May Issue 2008
What exactly was an octogenarian former US president doing pottering around the Middle East last month? As far as the Israeli authorities were concerned, he was simply being a nuisance. Long before he published the provocatively titled book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Jimmy Carter had evolved into a sort of persona non grata for those among the Israeli establishment who continue to question the forceful logic of an equitable settlement arrived at through negotiations between all the concerned parties.
Carter travelled to Israel and the occupied territories after observing the elections in Nepal, where he challenged the wisdom of his country’s government in continuing to designate the victorious Maoists as terrorists. He was somewhat more circumspect about Hamas, whose leadership he spoke to in Gaza and in Damascus. Predictably, he was accused by Israeli officials of seeking to de-ostracise an abominable organisation.
That’s one way of looking at it. However, a somewhat less blinkered view of Carter’s journey suggests he may have been hoping to find a suitable gift for Israel on the occasion of its 60th birthday this month. It was on May 14, 1948, that David Ben-Gurion proclaimed independence, and in the six decades since then the Jewish state has almost constantly been at war. In the circumstances, the ideal present, obviously, would be a lasting peace.
The likelihood of that prospect has waxed and waned over the years. It has never been completely out of reach, but has proved elusive partly because of the Israeli establishment’s unwillingness to wholeheartedly embrace it, and today does not appear particularly more achievable than it did 20 or 30 years ago. That’s unfortunate for Israel, vexatious for its neighbours, and an unmitigated tragedy for the Palestinians.
Viewed from today’s perspective, the path of least resistance would quite possibly have paid the biggest dividends for Palestinian Arabs, Muslims and Christians alike, had they accepted the partition of their homeland when it was announced by the United Nations in 1947. Theoretically, that would have yielded a Palestinian state slightly larger than Israel, and the two could conceivably have grown up together as civilised neighbours, if not as the best of friends or umbilical brothers. But it must all have seemed very different back then, with the would-be Israelis seen, with some justification, as European interlopers conspiring to take over half of what wasn’t theirs in the first place.
One of the standard Zionist ripostes to this line of argument has been the assertion that, according to Jewish scriptures, the territory known to them as Eretz Israel was granted to the Israelites in perpetuity by the ultimate authority: God. And that the resurrection of a Jewish homeland in 1948 was the sequel to the dispersal of the tribes 2,000 years earlier. Neither all Jews nor all Zionists insist on this interpretation, implicitly — and sometimes openly — acknowledging its prima facie absurdity.
Not many Israeli historians would seriously suggest that their present compatriots are literally the descendants of those who were driven out from the holy lands during the biblical exodus. Most of them would nonetheless uphold the right of Jews to a homeland, not least on account of the systematic persecution and indignities they suffered in various parts of the world, particularly Europe. The Final Solution prepared by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis wasn’t a bolt from the blue: it could be described as the appalling climax of a despicable trend.
In the wake of the war, a belatedly conscience-stricken west was disinclined to place any obstacles in the path of Israeli nationhood. In the process it was willing to ignore the rights of the Palestinians, who clearly bore no responsibility for the European Judeocide. When the Balfour Declaration of 1917 had raised the prospect of a Jewish state in Palestine, which was then under a British Mandate, it noted that this should be achieved without compromising the rights of the territory’s existing Arab inhabitants. Thirty years later, the preservation of these rights was no longer considered paramount. A further 60 years on, the territorial proportions delineated by the UN are no longer recalled. Even most Palestinians have, in recent decades, sought no more than sovereignty over areas that were occupied in the pre-emptive war launched by Israel in 1967: namely, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which had been annexed 20 years earlier by Jordan and Egypt, respectively.
This is, in part, a tribute to Israel’s successes on the propaganda front: its 1947 conquests are no longer contentious, even though many Israeli historians openly acknowledge that the Zionist leadership never had any intention of abiding by the UN proposal as far as national boundaries were concerned. Its task was facilitated by the military action launched by its Arab neighbours, in the sense that its conquests at that time have rarely been questioned.
Israel was thenceforth able to demonstrate its military superiority in every conventional conflict. Guerrilla or asymmetrical warfare, on the other hand, invariably puts it at a disadvantage tactically but, strategically, enables it to pose as a victim. Its recent incursions into Gaza — which was supposedly abandoned to its fate a couple of years ago — have, for instance, been based on the complaint that Palestinian rockets keep lobbing into Israeli towns such as Sderot. These rudimentary devices rarely account for any casualties, whereas Israeli military actions frequently cause dozens of fatalities, and even the smartest of missiles have no way of making a distinction between militants and minors.
