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Hebräische Buchstaben im Spiel
Zeitung in einfachem Hebräisch
Jüdische Weisheit

Vol 3 #3  February 17, 2001

Past, Present, Future

What Happened?

The news from the Middle East is not good. In Israel, Sharon, despair and extremism. In Palestine, anarchy, despair and extremism. 

The Israeli closure and the helicopter assassinations rally support for the corrupt leadership of the PNA. Palestinian terror attacks in Hadera, West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the rain of machine-gun fire on Jerusalem suburbs, have transformed the settlers from fanatics with nuisance value into national heroes, and propelled Ariel Sharon from being yesterday's forgotten bogeyman to center stage and leadership.

The Intifadeh, which Palestinians and radicals insisted was so absolutely necessary for the advancement of the cause of peace and justice, has helped to bring about the election of Ariel Sharon. The repression of the Intifadeh, which the Israeli government insisted was absolutely necessary for the advancement of the cause of peace and justice, has enthroned the radicals in Palestinian politics as never before.

It is generally agreed that the Middle East peace process, launched with so much hope in 1992, is dead. Maybe it never had a chance. Aside from an inconsequential group which may include the majority of ordinary people in Palestine and Israel, peace had no real supporters in the Israel and Palestine. There are in fact, two power groups on either side of the divide: those opposed to the peace process and peace, and those who favor the peace process, but are in fact, opposed to peace in the ordinary understanding of the word "peace."

Those opposed to the peace process are those groups that would lose their meaning and rationale if there were peace. These include the settlers and their right-wing allies on the Israeli side, and the Islamic fundamentalists and radical groups on the Palestinian side.

The governments and leaders on either side who supported the peace process, were seeking a way to continue, and win, the struggle by other means. In each case, legitimate peace goals were intertwined with assertions of "fundamental rights" that consist in fact of the "right" to vanquish the enemy.

A number of criticisms of the Oslo process became SOP on the left and on the right, and their supporters are singing these hymns again at the wake. Criticism #1 on the left or Palestinian side was that the corruption of the Arafat regime was somehow the fault of the Israelis.

At http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0216-04.htm  we find peace advocate Rabbi Michael Lerner writing:" Perhaps the most terrible thing that Israel ever did was to bring Arafat and his band of armed thugs back from Tunisia and impose them on the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat's history of violence against Israelis is matched by violence against his own people."

Indeed! However, the Palestinians themselves had insisted on Arafat's return. Hanan Ashrawi and Edward Said are surely more likely to represent Palestinian views than Rabbi Michael Lerner. Were we not assured that the PLO is only legitimate representative of the Palestinian People, and that Yasser Arafat is the only prophet of the PLO? Israel tried, by every means possible to find alternative negotiation partners – that was the strategy of the Likud governments, and they failed. Discussions with the PLO were outlawed, and successive Israeli governments went in search of someone, anyone, on the Palestinian side who would be willing to talk peace. In vain. Israeli peace advocates such as Uri Avneri, as well as Palestinians, insisted that the road to peace must be through the PLO and Yasser Arafat. So Israel made a great concession to Palestinian demands, and the result was the Arafat nightmare.

The Israeli mythology of the right insists that everything was coming along just fine until the Oslo agreements. They do not explain how they intended to keep all the occupied land under Israeli authority, or to ignore the existence of several million Palestinians. Presumably, prayer and good thoughts would somehow make all the Palestinians just go away, and convince the Arabs to relinquish all rights in Jerusalem. History is not just the eruption of dramatic events, but the preparation of conditions that ultimately produce them. Of course, this has direct implications for the future under Ariel Sharon as well. Quiet for now is not necessarily the best way guarantee of quiet in the future, if it is bought at the price of repression.

One Israeli goal is to obtain recognition for Israel and peaceful relations with its neighbors, a laudable goal. However, a second Israeli goal is to retain a substantial part of the settlements in the territories conquered in 1967, not just in West Jerusalem, or even in the symbolic East Jerusalem, but in Efrat, Maaleh Edumim, and Ariel. These somehow became part of the "national consensus" adopted by former PM Ehud Barak as well as Ariel Sharon. The maps presented at Camp David, and later, in the strange negotiations that continued, for some reason, during the pre-election period, did not show a viable Palestinian state, but a collection of enclaves separated by the infamous checkpoints (for documentation see http://www.mideastweb.org/campdavid2.htm ). The final settlement that was proposed would be a continuation of the current nightmare. There was no indication that the proposals took into account Palestinian needs for economic development and relations with their Arab neighbors. The maps (see http://www.mideastweb.org/lastmaps.htm) do not indicate compact borders drawn around tight security lines. They are rather a complex mess that looks like it was generated by a fractals program, dodging and weaving between politically important and strategically worthless Israeli settlements to produce the longest possible indefensible border line, replete with checkpoints and long corridors that invite trouble. Moreover much of the territorial concessions were contingent on Palestinian compliance with other conditions, such as disarmament, which Israeli negotiators were confident would never happen.

