The Political Paradigm of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and Its Flaws

By Nisan, Mordechai | Jewish Political Studies Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Political Paradigm of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and Its Flaws


Nisan, Mordechai, Jewish Political Studies Review


The Political Paradigm of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and Its Flaws A Histoiy of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, by Mark Tessler, second edition, Indiana University Press, 2009, 1018 pp.

The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War, by James L. Gelvin, new edition, Cambridge University Press, 2007, 296 pp.

Reviewed by Mordechai Nisan

The last few decades have witnessed a profound change in the paradigmatic understanding of the "Arab-Israeli Conflict" as conventionally defined. The framework for popular discourse is comprised of three central political components:

1. The conflict is now termed an "Israeli-Palestinian" dispute, implying that the broader Arab regional aspects have been resolved or are no longer relevant to the equation;

2. The Palestinian national movement led by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) modified its traditional thinking toward Israel and has now accepted and recognized the Jewish State; and

3. The essential step to resolve the interminable Israeli -Pal estini an conflict lies in the establishment of a Palestinian state, thereby fulfilling the vision of a two-state solution.

Armed with these near-universally accepted principles, which have in fact guided whatever progress has occurred on the peace track since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the political accuracy and logic inherent in this paradigm appear unassailable.

Two recent books, both appearing in their second edition, attest to the academic panoply of the political rationale dominating the arena of discussion. Mark Tessler, a lecturer at the University of Michigan and scholar on a wide-range of Middle Eastern subjects, has written a sweeping, comprehensive, and exceptionally lucid history of "the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict." Tessler defines his approach as bound by "objectivity without detachment," and this is an accurate self-revelation. His text is detailed and balanced, buoyed by countless footnoted source materials. This single volume thoroughly expounds the development of Zionism and the Jewish yishuv, the Arab Revolt, and the United Nations Partition Resolution, followed by detailed accounts of the events of 1948 and the political aftermath with the evolution of the Palestinian Resistance Movement and the complexities attending "Israel and the Occupied Territories." In its review of peace efforts in the 1980s it discusses the Reagan Plan, the Fez Plan, the Shultz Plan, the Shamir Plan, the Mubarak Plan, and the Baker Plan, culminating chronologically, if not essentially, with the Oslo peace process. However, after the spectacular launching in 1993, this process "ultimately failed," concludes Tessler (847).

The author's impressive tome reflects precisely what he judges to be the symmetry in Jewish and Arab national histories, while at the same time highlighting the contrast between the ancient foundations of the Jewish "sense of peoplehood" (Tessler, 7) and the recent twentieth-century "emergence of Palestinian nationalism and sense of Palestinian peoplehood" (Tessler, 72). Different national narrative pasts merge politically, nonetheless, in our times.

James Gelvin, teaching history of the Middle East at UCLA, has written a far more nuanced study. The study's ostensibly evenhanded title The Israel-Palestine Conflict contorts reality rather than reflecting it. The work focuses on the question of modern nationalism based on narratives and mythologies. It identifies Zionism's success with British support, juxtaposed with the Palestinian struggle which over the generations has been characterized by the "guerrilla war" launched by Izz al-Din al-Qassam in the 1930s (Gelvin, 103), and the "consensusbuilding" and moderate leadership of Yasir Arafat that typified the Palestinian icon's deft political transformation in the 1980s. Gelvin details the rapid flow of war/peace landmarks in twenty-first century events, including the al-Aqsa Intifada (2000), Operation Defensive Shield (2002), the Separation Barrier (2003), the Gaza Disengagement (2005), and the Olmert Convergence Plan (2006). …

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