|ISSUE 51 SPRING 2006
- a real champaign moment
If the USA can be said to have a special relationship with any country, that country is Israel. Sure, there’s that old link with Britain, but Britain’s a dull elderly relative. Israel is young and feisty, inviting gallant support.
And support is given. Since the 1970s the US has annually handed Israel billions of dollars in economic and military aid; Israel doesn’t even have to say how the cash is spent. The US has vetoed UN resolutions censuring Israel; and it wants Israel’s nuclear arsenal ignored. At US-sponsored peace talks to end the Israel/Palestine conflict, Palestinian delegates felt they faced two Israeli camps, one with an Israeli flag, the other flying the Stars and Stripes. (‘We acted like Israel’s lawyer’, said an American who was there.)
Earlier this March, two American professors started a bitter row by asking why, exactly, the US has done so much for Israel. After all, the alliance is hazardous and attracts hostility. While both states do whatever they think necessary to ensure security, what Israel does for its own security has put the USA’s at greater risk.
The professors say it’s the Israel lobby (not all members are Jewish) that keeps the US government on Israel’s side, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Founded in the 1950s, today AIPAC has 100,000 active members. It ‘works with Congress to increase military assistance to Israel’, teaches students how ‘to effectively advocate for a strong US-Israel relationship’, and has successfully influenced US foreign policy in the Middle East, not to mention its colossal defence expenditure.
The professors think the lobbyists have so much influence because of their positions and wealth, but also because most Americans dread being labelled ‘anti-semitic’: that’s how criticism of Israel and its policies is often perceived. The professors now stand accused of anti-semitism themselves.
‘A national home in Palestine’
Desire to return to their historic home has been part of Jewish culture for centuries. With Russian anti-Jewish pogroms in and after 1881, desire became determination. The first World Zionist Congress met in 1897, singing the anthem ‘Hatikva’ (‘Hope’) for the first time. Jewish settlers in Palestine started building Tel Aviv. In 1917 they helped the British drive the Ottoman Turks out of Jerusalem; a leading Zionist, Dr Chaim Weizmann, developed a synthetic chemical crucial to the British explosives industry coping with the Great War. And so British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour wrote his famous letter: the British government favoured ‘the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine – ‘it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’. But the British also promised Palestine’s Arabs self-determination, as reward for their assistance in the war. The British Mandate in Palestine (1922-1947) solved no problems. On its watch, Irgun was founded: an armed Jewish resistance group resorting to terrorism against civilians and British soldiers alike.
Today’s foreign secretary Jack Straw recently conceded that Britain’s imperial past has caused many modern political problems. The UN can also take some blame. In 1947 two UN committees met to discuss Palestine. One, dominated by Western powers, dealt with partition; their report divided Palestine into 3 linked areas for Palestinians and 3 linked areas for Jewish immigrants. The other committee was mostly from Arab/Muslim countries, and they supported a bi-national state: ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ was admissible, but a Jewish state would violate the rights of the indigenous population. And a state that came into being against bitter opposition from the Arabs of Palestine and beyond would ‘jeopardise peace and international security throughout the Middle East’. This committee was ignored.
In 1948 David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first premier, announced the birth of Israel. Back in 1924 he had said: ‘The Arab community has certainly the right for self-rule. It is inconceivable of us to deny this right or diminish it.’ But, as the professors point out, ‘the creation of Israel involved acts of ethnic cleansing, including executions, massacres and rapes, and subsequent conduct has been often been brutal’. 750,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homeland in 1947-9. In 1967’s Six Day War, up to 260,000 Palestinians were forced from the West Bank. Land designated as Palestinian now became the Occupied Territories; fortified Jewish settlements were later built there. After 2000, when the second intifada was triggered by Ariel Sharon’s arrogant visit to Jerusalem’s mosque compound (one of Islam’s most revered sites), Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz said Israel’s armed forces were becoming ‘a killing machine whose efficiency is awe-inspiring, yet shocking’.
