Louay SafiPosted May 1, 2008 •Permalink • Printer-Friendly Version
Elusive Peace: 60 Years of Pain and Suffering in Palestine
George W. Bush, who proposed the boldest peace initiative of any American president to solve the Palestine issue, managed to deliver only the most meager results during his two-term presidency. The Roadmap for Peace, developed by the United States in cooperation with Russia, the European Union, and the UN (the Quartet), was presented to Israel and the Palestinian Authority on 30 Apr. 2003. Despite the proclaimed hopes, however, it has been a clear fiasco and anything but a roadmap to peace. Although the Bush administration, during its final year in power, organized the largest conference for Middle East peace ever assembled and again made the boldest promises, very few people are holding their breath. The Roadmap initiative is practically over, and all signs point to a dead-end.
Israel continues to confiscate more land and build more illegal settlements, while the Palestinians continue to hold onto their towns, villages, farmland, and houses with all the strength they can muster. All participants in this widening confrontation keep digging themselves into a deeper hole and bringing the world to the brink of disaster. The disparity between the parties is great, outside help is increasingly favoring one party over the other, and no honest broker or visionary leader has yet appeared to take a principled stand and advance a fair solution.
How did the search for peace bring us to this sad state of affairs? Can the ongoing dynamic be changed from its current state to one that promotes real hope and peace?
The Making of the Roadmap
In his 4 Apr. 2002 speech, Bush outlined his formal position: a two-state solution that would result in an independent Palestinian state living “side by side” with a Jewish state in historical Palestine. “The Roadmap,” he declared, “represents a starting point toward achieving the vision of two states, a secure State of Israel and a viable, peaceful, democratic Palestine. It is the framework for progress towards lasting peace and security in the Middle East…” A year later, the State Department produced a detailed plan with specific phases and benchmarks to guide the peace process and set 2005 as the year for achieving a “final and comprehensive settlement.” The results are well known: illegal Israeli settlements continue to grow rapidly; the Palestinian Authority is divided in two; and Gaza is subject to repeated military assaults, starvation, and economic blockades by Israel.
The State Department’s plan was in many ways an academic exercise, written with little attention to the dynamics of the political conflict that gripped the region for the last sixty years. The plan placed all the cards in the hands of the Israeli authority, requiring the immediate and complete cessation of hostilities by Palestinians while permitting the Israeli military to continue its incursions into the Palestinian towns and villages to arrest Palestinian activists and assassinate Palestinian militants. Mahmoud Abbas, excited by the Roadmap and what he believed to be a new commitment by the Bush administration to broker a new peace, persuaded Hamas to commit to a truce. The truce lasted till August 21st, when, Israel, using an American made Apache, assassinated Ismail Abushanab. Abushanab was considered by many Palestinians to be moderate, who strongly supported the negotiated truce.
The Bush administration saw no need to pressure the government of Ariel Sharon to stop its incursions into Palestinian territories, and to at least freeze settlements as an important measure and first step to building trust. President Bush insisted that the United States cannot pressure the two parties to peace, and that future peace must evolve through negotiations and the mutual agreements between the warring parties. This practically gave Israel the upper hand in deciding the future of the Roadmap, as it enjoyed overwhelming fire power.
The outcome of the Roadmap sponsored by the Bush administration is no different than that outcome of the Oslo accords sponsored by the Clinton administration: more expansion and more resistance. The Israelis are determined to pursue the goal of Greater Israel, and the Palestinians are increasingly willing to take strong punishments and heavy casualties to hold unto their land.
Moses’ Mission and its Reenactment in Modern Times
The Jewish claim to Palestine is based on the divine promise to Abraham, a prophet claimed by the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: “On that day, God made a covenant with Abraham, saying: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river the Euphrates. The land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonite, the Chitties, Perizzites, Refraim, the Emorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Yevusites.” (Genesis 15:18-21)
The Promised Land was further specified during the time of Moses: “Now Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, and all Naphtali and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, and the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” (Deuteronomy 34:1-4)
This second promise given in Deuteronomy evidently delineates a smaller expanse of land promised to Moses than the one promised to Abraham. The promise was fulfilled during the reign of Joshua, and reached its farthest expansion under Solomon when the Israelite controlled much of Greater Syria and parts of Iraq and southern Turkey.
