Close this search box.

Existential conflicts cannot be solved: a new framework for resolving the Israeli–Palestinian dispute

In this essay the author, Dr. Bren Carlill presents a sobering argument: ‘existential’ conflicts cannot be resolved. Only when the objectives of both sides soften to become ‘territorialist’ can the Israeli–Palestinian dispute be negotiated.
Existential conflicts cannot be solved: a new framework for resolving the Israeli–Palestinian dispute

In his new book The Challenges of Resolving the Israeli–Palestinian Dispute: An Impossible Peace? Dr. Bren Carlill argues that in order to understand the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” it is helpful to distinguish between “existential” and “territorial” conflicts. Adopting this dichotomy reveals that the conflict concerning “Palestine” is a multi-dimensional, multi-layered dispute, involving different perspectives and goals on both sides. It is definitely not just a conflict between two peoples who want to live side by side, but can’t agree on their borders, as the media (and many lawyers) would often have us believe. Carlill also suggests that to the extent this is an “existential” conflict it cannot be resolved. These insights challenge those who tend to categorize the conflict to suit their ideological mindset. It specifically challenges those international lawyers who think that international law offers a solution for every conflict.

The following text is a repost of the original essay Existential conflicts cannot be solved: a new framework for resolving the Israeli–Palestinian dispute by Bren Carlill in fathom, January 2021.


How do we introduce the uninitiated to the complexities of the Israeli–Palestinian dispute?

Perhaps with the checkpoints? These prevent terrorists from reaching Israeli cities and so are good. But checkpoints impede the movement of Palestinian people and goods, increase the Palestinian sense of humiliation and provide motivation for the terrorism they are designed to prevent, all of which is bad.

There are Palestinians who want to fight – want to kill – Israelis until Israel stops existing. For these Palestinians, removing the checkpoints would not lessen their sense of grievance or reduce their motivation. Rather, it would merely make access to Israeli civilians easier.

There are many other Palestinians who, while they aren’t Zionists, know that Israel isn’t going anywhere. For these Palestinians, removing the checkpoints will allow them not just less humiliation and a greater ability to build up their economy, but also the political capital they need to justify to their colleagues the benefits of cooperation with Israel.

The reality is, most of us interpret the checkpoints to fit our view of the dispute, rather than allow the checkpoints’ existence to inform our understanding of it. The same can be said of the legality of the settlements, the cause of Palestinian violence and more.

The territorial/existential dichotomy

Complexities like these can be best explained using what I call the territorial/existential dichotomy.

More than just a way for us to introduce the dispute to the uninitiated, the territorial/existential dichotomy can also improve our own understanding of the dispute’s intractability, the motivations of the parties, and the prospects for future diplomacy.

When most Westerners think of violent conflict, they think of two sides fighting over land or autonomy; conflict resolution occurs when the sides agree to share or divide the land between them.

This type of conflict is territorial and represents almost all conflicts. However, there are some existential conflicts where at least one side attempts to erase the political or physical existence of the other.

It has to be said that this kind of either/or dichotomisation of conflict is frowned upon by conflict theorists as being too black and white. And fair enough; claiming that the Israeli–Palestinian dispute is an existential conflict would be far too simplistic. But this is because the dispute actually consists of multiple conflicts. These multiple conflicts – a mixture of existential and territorial conflicts – is what makes the Israeli–Palestinian dispute so hard to resolve, and why there are so many different interpretations of its intractability.

Consider the end-goals of Fatah and Hamas. Fatah is a nationalist party that has as its official goal the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. (Whether Fatah unofficially retains the goal of wanting to destroy Israel is something we’ll get to later). Hamas is a religious party that has as its official goal the establishment of a Palestinian state instead of Israel.

These end goals – Palestine next to Israel or Palestine instead of Israel – are so different in outcome as to render them two different conflicts.

Because Hamas sees as anathema the existence of a non-Muslim state in the land God granted Muslims, it will fight until this is rectified. Similarly, there are Israelis who see as anathema the establishment of a non-Jewish state in the land God granted Jews and who act to prevent such a state emerging.

These two existential conflicts are zero-sum and cannot be resolved; they must be won or managed.

Almost all conflict literature stresses that all conflicts – including the most intractable – can one day be resolved. My argument that existential conflicts cannot be resolved might appear pessimistic, but there remains hope. When the objectives of those waging an existential conflict soften to become territorialist, then the existential conflict ends, and a territorial conflict – one theoretically possible to resolve – takes its place.

