Humanistic Judaism journal, “Crisis in Israel” Autumn 2002
Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for the war in the Middle East? Or is the Jewish-Arab war condemned to last forever?
The war between the Jews and the Arabs in former British Palestine has been going on for eighty-one years. In 1921 the first Arab explosion against the Zionist pioneers announced the beginning of the fray. For eight decades the war has waxed and waned. Thousands have been killed and maimed. Hatred and suspicion have undermined any successful resolution of the conflict.
After the Jewish War of Independence in 1948, the war became a war between the Jewish state and external Arab enemies. In that conflict, the Israelis were generally victorious. The Israeli triumph in 1967 crushed Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hero of Arab nationalism. But in 1987 the Palestinian Arabs chose a new kind of battle: internal rebellion. The intifada was born. And it has grown in fury ever since.
The foundation of the war is the power of nationalism. Jewish nationalism was born out of the defiance of the oppressed Jewish masses in Tsarist Russia. It was fed by racial antisemitism. Diaspora nationalism sought to liberate the Jews of Eastern Europe and give them cultural autonomy. It was destroyed by native resistance and the Holocaust. Zionist nationalism also saw itself as a national liberation movement. It naively proposed to solve the Jewish problem of antisemitism by returning the Jews to their ancient homeland. Reinforced by socialist idealism and the revival of Hebrew as a popular language, Zionists established a Jewish settlement in Palestine. The closing of the doors to immigration in America, the support of the British government, and the rise of Adolph Hitler provided an impetus that the slaughter of six million Jews was to make irresistible. Zionism became the most powerful movement to mobilize the Jewish masses in the twentieth century.
Arab nationalism was an import from the West, cultivated initially by Christian Arabs as a way of countering their exclusion by Muslims. Propelled by Turkish oppression and by the humiliation of European conquest, the nationalist movement was led by Westernized Arab intellectuals who embraced secular values and placed nationhood above religion. But since the Arab world never fully experienced the secular revolution that transformed European life, the Arab nationalism of the street had difficulty distinguishing between Arab loyalty and Muslim loyalty. Religion inevitably became part of the nationalist package in the Muslim world.
Since the Arab world is vast, divided by regional differences, cultural diversity, and the internal boundaries of twenty-two states created by colonial masters, the unification of the Arab nation has not been easy. Nasser tried and failed. He was defeated both by the Israelis and by the hostility of his political enemies and rivals in the Arab world.
The one issue that has the power of transcending the internal state boundaries of the Arab world and mobilizing the Arab masses is Zionism. The Jewish state, whether deservedly or not, has become the symbol of Arab humiliation. Perceived as the last and most outrageous example of European colonialism, Israel is the object of universal hate in the Arab world. The defeat of Israel has become the ultimate perceived means of restoring Arab honor. The hatred of Zionism is so intense that it is difficult for most Arabs to distinguish between their hostility to Israel and their hatred for Jews.
In fact, the suspicion and hatred between Arabs and Jews is so fierce that dialogue is condemned to failure. Most public and private encounters between conventional Arab and Jewish leaders degenerate into shouting matches. Each side insists on its rights. And, of course, both sides are “right.” The Palestinian Arabs have been invaded, abused, and oppressed. The Israeli Jews are by now mainly native-born residents of the land they defend and the creators of a dynamic, modern, high- tech state, who have no place else to go.
From the Jewish point of view, Arab hostility cannot easily be distinguished from antisemitism. The memories of the Holocaust hover over every response. Of course, the popular media in the Arab world reinforce this perception by aping the propaganda of European Jew-hatred. From the perspective of the Arabs, Jewish voices are confused with the voices of Jewish extremists who advocate expulsion and deportation.
There is an abundance of extremists on both sides. The Arab and Palestinian nationalist and fundamentalist worlds feature many militant groups who advocate terrorism and who call for the destruction of the Jewish state. The Jewish and Israeli extremists are equally militant in their refusal to recognize the right of a Palestinian state to exist (other than by suggesting that Jordan is already a Palestinian state). But, to the credit of the Israelis, Israel has a peace movement that has no counterpart in the Arab world.
Both sides see themselves as victims. Jews see Israel as a small, beleaguered state in a vast and petroleum-rich Arab world that does nothing to rescue its Palestinian brothers and sisters from poverty. Arabs see Israel as the agent of American imperialism, supported by the wealth and military technology of the world’s only superpower, a nation beholden to Jewish political power.
The failure of the Oslo peace process is as much the result of intense hatred and suspicion as of the incompatibility of vested interests. The issues of boundaries, Jerusalem, and refugees are surrounded by such levels of distrust that the normal compromises that negotiations bring can never emerge. No arrangements can provide the security that most Israelis want. And no “deal” can yield the sense of honor and vindication that most Palestinians and Arabs want.
In the search for alternatives to endless war, certain realities need to be confronted.
- This war is not only bad for the Israelis and Palestinians. It is also bad for the Jews and the Arabs. For the Jews the war has already spread to Europe, where Muslim militants assault synagogues and vulnerable Jews. For the Arabs the war prevents any real confrontation with the political, economic, and social issues that confront the Arab world. War continues to justify government by military dictators.