Muslims do not disagree with the Biblical claims, as the Qur’an reaffirms God’s promise to Moses that his followers will be delivered from their Egyptian servitude to the Holy Land. They do not, however, accept the claim that a Biblical promise can be legitimately reenacted after thousands of years and used as a ground for gathering world Jewry in Palestine and dispossessing its current inhabitants of their ancestral land. Thus they consider such a deed to be a blatant violation of universally accepted moral principles and recognized international law.
The early pioneers of Zionist ideology, consumed with obtaining the existing powers’ endorsement of their demand for a Jewish homeland, hardly worried about Arab reaction. On 29 Aug. 1897, they met in Basel, Switzerland, to refine their plan to take over Palestine. Imperial Europe, then expanding its colonial control into Asia and Africa, was forging new countries out of old ones and installing new regimes to replace fallen empires. In addition, the rise of European nationalism and the subsequent desire of European nations to affirm their national identity posed serious challenge to European Jewry. Establishing a homeland in historic Palestine seemed to offer an effective solution to Europe’s chronic anti-Semitism and fulfill the centuries-long Jewish longing for the Holy Land.
On 2 Nov. 1917, the Zionist Organization extracted the Balfour Declaration, which recognized Palestine as a Jewish homeland. In 1919, it submitted a six-point proposal for establishing a Jewish Palestine to the Peace Conference of Paris. Two points were particularly notable: the boundaries of Palestine would “extend on the west to the Mediterranean, on the north to the Lebanon, on the east to the Hedjaz railway and the Gulf of Akabah,” and the League of Nations was called upon to make Palestine a British mandate.
The prospect of a Jewish homeland brought great excitement to Zionist leaders, as they realized that their dream is being transformed into reality. Many Zionist leaders did not fully grasp the direction of world history and the full consequences of reliving an ancient prophecy in modern times. Zionist leaders underestimated the reaction of the local population of Palestine, the Arab Middle East, and the rest of the Muslim world, to the formation of a Jewish State in the region. In an article by H. Sacher, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1919 under the title “A Jewish Palestine,” the author, a Jewish Historian, argued in support of the founding of a Jewish State, and envisaged a harmonious and peaceful society in which all live together well. Jewish Palestine, he insisted, “will do justice between all the nationalities within its borders. It will establish the equality of men and men, and work toward democracy, political and economic. It will be one of the pillars of the League of Nations, and by its relationship to all the scattered communities of Israel, it will forge powerful links for the brotherhood of the peoples. In the Near East and the Middle East it will strive to replace the broken tyranny of the Turk by a harmonious cooperation between Jew, Arab, and Armenian.”
Sacher saw in Palestine a place for self expression of religious and national identity long denied to European Jewry. Sacher portrayed the impact of an independent homeland on ordinary Jews in ways that revealed the impact of the homogenizing modern state and culture. “There he will see the Jewish faith developing freely,” he pointed out, “according to the law of its being, distracted neither by opposition, nor by surrender to an alien environment. There he will see the Jewish national spirit expressing itself in a society modeled on the Jewish idea of justice, in a Hebrew literature, in a Hebrew art, in the myriad activities which make the life of a people on its own soil, under its own sky.”
Reality Check and Emerging Demography
The sixty years that passed since the founding of the State of Israel have been traumatic, particularly for the Palestinian people, but increasingly to the world community. The migration of European Jews to Palestine began in earnest under the British mandate, and as the number of Jewish settlements in Palestine multiplied, Palestinians revolted repeatedly against Britain, in unsuccessful bids to gain independence. Independence was instead handed to the Zionist organization, which in 1948 declared the birth of the State of Israel. The war of independence, which was fought mainly against Arab militias, led to the displacement of 711,000 Palestinians, mostly in surrounding Arab countries.
