Like the self-deluding crowds that praised the king’s new clothes as he strode by stark naked, U.S. policymakers have long refused to acknowledge that Israel’s security is in less danger from its Arab neighbors than from maintaining an oppressive occupation. Thanks to pressure from America’s Israel lobby, Washington long ago assumed as a sacred trust the obligation to spend billions of dollars a year assuring Israel’s military superiority in the Middle East. As a result, Israel is one of the most heavily armed nations in the world, with a politically powerful military establishment.
Protecting national security has from the beginning been less of a concern to Israeli leaders than acquiring more territory. The Israelis have turned down Arab peace overtures since at least 1949, when at the Lausanne conference they refused Arab offers of peace in exchange for the return of Palestinian refugees. Immediately after the June 1967 war Palestinian elders offered peace if Israel withdrew from the newly captured West Bank, an offer that Israel ignored. Since the late 1970s Palestinians and Arab leaders have indicated they would accept a two-state solution. Today, with a Palestinian president pledged to nonviolent resistance, Israel’s concern for security remains more pretext than reality.
Protecting national security serves Israel as an excuse to flout U.N. resolutions, and to repeatedly bomb and invade Lebanon and Gaza. It is the rationale for constructiing a barrier in the West Bank that creates a new border east of the Green Line. Israel cites security concerns to justify the imprisonment of Palestinians who advocate nonviolence, and the army’s use of tear gas, clubs and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful protesters. A Palestinian housewife, Jawaher Abu Rahmeh, died of respiratory failure on Jan. 1, a day after soldiers sprayed her with tear gas during the regular Friday protest at the Bil’in separation barrier.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s stated requirements for a peace agreement go far beyond guarantees of Israel’s security. Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and forgo the return of refugees. Netanyahu, backed by President Barack Obama, insists that Israeli troops remain stationed in the Jordan Valley, where the army is demolishing Palestinian villages to make way for new settlements. To the west a buffer zone several kilometers wide would remain on the Palestinian side of the separation wall. Netanyahu’s plan would leave Palestinians with a demilitarized mini-state on 60 percent of the West Bank, surrounded by Israeli troops, with no access to East Jerusalem and no control over its border with Jordan.
Such demands send an unmistakable message that Israel is more interested in keeping control of the West Bank than in achieving the security that would result from a peace agreement. That message was made even clearer when the Israelis turned down President Obama’s offer of 20 F-35 stealth bombers, a pledge to veto all anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N., and a permanent guarantee of Israel’s security. In return, Israel had only to suspend settlement construction for 90 days. The cabinet refused even to consider the offer.
Netanyahu proposed on Jan. 1 that he and President Mahmoud Abbas hold continuous one-on-one peace talks until they reach agreement. But he did not say he was prepared to offer concessions, or explain how, if he could not persuade his cabinet to discuss even a brief settlement halt, he could convince them to accept a peace agreement based on the 1967 borders, which the Palestinians insist on.
In his speech in Cairo in April 2009, President Obama declared unequivocally that "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." Yet less than a year later, in December 2010, instead of threatening to cut off U.S. aid if Israel did not comply with international law, he sent Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell on yet another mission to the Middle East, where, according to Robert Wright of the New America Foundation, he "will talk to the two sides about what they might say should they ever talk to each other."
Obama’s retreat has left the Israelis free to add thousands of Jewish settlers to the 500,000 already living in the West Bank. Between mid-September and mid-December of last year, construction began on more than 2,000 new homes, with 13,000 more planned. The Israeli peace group Gush Shalom reported that demolition crews in East Jerusalem are demolishing Palestinian homes "more or less at random" to make way for Jewish housing.
The building boom that began last September also has resulted in the establishment of settlements in remote parts of the West Bank, where Israeli bulldozers are leveling whole hillsides to provide building lots. The boundaries of the new settlements are being intentionally left unclear, to allow for their continued expansion at the expense of nearby Palestinian communities. Since a two-state solution now would involve moving hundreds of thousands of Israelis back to Israel, the prospects of such a solution have become increasingly dim.
