The coming war in Iraq will reshape the map of the Middle East. The Bush administration has proclaimed its intention to establish Iraq as a model for regional transformation toward democracy. This transformation is designed, in part, to facilitate resolution of the conflict with Israel. “Old patterns of conflict in the Middle East can be broken, if all concerned will let go of bitterness, hatred, and violence, and get on with the serious work of economic development, and political reform, and reconciliation,” President Bush declared on February 26. “America will seize every opportunity in pursuit of peace. And the end of the present regime in Iraq would create such an opportunity.”
This is a daring vision, and even its proponents compare it to the remaking of the world after World War II when the United States transformed Germany and Japan. By invoking these precedents, the administration and its supporters are not only demonstrating the possibility of such transformation; they are also emphasizing its difficulty. Yet history does not repeat itself exactly, and the differences between the two situations must be scrutinized.
One difference in particular stands out: the attachment to land. Reconciliation between the United States and its defeated enemies after World War II was possible because the U.S. did not covet their land. To be sure, the United States does not covet the territory of Iraq or any other Arab country. But if there is to be reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, the emotional issue of the land has to be resolved, because each side believes it has an entitlement to the same land.
For the Israelis, this right is rooted in a Biblical legacy. When asked about the occupied territories, Daniel Ayalon, a former advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and now the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, replied that “this land was given to us by God. The lands you refer to are the birthplace of the nation of Israel. This is where our nation was built over 4,000 years, therefore we are not occupiers.” Some prominent American supporters of Israel have echoed this view. “Our claim to the land — to which we have clung for hope for 2000 years — is legitimate and noble,” argues a report prepared in 1996 by a study team headed by Richard Perle, now the head of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. “Only the unconditional acceptance by Arabs of our rights, especially in their territorial dimension, ‘peace for peace,’ is a solid basis for the future.”
For the Palestinians, their right to the land is rooted in the right of return, which they have been promised by their leaders, and which is enshrined in U.N. Resolution 194 (December 1948). To be sure, the U.N. Resolution is not binding and is open to interpretation, and Palestinian negotiators have reassured their Israeli counterparts that any right of return would have to be limited so as not to alter the demographic balance within Israel. The problem, however, is that for the Palestinian people the right of return is just that — a right, not a privilege — and therefore it is not to be compromised. When Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, the PLO representative in Jerusalem (until December 2002), recently visited a Palestinian university to explain the need for compromising the right of return, the students denounced him as a traitor and he was forced to leave. The students’ sentiments appear to be shared even by members of the Palestinian diaspora who have integrated into Western societies. “Men like Nusseibeh offer a solution without justice,” writes Jaffer Ali, a Palestinian-American, in the Jordan Times. “Palestinians must reject this cold world that prizes expediency over human rights.”
Thus, just as the Jews who returned to Israel after centuries of dispersion felt they had a right to the land, so do the Palestinians. Indeed, the language of rights, which underpins our understanding of civil society in a democracy, is also the language of war. When the American Founders declared independence, it was to protect their fundamental rights, which they believed the British had violated. Once people talk about their rights, they are no longer talking about political compromise. A right must be guaranteed in full, or it is not truly a right. Even the willingness to receive compensation in exchange for surrendering a birthright is depicted in the Biblical story of Esau as dishonorable.
The United States will encounter many problems in the aftermath of the Iraq war. It should be under no illusion that bringing democracy to the Middle East will, by itself, change the conviction of people regarding the sanctity of their fundamental rights. And so long as the conflict involves a confrontation of irreconcilable rights, it is bound to endure.
In 1913, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace prepared a report on the Balkan Wars that preceded the First World War. The report declared, in part, “War is waged not only by the armies but by the nations themselves … [t]he populations mutually slaughtered and pursued with a ferocity heightened by mutual knowledge and the old hatreds and resentments they cherished.” The presence of American peacekeepers in the Balkans almost a century later provides a warning of the degree of commitment the United States might be assuming as it prepares to remake the Middle East.