Today, more than 5 million Palestinians live in Diaspora mostly in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Significant Palestinian communities also reside in the Gulf countries, Egypt, North Africa, and North America. These Palestinians are the subject of a debate over the “Palestinian right of return.” Israel continues to resist demands to allow Palestinians who were forced out during this war, which Arabs call al-Nakba (the Catastrophe), to return on the grounds that doing so would disturb the existing “demographic balance” and make the claim of a Jewish state unsustainable. Indeed, this fear seems to be the main reason why Israel has been reluctant to formally annex the West Bank and Gaza. Such an act would also violate international law. But Israel has consistently violated UN Security Council resolutions that clash with its own designs, such as its formal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights even though the UN considers such an annexation to be illegal.
Despite exhaustive negotiations for peace of the last two decades, Israel continues to push towards achieving the Zionist dream of Greater Israel. The Roadmap announced by Bush in 2002 and his attempt to reinvigorate it last month during his visit to the Middle East, are the continuation of countless rounds of negotiation during the nineties. Bill Clinton led a series of negotiation as part of the Oslo agreement that aimed at establishing Palestinian state. The negotiation failed in 2000, when it became apparent that the outcome was far removed from the claims of a sovereign state and contiguous territories. Camp David eventually gave the Palestinians a disarmed set of Bantustans under de facto Israeli control.
Throughout the last two decades the Israeli negotiated with their Arab peace partners with bad faith. They continued to build more settlements, confiscate more land, and to strengthen their grab over the territories as they engaged Palestinians in peace negotiations on the promise of Palestinian independence. Between 1993 and 2006, the number of settlers in the West Bank and Gaza doubled. The number of West Bank settlers increased from 11,600 in 1993 to 234,487 in 2004. 2006 statistics shows that the number of settlers has exceeded 268,400. The number of settlers in Gaza jumped from 4,800 in 1993 to 7,826 in 2004, to drop to 0 after the Israeli government decided to withdraw unitarily from the Gaza strip.
Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal under International law. Article 49, paragraph 6 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”. The International Court of Justice has, likewise, asserted in paragraph 120 of its Advisory Opinion of July 9, 2004 that the settlements are illegal.
Jewish settlements also contradict the very spirit of Oslo and the Roadmap, which the United States considers to be the basis for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Roadmap document published by the State Department in 2003 insists that “The settlement will resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and end the occupation that began in 1967, based on the foundations of the Madrid Conference, the principle of land for peace, UNSCRs 242, 338 and 1397, agreements previously reached by the parties, and the initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah – endorsed by the Beirut Arab League Summit – calling for acceptance of Israel as a neighbor living in peace and security, in the context of a comprehensive settlement.”
Palestinian Misery and Double Standards
Sacher’s vision of Israel that “will do justice between all the nationalities within its borders,” has faded away. Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza are deprived of their basic human rights, and subjected to a set of standards that is far removed from the ones administered in the Israeli settlements. The Israeli government applies Israeli law to the settlers and the settlements, practically annexing them to the State of Israel. The Separation Wall serves as an instrument for such annexation. The resulting system is a regime of legalized separation and discrimination. “This regime is based on the existence of two separate legal systems in the same territory, with the rights of individuals being determined by their nationality.” Palestinians who apply for building permits are often turned down, and when they build their houses without building permits are demolished by the Israeli Civil Administration, even when the construction is done on private land.
The Israeli Civil Administration facilitates, on the other hand, the construction of Jewish settlements and by-pass roads, even when these encircle Palestinian towns and villages, and make movement in the West Bank extremely difficult. In the last eight years, the numerous check points that were constructed in the West Bank (and Gaza until the Israeli Unilateral withdrawal) have made the life of Palestinians miserable, and destroyed the already weak Palestinian economy.
The squeeze policy adopted by the Israeli government against Palestinians did not stop at denying permits for new housing, but extends to confiscation of Palestinian land. The construction of what Israel calls Security Barrier, and what its critics refer to as the Apartheid Wall, is being used to confiscate Palestinian lands, and has often resulted in separating families, and occasionally making commuting between Palestinian localities extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Somaia Barghouti, Chargé d’affaires of Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations, protested in a letter to the UN Secretary General, on January 26, 2005, the continuous confiscation of Palestinian land for no avail. “Israeli bulldozers have been razing land,” Barghouti stressed, “confiscated by the occupying Power from its Palestinian owners, in the area, including in the village of Iskaka, for the construction of the Wall. Indeed, Israel continues to construct the Wall despite the ruling by the International Court of Justice, in its advisory opinion of 9 July 2004 (A/ES-10/273 and Corr.1), on its illegality.” Barghouti went on to say “that Israel’s construction of the Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, and its associated regime are contrary to international law, and that Israel is under an obligation to cease its construction of the Wall, to dismantle the structure situated therein, to repeal or render ineffective all legislative and regulatory acts relating thereto, and to make reparation for all damage caused by the construction of the Wall. Regrettably, the occupying Power has been doing exactly the opposite.”
