It Is Impossible to “Shrink the Conflict”

The Israeli government cannot significantly improve Palestinian lives without granting them basic rights.

Peter Beinart
November 11, 2021
Palestinian laborers built new houses in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Bruchin near the Palestinian town of Nablus, Oct. 25th, 2021.
Ariel Schalit/AP Photo

On October 22nd, Israel’s defense ministry outlawed six prominent Palestinian human rights groups. Two days later, Israel’s housing and construction ministry announced plans to build more than 1,300 new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. The day after that, Israeli troops reportedly stood by as settlers attacked a member of Rabbis for Human Rights who was helping Palestinians gather olives—one of more than 58 attacks on Palestinians and their supporters during the October olive harvest. On October 26th, Israel’s public security minister banned a festival in an East Jerusalem church, thus signaling his intention to prohibit “almost all Palestinian cultural events in East Jerusalem,” according to Haaretz. Peace Now reports that since taking office in June, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s “government has actively worked to promote settlements and deepen the Israeli occupation of the [occupied] territories.”

To those familiar with Bennett’s vow to ensure a “reduction of friction and the shrinking of the conflict,” these developments might be surprising. “Shrinking the conflict,” a mantra Bennett borrowed from the Israeli writer Micah Goodman, has garnered a respectful hearing in the US press. Both The Atlantic and The New York Times have given Goodman space to argue that Israel can retain dominion over the West Bank yet “dramatically improve day-to-day life for everyone on the ground.” When Bennett’s government began implementing some of Goodman’s ideas earlier this fall, the Times labeled it a “major shift” in Israeli policy. This week, Democratic Representative Jake Auchincloss praised Bennett’s government for “trying to shrink that conflict, find other ways, other channels to work with their Palestinian neighbors,” which he called “a healthy first step.”

Yet the repression continues. That’s because, for all the hype that surrounds it, “shrinking the conflict” isn’t a new idea. Again and again over the past five decades, Israeli leaders have promised an enlightened, hands-off occupation that fosters prosperity among the Palestinians under their control. And, again and again, Palestinians have experienced despotism, land theft, and violence. Why? Because it’s impossible to treat people benevolently when you deny them basic rights. People who lack freedom will struggle for it, and there’s no gentle way to crush their yearnings. “Shrinking the conflict” may ease the consciences of Israeli leaders and foreign audiences. To Palestinians, however, it offers only more of the same.

The Israeli government has been promising a benign occupation since the occupation began in 1967. From Israel’s birth in 1948 until 1966, it subjected most of its Palestinian-Arab citizens to military law. Palestinians needed government permission to leave their villages, which were placed under nightly curfew. But in 1967, when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were put in charge of the newly conquered West Bank and Gaza Strip, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan vowed to be less intrusive. As George Washington University Professor Shira Robinson, author of Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State, explained to me, Dayan set out to create what he called a “liberal occupation,” in which Israeli rule would remain “invisible.” That summer he instructed Israeli officers: “Don’t rule them . . . let them lead their own lives.” In March 1968, the IDF magazine Bamahaneh said Israel should ensure that a West Bank Palestinian could “be born in a hospital, receive his birth certificate, grow up and be educated, get married and raise his children and grandchildren—all without having to resort to an Israeli employee or civil servant, or even having to see one at all.” The Israeli historian Omri Shafer Raviv told me that Dayan also pushed to open Israel’s labor market to Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, 60,000 of whom, Shafer Raviv estimates, were working within the Green Line by 1973.

Dayan hoped this combination of autonomy and economic incentives would keep Palestinians from rebelling. He also hoped it would help Israel avoid international censure. By 1967, the age of formal colonial rule was ending. Israel’s leaders, Robinson told me, “were explicitly aware that the world’s eyes were on South Africa and they didn’t want [their occupation] to look like that.”

Unfortunately for Dayan, it proved impossible to simultaneously control Palestinians and let them be. Fearing that Palestinian schools would foster nationalist discontent, Israel’s Department of Education undermined Dayan’s hands-off strategy by censoring their textbooks. In response, notes Shafer Raviv, three months after Israel’s takeover of the West Bank, Palestinian students in the West Bank and East Jerusalem walked out of their schools. When student protests continued in 1968, Israel expelled a dozen teachers from the West Bank.

Dayan promised to leave Palestinians alone to conduct their economic affairs. But in June 1969, when Palestinians suspended business as part of a general strike commemorating the second anniversary of Israel’s conquest of the West Bank, Israel deported nine of the strike’s leaders. Overall, it exiled more than 1,000 Palestinians from the country during the first decade of occupation.