The dichotomy in history: a shift towards territorialism

The history of the Israeli–Palestinian dispute reveals that evolution from existential to territorial conflict has already taken place. It used to be just an existential conflict. When Zionists began efforts to create Israel, their objective was the entirety of the land west of the Jordan river.

However, this goal proved difficult, and Labour Zionists became willing to accept the creation of a Jewish state on part of the land, rather than stick to the ideological purity of achieving such a state in all of Eretz Yisrael. Thus, they shifted their existential conflict to a territorial conflict. Revisionist Zionists did not and so, within Zionist society, two conflicts – two end-goals – co-existed.

In the first decades of the state, these coexisted relatively easily – first because of the political domination of the Israeli Labour movement, and second because Israel knew that its Arab enemies were still engaged in an existential conflict against it. That is, Israel’s leaders might have become territorialist, but they knew they weren’t in a territorial conflict.

In 1967, Israel gained the land it could theoretically trade with the Arabs for peace. Paradoxically, that land was vitally important to the now-growing number of religious existentialists in Israeli society – they began to condition their support of the government on it retaining that land.

In Israel today, we still have territorialists (who would accept the land being divided with the Palestinians) and existentialists (who would not). Although the land-for-peace movement was decimated by the failures of the peace process, the territorialist movement in Israel is still strong. Once we have a look at the evolution of the Palestinian national movement over time, we can look at why this is the case.

The Palestinian national movement was, for a long time, exclusively existentialist. A developing national identity combined with the perceived threat of Zionism saw Palestinians reject the idea of sharing or dividing the land. After Israel’s establishment, Palestinian goals shifted to the still existentialist objective of eradicating the Jewish state. For many Palestinians, this goal never changed.

But for many Palestinians it did. Consider the history.

Surrounding Arab states failed to destroy Israel in 1948, 1967 (which saw Israel occupy the rest of ‘historic Palestine’) and 1973, after which the military option was dropped. Palestinian violence also failed to achieve statehood (and, in 1982, Palestinians learned what the surrounding Arab states had come to appreciate in previous decades: that rhetoric is easy, but defeating Israel militarily is really hard.) The Palestinian leadership shifted (well, was moved) from Jordan, to Lebanon, to Tunisia – each move taking it further away from Palestine. The end of the Cold War and the 1990–91 Gulf War left the Palestinians financially and diplomatically isolated.

As these events unfolded, pragmatic Palestinians gradually shifted their views. Much like pragmatic Zionists several decades earlier, they put dreams of statehood ahead of ideological purity.

For Israel and the Palestinian leadership, the intifada from 1987 set in motion what eventually became the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. The intifada made many territorialist Israelis (including Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin) realise that not only was violence not going to achieve peace, but that Israel’s response to the intifada was damaging Israeli society.

The exiled Palestinian leadership realised that many on-the-ground Palestinian leaders had shifted from existentialist to territorialist. A year after the intifada began, Yasser Arafat announced Palestinian recognition of UN Resolution 181 and, later, Security Council Resolution 242. The Palestinian national movement had officially become territorialist.

Israel was, at this time, led by the existentialist Yitzhak Shamir, so serious negotiations would have to wait until the 1992 election of the territorialist Rabin.

Oslo makes sense

It’s in the analysis of the Oslo process – and, indeed, all past and future Israeli–Palestinian attempts at peace – that the territorial/existential dichotomy becomes really useful.

Israelis and Palestinians were suspicious that the other side were still existentialist. The Palestinians wanted Israel to go straight to a final status agreement for this reason. But Israelis wanted an interim-style agreement, to make sure Palestinians were really territorialist. Israel won out, and the Oslo process instituted a confidence-building period to be followed by a final status agreement.

Two things would have convinced Israelis that Palestinians were territorialist: less violence and less existentialist messaging that, one day, Palestine would replace Israel. But the opposite occurred.

Enter Hamas. Religiously-motivated existentialists had always existed in Palestinian society, and had long been willing to fight under the umbrella of the Palestinian national movement. This ‘broad church’ existentialism allowed anyone to enter the tent, united by the prioritisation of violence as the tool to achieve the destruction of Israel. But, come 1987, religious existentialists were no longer convinced the secular Palestinian leadership still felt that violence was the chosen means or Israel’s destruction the desired end. Hence the creation of Hamas.

If existentialists see as anathema the political existence of their enemy, they see a territorialist peace process – which inherently recognises the other’s right to exist – as a dangerous move to be fought at all costs. This explains Palestinian violence during Oslo – which was perpetrated almost exclusively by existentialist parties. It also explains the assassination of Rabin by an Israeli existentialist formed within a politico-religio culture of Israeli existentialism.