Palestinians want to obtain an independent state and an end to the misery of the refugees. Laudable goals as well. But at the same time as they insisted on full implementation of their version of the Oslo agreements, which the Palestinians insisted were being violated by Israeli settlement activities, the Palestinians themselves gathered arms and trained soldiers in violation of the same agreements, with the advertised goal of "liberating" Haifa and Jaffa and all the other parts of Palestine that became part of Israel in 1948. Curiously, Israel did nothing to stop this activity.

While talking peace, the Israelis continued to build settlements and confiscate land. While talking peace, the Palestinians stockpiled weapons illegally, put out a constant barrage of antisemitic and anti-Israel propaganda, trained a "Palestine Liberation Army" and sent children to paramilitary camps.

But the main controversy was not over the substantial points of borders, contiguity, economy and security, because it is hard to get people excited over maps, trade agreements and the like. The major rallying points of extremists were the two sacred cows of Palestinian and Israeli national consciousness: "Jerusalem" and the "Right of Return." Nobody on either side could take the "wrong" stand on these issues, and as soon as they became the focal point of negotiations, the negotiations were doomed.

Jerusalem and the Right of Return are both non-issues in fact. The Moslem Waqf has enjoyed virtual sovereignty over the Haram as Sharif (Temple Mount) since 1967. Of the 4.4 million Palestinian refugees, a large number live in the United States and Jordan and would not really want to return to their destroyed villages. A good number of those living in refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria, Gaza and the West Bank want to return because they have been brought up to believe it is the only way. But the parents and grandparents of these people fled Palestine so they would not have to live under Israeli rule. if there is nothing, in fact, for them to return to, why should settlement in a new town under Israeli rule be preferable to settlement in a new town under Palestinian or Syrian rule?

Nonetheless, when a final settlement that might exclude the destruction of Israel was threatened, Palestinian extremist groups founded a coalition around the "Right of Return" and planned rallies abroad that coincided with the possible critical dates of the final status negotiations. Right of Return is a sacred part of the Palestinian national mythology, a holy rallying cry of patriotism as important to them as "United Jerusalem" is for Israelis. Right of Return is interpreted as the return of every refugee to Palestine. An article at the Fateh Web site explains frankly that the solution of the refugee problem is the key to the destruction of Israel. The PNA, which had formerly acquiesced in livable solutions to the refugee problem, suddenly became adamant about ROR.

In Israel, rumored concessions over Jerusalem were magnified by right wing politicians, so that it seemed that Ehud Barak was giving up the Jewish birth right by allowing the Palestinians limited autonomy in a few Arab neighborhoods and suburbs. In Palestine and the Arab world, the Holy War for Quds al-Sharif was declared.

Israel correctly anticipated that the "final settlement talks" might end in violence. However, it seems they trained units to deal with the possibility that the Palestinians would declare a state and try to invade settlements. Soldiers were trained in marksmanship and fighting in built-up areas. The obvious possibility, that the PNA would use the same tactics that worked so well in the 80s, was discounted. There was no preparation for crowd control. The result is over 300 Palestinian dead - three Deir Yassins (see http://www.ariga.com/peacewatch/dy) that have left another monument to inhumanity and bitterness on the Palestinian side.

What is Happening?

The Intifadeh made Israeli concessions impossible, wiping out popular support for the Oslo peace process. Israelis fear that concessions could precipitate not only further Palestinian demands and violence, but possibly a regional war. The brutal Israeli response to the Intifadeh has made Palestinian concessions impossible as well.

Arabs see the election of Ariel Sharon as a symbolizing an Israeli "No" to peace, but that is not necessarily the case. Sharon was elected Prime Minister despite his record as a military adventurer. Israelis facing daily machine-gun fire in Jerusalem and bombs in Hadera felt the situation was getting out of control. Sharon's proven abilities when the chips are down suggested that maybe he could succeed where Barak failed. A key factor in Sharon's election had nothing whatever to do with the peace process. The ultra-orthodox Shas party wanted to reduce the jail sentence of their leader, Arieh Deri, serving four years for bribery. Sharon promised, and delivered, a special law that allowed reducing jail terms to one-half of time served. In return, Shas promised, and delivered, the votes of their constituency.