When Likud leader Menachem Begin took power in 1977, he too pledged that Israel would not rule with a heavy hand. Under pressure from Jimmy Carter, whose administration had endorsed a “Palestinian homeland and some form of self-determination,” Begin told the US president that, “We were a persecuted people and we understand another people, and we want not to interfere in their daily affairs.” But left to their own devices, West Bank Palestinians had, in 1976, voted overwhelmingly for mayors sympathetic to the Palestine Liberation Organization and other banned groups. When several mayors refused to cooperate with the Israeli military, Begin’s government deposed them. It also moved to counter their influence by sponsoring “Village Leagues” composed of rural Palestinian collaborators. As the sociologist Salim Tamari has noted, this policy ran “contrary to the Dayan tradition” because it required “active intervention in the daily life of the West Bank population.” Far from leaving Palestinians free to pursue their daily lives, Israel used the Village Leagues, to which it granted authority over travel and building permits, civil service jobs, and the commutations of prison sentences, as a way to punish any Palestinian who publicly backed the PLO.

The Village Leagues were just one example of the intrusive reality that belied Israel’s supposedly laissez-faire occupation. Between 1967 and 1987, according to the sociologist Lisa Hajjar, Israel arrested more than 500,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, demolished more than 1,500 Palestinian homes and banned more than 1,600 books. Nor was Israel unobtrusive economically. In a 1986 paper, the economist Yusif Sayigh noted that the Jewish state had implemented “policies to block the expansion of Palestinian manufacturing industry and to make it extremely difficult for Arab importers to buy goods from other countries.” The result was “debilitating dependence” and “pauperization.” According to Sayigh, the West Bank’s growth rate was lower in the decades after 1967 than it had been under Jordan, which ruled prior to Israel’s conquest.

The First Intifada—which in the late 1980s brought these realities to global attention—led some Jewish Israelis to endorse an independent Palestinian state. But for many others, the fiction of a benevolent occupation remained. In 1993, the new head of the Likud Party, 43-year-old Benjamin Netanyahu, published A Place Among the Nations, which proposed that Israel retain control over the West Bank and Gaza yet provide Palestinians there “the fullest possible autonomy” so they could “conduct their daily lives with a minimum of interference from the central Israeli government.” This language—which mirrors Dayan’s more than 50 years ago and Bennett’s today—became a staple of Netanyahu’s career. On the campaign trail in November 2008, he called for an “economic peace” that provided Palestinians “rapid economic growth.” After he returned to the prime minister’s office the following year, his aide Ron Dermer told a US audience that instead of seeking “an elusive agreement” for Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu would “work to change the reality on the ground.” Dermer vowed that his boss would “moderate the conflict through economic development.”

As part of this strategy, Netanyahu, who began his second stint as prime minister in 2009, eased restrictions on Palestinian workers entering Israel from the West Bank. Between 2011 and the end of Netanyahu’s prime ministership earlier this year, the number of Palestinians granted permits to work inside Israel roughly tripled. But the economic benefits that this brought were undone by Israel’s economically ruinous blockade of Gaza, its refusal to allow Palestinians to develop oil and natural gas resources in the West Bank and off the Gaza coast, and Netanyahu’s periodic withholding of tax revenue from the Palestinian Authority. Overall, the unemployment rate in the West Bank and Gaza rose from 23% in 2010, Netanyahu’s first full year after returning as prime minister, to 33% in 2019. A report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 2020, Netanyahu’s last full year in office, warned that, “Socioeconomic conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory have been moving from bad to worse.” And despite Netanyahu’s promise that Palestinians would experience “a minimum of interference from the central Israeli government,” during his 12 consecutive years as prime minister, his government killed more than 4,000 Palestinians, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and demolished more than 7,500 Palestinian homes. On Netanyahu’s watch, the population of Jewish settlers in the West Bank rose 40%. Once again, an Israeli leader supposedly devoted to making Palestinian lives better made them worse.

Since succeeding Netanyahu in June, Naftali Bennett has achieved something remarkable: He has made Palestinian autonomy and economic development seem like an innovative concept. As I’ve written before, the success of this gambit stems in part from the American media’s desire to cast Bennett as Israel’s Joe Biden, a moderate whose election marks a clear break from his authoritarian predecessor. Bennett has also benefited from his association with Micah Goodman. If Netanyahu and Bennett are men of the right, Goodman—a fellow at the centrist Hartman Institute—presents “shrinking the conflict” as a way of transcending Israel’s left–right divide. Goodman’s claims about what Israel can offer Palestinians while still denying them basic rights are even more grandiose than Dayan, Begin, or Netanyahu’s. In a series of essays, as well as a book, he has vowed that “shrinking the conflict” would grant Palestinians “effective independence” and “a two-state reality,” albeit without an independent state.

