Why Don't Palestinians Adopt Nonviolence?

by Jonathan Chait | October 1, 2010

In response to a couple entreaties to Bibi Netanyahu to abandon the settlers and form a more centrist, pro-peace coalition, an exasperated Matthew Yglesias replies:

At some point don’t we need to give this game up? You can make the case that even if the current Israeli government were much more reasonable than it in fact is that there still wouldn’t be a peace deal thanks to bad behavior on the Palestinian side. But it’s actually not puzzling at all why Netanyahu doesn’t form a different coalition and agree to a settlement freeze—Netanyahu favors settlement building. This is the whole trajectory of his political career, from leading the charge against the Oslo Agreement to rump Likud in a rebellion against Ariel Sharon to forming a coalition with Avigdor Lieberman. The guy’s not a fool. He knows what he’s doing.

That seems perfectly sensible to me. At the same time, you can apply similar logic to the endless entreaties by Western liberals that Palestinians  adopt non-violent protest tactics in order to win a two-state peace agreement. Here's the latest, from former colleague Bob Wright:

If Palestinians want to strike fear into the hearts of Israelis they should (a) give up on violence as a tool of persuasion; (b) give up on the current round of negotiations; and (c) start holding demonstrations in which they ask for only one thing: the right to vote. Their argument would be simple: They live under Israeli rule, and Israel is a democracy, so why aren’t they part of it?
A truly peaceful movement with such elemental aspirations — think of Martin Luther King or Gandhi — would gain immediate international support. In Europe and the United States, leftists would agitate in growing numbers for economic and political pressure on Israel.

I agree that it would be fantastic if Palestinians adopted such tactics. But to do so, they actually have to want a two-state solution. And the evidence for that proposition is weaker than the evidence that Netanyahu is willing to make sacrifices for peace. A 2009 poll I've cited before shows that 71% of Palestinians deem it essential that their state comprise all of Israel and the occupied territories. (Only 17% of Israelis deem it essentially that their state control all that land.) And this isn't a crazy or inherently hateful view. From the Palestinian perspective, Israel is a colonial state that was suddenly dropped on their head as a result of European crimes. Most Palestinians seem to think, like Helen Thomas said, that the fair solution is for the Jews to go back to Europe.

I obviously don't see things that way, but I understand why Palestinians do. And from this perspective, Palestinian political tactics are not an endless series of blunders but a perfectly rational strategy of alternating guerrilla or terrorist attacks on Israel with ceaseless political pressure designed to make Israelis, like the Crusaders, unwilling to pay the price of defending their state over however many decades or centuries it takes. The current West Bank leadership is blessedly moderate -- and Israelis are fools not to try to cut a deal with it -- but there are real questions about how the leadership could survive striking such a bargain.

The other problem with Bob's analysis is that it gets the causality problem wrong. He essentially considers the occupation as a strategic desire by Israel unconnected to any judgment of Palestinian motive -- Israel wants to hold on to the West Bank, and Palestinians can pressure them to leave via the correct nonviolent tactics. I think Israel is occupying the West Bank precisely because it fears violent Palestinian tactics. A counterfactual world in which Palestinians adopt non-violent tactics is a world in which Israel wouldn't be in the West Bank to begin with.

Now, it's true that Israel has a significant minority of settlers who are committed to endless occupation, and this bloc wields a veto over the current Israeli government. But that bloc is empowered by a center that believes (wrongly, in my view) that occupation is essential to its own security. The Israeli experience of the last decade has seen withdrawals from occupied territory quickly followed by terrorist attacks launched from that same territory. Israelis may be misguided in thinking they're helping their own security by remaining in the West Bank, but it's no mystery why they think this. And if it became clear that the Palestinians' primary goal was to create a homeland living peacefully next to a Jewish state, the Israeli political spectrum would shift back toward a more dovish government.

None of this is to excuse the stupidity of the current Israeli government. Since the 2002 intifada, the Israeli polity has been experiencing an extended freakout akin to America's post-9/11 freakout, and Netanyahu is Israel's George W. Bush. It's naive to assume that Netanyahu is merely making a series of tactical errors in pursuit of a benevolent goal. It's equally naive to assume the same about the Palestinians.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/78082/why-dont-palestinians-adopt-nonviolence