Calculating the Trajectory of the Middle East Conflict

By Dan Lieberman

Defined characteristics steer history to an eventual climax. Unless a dramatic intervention occurs, similar historical characteristics forecast similar results. If an earlier historical event has a narrative that is comparable with the narrative of the Middle East conflict, then the trajectory of that conflict can be predicted from the outcome of the earlier narrative; not exactly, but within a certain boundary. A corollary exists – if a conclusion can be forecasted from an earlier event that exhibited closely similar conditions, changing the conditions by intervention can modify the directed result.

Several conflicts have been compared to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Each narrative contained claims for land, clashes with indigenous peoples and a desire for separation due to fear and insecurity. Each conflict left a legacy that deserves consideration. Most prominently mentioned are:

(1)   Apartheid South Africa.

(2)   Colonial Algeria.

(3)   Northern Ireland conflict.

(4)   The American destiny.

(5)   The Puritan experience. 

Which of these conflicts is most comparable with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?

Realizing that the contestants of the 21st century conflict are culturally advanced in comparison to the contestants engaged in the earlier century conflicts and accounting for different eras and different stages in civilization, the most relevant comparison is the Puritan experience. To substantiate this assertion, let’s start with the principle characteristics that defined the Zionist agenda and its development into the Israeli state.

The Zionists at the end of the 19th century concluded Jewish populations, due to unique characteristics, would never find acceptance from Christian Europe. They would remain a persecuted minority if they did not assimilate and would lose their identity if they assimilated. In this no-win situation, Judaism and Jewish identity would eventually disappear. Relatively few Jews of that time agreed with or followed the Zionist agenda.

The Zionists sought a Promised Land, the same land that the Bible claimed God had awarded to the Hebrews. However, the pioneers did not arrive by invoking a phrase uttered by many later immigrants; “The land has been reserved for us by a promise from God.” Gaining national identity and social redemption by social labor and communal life guided their purpose.

Hardship and failure describe many of the early missions. After near failure, a limited success enthused compatriots in the World War I aftermath, and immigration to Palestine greatly increased. As immigration increased, the original purpose of “achievement of national identity and social redemption by social labor and communal life,” receded from the agenda.

The early Jewish immigrants to Palestine did not display an intention to replace the Palestinians. The land seemed sufficiently empty to accommodate a vast number of new immigrants without replacing the local populations. New agricultural and irrigation techniques would make the land more productive. However, some Palestinians, disturbed by the early intruders, others just bandits, attacked a number of settlements. After a few incidents, awareness that the Zionists could bring benefits – work and new technology – encouraged Palestinians to gradual acceptance of the newcomers. In the 1920’s the pioneering attitude changed and the welcoming attitude drastically changed.

In 1920, after the Zionist population had grown to 60,000 in a Palestine composed of 585,000 Arabs, a reporter noted that earlier settlers felt uncomfortable with the later immigrants.

“It may not be generally known, but a goodly number of the Jewish dwellers in the land are not anxious to see a large immigration into the country. This is partly due to the fear that the result of such immigration would be an overcrowding of the industrial and agricultural market; but a number of the more respectable older settlers have been disgusted by the recent arrivals in Palestine of their coreligionists, unhappy individuals from Russia and Romania brought in under the auspices of the Zionist Commission from the cities of Southeastern Europe, and neither able nor willing to work at agriculture or fruit-farming. ”- Zionist Aspirations in Palestine, Anstruther Mackay, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1920.

Israel’s development did not proceed from a colonial mission. A search for a new land to practice a unique way of life for an alienated group propelled the adventure. After 1920, the new immigrants created an insatiable demand for land, for coast, for plain and for hill. Land sales dispossessed Palestinians who sensed continuous usurpation of their ancient lands and destruction of their livelihood. An initial mildly cooperative relationship between Zionists and Palestinians deteriorated to each wanting to be rid of the other. Soon, Palestine quaked with total war. The Zionists won the battle and the Palestinians were directly and indirectly forced to leave their ancient lands. The Israeli state continued to use fear and insecurity to rationalize separation and extend its territory to more secure boundaries. Even those Palestinians willing to cooperate have been marginalized. History records the Palestinian people reacting to dispossession and fighting to prevent a slow and unyielding destruction.

