My Turn: Chris White: No easy answers 

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 23, 2024

By Chris White

Will there ever be a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? In international crises like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are several post-conflict scenarios that could come to fruition. Either country could be totally defeated, Russia is able to hold onto illegally annexed parts of Eastern Ukraine like it did in Crimea, or maybe Vladimir Putin eventually pulls the plug on the whole thing and ends his “special operation.” But the current turmoil related to the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict seems much different. It is extraordinarily complex, involves a multitude of diverse actors with varied agendas and motivations including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, EU states, China, the US, and most importantly, the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.

The conflict lacks a clear endpoint. There are no easy answers. An end to the conflict requires a negotiated political solution that maintains Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself together with the right of self-determination for Palestinians. Not a simple task.

The incredible duration of this conflict is one of its most striking features and is a key reason it seems so intractable. The State of Israel was founded in May 1948 and, after 76 years of existence, the nation has yet to find a lasting solution to the Palestinian question. Nearly everyone in the region today, except for the very elderly, has no recollection of something else.

Israel is slightly larger in size than New Jersey and has a population of 9.5 million, one million fewer than live in North Carolina. The Gaza Strip, to the southwest of Israel on the Mediterranean Sea, is roughly the same land area as Las Vegas, but is home to over two million people. Following the horrific attacks against Israel perpetrated by Hamas almost eight months ago in October 2023, worldwide attention has focused on this small, but consequential region of the Middle East.

The protests and clashes among students, university officials and law enforcement at dozens of colleges and universities across our country, including walk-outs and interruptions during recent commencement exercises — even for Jerry Seinfeld during his address at Duke University — reflect the intense passion and understandable outrage of young people angered by the killing of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians, especially children, as Israel has pursued its operation against Hamas. And others are rightly concerned about the hostages still held captive together with pervasive and increasing antisemitism, extremism and anti-Israel attitudes.

These protests made me reflect on my own undergraduate graduation from UNC as a member of the “millennium class” of 2000, and sadly how little has changed in the quarter century since.

Only a couple of months after that Mother’s Day commencement, President Clinton convened a two-week summit at Camp David with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yassar Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian National Authority. At the conclusion of the summit, Clinton said the proposed peace offer was “so good I couldn’t believe anyone would be foolish enough to let it go.” Arafat rejected it nonetheless, and the Second Intifada began shortly afterwards in September 2000.

Despite its imperfections, Clinton’s efforts to mediate the situation toward the end of his time in office may have been the last — and best — chance for the two-state solution to succeed since the original 1947 Partition Resolution was passed by the nascent United Nations General Assembly but was never implemented.

The proposed two-state solution of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, which has long been championed by the U.S., seems far less likely today than at any time in recent memory.

Positions have hardened on both sides, rejecting compromise and reconciliation and embracing extremism. Israel has constructed settlements inside occupied areas like the West Bank, while Hamas, designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and many other nations, has undeniably been a disaster for Palestinians as a governing body.

As a result, the future looks bleak and discouraging, at least in the near term, but we should be optimistic that the region can achieve peace, prosperity, stabilization and reconciliation instead of a never-ending vicious cycle of violence and retribution. Although the circumstances are radically different, the post-World War II experience of Germany and Japan is astounding and would have been unimaginable in many respects for officials in the U.S. and other allies during the horrors of the war, which resulted in the deaths of over sixty million people globally.

But things can change, and can change quickly. Germany and Japan moved away from strongman leaders, authoritarianism and territorial ambitions, and developed into durable, healthy democracies with robust economies. Today they are two of America’s strongest partners. We can therefore hope for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a brighter future for the region. A new generation, frustrated and aggrieved by years of conflict, could be the catalyst for change. Even if there are no easy answers.

Chris White is professor of political science at Livingstone College.