Writing about Israel and Palestine is a bit like that bit in Great Expectations when Pip asked whether it was a good idea to lend money to a friend. The cynical Mr Wemmick responds “choose your bridge and pitch your money into the Thames over the centre arch”. Or put another way, don’t waste your time.
I think that, at our best, Liberal Democrats are fair-minded people who try to accept that most arguments have two sides. So what follows is not my opinion on who is right, but five things that have helped me to frame my own views on the subject. I share them merely in the hope that they might help others.
Words matter: don’t assume that you can use “Jew” and “Israeli” interchangeably. Don’t use “Arab”, “Palestinian” and “Muslim” as if they all mean the same thing. You can be born in Jerusalem, you speak Arabic at home but you’re an Armenian Christian (and you’re Palestinian). You can be Jewish by some definitions and yet have no idea of that fact. Words matter and are an easy way of showing the limits of your knowledge.
Beware aggregations: don’t assume that Palestinians are bad people because of the high levels of support for Hamas. Don’t assume that Israelis are opposed to peace because of widespread settlement activity or support for Likud. Just as you don’t know the individual motivations of someone from Northern Ireland who supported Sinn Fein during the troubles, you can’t write off a people on the basis of which political movements are flourishing.
Don’t look for heroes: real life is far messier. Ariel Sharon may have been Israel’s greatest soldier, but he also “bears personal responsibility” for allowing the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the moderate Palestinian Fatah movement, has published a book alleging close ties between Nazism and Zionism and has questioned estimates on the numbers of dead in the Holocaust.
Avoid mentioning the actions of just one side: Israel has carried out offensive operations that have killed civilians, including children. This is tragic. It is also tragic when Hamas, an overt organisation that runs for elections and takes public office, carries out offensive operations that have killed civilians, including children. The fact that there is total asymmetry in the military capability of the two sides doesn’t then make it OK for either side to kill civilians.
Deciding that someone has “no choice” but to take a certain action is to dismiss all those that had the same choice and decided to do something different. Only a tiny minority of Palestinians are suicide bombers. The average Israeli settler has not murdered Palestinians or taken part in bulldozing Palestinian olive groves. Even in extremis people have choices.
I am not saying you shouldn’t have an opinion on Israel-Palestine. Maybe, after careful analysis of the issues, you conclude that Israel bears the greater share of responsibility for what has gone wrong, or you conclude the exact opposite. But, if you do choose to take sides, ask yourself this: if it were somehow proven beyond question that one side was morally, legally or historically in the right and that the other was in the wrong, would that end the conflict?