The situation in Israel, as you will have noticed, is decidedly explosive at the moment. Hamas is firing rockets into Israeli territory, the Israeli Air Force is bombing homes in the Gaza Strip, and the country’s Jewish-Israeli and Arab-Israeli populations are increasingly turning on each other.
What really strikes me about this development is the suddenness with which it has occurred. Suddenly, because the disputes over home ownership in East Jerusalem could lead to a civil war-like situation in the country within a few days. And because there seems to have been no one who thought this was possible just a short while ago. I, at least, did not. But how could this be possible? Sure, I am not a proven expert on Israel and Palestine, and such conflicts do have a habit of escalating rather quickly from minor causes. Nevertheless, anyone who has made it their goal to understand the politics of the region must question themselves if they allow themselves to be surprised in this way. So how could this happen?
To get to the root of this problem, I will try to answer three questions:
1. how did I think about the conflict before?
2. why did I think about it in this way?
3. what lessons do I learn from the event?
1. How did I think about the conflict before?
I never thought that there would really be a solution to the Middle East problem. Not in the sense that Europeans or Americans understand it. Both the two-state solution and the one-state solution I considered and still consider unrealistic in the long run. Even so-called three- or four-state solutions involving Jordan and Egypt would not make the core problems disappear. I believe that the conflict is first and foremost a permanent struggle for power, in which each side tries to exploit a phase of weakness in its opponent. As far as I am concerned, nothing has changed.
However, I have misjudged the conditions, especially in Israeli society itself. I have thereby
1. underestimated the degree of anger and probably also despair on the part of the Palestinians
2. the strength of the Israeli state, and
3. overestimated the unity of Israeli society.
I was aware that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are unhappy, but I would not have expected such an outburst of emotion in such a short time. Israel is in many ways one of the most progressive states in the entire Middle East, and although they must always be concerned about the issue of security, this partial loss of control in Jerusalem, near Gaza and also in the interior parts of the country comes as a great surprise to me. On the other hand, I was completely blind to the tensions between Arab and Jewish Israelis. It was no secret that the Arab Israelis were also often disadvantaged, and in the back of my mind there was always the thought that one day they might fight with each other. However, this was very, very far in the back of my mind and I didn’t expect it to degenerate into a civil war-like situation so quickly.
2. why did I think about it this way?
Although I was aware of the deep-seated anger of many Palestinians, and although outbreaks of violence are quite frequent, I somehow had the feeling that the major conflicts between the Palestinians and the Israeli state were over for the moment. This is probably partly due to my personal memory; after all, the biggest conflicts in the Holy Land, in terms of sheer death tolls, were before I was born, or before I was aware of these problems. The fact that a number of humiliating developments for Palestinians have taken place in recent years without any major conflicts has also played a role in my assessment. This also has to do with my second misjudgement, the overestimation of the Israeli state. Although Isreal has been angling from election to election for 2 ½ years without being able to form a long-term government, the state appeared to be perhaps the most stable in the region. And perhaps it still is. But in doing so, I paid too little attention to the fact that this could happen mainly due to the extensive propping up of the US government under Trump. Apart from the problems in forming a government, the inauguration of Joe Biden has hit Israel relatively hard, the USA now wants to finally bring the negotiations with Iran to a successful conclusion again, the left wing of the Democrats that is critical of Israel is becoming stronger and stronger and the US-Saudi relationship is also no longer as good as it was before. Not to mention the personal differences between Netanyahu and Biden. But, how could I have missed this? I must confess that after years of hearing that the Middle East conflict was the cause of all evil in the region and that ultimately everything stands or falls with it, it was a certain liberation, from a purely intellectual point of view, when it became clear in recent years that other great powers were also pitted against each other, namely Saudi Arabia and Iran, without Israel as the trigger. And the fact that Israel was finally able to improve relations with so many Arab states, I thought, was proof that the Middle East conflict had been grossly overestimated in its importance and that Israel was a stable country in a troubled region. This was probably also the aim of this rhetoric from the right-wing camp of Israel and the USA. Thus, I considered the problem to be similarly secondary, as the US government has done so far. This is a good example of how dangerous a reinterpretation of the political situation can be if it is based only on short-term superiority.
The fact that I was able to underestimate the tensions between the Arab and Jewish Israelis to such an extent is due firstly to the fact that no one I had read before warned of this short-term escalation, which probably had something to do with the reporting on the Arab Israelis, and secondly to the fact that I did not take this mental step myself. Why not? I don’t know. Thinking one step ahead always sounds like good advice, but it is incredibly difficult because, by its very nature, such an endeavour cannot be based on existing facts, but requires thinking beyond what is the reality at that moment. Perhaps one should think about this a bit more, for now this has to stop.
3. What lessons do I learn from the event?
As always, when expectations do not match the outcome, one should look at where these expectations come from. In this case, this means looking closely at who has previously reported on Israel and Palestine and in what way. In doing so, one can then see who roughly expected this course of events and who, like me, was surprised by it. Ideally, someone should have assumed during Trump’s term in office that there would be no major confrontation in the country (which was the opposite for most commentators, who often painted a new intifada on the wall four years ago. But who now, with Biden as the new president, have warned against such an escalation (which was also not many, at least not from the camp of liberal Europeans). The fact that I cannot remember anyone who expected the inner-Israeli conflicts to escalate so quickly and so sharply testifies to the complexity of the problem. But also, we have to be honest, about our problems in understanding the world.