Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

5 Reasons the Israel-Palestine Conflict Won't End Any Time Soon

| Jan. 08, 2024

Extremists, lobbyists, meddling outsiders, and deeper structural problems mean that the issue is likely to remain unresolved.

If you've studied the history of the modern Middle East and you follow the news from that region on a regular basis, you probably have a well-formed view about why the long conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians has never been resolved. In that case, this column is not for you.

If you're not very familiar with that history, however, and you tend to pay attention to the issue only when something awful is happening—like right now—you may be asking yourself: "What's the problem here? Why haven't Israelis and Palestinians been able to settle their differences and get on with it? America made up with Germany and Japan after World War II, and relations between the United States and Vietnam are amicable today. Even troubled societies such as South Africa and Northern Ireland have moved toward justice and peace. So why have the various efforts to end this other conflict failed, such that we are now seeing the worst Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting since Israel was created in 1948?"

I'm here to help. Here are my top five reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to take innocent lives, destabilize the region, consume disproportionate amounts of Washington’s political bandwidth, and perpetuate fear, suffering, and injustice.

1. Indivisible objectives. At the heart of the dispute is a deep structural problem: Israelis and Palestinian nationalists both want to live in and control the same piece of territory, and each side believes it is rightfully theirs. Each group has a basis for its claim, and each fervently believes its position should trump the other side's. International relations scholars refer to situations such as these as "indivisibility" problems: It's harder to settle a dispute if the issue(s) at hand cannot be divvied up in a way that is acceptable to both parties. Add to the mix the complex and contested status of Jerusalem—a sacred site for three major religions—and you have a potent recipe for recurring trouble. Although there have been several proposals for sharing the land over the past century, voices calling for compromise have been drowned out or marginalized by those who want all the disputed territory. Sadly, that's how nationalism usually works.

2. The security dilemma. Given the first problem, coupled with the small size of the disputed territory, the two communities face a severe security dilemma. Zionist leaders recognized from the start that it would be difficult to impossible to create a Jewish-controlled state with a sizable Arab minority, much less a majority. That belief led to acts of ethnic cleansing during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and again in 1967 when Israel captured the West Bank. Its conduct was hardly unique, however, as state-building efforts in many other places (including the United States) involved acts of a similar nature. Unsurprisingly, both the expelled Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbors were enraged by what happened and eager to reverse the results....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“5 Reasons the Israel-Palestine Conflict Won't End Any Time Soon.” Foreign Policy, January 8, 2024.

The Author

Stephen Walt