Palestinians and Israelis have been fighting my entire life — at times more actively and at others less. Tragically, this past week has been active.
Although the Arab-Jewish violence over the Holy Land goes back to 1920, their seemingly endless bellicosity began after World War II, as the British retired and both sides thought they could or should fill the vacuum.
From a contemporary perspective, it feels like there will never be peace in Israel or the Palestinian lands, because they have been fighting for so long.
But all wars eventually end.
In some, the victor totally and completely defeats the vanquished, leaving no remnant of the losing side when peace returns. The most famous historical example of such an outcome was the Roman victory over Carthage in the Third Punic War.
Over three years, from 149 to 146 B.C., the Roman army besieged the city of Carthage. Worn down, the Carthaginian people largely starved to death. Most of the rest were killed in the fighting. The few who survived were captured as slaves and removed to other lands ruled by Rome.
The Romans then systematically destroyed the last remnants of their enemy’s capital. They burned every building, including its libraries and government records. As that war concluded, Carthage ceased to exist. Its 500-year civilization was done forever.
Some wars, although total, are less punitive. The Second World War concluded when the Germans and Japanese were thoroughly whipped and decided they would be better off allowing the Allied powers to rule them than they would fighting on.
The result, in that case, was the successful reconstruction of our former enemies. We forged a lasting peace by making them liberal democracies with thriving capitalist economies.
A less successful example of total victory came after World War I. The Allies could have occupied Berlin and Vienna. They could have set up democratic regimes. They could have invested in the reconstruction of Germany and the erstwhile Austro-Hungarian Empire. They could have set generous terms of trade to allow their former enemies to prosper in peace.
Unfortunately, the Allies did none of those things.
The victors (other than Woodrow Wilson) failed to think about what would keep the peace. Largely due to the extreme enmity of the French, the Allies set harsh terms that sowed the seeds for an even more wrathful generation of Teutons to rise up, leading to total war again from 1939 to 1945.
Not all wars are total. The more powerful side might have limited aims, and peace comes when its target is met. The loser may not be happy with the outcome, but it feels it has no choice but to accept the loss of some of its territory as a fait accompli.
In the Mexican-American War, 1846-48, Mexico lost one-third of its territory to the United States. But it was not a total defeat. The geographically smaller Republic of Mexico was not pulverized like Carthage. It has continued on as an independent nation ever since.
Often, no one wins. Something triggers a fight, and two evenly matched sides go at one another for years. Finality comes when each party understands they have more to gain by putting down their arms than they have keeping them up.
In the case of the seemingly endless war between Israel and the Palestinians, peace eventually will come when rationality takes hold.
The Israelis can never win a total victory over the Palestinians, despite the fact that they are much stronger.
Israel is a vibrant democracy, which is an asset in war. Its economy, after 40 years of stagnation, has emerged in the past 20 as the most dynamic and successful market in the Middle East. The technology coming from Israeli companies is the envy of all the Arab states.
Yet Israel is not going to brutalize Palestinian civilians the way the Allies did the Germans and Japanese in World War II. A total victory, where the Palestinians accept a peace entirely on their enemy’s terms, is not in the cards.
In contrast to the Zionists, the Palestinian cause has been a political and economic failure since the British evacuated in 1948. They had chances to live side by side with Israel in their own state, but they turned those down.
Their belief has always been that the land owned and ruled by the Jews is theirs. And they have been willing to pay whatever price necessary to take it.
Yet the Palestinians are far too weak to succeed. Their persistence in terrorizing Israel is with the (false) hope that someday the Jews will quit. They are trying to make this conflict a war of attrition, where they “win” by outlasting their enemy.
If the Arabs were fully rational, they would stop supporting terrorism and violence. They would reject Islamic extremism and embrace modernity. They would make it plain they accept Israel as a Jewish state and a next-door neighbor. They would sue for a peace in which they control the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
If the Israelis were fully rational, they would do everything possible to not antagonize ordinary Palestinians. They would remove their settlers from the West Bank. They would make it easier for Arabs to have normal lives under regular laws and to build up their enemy’s industry through free trade. They would sue for a peace in which they fully give up the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
Someday the Jews and Arabs will come to their senses. Living side by side in peace is in both of their interests. Endless conflict is not. But I am not sure that someday will be in my lifetime.
— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]