Logic of History and Power
Modern Israel’s predicament is clear: a nation created to liberate European Jewry from discrimination and oppression is increasingly guilty of the very practices it sought to escape. This reality has brought anguish even to many Jews. For decades, Israeli leaders have tried to use the country’s military advantage to force Arab and Palestinian compliance. This worked for a while, as the early Zionist pioneers faced vanquished and illiterate Arab communities. But the policies of iron fists and excessive force by successive Israeli regimes have backfired. Israel is increasingly facing new generations of Palestinians who are determined to reclaim their honor and dignity and who are willing to risk their lives and pay a high cost to achieve freedom and self-determination.
Some Israeli leaders have begun to realize that traditional approaches aimed at forcing the Palestinians to surrender to the Zionist project of Greater Israel no longer work. In a “New York Times” (14 Aug. 2005) article, Ethan Bronner quoted a senior Israeli official closely associated with Likud leaders as saying: “The fact that hundreds of them are willing to blow themselves up is significant,” he said. “We didn’t give them any credit before. In spite of our being the strongest military power in the Middle East, we lost 1,200 people over the last four years. It finally sank in to Sharon and the rest of the leadership that these people were not giving up.”
During Dec. 2003, then deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert told Nahum Barnea of “Yediot Aharonot”: “Israel will soon need to make a strategic recognition ... We are nearing the point where more and more Palestinians will say: ‘We’re persuaded. We agree with [right-wing politician Avigdor] Lieberman. There isn’t room for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All we want is the right to vote.’ On the day they reach that point,” said Olmert, “we lose everything. ... I quake to think that leading the fight against us will be liberal Jewish groups that led the fight against apartheid in South Africa.” Now serving as Israel’s prime minister, he repeated his concerns, albeit in more ambiguous language, upon his return from Annapolis Conference by telling “Haaretz” (28 Nov. 2007) that “the State of Israel cannot endure unless a Palestinian state comes into being.”
Five years later, the two-state solution remains elusive. Pragmatic Israeli leaders have not been able to revise the logic of return. If modern Israel is a fulfillment of divine promise, it is difficult to argue against Greater Israel. Many Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims have developed profound doubts as to Israel’s intentions and final borders. Many in the Middle East suspect that Israel still wants to fulfill the Biblical boundaries of Greater Israel, which extend far beyond modern Palestine. The late Yaser Arafat and Hafiz al-Assad are on record as protesting Israel’s design to expand its boundaries to Lebanon, Syria, and even Iraq. In a special meeting with the UN Security Council in Geneva in September 1988, Arafat produced a document that “proved” Israel’s expansionist goals: “This document is a ‘map of Greater Israel’ which is inscribed on this Israeli coin, the 10-agora piece.” Describing Israel’s boundaries as they appeared on that map, Arafat stressed that they include “all of Palestine, all of Lebanon, all of Jordan, half of Syria, two-thirds of Iraq, one-third of Saudi Arabia as far as holy Medina, and half of Sinai.” (Middle East Quarterly, March 1994).
Commenting on Arafat’s argument, Daniel Pipes, the neoconservative American historian, specialist, and analyst of the Middle East, rejected the contention that the Greater Israel espoused by modern Zionism encompasses Syria and Jordan. Conceding that modern Zionist leaders and historians, including Theodor Herzl, made references to Jewish settlements in Syria and Jordan, Pipes insisted that these were personal views and do not represent established views on Israel’s borders. Along with many other conservative Jews, however, he insists that Gaza and the West Bank must be within Israel’s borders.
