Repeatedly over the past two years, various leaders have said the following in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “The status quo is unsustainable.” The obvious implication of this statement is that things need to change. The unasked question is what is the “status quo“?
When we talk of the peace process and the status quo, it is vital to understand what the “status quo” actually is. There are two false assumptions that are generally made. First, while it is assumed that we agree on the nature of the status quo, because the “status quo” is a perception of how things are and because we perceive things differently, we do not have a uniform definition of the “status quo.” In other words, one cannot simply call anything the “status quo” and convey a sense of meaning about what that term implies.
For example, is the status quo of which we speak a situation in which Israel cannot possibly make peace with the Palestinian Authority because the Palestinians would simply use any agreement as a stepping stone to the annihilation of Israel? Is the status quo of which we speak a situation in which Israel must make peace with the Palestinians because if it does not, it is going to face the threat of destruction through the loss of the Jewish nature of the state or the democratic nature of the state? Or does “status quo” imply something other than either of these alternatives? Regardless, simply stating that “the status quo must change” does not help to convey a useful understanding of what must change.
Second, the term “status quo” may not be applied to either the relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians as a whole or specifically to either side of the relationship for any significant length of time. Those who say “the status quo cannot be maintained” are correct if only for the simple reason that it never has been maintained. The current situation is one of constant change across all facets of life. Historically this has always been the case.
Clearly, the situation in 2010 is not remotely close to what it was in 2000 before or after Camp David, is even further from the way it was 1990, pre-Oslo, and don’t even bother to compare it with 1980 much less 1970 or 1966. In fact, the situation in 2010 is not what it was in 2009 and is far from what it was in 2005 with the withdrawal from Gaza. The status quo of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to be that rapid and significant change occurs regularly. In light of this, a statement such as “the status quo cannot be maintained” is virtually comical. It would be like telling a rapidly growing pre-teen that “You can’t stay this size forever.” There is not and has not been anything approaching a “status quo” that is unchanging in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Is there something that might be described as a status quo that has existed for any length of time in the Israeli-Arab conflict? For that yes, there is.
I would suggest that the status quo of the past 70 years is one in which:
- The Arab world has been hostile to the existence of a non-Arab, much less non-Muslim nation in its midst.
- Anti-Jewish attitudes and age-old stereotypes demonizing Jews have affected, if not directed and determined, most interactions between Jews and Arab nations.
- The Arab world has been regularly reminded of its inferiority economically and militarily at the hands of Britain, the US, and their allies, especially Israel which is thriving in all facets.
- Israel repeatedly has won military victories against much larger and more populous Arab nations to the point that what once seemed to be miraculous (Israel’s victory against the Arab armies) is now taken as a near certainty in any future conflict.
- While most of the rest of the world has discovered the benefits of democracy over dictatorship, the Arab world remains overwhelmingly governed by dictatorial regimes and opposes democratic reforms either in the political arena or in the religious one.
- While most of the rest of the world has promoted the rights of women and strengthened those of minorities within their midst, the Arab world has headed in the opposite direction.
- Educational institutions, religious institutions, and the media throughout the Arab world regularly condemn Western ideals, preach religious intolerance, and demonize Israel and America.
- Having failed on the field of battle, some of the Arab world has resorted to terrorism against civilians, some of the Arab world has sought to use diplomacy and power based in oil production to influence nations and international institutions against Israel, and the majority of the people languish in a sense of hopelessness, feeling unable to affect this world economically, socially, or politically, a situation created and promoted by Muslim religious institutions trying to get the Arab world to return to idealized past glories in order to avoid living in the reality of today’s failures and dishonor.
In my mind, this “status quo” is not going to change any time soon.