I grew up in a household that was quietly but staunchly pro-Israel. This was of course (and still generally is) the default position in the west. Most Australians would have stood squarely behind the Israeli Defense Force as it battled Egypt, Jordan and Syria in 1967, been shocked by the Munich massacre in 1972 and enthralled when four planeloads of Israeli commandos, after a dangerous, long, ground-hopping night flight, rescued some 100 hostages at Entebbe airport in July 1976. (Curiously enough, the only commando killed during that mission was Yonatan Netanyahu, elder brother of Benjamin, who seems likely to once again become Israel’s prime minister.)
It was the David and Goliath story brought into modern times.
Today, the story is radically different, at least for me. Let me give you a small illustration of the distance travelled. Last week, a friend of more than thirty years standing (with whom I’d long ago agreed to disagree on this issue) was surprised, and pleased, when some comments of mine in which I’d praised the Jews convinced him I really wasn’t antisemitic. It came as a shock that such a thought had ever even crossed his mind. The experience was a powerful illustration of this issue’s capacity to confuse and divide, and a reminder that assuming even close friends understand what’s in one’s heart can be foolish. Particularly so in this instance since I almost always end up arguing the Palestinian case. As to why, despite our amicable standoff agreement, we ended up discussing it at all, well, the sheer ubiquity of new reports about Gaza made it impossible not to do so. Our conversations, I’m happy to say, remained civil and we might even have made a little progress towards better understanding.
I found it intriguing that the one thing which slightly shifted this friend’s perceptions of the issue was not my eloquence (such as it was), but an article written by King Abdullah of Jordan for The American Magazine in November, 1947. It was entitled “As the Arabs see the Jews” and began with these two paragraphs:
I am especially delighted to address an American audience, for the tragic problem of Palestine will never be solved without American understanding, American sympathy, American support.
So many billions of words have been written about Palestine-perhaps more than on any other subject in history-that I hesitate to add to them. Yet I am compelled to do so, for I am reluctantly convinced that the world in general, and America in particular, knows almost nothing of the true case for the Arabs.
Does it strike you too as a little disconcerting that these words might as easily have been written last week? Reading them (and I recommend you do), knowing they were written with great hope (and intelligence) over 60 years ago and then read by hundreds of thousands of Americans well before I was born provided a visceral confirmation of just how long this tragedy has been unfolding. Like King Abdullah, but with far more reason, I too was, indeed am, hesitant to add to the many words already spilled. And yet, in the end, how can I not? When a people I admired so much (and would love to admire again) appear to be slowly and painfully closing off their chances of achieving a durable peace, and sullying both their memories and perhaps their dreams, should I not at least try to say something constructive? And surely this is no less so when a people who have suffered so long and unjustly in exile and dispossession are brutally hammered yet again in their homes and offices and schools. And for what? Who is it that wins from all this?
After reading King Abdullah’s eloquent plea for understanding, it doesn’t take much imagination to see why much of the Arab world would prefer that Israel had never been established. Nor, of course, is it in the least bit difficult to understand why Jewish citizens of Israel won’t countenance this viewpoint in even its most abstract form.
That fear of annihilation often sits deeply within Israeli Jews ought to surprise no-one. The heartrending history of their persecution through the centuries would be justification enough even without the black hole of the Holocaust. Nor does it help that Israel is in truth alone and surrounded by states that can by no measure be called friendly. The Zionist dream of establishing a Jewish state which would be a haven from an unfriendly world long predated the Second World War (the movement was founded, largely by secular Jews, in the late 19th century) but this shattering catastrophe clearly gave it immense impetus. The appalling lack of generosity shown by the western world in accepting so few Jewish survivors must have made it seem utterly imperative. It’s natural, too, that for many who came and settled the words “never again” were engraved on their hearts. They would fight to the death to hold on to what they had, and to ensure their survival.
And so there is grief, determination, anger and resentment at a great injustice on one side and fear, determination, perhaps some guilt, and anger too at the sheer intransigence of the problem on the other. It’s the core dilemma that has kept this wound open for over two generations. That, and what seems to me a long series of own goals on both sides.
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There have been moments when the road not taken seems so very clear. In the immediate aftermath of the six day war, for example, the former Israeli prime minister, David Ben Gurion, was flown over the captured land west of the river Jordan, land with Biblical names like Judaea and Samaria, full of resonance, history and allure. Profoundly moved though he was, Ben Gurion is reported to have said: “Now we must give all this land back at once. Except Jerusalem, perhaps. That we will have to discuss.” Perhaps he understood even then that it would be, for Israel, a poisoned chalice, a temptation which would exert an increasing power and make any lasting settlement with the Palestinians well nigh impossible.
