Will There Be War in the Middle East?

Building Bridges to a Wider Jewish Community: Autumn 00/ Winter 01

That question dominates the anxiety of the Jewish world.

Before the Camp David breakup, we were talking about peace — peace between the Is­raelis and the Palestinians, peace between the Jews and the Arabs. At this writing, the peace process apparently has collapsed. We no longer believe in the possibility of peace. We only talk about a way to end the violence.

There are horrifying memories that will not go away. A Palestinian child shot to death by Israeli fire while his terrified father tries to shield him. The bloodied body of an Israeli reservist tossed from the window of a Ramallah police station to an exultant Palestinian mob below. An enraged Israeli Arab screaming, “Death to the Jews” while rushing the Israeli police. Jewish settlers from Upper Nazareth rampaging through the lower city in search of their Arab victims.

Who is to blame for this shocking change? Was it Ariel Sharon, who defiantly marched through the Dome of the Rock sacred com­pound with an enormous retinue of security guards? Did he want to provoke the Arabs and destroy the peace process? Did he want to up­stage Bibi Netanyahu, his archrival, for the leadership of the Likud Party, the political voice of hostility to the Oslo peace agreements?

Was it the fanatic Hezbollah in Lebanon, who orchestrated the Palestinian street dem­onstrations and whose stated ambition is to drive the Israelis into the sea? Did they mobi­lize the perpetrators of Palestinian violence?

Or was it the sleazy Yasser Arafat, who refused the brave and generous offer of Ehud Barak, the prime minister of Israel, and later the last-ditch proposals of President Clinton, subverting seven hard years of peace negotia­tions? Does he believe that he can wring more concessions from the Israelis through violence rather than through talking?

All these “culprits” may have added fuel to the fire. But the main trigger to the violence was the increasing disillusionment with the peace process felt by thousands of Palestin­ians who came to see that an independent Palestinian state, as conceived by the Israe­lis, would be nothing more than a Bantustan. The Palestinians had had false expectations of what the Israelis would be willing to yield.

There are certain unavoidable realities that we need to confront in order to understand the nature of the crisis. There are two incompat­ible agendas. The maximum concessions of the Israelis cannot meet the minimum demands of the Palestinians. Whether the issue is Jerusa­lem or the return of Palestinian refugees, the gulf between the two sides is very wide.

Israel, including the Palestinian territo­ries, is a very small country. Jews and Arabs have intermingled. Finding appropriate boundaries to separate them is not easy. Even if both sides loved each other it would not be easy.

The hatred and suspicion engendered by seventy years of war are so intense that inter­nal negotiations are an impossibility. Each side perceives itself as the victim and rein­forces its victimhood with horror stories of eviction and terrorism. Jews and Arabs find it difficult to talk to each other. They find it easier to scream at each other.

The Palestinian agenda is ambiguous. The pragmatic side recognizes that Israel is here to stay and that Palestinians will have to settle for a small state surrounded by Israeli mili­tary and economic might. The emotional side wants to expel the Jews and restore the old Palestine. The Palestinian dilemma is whether to accept a real state with permanent inferi­ority or to fight for a big state in a war that can only lead to self-destruction.

The rebellion revealed that the Arabs of Israel see themselves as Palestinians first and Israelis second. This reality is a frightening discovery for the Israelis. Over one-fifth of the Israeli people are Arabs. And, after years of discrimination and rejection, they do not identify with the culture of the government that claims them. Even if Israel successfully separates from the Palestinian state, it remains a volatile “mixed neighborhood.”

The major issue that undermines the peace process is not Jerusalem. It is the re­turn of Palestinian “refugees.” No Palestin­ian government can hope to survive if it surrenders the right of Palestinians to go back to their original home. And the state of Israel cannot survive as a Jewish state if it allows the refugees to return. A Jewish state with an Arab majority is an impossibility.

The rebellion struck a blow at moderate governments in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It gave power to fanatics and extremists who are calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and for the elimination of Arab and Muslim “traitors” who would deal with the Jewish state. The trouble can only provide added credibility to Saddam Hussein and the Iranian regime. The moderates are on the de­fensive and scared. Even the Arab-hating secu­lar Turks have chastised Israel.

Yasser Arafat is no longer in control of his “troops.” His refusal to accept Barak’s peace offer and Clinton’s proposal came out of fear that acceptance would mean assassi­nation. As a survivor, his political stand al­ways follows what he perceives Palestinian public opinion to be. He is, tragically, a fol­lower rather than a courageous leader.

The Israelis’ gains of the past few years in the Arab world are lost. Arab and Muslim nations, which had opened themselves to the possibility of opening the door, are pulling back. From Morocco to Oman, from Jordan to Indonesia, an Israeli connection is now per­ceived to be a liability. It will not be easy to reopen that door. Israel remains a European state stuck provocatively into the middle of the Muslim world. Only North America and part of Western Europe can be reliably counted on to offer support and protection.

The days of Barak are numbered. The peace process failed — at least for now. What probably will follow is a govern­ment led by Ariel Sharon, which will nix any peace initiative.

The consequences of a real war between Israel and her Arab enemies are too frighten­ing for the world to contemplate. An oil em­bargo alone could attack the global economy and wreak havoc on America and other in­dustrial nations. Nobody interested in the welfare of the global economy can allow this war to happen.

So what are the implications of these re­alities for the future?

Outside intervention by the great powers, organized through United States initiative, is the only way to stop the violence. Israel and the Palestinians, left to their own devices and without outside pressure, cannot do it.

For the foreseeable future the most that can be arranged is a truce. Israel would be well-advised to pull back to the line it can sustain as the boundary line between itself and the Palestinians — and hold it. Interna­tional supervision of the truce line may be necessary, even though Israelis mistrust any international intervention.

The alienation of Israeli Arabs will in­crease, presenting the state with a continuing provocation. An Arab minority friendly to Is­rael would require major changes that the Is­raeli public is not willing to concede.

The new Israel will again be a fortress Israel, mobilized for war and increasingly de­pendent on its American allies. Its govern­ments will be conservative, dominated by Sephardim and Orthodox Jews. Many secu­lar Jews will choose to emigrate. Many high-tech industries, the gems of the new Is­raeli economy, will decide to locate in safer places of the global economy.

If violence continues, Diaspora Jews will be caught up in the violence and the terror­ism. The Muslim enemies of Israel will not distinguish between Israelis and the Jewish people. An uncomfortable vigilance will en­ter into Diaspora Jewish life.

Of course, by some “miracle,” the peace process could be restored by dramatic changes in the perspective of Israelis and Palestinians. But I would not hold my breath.