CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – Here’s a new year fantasy: Imagine that, in response to President Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinians had renounced violence and embarked on a sustained campaign of Gandhian protest.
Imagine that instead of reading from the same familiar script, Palestinian leaders had called for sit-ins, silent marches and civil disobedience rather than “days of rage.” Imagine peaceful Palestinian demonstrations aimed more at drawing world attention to the justice of their cause than at producing martyrs or provoking anger at Israel.
It’s hard to imagine, that’s true. The Palestinian Authority has historically thought it would take violence to create a sovereign Palestinian state, and in any case it lacks the ability to bind other groups. Hamas, for its part, has often treated violence as its most effective tool. But stick with me.
A Palestinian conversion to nonviolence could change the way the conflict is perceived in Israel and the United States. That, in turn, would change the internal dynamics.
Within Israel, the peace-seeking political forces that elected Yitzhak Rabin and later Ehud Barak have been weakened and hollowed out by years of violence. The period that began with the second intifada in fall 2000 has seemed to confirm to some Israelis the right-wing view that Palestinians will never be satisfied with anything less than the whole of historic Palestine, and that the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace is illusory. That in turn has emboldened Israelis who claim the historical land of Israel as a divine inheritance.
The sustained reality of a Gandhian Palestinian resistance movement would alter the internal Israeli political balance of power. The left — some of which might even be inspired to engage in its own peaceful protest — would be able to argue that Palestinian politics had evolved to the point where Palestine could become a responsible peace partner. Moderate Israelis who have abandoned the left in droves over the last two decades would have to reconsider in the light of a pragmatic possibility of a deal.
On the Israeli right, there would be plenty of voices insisting that nothing had changed: that nonviolence was temporary, that other Palestinians remained committed to reclaiming their ancestral home by violence and that Palestinian tactics should not change a principled claim to full sovereignty.
Yet it would be almost impossible for any Israeli government to use force in a continuous or repeated way to suppress Gandhian protests.
There could conceivably be instances of attempted violent suppression. It’s important not to forget that Britain used violence against Gandhi’s supporters before India gained independence in 1947.
But the great majority of Israelis are devoted to their belief in the special, moral character of their state and their army. Despite the bloodshed that accompanies Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank, in Israel it remains an article of faith that the Jewish state will not intentionally kill innocent civilians.
That’s something nonviolent resisters could exploit. Potential protesters who have stayed home out of fear of flying bullets or a dislike of violence would be more likely to come out in numbers, allowing a nonviolent protest movement to grow.
Swelling nonviolent protest would shift the way many Americans see the conflict. In the U.S., the legacy of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s status as a quasi-secular saint are enormously influential, even definitional to current political culture on the left and right. Even Trump supporters who object to NFL players taking a knee today think of the civil rights movement as justified in both ends and means.
Pretty quickly, Americans would start seeing Palestinians as good guys. This would be the result of decades of conditioning to see nonviolent protesters as inherently on the side of justice. Palestinians who embraced King-style nonviolence would gradually cease to be seen as terrorists in waiting.
U.S. politicians would not want to deviate from their strong pro-Israel stance, at least not initially. The structures of pro-Israel ideology and organized institutional support for Israel, both Jewish and Christian, would not suddenly go away. Over time, however, a changed public narrative backed by imagery showing Palestinian nonviolence would begin to shift politicians’ position. It’s often forgotten that the best friend the U.S. pro-Israel lobby has ever had is Palestinian violence.
This imagined scenario raises the question: Why haven’t the Palestinians tried sizable coordinated nonviolence before? Many Palestinians would undoubtedly respond by saying that it would never work. Israel, they say, only understands force, and wouldn’t be moved or coerced by nonviolent resistance.
I think that’s wrong, but even if it were right, the response still wouldn’t make much sense. After all, nothing the Palestinians have done until now has worked either. What do they have to lose by trying nonviolence on a vast scale?
Some Israelis would say that Palestinians have never gone the Gandhian route because Arab political culture favors violence over peaceful protest. Leaving aside that this view is a mirror-image projection of how many Palestinians see Israelis, it’s also demonstrably false.
The Arab Spring of 2011 saw large, sustained nonviolent protests in Tunisia and Egypt, to name just two high-profile examples.
Advocates of the movement to boycott Israeli products, divest stock in Israel-friendly companies and sanction Israel’s government have argued that nonviolent pressure tactics from abroad can force Israel toward a two-state solution. That’s doubtful. So long as violence remains part of the Palestinian toolkit of resistance, Israelis will refuse to bend to mild economic isolation, and U.S. support will assure they can do so with relative impunity.
Accustomed to European and indeed global condemnation, Israelis don’t care about world opinion as they once did. Inured to criticism, they’ve made do with de facto alliances, including with Arab states.
If they want to change the attitudes of Israelis and Americans, and hence change Israel’s actions, Palestinians need to do something radically different. Traditional tactics have not brought a two-state solution. Nonviolent civil disobedience could make the difference — and is well worth a try.
Noah Feldman is a Harvard law professor and a Bloomberg View columnist.
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