His fears went unheeded. Keeping the captured territory and so establishing buffers against future attacks must have seemed such an obvious answer, whatever the injustice meted out to previous owners. Once Israel had control of these lands, settlements were of course inevitable, however slow the initial moves may have been. I should imagine it was this spectre, and the eternal enmity and conflict it would spark, that Ben Gurion foresaw when he flew over them that day in 1967.
Another friend, this one a retired Brigadier in the Pakistani army, has recently analysed the strategic dilemma confronting America in Afghanistan. Since a somewhat similar one faces Israel in Gaza (and arguably the West Bank), his overview of the available options seems particularly relevant:
When devising a policy and a military strategy to deal with an insurgency, the first question that should be asked is: how widely and deeply is the insurgency embedded in the general population? If the answer is ‘Not too much’, then it is feasible to try and deal with it using a typical military COIN [counterinsurgency] strategy against the insurgents, along with political and economic measures to win over the rest of the population. This is how the US stabilized the situation in Iraq after it stopped waging war against the Sunni population, and instead began to court, and even protect, it (it helped greatly that the remaining insurgents were mainly foreigners).
If the insurgency is well established within a large part of the population, then the above measures will not work, and another question needs to be asked: Are you prepared to wage war (not COIN!) on the general population (as the only means available to strike at the insurgency)? If the answer is ‘No’, then you must find a political solution to the problem. This was the answer of the British in Northern Ireland, and they finally did manage to arrange a political solution.
If the answer you are prepared to give is ‘Yes’, then the chances of success of the war you will need to wage on the general population will depend on the human and natural environment in which you will wage it, and whether you are prepared to invest in it the required time, resources and brutality.
Israel’s current strategy seems to be an awkward hybrid of the first (in the West Bank) and the last (in Gaza). Brutal though the assault on Gaza was, it (thankfully) fell well short of the sort of no holds barred approach Russia took in Chechnya. At the same time, it was sufficiently punitive to stir condemnation from around the world and harden Palestinian resistance. Despite their losses, Hamas now looks even more entrenched in Gaza than it was in December. (It’s ironic to recall that for many years, Israel encouraged the growth of Hamas as a counterweight to Arafat’s Fatah, which was then seen as the more serious threat to Israel’s control over Gaza and the West Bank).
At no stage has Israel provided any incentives that might have strengthened the more moderate political wing of Hamas or attempted to bring it into the political process as was finally done with Sinn Fein in Ireland. Indeed quite the opposite: the constant humiliation of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (which has tried to work with the Israeli government) as settlements continue to mushroom in the West Bank and the Palestinian people face incessant harassment and discrimination serves as a stark disincentive to cooperation.
Combined with a widespread perception of the (previously Fatah controlled) Palestinian Authority as corrupt, this disillusionment ensured Hamas’ win in the January 2006 election. Ironically, again (beware, it seems, of unintended consequences), this election had been heavily favoured by the US administration and they were stunned at the outcome. Rather than accepting what was widely acknowledged as a free and fair election process, and seeking to use it as a potential game changer, the result was instead met with a near total and concerted withdrawal of all aid and cooperation, not only by Israel and the US but also by much of the international community. Certainly not the best advertising for their pro-democracy credentials in the Middle East.
In addition, Hamas (and by default the Palestinian people) were subjected to constant harassment, punitive financial measures and, in Gaza, the imposition of an increasingly comprehensive blockade, particularly after Hamas preempted a US and Israeli backed attempt by Fatah to seize control in 2007. The result has been severe shortages of food and medicine, the progressive breakdown of the sanitation and power infrastructure and a near collapse of business activity since exports were also totally blocked.
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That all this has been counterproductive ought not to have come as a surprise: there is, after all, no historical evidence of which I’m aware that such policies benefit anyone other than the more extreme elements in a society. As Brigadier Ali noted later in the piece I quoted from above: “Of these [various counterinsurgency attempts], only the Russians ultimately succeeded, because of the small size of the target population compared to the forces they put in, and the massive brutality of their operation.” Writing in the Christian Science Monitor in March last year, Gareth Evans (Foreign Minister under Hawke and Keating, now head of the International Crisis Group) drew similar conclusions about the futility of trying to cut Hamas out the equation by force:
The policy of isolating Hamas and applying sanctions to Gaza has been a predictable failure. Violence to both Gazans and Israelis is rising. Economic conditions are ruinous, generating anger and despair. The credibility of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other pragmatic forces has been grievously damaged. The peace process is in tatters.
Many Israelis are also desperately unhappy with the Gaza campaign, not only because of the strategic failure but because what was done so profoundly clashes with their self-perception. Take this recent Haaretz editorial:
This is precisely the moment at which Israel needs to preempt the others and investigate itself. It is impossible to ignore what has already been reported, and one must not leave the task of investigating solely to foreign bodies, some of whom are hostile. Israel also needs to ask itself what was done in its name in Gaza. Were deeds that are never to be done, even in a time of war, perpetrated? Has the IDF crossed the line according to international law? Was there no other way apart from such widespread killing and destruction?
