In “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tough Questions, Direct Answers,” the latest entry in her Skeptic's Guide series, Christian writer Dale Hanson Bourke discusses one of the most intractable problems on the political landscape today. The Israeli-Palestinian issue can be difficult to write upon, since it is such a polarizing problem. People have entrenched interests, or have become so emotionally invested in the debate that it can often be difficult to engage with opponents courteously and with consideration. Bourke’s aim is to bridge this divide while informing those who are new to the debate.
Since her book is largely aimed at those uninformed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it mainly contains basic information on the origins of the conflict, the key players, and what the major issues in the region are today. Her book begins with the history of the Palestinian region. I found this to be the one of the most important portions of the book. Traditions and ancient land claims inform a large part of the current conflict, and Bourke clearly explains the traditions held by the respective parties involved in the conflict.
One interesting thing to note is that for most of the region’s history, Jews and Arab Muslims have lived in relative peace with one another. It has only been in the past century or so that they have been in conflict. Truly absorbing that fact can make peace seem more attainable.
That is not to diminish the issue at hand. Religiously fueled conflicts have often been the most brutal and long-lasting conflicts in history. Bourke’s outline of the religious significance of the Israeli-Palestinian region explains how religion has factored into this current conflict, and made it so difficult to end. This attentiveness to ancient traditions is instrumental in helping lay the groundwork for later chapters covering current problems plaguing the region.
After painting the historical backdrop, Bourke introduces the major players: Israel and Palestine. Bourke does not endorse either one’s positions, but simply explains how their political, social, and economic lives are organized. It might surprise people to see the pluralism present in the region. It is not starkly divided between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims; both Israel and Palestine contain several factions that can often differ on how to approach the issues. This makes the region beautiful in its diversity, but also explains the difficulty of resolving the region’s major problems. No one solution satisfies everyone.
Providing a ground view of the area was also humanizing. One could get a greater sense of the actual people living in the region, which gave a greater gravity to the problem. The conflict is not just about lines on a map, but people with distinct cultures, homes, and traditions. Bourke’s book is a more general study of the region, but she also provides insights into what some everyday issues might be for residents of the Israeli-Palestinian region. Israelis are concerned about security and often view Palestinians as dangerous, while Palestinians are infuriated over border checkpoints and the dividing wall that has impaired them from easy access to fellow Palestinian towns and fields. What seems like a simple choice (build a wall or do not build a wall) takes greater shades of grey when both grievances are heard.
In addition, Bourke explains how outside state actors and international governmental organizations like the U.N. have affected the conflict. This was helpful because there can be tunnel vision on this issue. People can look exclusively at what the Israeli or the Palestinian governments are doing, and fail to see how other states’ foreign policies can resolve or exacerbate the problems between them. One of the most important takeaways was that there are countries within the Middle East that are committed to the peace process. The impression some people can take from the news is that namely all the Middle Eastern countries despise Israel. That is not the case. Granted, there is definitely a sizeable segment of the region that is hostile to Israel, but that does not account for the peace treaties present between Israel and Jordan and Egypt (though Bourke notes these may be in flux due to the Arab Spring). The larger scope of the conflict also comes to bear when foreign actors are considered. The U.S., Iran, and Arab states have vested interests in this conflict, which sometimes makes negotiations tricky because pressure on either side can mean contending with a powerful political backer. Here as well, Bourke does a fantastic job of presenting the varying sides of the conflict, acting more as a field reporter than a pundit.
The book concludes with a discussion on the issues that divide Israel and the Palestinian territories. Again, Bourke exercises professional restraint, simply trying to detail what specifically antagonizes the Israelis and Palestinians. Since she has already given the historical background and players that are involved, the issues become more fleshed out. Each is handled with as much objectivity as possible, so as to more clearly lay out the basic facts and stances. Possessing a greater understanding of the subject matter, readers can now approach these issues with a more balanced perspective. For those who know nothing about the problems beforehand, Bourke’s explanations are insightful and informative.
Overall, I feel that Bourke’s “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” is a good introductory resource on the regional dispute. It discusses all the characters and facets of the conflict in a balanced, straightforward manner. Her writing is simple and concise for easy accessibility. For those more familiar with the topic, it may not be a book that one needs to sit down and read the whole way through, since it does not go into great depth on the topics. However, it can be a helpful reference guide to assist those who might need to quickly familiarize themselves with a particular aspect of the conflict. This book is also for those who believe they know the situation, but have been hearing only one side of the issue. It can provide brief summaries of the opposing side’s perspective, which can lead to greater in-depth analysis.
With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so prevalent in America’s Middle Eastern foreign policy, I think it is important for all Americans to stay informed on this issue. “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” is a good place to start.
Ben Booker is an editorial intern at BreakPoint and a student at the University of California Berkeley.