While most Israelis are increasingly aware that using force has certain limitations and seem willing to compromise with Palestinians, a determined minority represented by the Likud and the ultra-religious parties is bent on pushing all the way. Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, resigned from Olmert’s cabinet during January 2008 to protest the renewal of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority that seek to address Jerusalem’s final status. The Israeli Right’s position has strong support in the United States. Conservative American Jewish and Christian organizations have consistently backed the Likud and advocated a Greater Israel that extends to the West Bank and Gaza.
In 1996, several leading American neoconservatives, among them Richard Perle (Pentagon policy adviser [resigned February 2004] and former Likud policy adviser), James Colbert (communications director, Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs), Charles Fairbanks, Jr. (former deputy assistant secretary, State Department), Douglas J. Feith (former undersecretary of defense for policy), and Robert Loewenberg (founder, Institute for Advanced Strategic & Political Studies [IASPS-Jerusalem]), authored “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” which was published by the Israeli-based IASPS. This political blueprint, meant for the incoming government of Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected the Oslo peace process and reasserted Israel’s claim to the West Bank and Gaza. Furthermore, it called for rejecting the principle of trading land for peace, established by the Oslo Agreement, and demanded the unconditional Palestinian acceptance of Likud’s terms (peace for peace), removing Saddam Hussain from power, and reconstituting Iraq.
The two-state solution has another aspect: the 5 million Palestinians living in the Diaspora, well-organized and strongly committed to their ancestral land, have organized their lives around the dream of return. In an essay entitled “It Is Always Eid in Palestine,” Yasmine Ali, a Palestinian-American who visited a Palestinian refugee camp in 1999, describes her encounter with elementary students who have never seen Palestine: “… what really caught my eye was the ‘Wall Magazine,’ which consisted of writings by Shatila children. There were several pages tacked to the bulletin board, listing qualities that the children had, in their minds, attributed to Palestine: ‘Palestine is a very, very beautiful land ... There is a sea of chocolate in Palestine ... Children are always happy in Palestine ... Women don’t gossip in Palestine ... The streets are very clean in Palestine ... It is always Eid [“Feast Day”] in Palestine ... Parents don’t die in Palestine.’ I stared at that for a long time. It was indescribably poignant, how this obviously reflected their situation in Shatila camp. It reminded me of how the Jews in the ghettos of Poland and Germany and numerous other countries used to imagine Palestine as the Promised Land—indeed, how it has been imagined by so many the world over for thousands of years. And now by Palestinians themselves. Palestine, the Promised Land, once and forever. The irony was too bitter.”
From Power Play to Common Principles
“[the Zionists pioneers believed that] the only language the Arabs understand is that of force,” wrote Ahad Ha’Am the leading Eastern European Jewish essayist, upon returning from a visit to Palestine in 1891. Throughout of its conflicts with neighboring Arab countries, Israel has always had the advantage of superior fighting force. It has for decades succeeded to advance its claims to Palestine by creating facts on the ground. In addition of superior military that has acquired a reputation of invincibility, the construction zeal of Jewish settlements in the Holy Land has allowed Israel to grow and expand. For decades, fighting and building was done with great religious zeal.
Years of Israeli mastery over Palestinians and the constant reliance on force to keep them in check have led to similar perceptions among Palestinians: that force is the only option available to counter Israeli expansion. The Israeli occupation has transformed the Palestinians, bringing about a generation of angry and determined militants convinced that the only language Israel understands is that of force.
Force, however, does not bring a permanent and long lasting solution to conflicts. Might does not make right, is a principle borne by long, and regrettably repeated, historical experience. “The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master,” observed Rousseau in his Social Contract, “unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.” Israel has been expanding its domain not on the basis on any established system of law, but by the overwhelming power it has over ordinary Palestinians and its ability to create facts on the ground. The biblical account and historical grievances stem from the experience of the European Jewry, which is the basis of Western support, has not been accepted by Middle Eastern societies. The people of the Middle East see the divine promise as historically bound, and expect to be treated as people with equal rights and dignity.