Palestinian incitement continued apace during the Oslo period. But now it was by a party officially wedded to peace with Israel. The incitement helped convince those Israelis who suspected that Palestinians were still existentialist – and provided ammunition for those Israelis who, for their own existentialist reasons, didn’t want the peace process to succeed.

Western misunderstandings of the dispute

The territorial/existential dichotomy also helps explain the Western approach to this dispute. When the Arab and Palestinian leaderships were overtly existentialist, the Arabs were seen as the main obstacle to peace. However, from the 1970s, when the Palestinian leadership began to talk about dividing the land between Israelis and Palestinians, they were increasingly understood as being territorialists, and no longer an impediment to peace (i.e. Palestinian violence was increasingly seen as an unfortunate but understandable means to obtain statehood, whereas before, Arab violence was seen as an attempt to destroy Israel.) Over time, Israel’s occupation and, of course, the settlements, became the biggest obstacles to peace in Western territorialist perceptions of the dispute.

Because the occupation was seen as the main impediment to peace, Israel’s international legitimacy increased when it began ceding land in Oslo. When Israel slowed down its pace of implementation (because of terrorism), the West used its increased legitimacy of Israel as leverage. Israelis perceived this pressure on Israel to cede more land despite the increase in Palestinian violence as proof the West didn’t have Israel’s interests at heart. As many have pointed out, Israel becomes willing to compromise for peace when it feels its security interests are understood by the West. Palestinian terrorism and Western pressure made Israelis less willing to compromise during Oslo.

Support for the peace process (and those parties backing it) began to falter. It collapsed completely in the wake of the Palestinian rejection of Ehud Barak’s offers at Camp David and the violence that followed.

Despite this, territorialist sentiment in Israel remains strong. Most Israelis are still in favour of a Palestinian state alongside Israel (on the proviso that Israeli security is maintained). To understand this, it’s worth making a further distinction.

Land-for-peace or peace-for-land?

Israeli territorialists can be divided into land-for-peace and peace-for-land groups. The land-for-peace group (now very small) believes that if Israel gives (enough) land to the Palestinians, Palestinians will give them peace. This has been and largely remains the motivating factor behind international pushes for peace (which stem from the territorialist perspective that the occupation is the reason for the lack of peace).

Peace-for-land Israelis – represented in the 1990s by Benjamin Netanyahu, but now incorporating almost all territorialist Israelis – are more suspicious. They’re not convinced that Palestinians are territorialists and so want proof. They want Palestinian peace to be granted to Israel before Israel concedes any land.

Since the mid-1990s, the combination of peace-for-land Israelis and existentialist Israelis have kept peace-sceptic governments in power almost the entire time. But peace-for-land Israelis aren’t anti-peace. If and when the Palestinians actually look and act serious about peace with Israel, peace-for-land Israelis will once again back political parties that back peace, and the serious 1990s’ cracks in Israeli society (i.e. territorialists vs. existentialists), which were papered over by the second intifada, will likely re-emerge.

Palestinian expectations of Oslo

What would have convinced Palestinians that Israelis were territorialist? Less occupation, as well as concrete movement toward statehood. Palestinians were thus disappointed by Oslo. More settlers arrived. More checkpoints were established. Progress towards statehood faltered, as no key deadlines were met.

Palestinians also expected good governance from the newly-established Palestinian Authority but were disappointed by the nepotic, kleptocratic and autocratic structure centred on Arafat and his cronies.

The increase in occupation, the lack of movement to peace and the corrupt Palestinian government all made the peace process – and those parties who backed it – increasingly unpopular.

Similar to Israel, there are distinctions within Palestinian territorialist society. Long-time Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki wrote in 2002 about the Palestinian old guard, young guard and Islamists. Almost two decades have passed, but his categorisation is still essentially correct. Islamists are existentialists. The old and young guard are mostly territorialists, not because they have embraced the concept that two national movements with equally valid claims reside on the same land, but because they’ve realised that Israel isn’t going anywhere. The old guard knows that violence will not achieve its objectives, whereas the young guard still thinks it will.

Today, the old guard is completely discredited within Palestinian society. Diplomacy didn’t work and the old guard – represented by Abbas and the other formerly-exiled leadership – are synonymous with corruption. Rather than political reform, the old guard has attempted to internationalise the dispute – statehood via the UN and International Criminal Court – but this hasn’t worked as well as they hoped, and the shifting regional environment is starting to show that time is running out for this tactic, as well.