- This war is bad for America and the world. The Palestinian issue has provided the fuel whereby Muslim militants have won the allegiance of millions of Arabs and Muslims in their desire to wage war against America and Western culture. A war between the West and Islam is a world war. It is different from a war against Muslim fundamentalist terrorism. In the latter war we enjoy and will enjoy the support of most Muslim governments. The success of our response to September 11 lies in our ability to make the distinction.
- Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians by themselves cannot achieve peace — or even an effective truce — by relying on negotiations alone. The cycle of vengeance has its own logic. Every terrorist action requires retaliation. Every retaliation requires counter- retaliation. No antagonist can allow itself to be seen as weak. Revenge is a necessary tactic to maintain credibility. The cycle cannot stop itself without outside intervention.
- The proposed Palestinian state is no more than three thousand square miles in size, hardly a formula for viability. It is presently a series of urban “doughnut holes” in Israeli- occupied territory. The presence of the Israeli army is justified, not only by the argument for security, but also by the necessity to defend small Jewish settlements, which have been placed in the West Bank and Gaza by religious Jewish settlers laying claim to the land. These settlements prevent peace, add nothing to the security of Israel, and only provide more provocation to Arabs to kill more Jews.
- Jerusalem is already divided. Jewish Jerusalem (about two-thirds of the expanded city) has no Arabs; Arab Jerusalem (the eastern sector) has no Jews. While some Arabs work in Jewish Jerusalem, almost no Jews ever penetrate Arab Jerusalem unless they are on military duty. A unified city is more desirable than a divided city. But the division already exists.
- A bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state (a dream of many peaceniks) is not politically viable even though it would be economically desirable. Jewish and Arab nationalism are realities. They cannot be wished away. Mutual hatred and suspicion are realities. They cannot be dismissed. Arguing against nationalism may work a hundred years from now. It does not work now. A Jewish state is no more a racist state than an Arab state. It is a state where Jewish national culture is the dominant culture and where most people speak Hebrew. It is Jewish in the same way that Palestine will be Arab. Three million Palestinian refugees cannot return to the Jewish state without destroying the Jewish national character of the Jewish state.
- Because outside intervention is required, the only superpower capable of orchestrating a successful intervention is America. Since September 11, Bush has mobilized an effective coalition of world powers, including Europe, Russia, China and India — as well as many allies in the Muslim world. The war between the Israelis and the Palestinians has begun to undermine the coalition, especially with Bush’s perceived support of the Sharon government in Israel. Joint intervention, with the approval of the United Nations and with the support of moderate Muslim powers would restore the coalition. This intervention is no different from the intervention that America initiated in Bosnia or Kosovo.
What would be the elements of such an intervention?
- America controls the process of intervention. The Israelis do not trust the United Nations and will not cooperate with an effort managed by the hostile nations of the Third World.
- America behaves as a neutral “parent.” It does not always praise one side and condemn the other. It creates a setting for negotiations, with the presence of major members of the coalition. The format of negotiations is only a pretense. In the “back room” America dictates the settlement. Everybody knows that America has imposed the settlement. Both antagonists protest. But they yield because they have no choice. The imposition gives the leaders of both sides an excuse. They can justify their “surrender” to their constituencies by pleading helplessness. They may even shake hands reluctantly. Of course, Arafat will be there. The latest Israel foray has restored him as the popular leader of the Palestinians.
- The imposed settlement will include the following: 1) the removal of all Jewish settlements from the West Bank and Gaza with the exception of those settlements that function as contiguous suburban communities for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; 2} the digging of a ditch and the building of a fence along the adjusted 1967 boundaries between the Jews and the Arabs; 3) the policing of this fence by America and its European allies; 4) the granting of Arab East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as their national capitol; 5) the demilitarization of the new Palestinian state, with periodic inspections by Americans and their coalition partners; and 6) compensation for Palestinian refugees who cannot return.
- Compensation for Palestinian refugees may cost more than thirty billion dollars. It will be covered by America, Japan, and our European allies. If the compensation helps to bring about an effective truce, it will be worth the investment. Rescuing the global economy for peace justifies the expense.
- All that can presently be achieved is an effective truce. Peace will have to await a reduction in the fury and hatred and suspicion.
- Israel needs to be compensated for its willingness to shrink and to confront the wrath of its right-wing extremists. Since it will not in the foreseeable future be accepted by the Arab and Muslim worlds, it needs to be regarded as the European power that it is. Israel’s high-tech economy needs the European market, just as its European culture needs a European support system. The price that Europe pays for this necessary peace is that it accepts Israel as a member of the European Union. Such acceptance is no different from accepting Cyprus or Turkey. Israelis will be better off with euros than with shekels.
After this settlement is imposed, terrorist violence will continue. The war against Muslim fundamentalist terrorists also will continue. For the extremists in the Arab and Muslim world — and even in the Jewish world — hatred is a way of life. For the moderates, an effective truce will enable them to join the forces of peace.
The ball is in President Bush’s court. Only he can lead the way. The leaders of the Defense Department and the religious right will oppose this kind of proposal. But only such action can provide any light at the end of the tunnel in the Middle East.