The impetus that drive the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is rooted in international struggle of the 18th and 19th centuries Europe, and has nothing to do with the logic of international relations based on the notion of right and international law expected by the citizens of 21st century. The logic that guided the establishment and expansion of Israel has focused more on the affirmation of Jewish identity and power, and less on justice and the right of Palestinians. This logic can be seen in the arguments of the foremost Zionist leader of the 20th Century. “[T]hese days it is not right but might which prevails,” noted David Ben-Gurion. “It is more important to have force than justice on one’s side,” he added. He went on to say that in a period of “power politics, the powers that become hard of hearing, and respond only to the roar of cannons. And the Jews in the Diaspora have no cannons.” (Shabtai Teveth, p. 191)
Europe has already turned the page on its nationalist politics and colonial ambitions, while the Middle East is still engulfed in destructive wars rooted in religious differences and national aspirations. Furthermore, the appeal to religion for establishing political structures has inspired other actors to privilege religious affiliation over a system of rights and law. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if not quickly resolved, threatens to galvanize the world along religious lines and transform itself into a global conflict.
Muslim militants throughout the world have already used Palestine as a central issue to galvanize support, and far Right groups in the West use the same issue to mobilize the West against Islam and Muslims. There is a dire need to begin a rational debate on how to address the Palestinian question calmly and on the basis the political values of freedom, equality, democracy, and justice.
Globalization of the Conflict
Not only did Israel fail to “establish the equality of men and men,” as Sacher had hoped it would when he published his vision of a Jewish Palestine nearly a century ago, it also failed to “replace the broken tyranny of the Turk by a harmonious cooperation between Jew, Arab, and Armenian.” Sacher the historian failed to anticipate the extent of the Arabs’ and Muslims’ resistance to the creation of an exclusively Jewish state. The reality is that since its inception, Israel has been engaged in numerous hostile exchanges with its neighbors. While it has managed to neutralize some old enemies, most notably the PLO, Egypt, and Jordan, it has created new and even fiercer ones, including Hamas, Hizbellah, and Iran.. Its peace with Egypt and Jordan remains quite fragile, resting as it does on the ability of two undemocratic regimes to keep their populations silent – populations whose popular sentiments have always been pro-Palestinian.
Israeli leadership has been forced to view any country in the region that express sympathy and support for the Palestinians as a potential enemy. Israel is constantly working to make sure that it is able to maintain a comfortable margin of military advantage. As a result, Israel has also felt duty obliged to check the rise of any military power in the region to ensure that its military superiority is never challenges. This has led to preemptive wars and strikes in the past against Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Israel currently urging the United States to undertake a preemptive military attacks against Iran if it does not stop enriching uranium for fear it can be used for military purposes. and has threatened that it will do so if need be.
In recent years, the Palestinian conflict has deepened the divide between predominantly Muslim and Western countries. A 2007 survey by Gallup showed that 58% of Americans are sympathetic to Israeli with only 20% expressing sympathy toward Palestinians. 44% thought that the United State should not get involved in any diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, unless Palestinian recognize Israel first, while 25% thought the US should not do any thing about it. And that 57% thought that the US should not give any support to the Palestinian Authority, while 30% thought support must be contingent on recognizing Israel. This is quite removed a position than the one found in Arab and Muslim countries who have made repeated demands for immediate withdrawal of Israel from the territories its occupied since 1967, and have frequently expressed resentment of American support to Israeli policies and measures against Palestinians.
For five years, nightly news programs in the Middle East have been bombarding their audiences with graphic pictures of the life in the West Bank and Gaza. Raids by Israeli military on town and villages, home demolitions, confiscation of land, assassination of militants, closures and blockades, impoverished and crowded neighborhoods, and similar images fill the TV screens on a daily basis. This has created deep bitterness and guilt as old and young helplessly watch Palestinian suffering. The picture of the Middle East conflict is almost diametrical opposite across the West-Middle East divide.
Silencing Voices of Moderation
There is little debate on the reality and consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jimmy Carter pointed out in his recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, that the political debate about the policies of the Israeli government is much more open and lively in Israel than it is in the US. “There are constant and vehement political and media debates in Israel concerning its policies in the West Bank,” Carter claimed, “but because of powerful political, economic, and religious forces in the U.S., Israeli government decisions are rarely questioned or condemned, voices from Jerusalem dominate our media, and most American citizens are unaware of circumstances in the occupied territories.”