How does this narrative compare to other narratives?

South Africa

In 1651, the Dutch East India Company established a settlement as a base for its ships passing the Cape of Good Hope. An influx in 1687 of a community of Huguenots changed the purpose of the base camp. During the following 300+ years the Protestant colony, together with British and Dutch farmers nurtured the white population. 

The acquisitive British, seeking control of vital shipping lanes, determined the future of Africa’s southern region. The British seized the area in 1795 and the Congress of Vienna in 1815 recognized Britain’s sovereign control of the Cape. Discoveries of mineral resources provoked Great Britain to incorporate the Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal, and Orange Free State into one nation. On May 31, 1910, the English crown created another dominion – the Union of South Africa – precursor to the 1961 creation of the Republic of South Africa.   

A nation that contained an estimated 67% black African, 9% colored and 2.5% Asian became a state designed for its white population. The new nation certified apartheid by a series of laws that started with the Natives’ Land Act of 1913. The Act initially restricted the Black population ownership of land to only 7% of the country. The original Crape Coloreds (not White, Black or Indian), who were able to vote, became totally disenfranchised in 1948, after the Nationalist Party took control of the Union’s legislature.

South Africa started as a colonial enterprise. Colonialism led to a conflict between the descendants of white settlers and the native population. The conflict was almost entirely due to Apartheid Laws that denied economic and political power to the non-white populations. Native populations were misplaced and races were segregated. The conflict could only be resolved by repeal of the Apartheid laws. In 1994, the repeal occurred.

The South African experience is often compared to the Middle East conflict because of its positive outcome – why can’t the former be a guide to the other? All oppression of populations have similarities. Nevertheless, the characteristics of the settling of the two areas and the nature of the conflict are entirely different. There was no colonialism involved in the establishment of Israel. There are no civil laws to cancel in order to resolve the Middle East conflict. Rather than misplacements, there have been population replacements and displacements. Apartheid defined the South Africa struggle and sanctions convinced the authorities that changing the apartheid laws were preferable to world enmity. Apartheid is a side factor in the more complicated Middle East conflict. It will take much, much more than sanctions to resolve the conflict.

The South Africa legacy: The world community can successfully pressure nations to discard racial prejudice and grant equal rights to all its citizens.   


Algeria, under French rule, was an example of pure colonialism.

Expanding from a blockade in 1827, caused by an assumed insult to a French consul in Algiers, to invasion in 1830, France colonized Algeria. By 1848, the French controlled most of northern Algeria, and the Second Republic recognized the occupied lands as an integral part of France. Initially separated from the new economic infrastructure, native Algerians became French subjects in 1856. Nine years later, Napoleon III allowed the native Algerians to apply for full French citizenship. Although seemingly beneficial, this maneuver had problems; it legalized France’s occupation and replaced a right to be governed by sharia in personal matters, which meant internal conflict. 

After a century of verbal and sporadic warfare, the French National Assembly in 1947 approved legislation that created an Algerian Assembly with Muslim representation. It was an insufficient gesture. A protracted Algerian War of Independence, fought from 1954-1962, resulted in an independent Algeria and the retreat of the French colonists to their home country.

Similar to Israel policies, which strengthened Palestinian identity, the French awakened an Algerian national identity. Nevertheless, by being a colonial adventure, which brought economic separation, and later tried to legally integrate the native population into the French nation, the Algerian narrative does not track the Israel narrative. The Palestinians would be pleased with an outcome similar to the resolution of the Algerian conflict. Israelis prefer that conditions don’t change to resemble the narrative which forced an Algerian nation.

The Algerian conflict legacy: Even after a century of struggle, native populations can win their right to self determination against a major power.