Palestinians have every reason to doubt that Washington intends to pursue a peace agreement if it means confronting Israel. Consequently Palestinian officials, led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, instead are seeking the international community’s endorsement of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Bolivia, Venezuela and Argentina already have recognized such a state and others are likely to follow.
Robert Wright suggests how such a plan might work. In an op-ed column in the Dec. 14 New York Times he points out that "The United Nations created a Jewish state six decades ago, and it can create a Palestinian state now. The U.N. can define the borders, set the timetable and lay down the rules for Palestinian elections, specifying, for example, that the winners must swear allegiance to a constitution that acknowledges Israel’s right to exist."
Wright admits that such a solution would pose problems, but adds that "it looks pretty good when you realize how hopeless the current process is." As for the inevitable protest from the Israel lobby, he writes that Obama would have to face it only twice: once when he agreed to explore this approach with the "Quartet" of Russia, the European Union, and the U.N.; and again when the U.S. refrained from vetoing it at the U.N.
The Israelis need a peace agreement almost as much as the Palestinians if they wish to stop the increasing erosion of free speech and ordinary civility in their society. On Jan. 6 the Knesset voted to investigate left-of-center human rights and civil liberties organizations in Israel, with one Knesset member, Michael Ben-Ari, calling such groups "traitors," "germs," and "enemies of Israel." Religious leaders who preach hatred of Palestinians have fostered an outbreak of mob attacks on Israeli Palestinians and on immigrant workers. In mid-December the chief rabbi of Safed issued a letter ordering Israeli Jews to refrain from renting or selling homes to Arabs, and 300 rabbis signed it. Eli Tzviele, a Holocaust survivor in his 80s, has been hounded by rabbis and threatened with arson if he continues to rent to Arabs.
The continued occupation has long had a brutalizing effect on the army. Testimony by veterans in Breaking the Silence describes bored soldiers tormenting small Palestinian boys, humiliating fathers in front of their children, pocketing vital I.D. cards as a prank, vandalizing Palestinian homes, and tossing sound grenades into crowded market places to frighten shoppers. Israeli writer Yossi Gurwitz describes the accounts as a record "of little nobodies granted control over the lives of others, of the automatic trend to sadism in such positions, and the burning hatred they leave behind." It is a description of the occupation itself.
Israeli law as it applies to Palestinians too often takes the form of arbitrary cruelty. Adnan Gheith, a resident of Silwan in East Jerusalem, was banished from his home in Jerusalem for four months last December for speaking out against the continuing demolition of Palestinian homes in his neighborhood. A few weeks earlier Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a nonviolent activist in the West Bank, completed his year-long sentence for "incitement"–”but as he was about to be released to rejoin his family, the army without explanation ordered that he remain in prison. Abu Ramah’s crime was to organize nonviolent protests against the separation barrier, which the International Court of Justice declared illegal in 2004.
Israelis have reason to regret that their nation, once admired in the West as a socialist democracy at least for Jews, is rapidly becoming a pariah state. Israel’s ongoing siege of Gaza has not weakened Hamas, but resulted in a poverty rate of 80 percent and the spread of malnutrition and disease, according to the World Health Organization. In late December, a season of peace and goodwill, Israel escalated its air attacks on Gaza. Israeli warplanes, undoubtedly provided by the U.S., carried out a series of strikes aimed at "militants" and whatever infrastructure remained–”including a dairy factory and Gaza’s only functioning power plant–”after Israel’s devastating assault in the winter of 2008-9.
Among the supposed militants killed was Sasama Abu Hashish, a 20-year-old Gaza farmer, who was shot by Israeli snipers on Christmas Eve as he tended his sheep several meters from Gaza’s border with Israel. Abu Hashish, who left behind a young wife and a day-old baby girl, was on his own land at the time, but the buffer zone on the Gaza side of the border fence, which is from 500 to 1,500 meters wide, contains 35 percent of Gaza’s arable land. In the previous five weeks the Israelis shot more than 40 Gazan farmers when they wandered into the zone.