For some, the sense of despair and disillusionment goes even deeper. Avraham Burg, scion of an establishment Israeli political family and himself former Speaker of the Israeli Knesset and Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, has written and spoken widely about his fears. In the course of a long interview with Ari Shavit (an old colleague from the “small group of reserve soldiers and officers who came out against the First Lebanon War”), they delved deeply into the question of whether the Zionist project had failed. This brief excerpt reveals the intensity of the discussion (Shavit in italics):
What you are saying is that the problem is not just the occupation. In your eyes, Israel as a whole is some sort of horrible mutation.
“The occupation is a very small part of it. Israel is a frightened society. To look for the source of the obsession with force and to uproot it, you have to deal with the fears. And the meta-fear, the primal fear is the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.”
That is the book’s thesis [the book is "Defeating Hitler", written by Burg]. You are not the first to propose it, but you formulate it very acutely. We are psychic cripples, you claim. We are gripped by dread and fear and make use of force because Hitler caused us deep psychic damage.
Well, I will counter by saying that your description is distorted. It’s not as though we are living in Iceland and imagining that we are surrounded by Nazis who actually disappeared 60 years ago. We are surrounded by genuine threats. We are one of the most threatened countries in the world.
“The true Israeli rift today is between those who believe and those who are afraid. The great victory of the Israeli right in the struggle for the Israeli political soul lies in the way it has imbued it almost totally with absolute paranoia. I accept that there are difficulties. But are they absolute? Is every enemy Auschwitz? Is Hamas a scourge?”
You are patronizing and supercilious, Avrum. You have no empathy for Israelis. You treat the Israeli Jew as a paranoid. But as the cliche goes, some paranoids really are persecuted. On the day we are speaking, Ahmadinejad is saying that our days are numbered. He promises to eradicate us. No, he is not Hitler. But he is also not a mirage. He is a true threat. He is the real world – a world you ignore.
“I say that as of this moment, Israel is a state of trauma in nearly every one of its dimensions. And it’s not just a theoretical question. Would our ability to cope with Iran not be much better if we renewed in Israel the ability to trust the world? Would it not be more right if we didn’t deal with the problem on our own, but rather as part of a world alignment beginning with the Christian churches, going on to the governments and finally the armies?
“Instead, we say we do not trust the world, they will abandon us, and here’s Chamberlain returning from Munich with the black umbrella and we will bomb them alone.
Unsurprisingly, Burg is now an intensely controversial figure, much reviled, viewed by many (perhaps most) as a traitor to Israel and his own history. As Ari Shavit put it in his introduction to the interview:
I was outraged by the book [Defeating Hitler]. I saw it as a turning away of an Israeli colleague from our shared Israeliness. I saw it as a one-dimensional and unempathetic attack on the Israeli experience. Still, the dialogue with Avrum was riveting. We got angry at each other and raised our voices at each other and circled each other warily like two wounded gladiators in the arena. You can’t take away from Avrum what he has. You can’t take away the education or the articulateness or the ability to touch truly painful places. Maybe that’s why he is so infuriating. Friend and predator; brother and deserter.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of this kind of extreme viewpoint, it seems clear that the Palestinians are not the only people in crisis. The exhaustion on all sides is palpable, even from this distance. Many Israelis have no doubt retreated behind metaphorical (and literal) walls, unable to see any way to unravel the intricate tangle. As for the Palestinians, whatever energy is left after the daily struggle for survival must surely often coalesce as rage. Man disposes, God weeps.
What, then, is to be done? And, as Primo Levi put it, “If Not Now, When?”
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On Monday last week, President Obama gave an extended interview (indeed his first formal interview as President) to al-Arabiya, the Saudi satellite television station. For many, including Mark Lynch, a professor of political science at George Washington University who writes at ForeignPolicy.com, he struck pretty much the right tone:
He repeatedly emphasized his intention of moving past the iron walls of the ‘war on terror’ and ‘clash of civilizations’ which so dominated the Bush era. “My job is to communicate to the Muslim world that the United States is not your enemy,” Obama said, emphasizing as in his inaugural address that he is “ready to initiate a new partnership [with the Muslim world] based on mutual respect and mutual interest.” And where so much of the Bush administration’s ‘public diplomacy’ was about manipulating and lecturing, Obama begins — as he should — with listening: ‘what I told [Mitchell] is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating..so let’s listen.’
