University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Asher Kaufman

If the late historian Barbara Tuchman could write a new edition of The March of Folly, would she consider the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a proper candidate for an addition to her classic book?

Tuchman wrote about “one of the most compelling paradoxes of history: the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.”

“To qualify as a folly,” she explained, “the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. . . . Secondly, a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. . . . a third criterion must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.”

Are Israeli policies concerning the conflict an act of folly? Or perhaps it is the Palestinians who follow Tuchman’s definition of folly? Is the current round of talks initiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry yet another round in this march of folly?


While Palestinians may well fit Tuchman’s matrix of the march of folly I would like to focus here on the Israeli side of the conflict, for two reasons. First, if the conflict is not resolved, Israeli society has far more to lose than the Palestinians. Second, while Palestinians have had their fair share in determining the dynamics of the conflict, including the status of the “peace process” and its impasse, since 1948 Israel has been the stronger party—politically, militarily and economically—and has, therefore, been able to determine its evolution much more than the Palestinians have.

So, what are Israel’s own interests when it comes to this conflict? Let us put aside for now questions of justice or the aspirational idea of justpeace, on one hand, and senses of historical and national entitlements, on the other hand, and focus on interests from a realpolitik perspective.

One may think that Israel’s prime interests are to reach a lasting peace with the Palestinians so that Israel retains its Jewish identity (whatever that may mean) as well as its political and economic strengths. Since neither Israeli Jews nor Palestinians are going anywhere, and, with the exception of the very thin margins, neither side is willing to share the land with the other harmoniously, the only way to achieve these interests is by dividing the land. However, since 1967 Israeli policies have consistently undermined the prospects of partition to the point that, as my colleague Atalia Omer suggests in her post, the two-state solution may have died by now, without even receiving a proper burial.


Alternatives to Israeli policies toward the Palestinian occupied territories have existed since 1967 and even before. Immediately after the end of the Six-Day war, high-profile Israelis cautioned against the occupation, correctly predicting its immoral outcomes. To retain its domination over these territories, Israel has employed an oppressive regime of control, drastically eroding its moral standing (as depicted so eloquently in the recent movie The Gatekeepers).

In addition to the issue of the occupation, Israel has been engaged in massive violations of human rights. This, more than anything else, is the reason for the growing traction of the international movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

Throughout the 46 years of Israeli control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, opportunities have arisen to put an end to the occupation. Yet not one has been taken seriously by Israel (including during the “Oslo years.”) Policies that favor retention of control over the Palestinian territories are not those of a minority, but have been pursued by Labor and Likud parties alike, supported by the majority of Jewish Israeli society.

True, since the early 1990s polls consistently show strong support for the idea of “land for peace,” but this has not been translated into the bold (and risky) decisions needed to implement this formula. In fact, the opposite has happened, as Israeli policies have integrated occupied territories into Israel proper through infrastructure settlements and law.

Coerced control over millions of people in the 21st century comes with a devastating price of societal corruption and moral degradation.

While I am no prophet, it is hard to see how in the long term the current situation is sustainable and in Israel’s favor. The continued occupation of the Palestinian territories erodes Israel from within. As so many Israelis have argued over the decades, coerced control over millions of people in the 21st century comes with a devastating price of societal corruption and moral degradation. This undermines the core objective of Zionism of establishing a Jewish liberal democracy (with all its challenges and imperfections). The snowball of international pressure on Israel has begun to roll and will be hard, if not impossible, to stop.


Israel, it seems to me, has been walking through its own march of folly. John Kerry’s initiative may or may not be the last chance to end this conflict through a territorial compromise. But the reactions of the government of Israel to his attempts demonstrate that the march continues in full force.

“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception,” wrote Tuchman, “is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary sights. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”

While Israel obviously is not operating alone, and while the regional predicaments do not invite bold initiatives at this moment, the Israeli government should know the basic fact that the current situation is not sustainable for long, and is most definitely not in Israel’s favor.

Asher Kaufman is associate professor of history and peace studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute and the author, most recently, of Contested Frontiers in the Syria-Lebanon-Israel Region. He is the guest editor of this issue of Peace Policy.