Northern Ireland

Ireland had been conquered and re-conquered several times by English royalty. During the turn of the 16th century, England established a central government that ruled the entire emerald island.

Colonization followed conquest. England sent Protestants colonists to Irish provinces, mostly to those which would later be a part of Northern Ireland. Constant strife culminated in a complicated arrangement by which Ireland was temporarily partitioned in 1921 between Northern and Southern Ireland. Following a brief war and a treaty between the English parliament and Irish representatives, the Irish Free State came into existence as a dominion of the British Commonwealth. In 1949, Ireland became a republic and left the Commonwealth.

By being awarded autonomy, Northern Ireland received special consideration in the 1921 partition plan. Almost immediately, the Northern Ireland Parliament voted to leave the Irish free State and remain as a part of the United Kingdom, but with its own parliament. A boundary commission failed in its duty and a large minority of Catholics found inclusion in a Protestant directed Northern Ireland. The Protestants dominated the political and economic life and reduced the Catholics to a struggling minority. Discrimination and the desire to unite Northern Ireland with Ireland guided the Catholic Nationalists to an armed contest against the Protestant Unionists.

Paramilitary groups fought in the streets of Belfast until 1994, when the IRA and the Unionist paramilitary groups agreed to a truce. According to Cain Web Service, between the years 1969 and 2001, 3,526 people were killed in the conflict. Approximately 60% of the dead were killed by IRA supporters, 30% by Unionists and 10% by security forces.

A 1997 peace agreement between the antagonists approved the formation of an Assembly elected by proportional representation. Considering the violence preceding the Good Friday power sharing arrangement, Northern Ireland has had relative calm. The Assembly has been suspended on several occasions, at one time for four and one-half years. Some violence has occurred. At the July 2009 Protestant Orange parade, “approximately 23 police officers were injured, numerous vehicles were hijacked, burned and pushed towards officers, and shots were fired at police. Rioters, approximately 200 of them youths, threw gas bombs, bricks, bottles and other missiles at the police. In turn, the police fired plastic bullets and used water cannon to disperse the crowd.”

‘Peace walls,’ which are kilometers of concrete and wire barricades that began to be erected during the 1970’s in the city of Belfast, still separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Sound familiar?

The Northern Ireland experience has key words that relate to the Middle East conflict – partition, militias, immigrant pioneers, separation wall, violence, terrorism, religious strife, nationalism, and two cultures finding themselves together and wanting to separate. An end to the strife resulted in two viable and adjacent states at peace with one another. Ireland is composed of one ethnicity. Northern Ireland combines two ethnicities which have tacitly resolved their differences and are willing to share power, an arrangement that parallels not what is, but what could be in the Middle East. Many perceive the path of the Irish conflict as the route to resolving the Middle East conflict. However, characteristics of this route weren’t formed and didn’t combine in the same manner as in the Middle East.

  • The Irish conflict proceeded from a colonial adventure that happened 400 years ago.
  • The principal conflict was between the Irish and the English government.
  • The United Kingdom guided the resolution of the conflict.
  • Refugees and land seizures were not principal factors in the conflict.
  • Economic injustice mostly characterized the conflict.
  • Partition didn’t create two new nations. It created an Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion of the United Kingdom and allowed Northern Ireland to separate and join the United Kingdom. 
  • Rather than refugees being created by exclusion, Catholic refugees were created by inclusion in Northern Ireland.
  • Northern Ireland has its own Assembly but is an integral part of another nation – the United Kingdom.

The Northern Ireland legacy: Disparate cultures and religions can compromise their differences and operate together as one nation.


Settlement of the Americas seems to more closely parallel the Israel narrative.