Palestinian bombs — and, more damagingly, suicide bombers — similarly do not distinguish between aggressors and innocents. It’s worth remembering, however, that terrorism was a crucial weapon in the Zionist arsenal in the years leading up to 1948 — and more than one terrorist leader subsequently went on to hold the highest office in the land. There was, thus, more than a little hypocrisy in the antipathy towards Yasser Arafat, for instance. Ironically, Arafat was among those who had, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, abandoned all hope of Palestinian aspirations to nationhood being facilitated by fellow Arabs. Alongside the likes of Abu Maazen — the nom de guerre of the current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas — and Abu Jihad, he was prepared since then to extend recognition to Israel, provided it reciprocated by permitting a sovereign and sustainable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Israeli authorities were well aware of this, not least as a consequence of regular contacts between the Palestinians and Zionist peaceniks (no, this is not necessarily a contradiction in terms) such as politician and activist Uri Avnery and former general Matti Peled. In his fascinating account of these contacts, My Enemy, My Friend, Avnery — who directly encountered Arafat for the first time in 1982, when the PLO was besieged by Israeli troops and its allies in West Beirut — suggests that efforts towards a rapprochement were thwarted, time and again, mainly by the intransigence of the Israeli and American leaderships. Meanwhile, his primary Palestinian contacts, Said Hammami and Issam Sartawi, were assassinated by the Abu Nidal group.
Hammami, in particular, was convinced that Abu Nidal was in cahoots with Mossad. Avnery — who is an octogenarian voice of sanity in Israel — has his doubts on this score, but realises all too well that Israeli and Palestinian extremists play a vital role in sustaining one another. Back in the 1980s, he noted with some hope that the largest demonstrations in the Middle East against the atrocities at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon took place in Israel. Now, with a hint of despair, he recalls that Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar — who was the Palestinian foreign minister until Israel pulled the plug on the elected administration in the West Bank — and who lost a son to Israeli bullets — was, until a few years ago, a peace activist who raised no objection to the Israeli and Palestinian flags being displayed side by side. He accurately blames this evolution on the actions of the Israeli state, which responds to terrorism on the Palestinian side with terrorist actions on a much larger scale. “If such a person has become the most extreme leader,” Avnery wrote last month, “this is undoubtedly the fruit of the occupation. It proves once again … that the oppression, which is supposed to destroy Hamas, achieves the exact opposite.”
That neatly sums up, in a way, the history of Israel. The emergence of Hamas, which is all too easy to forget, was facilitated by Israel’s determination to counterbalance the influence of the PLO. It is precisely because the conciliatory tack of Arafat and his companions brought few perceptible benefits that Palestinians were attracted to less reasonable alternatives. Anwar Sadat’s initiative in the late 1970s came to naught because he had failed to take fellow Arabs into confidence. The second Camp David summit failed in 2000 because Arafat refused to preside over the creation of an Absurdistan, a conglomeration of Palestinian bantustans that could not conceivably have evolved into a coherent state on a par with Israel.
Much was made of Ehud Barak’s offer of more than 90% of the West Bank, deliberately ignoring the fact that the missing percentage would in fact represent Israel’s continued control over the arteries essential to meaningful Palestinian independence. Had Arafat accepted the unfair deal brokered by Bill Clinton, chances are that his days as the broadly acknowledged symbol of self-determination would have been numbered. And not without cause.
There is, once again, considerable irony in the fact that the subsequent Israeli administration of the now comatose Ariel Sharon refused to negotiate with Arafat, and the regime of George W. Bush followed suit, given that a settlement with Arafat may have represented the final opportunity for a two-state solution that would have been acceptable to the majority of Palestinians. Abbas might be more pliable, but his cachet among Palestinians is not on the same plane, and some Hamas leaders had already designated him as a traitor to the cause before his meetings last month with Bush and his subordinates.
