Israel and Palestine: Focus on the Problem, Not the Solution

30 May, 2022
“On His Way Home” by the artist Zohar in “The Pales­tin­ian Paint­ings” series, 2017, oil on board (cour­tesy Zohar).


Opin­ions pub­lished in The Markaz Review reflect the per­spec­tive of their authors and do not nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent TMR.


Mark Habeeb


The Indi­an Amer­i­can philoso­pher Jid­du Krish­na­mur­ti wrote, “To under­stand any prob­lem, you must give your whole atten­tion to it, and you can­not give your whole atten­tion to it if you are seek­ing a solu­tion.” Ever since the pre­dictably unsuc­cess­ful effort by for­mer U.S. Sec­re­tary of State John Ker­ry to medi­ate a per­ma­nent solu­tion between Israel and the Pales­tini­ans, no seri­ous ini­tia­tive has been undertaken.

Per­haps this is a good thing: after fruit­less decades try­ing to find a solu­tion, now is an ide­al time to fol­low Krishnamurti’s advice and devote our atten­tion to under­stand­ing the problem.

If you ask a range of peo­ple to define the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian prob­lem, you will get a range of diver­gent answers: 

“The Arabs’ refusal to rec­og­nize a Jew­ish state.”

“Israeli col­o­niza­tion of Palestine.”

“Arab anti-Semi­tism.”

“Israeli racism and apartheid.”

“Islam­ic extremism.”

“Jew­ish extremism”

“The Zion­ist lob­by in the Unit­ed States.”

In fact, none of these is the prob­lem. They are reflec­tions of the prob­lem, but just as a tree’s reflec­tion in a pond is not the tree, these reflec­tions of the prob­lem are not the problem.

So, what is the problem?

Let’s start by look­ing at where the prob­lem exists geo­graph­i­cal­ly and who is affect­ed by it. The Prob­lem Area (a more neu­tral term than “his­toric Pales­tine” or “Eretz Israel”) is the ter­ri­to­ry bound­ed by the Jor­dan Riv­er in the East, the Mediter­ranean Sea in the West, the Lebanese and Syr­i­an bor­ders in the north, and the Egypt­ian bor­der in the south.

Accord­ing to the CIA World Fact Book, inside the Prob­lem Area live approx­i­mate­ly 13.7 mil­lion peo­ple. Of these, 6.6 mil­lion are Jew­ish cit­i­zens of Israel; 1.9 mil­lion are Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens of Israel (Mus­lim and Chris­t­ian by reli­gion); 4.8 mil­lion are Pales­tini­ans (Mus­lim and Chris­t­ian) who are not cit­i­zens of any rec­og­nized state; and anoth­er 450,000 are nei­ther Israelis nor Pales­tini­ans and live most­ly in Israel (non-Pales­tin­ian Chris­tians, African immi­grants, migrant work­ers, etc.).

The prob­lem is: How can the 13.7 mil­lion peo­ple who live in the Prob­lem Area struc­ture their polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, reli­gious and social rela­tion­ships in a man­ner that allows them to live in peace with each oth­er, in a con­text of jus­tice and equi­ty for all?  Any pro­posed solu­tion to the prob­lem must resolve this ques­tion; if it doesn’t, it’s not a solu­tion — at least not a last­ing one.  (I am rul­ing out as pos­si­ble solu­tions the removal, trans­fer or exter­mi­na­tion of any of the peo­ple who live in the Prob­lem Area.)

More­over, any solu­tion with a chance of solv­ing the prob­lem must be based on affir­ma­tive answers to six fun­da­men­tal questions:

  1. Do all 13.7 mil­lion peo­ple in the Prob­lem Area deserve equal human, civ­il and polit­i­cal rights?

  2. Do all 13.7 mil­lion peo­ple in the Prob­lem Area deserve equal rights to phys­i­cal safe­ty and security?

  3. Do all 13.7 mil­lion peo­ple in the Prob­lem Area deserve an equal right to par­tic­i­pate in pro­vid­ing for secu­ri­ty with­in the Area?

  4. Do all 13.7 mil­lion peo­ple in the Prob­lem Area deserve equal eco­nom­ic rights, includ­ing rights to land and prop­er­ty, and equal access to resources such as water?

  5. Do all reli­gious groups in the Prob­lem Area deserve free­dom of wor­ship, includ­ing free access to and man­age­ment or co-man­age­ment of holy sites (many of which are sacred to all three of the major reli­gions rep­re­sent­ed in the Prob­lem Area)?

  6. Do those liv­ing out­side the Prob­lem Area but who have emo­tion­al and his­toric ties to it (in par­tic­u­lar, Dias­po­ra Jews and Pales­tin­ian refugees) deserve equal rights to immi­grate into the Prob­lem Area? If not, should restric­tions on immi­gra­tion be imposed fair­ly and equally?

Any­one who answers “yes” to these six ques­tions is ready to con­tribute to for­mu­lat­ing a solu­tion. Any­one who answers “no” to any of these ques­tions must explain and jus­ti­fy why one group of peo­ple in the Prob­lem Area deserves pref­er­en­tial rights. For exam­ple, why would one group — based on its eth­nic or reli­gious iden­ti­ty — deserve pref­er­en­tial rights to build homes on any piece of land in the Prob­lem Area? Or why would anoth­er group deserve the right to impose its reli­gious prac­tices on every­one who lives in the Prob­lem Area? And why would one group — again, based on eth­nic or reli­gious iden­ti­ty — enjoy pref­er­en­tial rights to immi­grate into the Prob­lem Area? 

The Rubik’s Cube of Israeli-Pales­tin­ian peace will nev­er be solved unless these fun­da­men­tal ques­tions and the prin­ci­ples they are based on are addressed — cer­tain­ly by the 13.7 mil­lion peo­ple who live in the Prob­lem Area, but also by those out­side of the Area who have an inter­est in a last­ing solu­tion. A num­ber of pos­si­ble solu­tions — two sov­er­eign states, one state, a bi-nation­al con­fed­er­a­tion — could be made com­pat­i­ble with a “yes” answer to the above ques­tions. But try­ing to con­coct a solu­tion with­out thor­ough­ly assess­ing the prob­lem has been a proven fail­ure; to con­tin­ue to do so will only val­i­date Albert Einstein’s def­i­n­i­tion of insan­i­ty — “doing the same thing over and over again and expect­ing dif­fer­ent results.”

The cur­rent lull in active attempts to find a solu­tion thus offers an ide­al time to focus on the prob­lem and iden­ti­fy those who share the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples that are nec­es­sary to find­ing a solution.