President Obama seems to blame the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict on, of all things, Israel’s prosperity. Not only is Obama wrong. If he understood the moral source of Israel’s affluence, he’d understand the avenue to peace.
Israel's economic strength
Asked at a town hall meeting about that conflict, the president replied that “in some ways because Israeli society has been so successful economically, it has I think from a position of strength been less willing to make concessions. On the other hand, the Palestinians because of weakness have not had the political cohesion and organization to enter into negotiations and feel like they can get what they need.”
Is Obama right? To answer this question, we need to step back and look at some basic facts.
The values of Israel
Jews began coming to what was then Turkish-governed (later British-governed) Palestine in the late 1880s. Those from Eastern Europe were escaping the ghettos into which they were confined and subjected to periodic pogroms. Those from Western Europe saw continued anti-Semitism and their legal rights of citizenship as too tenuous a protection for their lives. The fears of those Zionists were proven all too right by Hitler and his henchmen. After World War II, Holocaust survivors sought refuge in Palestine.
Peace is in the economic—as well as moral—self-interest of every Israeli.
Once in Palestine, Jews worked what some called a miracle. They purchased land, created settlements, introduced advanced agricultural and irrigation practices, and literally made the desert bloom. They founded Tel Aviv as a modern, Westernized city. Indeed, today Israeli firms and entrepreneurs are cutting-edge techno-leaders: “Silicon Wadi” is that country’s equivalent of Silicon Valley.
In other words, the two top values defining Israeli society are life and productive achievement.
The values of Palestinians
When Israel declared itself a country per a United Nations resolution, David Ben Gurion promised the new state “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” The next day Israel was attacked by five Arab armies seeking to destroy it, and since then it has been subject to periodic attacks.
Many Palestinians chose to leave the new state at the urging of Arab governments, and those in villages that took up arms against Israel were kicked out.
Israel over the decades has sought peace with its neighbors and succeeded in the cases of Egypt and Jordan. Israel has expanded its control in Gaza and the West Bank for security reasons. When it pulled out of Gaza, Palestinians did not turn to peaceful productive activities and trade relations with Israel. Rather, they elected Hamas, an Islamist group bent on Israel’s destruction. The Palestinians, it seems, value ethnic solidarity, killing, and death.
Middle East peace and Israeli prosperity
So Obama is wrong about Israel’s economic strength making it less likely to make concessions in the conflict with the Palestinians. Israel is not perfect. But the value Israelis put on life and productive enterprise are the sources of their economic strength. Peace is in the economic—as well as moral—self-interest of every Israeli. But to the extent that Palestinians do not value life and prosperity, they are the cause of war.
Obama mused to the Palestinians and Israelis, “Are you going to be living together in a way that creates opportunity and hope for children?” The late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir answered him decades ago when she said, “We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”