Adventurers of many types sought a new life in a new world. A nation’s military superiority conquered a continent and pioneer fear destroyed the native populations. The American story of coast to coast expansion is well known, but the narrative is too magnificent, too complicated, and too controversial to make comparisons with the Israel narrative. The United States of America transitioned from settlements to a British colonial adventure, to the American Revolution, and to a new nation. The new nation started with a constitution, contained slaves, fought many wars, both external and internal, had excessive, rather than scarce, land and resources, welcomed immigrants of all races and religions, and considered itself to have a manifest destiny that would supersede all nations.  

The American legacy: Seemingly harmless incursions can lead to great tragedies, especially when nations perceive themselves as exceptional


A small congregation of Puritans differentiated themselves from their co-religionists by being unwilling to reconcile their independent organization with the established Church of England. Desiring to preserve their identity and feeling constantly persecuted, they sought new places to live their unique social and communal life. In the year 1621 they concluded they would never be accepted in Europe and sought an opportunity in America. They were called the Separatists and because they made a voyage on the Mayflower to what they termed ’their Promised land,’ (not a land promised to them) they became known as the Pilgrims.

The Separatists had no intention to uproot native communities they anticipated they would encounter. Surprisingly, in the immediate weeks of their arrival, few Indians appeared. Because they did not know that a series of contagious diseases resulting from contacts with European fishermen on the Maine coast had reduced Native populations, the Pilgrims concluded the area was sparsely populated and land was available. Due to the plagues, the land was sparsely populated, but the entire area was controlled by the Pokanoket Tribe and Federation, led by Chief Massasoit. After being wary of the newcomers to his territory, Massasoit came to highly regard the English. The huge Mayflower boat, perceived as a ‘walking island,’ iron plows, muskets and other material goods entranced the Indians and they saw themselves benefiting from a cordial relationship with the Pilgrims.

After word reached England that the Pilgrim adventure, which had several times been near failure, had finally succeeded, due principally to Pokanoket assistance, other English – Puritans, entrepreneurs, adventurers, merchants, farmers – booked passage to the New England. They and Pilgrim descendants acquired an insatiable thirst for land and detoured from the Separatists’ original mission. 

“The Pilgrims bought their land from the Natives, but the Natives expected to continue to use the land’s resources. The colonists built fences where no fences had ever been before, closing off their property to make the land their own. Tensions had long existed due to the two cultures’ different ways of life. Colonists’ livestock trampling Native cornfields was a continuing problem. Competition for resources created friction.  Regional economic changes forced many Natives to sell their land.” Nathan Philbrick, Mayflower.

The Pokanoket Indians became fearful of losing all their land, agriculture, and fishing rights. Their fear and insecurity generated fear and insecurity in the Puritans. After 40 years of a peaceful and helpful relationship, both sides contemplated a future without the other. Massasoit’s son, who gave himself the name of King Philip, felt betrayed by the Puritans and started a 14 month to drive out the English – a war for survival, which he almost won.

Fourteen months of attacks and counter attacks devastated New England. The Puritans survived, but many of the area’s tribes lost their homes, their culture, and their way of life. Within a century, “Indians of cape Cod had been reduced to several hundred people, most of them living on reservations in the towns of Mashpee on the Cape and in Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard. The Sakonnets dwindled from about four hundred (survivors) to six men and nineteen women by 1774.”

The Puritans arrival in America, which eventually became the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and their fatal encounter with the native population, set the stage for the settlement of the entire coast to coast territory. Insecurity and mistrust guided the relations between what became a nation of Americans and the indigenous populations. Superiority of U.S. military forces enabled American pioneers to move inexorably from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. Wherever the Americans arrived they found native peoples. Wherever they settled, the native peoples, even those who cooperated, like Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe, were decimated.

The Separatist Puritan narrative closely follows the Zionist Jewish narrative. Succeeding Puritan developments parallel those of the nation of Israel. Let’s hope the trajectory can be detoured and the Israelis don’t prove to be the New Puritans.

– Dan Lieberman is the editor of Alternative Insight, a monthly web based newsletter. Dan’s many articles on the Middle East conflict have circulated on websites and media throughout the world. He Contributed this article to Contact him at:

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