“I cannot say that the road to peace is paved with flowers,” Abbas said, with characteristic understatement, following the encounter. Bush, meanwhile, spoke of “a viable state, a state that doesn’t look like Swiss cheese, a state that provides hope.” (“Now even not very intelligent people are saying that the occupation has to be stopped,” commented the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who has the privilege of being the first person in the world to possess both Israeli and Palestinian passports). In view of the disasters his policies have produced in Iraq and Afghanistan, it isn’t particularly surprising that Bush wishes some sort of a settlement in the Middle East to be part of his legacy. But if he were really serious about that prospect, he wouldn’t have allowed his administration to become even more closely wedded to the ultra-Zionists than the Reagan and Clinton governments — partly because his constituency of Christian evangelists views the supremacy of a Jewish nation in the Middle East as a prerequisite for Armageddon.
As Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer recently pointed out in their landmark book, The Israel Lobby, self-ordained protectors of the Zionist project are inordinately influential on Capitol Hill. (As a consequence, no questions are ever raised about Israel’s nuclear bomb-making technology, even though it willingly shared the relevant knowledge — and, quite possibly, the necessary materials — with apartheid South Africa. It would be interesting to find out whether this completely illegal transfer of technology enjoyed Washington’s imprimatur). Inevitably, their academic exercise has earned them the anti-Semitic tag. However, one of the innumerable factors that bear out their thesis is the fact that the Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama felt obliged to distance himself from Mearsheimer, even though the two of them were well acquainted in the past. Obama has also felt obliged to distance himself from the Palestinian diaspora, whose functions he readily attended as a state legislator. But that isn’t enough for the aforementioned lobby, which has been importuning him to dispense with the services of foreign policy adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Brzezinski, incidentally, was one of the more reactionary elements of the Carter administration, which felt obliged, on similar grounds, to dismiss UN ambassador Andrew Young — a former colleague of Martin Luther King Jr who went on to become mayor of Atlanta — because of his unauthorised contacts with members of the PLO. Unlike Hillary Clinton, however, Obama has not vowed to obliterate Iran in the unlikely event of an Iranian nuclear strike against Israel.
Unlike his rivals, Obama has expressed a willingness to negotiate with the leaderships of Iraq and Syria. Chances are he would be willing to extend a similar courtesy to Hamas, thereby putting Israel in an awkward position. In the wake of Carter’s visit, Hamas has expressed a willingness to accept a temporary truce, provided Israel reciprocates by lifting its debilitating — and arguably genocidal — embargo on the Gaza Strip. It is also prepared for de facto, albeit not formal, recognition of Israel. It is easy, of course, to denigrate these steps as meaningless and minor concessions. Greater courage and more foresight would involve making an offer that the Palestinians would find hard to refuse.
The least that Israel can do to facilitate a lasting agreement is to dismantle all the settlements that have been erected in the West Bank over the past 30 years, in clear violation of international law. It has thus far not been willing to go that far, instead expecting the Palestinians to accept a strategically altered version of what was occupied in 1967. That attitude remains the chief obstacle to an agreement on a two-state solution.
In the realm of idealistic fantasy, an even better solution would lead to a single, secular state in which Jews, Christians and Muslims would coexist without discrimination. But counting on sufficient sense to prevail on both sides would be an open-ended endeavour. Even though the majority of Israelis aren’t particularly wedded to the Jewish religion, most of them continue to cling to the notion of an exclusive homeland for Jews — even though not many are inclined any longer to perpetuate the myth of “a land without people for a people without a land.” Since the days of Golda Meir, hardly anyone has dared to propound the absurd notion that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. Even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has faced up to the truth that Israel’s survival is contingent on a two-state solution. He hasn’t had the guts, however, to prevent the construction of further encroachments on Palestinian territory. Meanwhile, his deputy defence minister, Matan Vinai, has had the gall to threaten Hamas recalcitrants in the Gaza Strip with “a bigger shoah.”
Shoah, mind you, is a Hebrew word that is generally reserved, more or less, exclusively for the Holocaust. Vinai is unlikely to have any such intention, but other Israelis have admitted that their nation’s attitude towards Palestinians is reminiscent, on more than one level, of the Nazi approach to Jews. It would be offensive, but not unrealistic, to assume that many of the 60 candles on Israel’s birthday cake are shaped like swastikas.
There are numerous reasons to be wary of Hamas, just as there can be little question that, over the decades, political and military representatives of the Palestinians have been guilty of a large number of crimes and misdemeanours. The extent of their folly is dwarfed, however, by Israeli actions.
Six decades after its infancy, Israel obviously cannot be wished away. And the ideal birthday present for its citizens would clearly be a peace package. But it is not going to appear out of nowhere unless Israel, at the very least, demonstrates a willingness to stretch out its arms and graciously receive it.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.