I once heard the late Abba Eban, formerly foreign minister of Israel, address a dovish Jewish audience in New York. In that rather plummy British-English accent of his, he began by saying that what struck the eye first, in any contemplation of the Israel-Palestine dispute, was the simplicity and ease of its solution.
That was a good way of getting attention. This problem is usually coupled with the word intractable, if not an even stronger term suggesting grave difficulty. But in outline, it is not as convoluted as all that. There are two competing nationalisms,
Arab and Jewish, in Palestine, and it has been implicitly agreed ever since the Balfour Declaration of 1917 that some kind of territorial share-out, between approximately equivalent populations, would provide the basis for a solution. Partition is not ideal and doesn’t have a very good track record elsewhere, but it is obviously preferable to endless war, or to apartheid or colonial rule, or to the extirpation of one side by the other.
Why is this obvious outcome apparently beyond the reach of statecraft and diplomacy? A majority of Israeli and American Jews record consistent support for a two-state solution, which is also the official position of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The international community is ready to furnish immense quantities of aid and support the moment such a solution begins to take shape.
But the godly have other ideas. On the Jewish/Israeli side, a messianic minority believes that there is nothing to negotiate, because the title deeds of the Holy Land were awarded in perpetuity to the ancient Hebrews. This faction has succeeded in implanting settlements as a fait accompli and preaches that, once the redemption of the land is complete, the Temple will be miraculously rebuilt (on the very spot, as it happens, now occupied by the Al-Aqsa mosque). The fate of non-Jewish inhabitants is a matter of indifference to them.
Many of those who guard that mosque on the rock are persuaded that the Prophet Muhammad’s horse left a hoofprint there on its journey, with its divinely inspired rider, to paradise. An increasing number of Islamic spokesmen refer to the whole territory as sacred Muslim land, in which all Jews and indeed all non-Muslims are pro-fane intruders. Their methods—suicide murder and indiscriminate mayhem, spurred by toxic promises of a blissful afterlife—perfectly express their ideology. These tactics have the additional merit of making rational discussion among Israelis almost impossible.
And let us not forget the Christian contribution. When Israeli extremists visit the United States these days, they go straight to address large gatherings of “rapture”-minded Evangelicals, who also believe that the entire Holy Land is a divine gift to the Jews and who resist any talk of negotiating even one inch of it. By this means, they hope to advance the day of Armageddon and (as it happens) the conversion of the Jews. There is obviously some cynicism at work here on both sides, since Messianic Judaism and Messianic Christianity are radically incompatible. But presumably each faction believes that it is using the other, and that God will sort out the difference on the big day. This in turn inflames the Muslim belief that Islam faces a sinister Zionist-Crusader alliance and thus that jihad is an urgent necessity.
And yet we continue to hear, on all sides, that people of “faith” are by definition people of goodwill and that religion, even if not literally true, at least makes people behave in a more moral fashion. Right before our eyes, on a daily basis, in the most closely studied political conflict in the world, we can see it demonstrated that these propositions are catastrophically untrue. I do not select the word catastrophically just for rhetorical purposes. In all three clerical movements, there is a very blatant and undisguised wish to see the whole world and the entire human race destroyed and the reign of an absolutist deity instituted. The sick excitement of this fantasy even
incites some of its sufferers to go straight for martyrdom and self-immolation in the here and now. Disgusting old mullahs push children into suicide-belts and bless their detonations. Crazed rabbis encourage families to steal land in the name of God and to bring up Jewish children to bear arms within sight of festering Arab refugee-camps. (I am presuming that no serious person believes that putting Jewish settlements in the middle of Gaza is really intended to increase Jewish “security.”) And big-mouth fund-raising Christian primitives in the United States shout, in effect, “Bring it on!” Meanwhile, our pseudo-ecumenical president manages to believe simultaneously that he’s been saved by Christ, that Israel is the fulfillment of prophecy, and that Islam is “a religion of peace.”
The general American responsibility in this is very grave. “We” pay Israel a subsidy that conceals the cost of the colonial settlements. “We” have a warm relationship with Saudi Arabia, which finances suicide-murder and pumps out a filthy stream of anti-Semitic diatribes. And “we” allow fundamentalist Christians to help set the tone of policy at home and abroad. The least that could be done here would be to ask the Supreme Court to hear constitutional argument to the effect that no American aid can be used to sustain settlements that are actually “an establishment of religion.” The most that could be done would be to insist that our foreign policy was consistent on this point and that Congress be barred from voting money to any theocratic regime or theocratic project. But we may have passed the point of degeneration: the point where the language of our own Bill of Rights sounds absurd when set against the lethal rantings of those who deeply desire our extinction.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. He is working on a study of Thomas Jefferson.