Despite militaristic rhetoric, both sides realize that they have no good options for dramatic resolution of the problem. In Israel, a unity government is being formed because there is no other choice. Ariel Sharon could not govern with a narrow 63 vote coalition. The budget must pass by March 31, or else there would have been new elections. Those elections would have been, by all indications, a sweeping victory for the Israeli right. Probably, Sharon would have been replaced by Benjamin Nethanyahu, who is in fact, a more orthodox right-wing partisan than Sharon. Instead, Sharon has sought a coalition with Labor that will give him a certain amount of flexibility.

On the Palestinian side, the hardening of positions has been accompanied by a rapid disintegration of economic and social life. According to numerous accounts, the Israeli closure and the break up of government mechanisms, such as they were, are causing a rapid slide toward a kind of anarchy or feudalism, in which Palestine may come to be ruled by armed gangs in the service of different clans or political factions.

What Will Happen?

The first priority of the new Israeli government must be to "restore order" and stop the violence. Sharon projected a tough image, and the Palestinian side, whether at the instigation of the PNA itself or of dissident groups, has greeted the election of Sharon with a barrage of violence that is clearly meant as a challenge. If Sharon fails to quell the violence, his government, unity or otherwise, must eventually fall. It is not possible to restore order without some rationalization of the Israeli borders, to exclude the most indefensible settlements. There will be some Israeli withdrawals, either as form of concessions to the Palestinians during "interim settlement" negotiations, or else in order to implement a "separation" plan. The possibility of evacuating settlements was part of the "concessions" that the Labor negotiating team "forced" from Sharon's Likud negotiators, but in reality, Sharon, if not his negotiators, have long since accepted the need for retrenchment. If the peace process is dead, so too is the dream of Greater Israel dead for now.

There will likely be a massive IDF build up in the West Bank and Gaza, of the kind that Sharon used successfully to put down violence in Gaza in the 70s. Sharon has said that Israel would not return to Gaza itself, but that remains to be seen. It is very unlikely, one can hope, that Sharon will be led to the kinds of adventures suggested by extremists such as Yvette Lieberman, who wanted to bomb the Aswan high dam. Unlikely, but possible. Israeli bombings of targets within Palestine and the assassinations policy both produced strong reactions from abroad, and are not likely to be renewed. The perception in Israel is that half-measures are only aggravating the situation and inviting criticism. The longer the Intifadeh continues, the more it invites the possibility of regional war, and the greater the toll on the Israeli economy. It has already scared away foreign investment and produced a sharp economic downturn. Reserve duty days for 2001 have been doubled, causing a further strain on the economy. Clearly, this is not a situation that Israel will allow to continue. The principle tactic of the Israeli side may well be closure, which is the least dramatic alternative, draws the least attention, and can have the most deadly long term consequences. It is also the slowest. In the past, faced with similar attrition tactics, Israel has resorted to more drastic measures.

The Palestinians hoped to bring about international intervention in their cause. They have been, and will be. disappointed for the most part. The Arab League boycott may be partially revived. The petroleum states offered money, but never delivered it, citing Palestinian government corruption as the reason. Only the radical states such as Iraq and Syria offered any real hope of support. The Hizbulla raids along the Lebanese border perhaps were instigated by a Syrian desire to suck Israel into a larger involvement in Lebanon and a wider war. Israel keeps a wary eye on Syrian armor concentrations in eastern Lebanon, which are much larger than could possibly be needed to put down any local Lebanese resistance. Iraqi troops were reported advancing to the Jordanian border, and later, to the Syrian border. Iraq also announced the formation of a volunteer army for a holy war. However, the renewed U.S. bombings of Iraq signal that with a Bush in the White House, Saddam Hussein may have worries closer to home than Jerusalem. No doubt Damascus took note as well.

Lacking any other alternative to advance their cause, the Palestinians will probably resort to sporadic terror, possibly based from abroad.

We have returned, essentially, to the Middle East of ten or fifteen years ago. The "New Middle East" looks for now exactly like the same old Middle East. The main features of the current conflict - road ambushes, random terror, mutual radicalization, lip service and actual indifference of Arab governments, disintegration of Palestinian society - could all describe the events of 1947. The big winners are the "activists" on both sides. The big losers are the Israeli people and the Palestinian people. The slogan, "We are condemned to live together in this little plot of land" was repeated by everyone, but internalized by nobody.

It is not accurate to say that another opportunity for peace was lost. Rather, there was never an opportunity for peace, because most of the protagonists were never interested in peace. There will not be an opportunity for peace until peace stops being a dirty word in the Middle East, and a synonym for destruction of the "enemy."

Ami Isseroff
Rehovot, Israel

Produced by the PEACE Mid-East Dialog Group 
Ami Isseroff - Ameen Hannoun



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