at the root of the conflict; that are telling; that are, in other words, fundamental.

This requires considerable selectivity. For example, rather than trying to address every Palestinian grievance or claim ever raised, we untangle four of the hardest, well-known, and pivotal grievances; where we find cases of genuine wrongs, we’ll consider how these might be redressed. (These analyses, by extension, indicate an approach for how to think about and handle other claims.) For readers keen to dig deeper on various points, I recommend flipping to the endnotes where I cite sources and offer leads for you to explore further.

“OK, so what’s the solution?”

When people ask this question, all too often it’s in a tone of hopelessness. Understandably, many people have written off the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as irresolvable. The Israelis and Palestinians will always be enemies, people think, and many of us doubt that America can ever secure its interests in the region. Perhaps we should just withdraw. These conclusions, however, are unwarranted. It’s true that irrational American policy has inflamed the conflict and empowered forces, especially the jihadist movement, that are hostile to us. It’s also true that American Mideast policy, which has been devoid of a principled conception of our interests, is an incoherent mess. But this book shows that if we’re willing to rethink our moral premises about the conflict and America’s approach to it; if we’re willing to recognize and act on what justice demands, then the conflict is solvable, and we can secure America’s (actual) interests in the region. The book’s final chapter indicates the first necessary steps toward a truly just solution.

* * *

What I present in this book is my analysis of an enormously complicated subject. There are many more aspects, issues, and sub-issues involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and America’s engagement with it) than we can possibly explore in this book. I’ve focused the book on what I judge to be the fundamental aspects. And, unsurprisingly, the aspects we do explore are the subject of conflicting interpretations and debate. I have relied upon sources and scholarship that I find credible, and I’ve reached my own conclusions. Because of the book’s delimited focus and because practically every point is enmeshed in various debates, let me flag one observation and make one request of you.

The observation: I expect that along the way you and I will disagree on some things. And that’s OK. We may disagree, for instance, about how I interpret some concrete point or event, or perhaps you find a piece of evidence less than convincing, or perhaps you hold a contrary view of some specific issue. Although I’ve researched the book’s subject in depth and reached a considered analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it may turn out you’re on to something, and you’d change my mind on the particular point at issue. (Looking back at some of my past writings, there are various points that today I’d present differently, and still other points on which my view has changed.)

Here’s my request. Give the book’s central argument a fair hearing: where you and I disagree on some point, consider how it affects that overall argument. Yes, you might decide that it defeats the argument, but I believe that’s unlikely, and my hope is that you’ll find the central argument cogent. I invite you to judge for yourself in the following pages.

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