Israels Monumental Pickle


It is early to conclusively judge if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has fulfilled his promise to bring security and peace to Israelis, but the signs so far should be rather troubling for Israelis, for at least two reasons. Israelis now face more random personal danger throughout the country than they did two months ago, and, Sharons policies may be revealing to Israelis that their so-called deterrence military power is, in fact, ineffective, and no power at all.

Israelis are living a strange paradox. They exhibit an unprecedented combination of national strength and weakness, success and failure, security and vulnerability, and certitude and confusion. Israel is in the biggest pickle of its life. Despite its military bluster and swagger, Israel obviously has not found the way out of its core national dilemma: it is at the peak of its power and development, enjoying unprecedented international support, providing life, identity, security, and prosperity to the Jewish people around the world; yet at the same time it suffers the most profound insecurities and vulnerabilities because of its relationship to the Palestinian people who struggle with it heroically for equal national rights in the land of Palestine and Israel. Israels formidable strengths are almost meaningless in its confrontation with the Palestinians, and Israelis finally seem to be grasping this difficult point.

During the past seven months of escalating Israeli-Palestinian clashes, I have been struck by two aspects of widespread Israeli reactions. First is the unanimity of Israelis who agree on the need to address security issues first by using whatever force is necessary to crush or pacify the Palestinians, and this generated Sharons landslide election victory. Second is the profound, existential sense of concern for Israels very survival, which Israelis express in two ways — by saying that Israel is fighting for its existence in a repeat of the 1948 fighting, and by saying that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have forfeited their credibility as peace partners and consequently Israel must brace for years of fighting simply to remain alive. Israelis see only gloom and doom, and they blame it all on the Palestinians and Yasser Arafat.

I dont remember a time in my lifetime when so many Israelis have been so consistently wrong for such a sustained period of time. They are wrong in trying to explain the intifada as simply the consequence of a political switch that Yasser Arafat turned on when he allegedly needed more violence in the area to bring international pressure to bear on the Israelis. They are wrong to interpret the sustained Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, the intifada, as a sign that the Palestinians and other Arabs have rejected co-existence with the state of Israel, and seek instead to wipe out Israel. They are wrong to assume that a fair peace treaty based on international legitimacy cannot now be achieved with the Palestinians.

A typically fantastic Israeli comment was that of a certain Ron Dermer in the Jerusalem Post newspaper this week, who said: The unwillingness of the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state remains, as it has always been, the insurmountable obstacle toward achieving any solution in the near future.the real alternative facing Israel today is not whether to choose between a military or diplomatic solution, but whether or not to believe that any solution is possible for now.

This is bizarre nonsense that verges on the hallucinatory. A more accurate explanation is that the current low-intensity war is taking place because Israel has steadfastly refused to stop expanding its colonies and settlements in Palestinian lands occupied in 1967, offers the Palestinians a very truncated and degraded form of territorial sovereignty and independence that are subject to Israeli security needs above all else, applies humiliating control measures and collective punishments on the occupied Palestinians, and refuses to accept its fair share of responsibility for the creation of the Palestine refugees of 1947-48 or to resolve this problem according to UN resolutions. Consequently, the Palestinians erupted again in a spontaneous rebellion that seeks to drive home to Israelis the unacceptability of these trends.

Its really rather simple: the Palestinians want freedom and equal rights with other human beings and sovereign states. They are prepared to live peacefully alongside an Israeli state if both states enjoy equal rights, but they are also prepared to sacrifice for a long time to win their struggle for independence.

Israel had always assumed that in a worst case scenario of armed resistance and attacks against Israeli settlers, occupation soldiers, and others of its citizens, it could retaliate with massive military force and punitive, colonial-vintage control measures. Israel is doing all this, and has done it for nearly 35 years — but to its obvious growing concern, puzzlement, and impressive confusion, these measures do not seem to work any more. Ariel Sharon is slowly being exposed as a merchant of false goods, a cheap and cruel peddler of fake hair tonic.

Israels monumental pickle is that it is suddenly waking up to the fact that its ultimate deterrent — the massive, sustained use of military power against the Palestinians, often with American diplomatic acquiescence — is, in fact, no deterrent at all. The Palestinians are no longer frightened by large Israeli guns or by death itself. You cant deter someone who is not afraid of you. This is not peculiarly Palestinian heroism or foolhardiness. It is simply how legitimate national resistance movements work, whether undertaken by Jews against Hellenized Romans 2200 years ago, by Americans against the British 225 years ago, by French and Belgians against the Nazis 60 years ago, by Algerians against French 50 years ago, by Vietnamese against Americans 30 years ago, or by Palestinians against Israelis today.

When the occupied shed their fear of the occupiers power, the battle is over. The big guns have no more meaning or purpose. The swaggering general looks like a foolhardy and tragic figure who promises only more senseless death for both parties.

No wonder Ariel Sharon has quickly dropped his precondition of not negotiating while the fighting continues, and is furiously negotiating with the Palestinians on half a dozen fronts (in person via the Europeans, through his son Omri, his foreign minister, his security folks, and a few other interlocutors soon to be revealed). It is also no surprise that his government is suddenly making semi-happy noises about the Jordanian-Egyptian proposals to cease fire, return to the September 28, 2000 positions, implement the Sharm esh-Sheikh memorandum, and resume the final status negotiations.

Presumably, there are important lessons to be learned here — lessons about the real power of guns, the futility of trusting false salesmen in moments of panic, and the enduring role of balance, justice, fairness, and applying the rule of law in conflict-resolution.

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