The Mitchell he’s referring to is George J. Mitchell, appointed by Obama (in one of his first acts as President) as special envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell has form, and, unusually, it’s good. Previously Senate Majority Leader from 1989-1995, he was Clinton’s special envoy to Northern Ireland from 1995-1998 and played a substantial role in bringing about the historic “Good Friday Agreement”. He, and Richard Haass (who was Bush’s envoy to the N. Ireland peace process), wrote an article for the International Herald Tribune in May 2007 on the occasion of devolved government fully returning to Northern Ireland. In it, they summed up the principles they saw as vital to successful peace negotiations. They’re worth quoting at some length:
Those who would shoot or bomb their way to power must be prevented from doing so if they are ever to turn from violence to politics. At the same time, making sure that people realise that violence will not succeed is not enough. They must also come to believe that a true political path exists, one that will allow them to realise enough of their agenda to persuade their followers to turn away from violence.
Negotiations are essential. Peace never just happens; it is made, issue by issue, point by point. In order to get negotiations launched, preconditions ought to be kept to an absolute minimum.
In the case of Northern Ireland, it was right to make a ceasefire a prerequisite. Killing and talking do not go hand in hand. But it was also right not to require that parties give up their arms or join the police force before the talks began.
Confidence needs to be built before more ambitious steps can be taken. Front-loading a negotiation with demanding conditions all but assures that negotiations will not get under way, much less succeed.
Parties should be allowed to hold onto their dreams. No one demanded of Northern Ireland’s Catholics that they let go of their hope for a united Ireland; no one required of local Protestants that they let go of their insistence that they remain a part of the United Kingdom.
They still have those goals, but they have agreed to pursue them exclusively through peaceful and democratic means. That is what matters.
Including in the political process those previously associated with violent groups can actually help. Sometimes it’s hard to stop a war if you don’t talk with those who are involved in it.
To be sure, their participation will likely slow things down and, for a time, block progress. But their endorsement can give the process and its outcome far greater legitimacy and support. Better they become participants than act as spoilers.
It takes no great insight to see how these principles could be applied to the Israeli / Palestinian dispute, nor to grasp how little they have been to date. Although a great many private individuals and groups (including those within Israel) have long been working tirelessly towards goals of this sort, little of substance can happen until the Israel government, and those states who have the power to influence it, are willing to seriously set foot on this long road. Israel is, after all, the regional superpower.
Nor does it help that Israel has of late made it ever more impossible for the Palestinians to “come to believe that a true political path exists, one that will allow them to realise enough of their agenda to persuade their followers to turn away from violence.” In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Roger Cohen illustrated this point rather well:
There is another right that Israel does not have: to delude its people into thinking that peace is achievable without coming to terms with the deeply entrenched Middle Eastern realities that are Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations still viewed in the US government and Congress almost exclusively through the prism of terror, but whose grassroots political movements present a far more complex, variegated picture. The logic of the Israeli offensive, if there is one, must surely be that Hamas can be so weakened as ultimately to crumble. That is also the logic of the relentless blockade that persisted during the six-month cease-fire despite Israel’s earlier commitment, as part of the deal, to opening border crossings. But such logic is flawed. Hamas is not going away. As Brigadier General (Res.) Shmuel Zakai, the former commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ Gaza Division, told Ha’aretz on December 22 :
‘We could have eased the siege over the Gaza Strip, in such a way that the Palestinians, Hamas, would understand that holding their fire served their interests. But when you create a tahadiyeh [truce], and the economic pressure on the Strip continues, it’s obvious that Hamas will try to reach an improved tahadiyeh, and that their way to achieve this is resumed Qassam fire.’
We are left, then, to wonder whether Obama’s more conciliatory attitude towards the Muslim world and his appointment of Mitchell heralds the beginning of a new and more hopeful process, one where America might be able to set aside its historical one-sidedness on this issue sufficiently to truly assist. Despite all the difficulties (by no means all of them originating in the Middle East), and the historical animosities, it ought surely not be beyond the ken of man to move matters in a slightly more constructive direction. To judge from this transcript of Mitchell’s remarks on the occasion of his appointment (found via an excellent article by Daniel Levy entitled “Can George Mitchell Astound the Skeptics, Again?”), he certainly seems to think so:
In the negotiations which led to that agreement [the Good Friday Agreement], we had 700 days of failure and one day of success.
For most of the time, progress was nonexistent or very slow. So I understand the feelings of those who may be discouraged about the Middle East.
As an aside, just recently, I spoke in Jerusalem, and I mentioned the 800 years [the time since Britain began its domination of Ireland]. And afterward, an elderly gentleman came up to me, and he said, “Did you say 800 years?” I said, “Yes, 800.” He repeated the number again. I repeated it again. He said, “Ah, such a recent argument. No wonder you settled it.”
But 800 years may be recent, but from my experience there, I formed the conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings; they can be ended by human beings.
For anyone inclined to believe in the efficacy of prayer, this may be a good time to send up a few.