Several American political leaders and scholars blame the lack of political debate and balanced media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Jewish Lobby, a loose coalition of pro-Israel organizations devoted to promoting Israeli interests. Carter himself felt the brunt of the Lobby upon the publication of his recent book on Palestine. The book was deemed by conservative Jewish groups to be anti-Semitic because it expresses sympathy to the plight of the Palestinians, and brought attention to the Israeli politics that aim at fragmenting the Occupied Territories and subjugating the Palestinian people.
Another courageous attempt to stimulate the debate about Israel’s policy in the Occupied Land, and there consequences for the United States was made by the two foremost political scientist in the United States, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Their recent book, The Jewish Lobby, an expansion of a paper they published under the same title, brings to the fore the strategies employed by pro-Israel lobbyists, and unveils the extent of their influence on US foreign policy towards the Middle East. One underlying strategy illustrated by Mearsheimer and Walt is the “strong prejudice against criticizing Israeli policy,” and that “putting pressure on Israel is considered out of order.”
The Jewish Lobby provides examples of pressure tactics employed by conservative Jewish groups to frustrate efforts by prominent American Jews to balance the Israeli policies towards Palestinian and to curb the Israeli excesses. The book documents, for example, the backlash against Edgar Bronfman Sr, the president of the World Jewish Congress, for writing a letter to President Bush in 2003 urging him to persuade Israel to curb construction of its controversial “security fence”. His critics accused him of “perfidy” and argued that “it would be obscene at any time for the president of the World Jewish Congress to lobby the president of the United States to resist policies being promoted by the government of Israel.”
Likewise, Seymour Reich the president of the Israel Policy Forum, was denounced and accused of being “irresponsible,” for advising Condoleezza Rice in November 2005 to ask Israel to reopen a critical border crossing in the Gaza Strip. His critics insisted that “There is absolutely no room in the Jewish mainstream for actively canvassing against the security-related policies . . . of Israel.” The severity of the attacks forced Reich to announce that “the word ‘pressure’ is not in my vocabulary when it comes to Israel.”
Prospects for Fair Solution
The conflict in Palestine threatens to destabilize world politics and embolden fundamentalist demands for religiously exclusive political states. The principle of rule of law has suffered immensely under the climate of fear that followed the terrorist attacks on the American homeland on September 11, 2001. Extremists in both the East and the West are working hard to deepen the divide, and turn a political conflict into a religious war. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being used by the far right in both Muslim and Western countries to justify bigotry and to demonize people on the other side of the divide.
There is a dire need to use our creative imagination and to find a just and equitable solution to the conflict. The logic of “creating facts on the ground” and “might makes right” must give way to the spirit of the age, of equal dignity and the rule of law. It might be well the case that conflict might continue to play itself out until complete victory or complete defeat is achieved. But this would definitely be a tragic moment, as it would signal the triumph of force over morality and rationality. It would be a tragic moment, because by then, the conflict would have created overwhelming misery on all sides that no human being would be willing to contemplate.
The solution to the conflict must not be based on Jewish, Christian, or Muslim prophecies that would only inflame hate and mistrust among the followers of the three religious traditions. I should, rather, be based on the prophetic principles cherished by the three religious traditions. It must be based on the shared committed to the sanctity of human life, and the universally accepted principles of equal dignity, freedom of religion, democracy, and the rule of law.
Will prophetic principles triumph over self-styled and self-fulfilled prophecies? I do not know the answer, but I do not believe it is preordained as the fundamentalists of the three religions would like us to believe. I do, rather, believe that the answer to the question hinges on the actions of members of the three communities. I do hope that people of reason and deep faith privilege the clear principles demanded by their religions and international conventions over vague prophecies interpreted by fallible and rationally limited and emotionally charged human beings.
Dr. Louay Safi serves as the executive director of ISNA Leadership Development Center, an Indiana based organization dedicated to enhancing leadership qualities and skills. He writes and lectures on issues relating to Islam and the West,, democracy, human rights, leadership, and world peace. His commentaries are available at: http://blog.lsinsight.org