To make the occupation benign, Goodman has proposed that Israel build a vast system of tunnels and bridges, which would allow Palestinians to travel across the West Bank without encountering Israeli soldiers. He’s proposed reducing the time it takes Palestinians to cross from the West Bank into Jordan and designating special buses to ferry them to Ben Gurion Airport, to which West Bank Palestinians now generally lack access. He’s suggested constructing a railroad that connects Haifa, in Israel proper, to Jenin, in the West Bank. He’s recommended slightly expanding the territory under the Palestinian Authority’s nominal control, while urging Israel not to expand settlements deep in the West Bank. He’s called on the Israeli government to encourage international investment in the Occupied Territories, and like Dayan and Netanyahu, he supports sharply increasing the number of Palestinians permitted to work inside Israel. Goodman argues that his proposals would turn the Israeli–Palestinian conflict into “a clash between neighbors rather than between rulers and subjects.”

But even if all these improvements came to pass, Palestinians in the West Bank would still live under military law, which offers them little protection against an Israeli army that can arrest them, deport them, demolish their homes, steal their land, or even kill them, with virtual impunity. Israeli behavior since Bennett took power illustrates the point. Bennett’s government has taken modest steps towards implementing Goodman’s vision. It has permitted 4,000 undocumented Palestinians, most of them from Gaza, to establish legal residency in the West Bank, something the Israeli government has resisted in the past in order to limit the official Palestinian population in the West Bank. It has allowed 800 Palestinians to build homes in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel traditionally denies building permits. It has worked to improve the telecommunication infrastructure for Palestinians in the West Bank, loaned money to the Palestinian Authority, and allowed more Palestinian day laborers to cross the Green Line.

Yet Bennett has encountered the same conundrum that has bedeviled every Israeli government since Dayan’s. It’s hard to treat Palestinians as “neighbors” when, legally, they are “subjects.” Because Jewish settlers are Israeli citizens, and a key part of Bennett’s political base, his government—like its predecessors—has authorized the construction of thousands of new settler homes even though such construction often requires the expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land. Much of that construction will occur deep in the West Bank, in places where Goodman has argued that, in order “to facilitate shrinking the conflict,” Israel should not build. “Shrinking the conflict” requires enhancing Palestinian economic development and personal autonomy, yet Bennett’s government has overseen a sharp uptick in attacks by settlers, often aided by Israeli soldiers, against Palestinians trying to harvest their olives.

One could argue that Bennett is not following Goodman’s advice fastidiously enough, but that is precisely the point: The more self-rule Bennett permits Palestinians, the more he threatens Israeli control. As in Dayan’s time, Israel’s stated desire to leave Palestinians alone has collided with its insistence on crushing Palestinian resistance. By banning six prominent human rights groups last month, Bennett’s government expanded its conflict with Palestinian civil society. The reason, speculates Jonathan Kuttab, founder of the recently-outlawed organization Al-Haq, is that the six groups have all provided evidence to the International Criminal Court, which is investigating possible Israeli war crimes. Bennett supports Palestinian autonomy—so long as Palestinians don’t use it to seek accountability for Israel’s denial of their rights.

The rhetoric of benign domination isn’t unique to Israel. In 1959, when Prime Minster Hendrik Verwoerd outlined his plan to give Black South Africans “political autonomy” in eight tribal “homelands,” one commentator praised him for giving a “more positive, liberal appearance to the doctrine of apartheid” and for giving “the non-white a chance of real development.” In the 1970s and early 1980s, Verwoerd’s successors expanded his vision of autonomy by granting four homelands nominal independence. Apartheid leaders also pursued his promise of economic development by luring Taiwanese textile firms into several homelands with generous tax breaks. Unfortunately for South Africa’s white rulers, the homelands did not diminish Black South Africans’ hunger for freedom.

Since Bennett took office, numerous Palestinian commentators, activists and ordinary people have insisted that “shrinking the conflict” will prove no more effective in Israel-Palestine. Last month in +972 Magazine, the writer Amjad Iraqi called it a display of “chutzpah.” It “is not about lessening tensions,” he argued, “it is about quelling opposition to Israeli power.” Vladimir Jabotinsky would likely have agreed. Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionist Zionism, the ideological tradition to which Bennett lays claim, also considered it insulting to suggest that promises of material reward could make Palestinians accept political subjugation. In 1923, he accused Zionists who believed Palestinians could “be bribed in order to sell out their homeland for a railroad network” of displaying “contempt for the Arab people.” A century later, unfortunately, that contempt remains alive and well.

Peter Beinart is the editor-at-large of Jewish Currents.