A more subtle obstacle to peace was defined by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2002: ‘We are ready to sit down now with any Israeli leader, regardless of his history, to negotiate freedom for the Palestinians, a complete end of the occupation, security for Israel and creative solutions to the plight of refugees, while respecting Israel's demographic concerns. But we will only sit down as equals, not as supplicants; as partners, not as subjects; as seekers of a just and peaceful solution, not as a defeated nation grateful for whatever scraps are thrown our way.'
Arabs in Palestine have indeed routinely been treated as inferiors. (An experience, sadly, that Israel‘s Jews might have been expected to understand and avoid inflicting.) At first they held out for a single state with a majority Palestinian population and a shared administration. But in 1988 they said Yes to partition; Yes to Israel having most of what had been Palestinian land; Yes to Jewish administration of Israel. But the Israeli government failed to recognise what an enormous step that was, or understand Palestinians' obstinacy in still holding out for what mattered to them most: including the right of refugees to return, and Arab East Jerusalem as their capital. In 1988, worn down by poverty, unemployment and Israeli military rule, the terrorist group Hamas was founded in the ghettoes of the Gaza Strip and began hitting back.
Israel’s moderate leader Itzhak Rabin – murdered by an Israeli extremist in 1995 – understood that Israel’s security depended on some recognition of the Palestinians’ claims. He agreed to areas of Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and Jericho; peace treaties with other Arab countries followed. But then came suicide bombings, and new no-compromise Israeli leaders. Hardliners on both sides were the real policy-makers, and self-perpetuating armed violence destroyed peacemakers’ efforts to find agreement.
To someone eager for peace, it can seem that national relationships and futures might do better if they were taken out of the hands of the military and politicians. Respected writers and commentators could be listened to instead. Not a new thought, but attractive. Israeli novelist Amos Oz, for example, has an interesting suggestion for the new government. Instead of letting non-recognition of Hamas political leadership prevent negotiation with Palestinians, try using a non-Western mediator: the Arab League, which even has a serviceable peace plan. ‘It’s not unthinkable that a deal between the pragmatic Israeli and Arab governments can be reached, and brought before the Palestinians as a referendum. Considering that most Palestinians still tell surveys they’re ready for a two-state solution, there’s a chance of an agreement. Instead of Israeli disengagement – bound to leave many issues open and bleeding – we can work with Egypt and Saudi Arabia for a lasting peace.’
‘Hamas political leadership’: even before they won Palestinian elections in January, Hamas (aware that they couldn’t be a government and a terrorist organisation at the same time) were looking at non-violent options. ‘Historically we believe all Palestine belongs to Palestinians, but we’re talking now about reality, about political solutions.’ Their leaders have offered a long-term ceasefire. Reasonably, they ask for reciprocity from Israel. A Middle East specialist spells it out: ‘Hamas must enforce the truce it has offered and prevent terrorism not only by its own militants but by other terrorist groups as well. But for Hamas to be able to pull this off, Israel must stop its targeted assassinations and incursions into Palestinian areas. Even more important, it must declare that the lines to which it’s withdrawing in its unilateral disengagements are not permanent borders.’ (‘Walls can be taken down….’)
Controversial American professors are right to remind their country that it has urgent problems at home. From health care to the implications of climate change, from massive debt to the global economy, the US administration has obligations demanding attention. Without US interference and bullish militarism, without its repeated failures to understand different cultures and points of view, a locally-achieved peace in the Middle East has a better chance of lasting. And if that happens, its long-term consequences could bring calm to other troubled areas of the non-Western world.
As for anti-semitism, Israeli novelist Yitzhak Laor says this: ‘Anyone seen as an enemy of Israel is still perceived to be carrying on Hitler’s work. Similar paranoid traits can be found in connection with “the new anti-semitism”, an ugly charge aimed at anyone who criticises Israel’s destruction of Palestine. The Holocaust made all Israelis to a certain extent survivors. We Israelis need to pinch ourselves and say: we are not the victims.’