Palestinian violence (by both young guard and Islamists) forced Israel out of Gaza, but hasn’t garnered any successes in the 15 years since. The old guard, young guard and Islamists are out of ideas, and their people know it.

Supporters of Israel might ask the valid question as to why Palestinians don’t just negotiate with Israel in good faith. The answer is tied up in the territorial/existential dichotomy, and is the same as why Palestinian incitement continued all this time: weak leadership.

Palestinian messaging has long been existentialist. When the PLO became officially territorialist in the late 1980s, internal existentialist messaging continued, so as not to rock the boat. Further, such messaging was a (poor) attempt to outflank existentialist rivals like Hamas, to retain support.

Similarly, peace with Israel is a fundamentally territorialist endeavour. But Oslo was pitched by Arafat as merely the means to establish the Palestinian Authority, rather than an historic acceptance of Zionism’s validity. Doing so avoided the conversation as to whether ‘Palestinianism’ is ultimately territorialist or existentialist.

Unfortunately, the founding Palestinian narrative (i.e. blameless victimhood) lends itself to existentialist goals, because recognising Israel’s right to exist anywhere in Palestine is tantamount to justifying the injustice allegedly perpetrated upon Palestinians in the 1940s. Palestinian society – much less the corrupt, unpopular Palestinian leadership – is nowhere near being able to challenge this founding narrative, and so the leadership has to avoid things – like signing end-of-conflict agreements or changing messaging (including and especially regarding the refugees) – that look like it is undermining this founding narrative and, with it, Palestinian society.

So, is the Palestinian leadership still existentialist? I don’t believe they are. They have grudgingly realised that Israel cannot be destroyed, but they have always been far too weak and fearful to be too publicly territorialist. Unfortunately, kicking the can down the road makes the eventual territorialisation of Palestinian society – a necessity for a viable Palestinian state – harder.

What the West can do

Ultimately, only internal Palestinian processes can form a territorialist society. But Israel and the international community can help. Here’s how:

Territorialists must be built up. First, corruption must end. By (actually) tying aid to ending Palestinian corruption, the West can force the Palestinian leadership to eventually have the political capital it will need to both foster an internal conversation about narratives, and compromise with Israel.

Second, Palestinian territorialists need diplomatic wins. If Israel were to withdraw from land it knows will one day be part of the Palestinian state, it shouldn’t do so unilaterally. Rather, it should quietly go to the territorialist Palestinian leadership to arrange a diplomatic announcement. Likewise, Israel might negotiate a change of status from Area C to Area B for certain parts of the West Bank in order to provide a win for those advocating cooperation with Israel.

Existentialists must be knocked down – on both sides. This will only happen with the internalisation of the territorial/existential dichotomy. Existentialists cannot be negotiated with or placated.

If Israeli existentialists break Israeli law they must be stopped. If they establish ‘hilltop’ outposts, uproot Palestinian trees or ‘price tag’ Palestinian property, they must be arrested immediately. This will help demonstrate to sceptical Palestinians that Israel is territorialist.

The Palestinian leadership, once it internalises the dichotomy, will realise that reconciliation with Hamas is nonsensical, and so will stop trying.

The West, once it internalises the dichotomy, must make clear to the Palestinians that only by negotiating with Israel will a Palestinian state be established. Attempting to avoid negotiations with unilateral measures only delays the eventual, necessary discussion within Palestinian society about whether its end goal is territorialist or existentialist. In the same manner, existentialist incitement can no longer be tolerated. Only when territorialists can muster genuine, community-wide outrage at the exploits of existentialists on their own side will there be any chance for a territorialist peace process to be viable. Polls show that half the Palestinians and a substantial minority in Israel are existentialists. There’s a long way to go before true peace is possible, but being cognisant of the territorial/existential dichotomy will provide us with the sign posts we need to get there.

Share this



Table of Contents

Other posts

ICC Prosecutor sweeps aside arguments made by several highly regarded international lawyers, and seven States who are Parties to the
In response to the Open Letter in Opinio Juris about the plans of the Israeli Government to "annex" certain parts
Jerusalem is the subject of proceedings before the International Court of Justice. It is a bizarre case, in which the

Support thinc. - Your guide to Israel and International Law​ ​

Welcome. thinc provides our growing network of friends and experts worldwide with insights that matter in the conflict between Israel and their adversaries through the lens of International law.​
– Support us from €5 per month from today. ​