Israel claims its cross-border air strikes and shootings are aimed at stopping rocket attacks, which Hamas is trying to prevent. Yet Haaretz recently reported that Israel’s Iron Dome missile intercept system, designed to protect Israeli towns from the rockets, is being kept at an Israeli air force base until it can be used in a future war to protect military installations (see this issue’s "Other Voices" supplement). Meanwhile, Israel is selling the system to Singapore and India. The U.S.provided Israel with $205 million to pay for its development.
An incident that took place last fall suggested that Israel’s punishment of the Palestinians is motivated to no small degree by an occupation mentality that has become ingrained in Israeli culture. When Israel called on other nations for help in battling a devastating forest fire near Haifa, the Palestinian Authority responded with two fire engines and several firefighters. All of them entered Israel with no trouble. But when a ceremony to honor the firemen was held a few weeks later, all but seven of the Palestinians were prevented from entering Israel. Although the army claimed "a bureaucratic mistake," Knesset member Ahmed Tibi blamed the incident on the "stupidity and lordly attitude of the occupation regime."
Nevertheless, Palestinians remain ready to live in peace with Israel. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah declared on Dec. 1 that if a referendum were held on any proposed peace agreement with Israel, Hamas would accept the outcome, "even if it contradicts our policies and convictions." Abbas two weeks later circumvented the stalled peace negotiations by inviting 60 Israeli public figures to lunch, including members of Kadima, Likud and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
Speaking of his concern for the future of his eight grandchildren, the Palestinian president repeated his commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully. On the way back to Israel Amram Mitzna, a former leader of the Labor party, said the meeting proved "to anyone who wants to know if there is a partner on the other side that, yes, there is one."
A Pointless and Costly Venture
Unfortunately, achieving Middle East peace may have become less of a priority for the Obama administration than pursuing the war in Afghanistan–”a war that is turning out to be one of the most pointless and costly ventures in American history. As the new year began, the only certainties were that U.S. troops will be fighting in Afghanistan until at least 2014, and that Afghan and Pakistani civilians are paying an increasingly fearful price.
Obama’s long awaited strategy assessment in mid-December asserted that U.S.-NATO forces had "halted the momentum" of the Taliban in the south, but acknowledged that those gains are "reversible." Meanwhile, according to analysts and aid workers, the Taliban has extended its reach to the north, where a variety of militant groups purportedly fighting to defend the government are in fact robbing and terrorizing the local population. NATO has plans to transform many of these groups into local police forces, but Afghan officials warn that they are essentially thugs, formerly employed by the warlords whose brutality and corruption prompted the Afghans to welcome the Taliban in the 1990s.
The administration’s goals in Afghanistan have become increasingly murky. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said after the assessment report was released, "Our goal is not a country free of corruption. It’s to turn back the Taliban and provide some minimal capability to the Afghan government." But U.S.-NATO commander Gen. David Petraeus has adopted a strategy that is far from modest. According to Michael Cohen, a Fellow at the American Security Project, the U.S. use of air power has "increased dramatically" since Petraeus took over. The military is now using three times as many bombs and missiles as in 2009, with 850 missions in November alone. The number of night raids and assassinations by Special Operations forces has also tripled–”and, as it did in Vietnam, the military again is issuing daily body counts.
Red Cross officials held a rare press conference on Dec. 15 to express their concern over the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a number that has increased by 25 percent over last year. The number of displaced civilians in both countries also has increased. Petraeus’ strategy of using air strikes and night raids to kill as many insurgents as possible has fueled increasing popular resentment and therefore could be self-defeating. Meanwhile, as Anatol Lieven pointed out in the Jan. 3 issue of The Nation, the assassinations are eliminating the very Taliban commanders who might be open to reconciliation with the Afghan government.
Meanwhile neither peace nor victory is in sight. The government of Pakistan, a crucial U.S. ally, faces fierce domestic opposition and is in danger of collapsing, despite receiving billions of dollars in U.S. aid. European Union President Herman Van Romping was quoted by WikiLeaks as saying last year, "No one believes in Afghanistan anymore." Yet on Jan. 6 the Pentagon announced it was sending 1,400 more combat Marines to Afghanistan in order to continue a war that has no clear objective other than killing more Taliban and propping up two failed governments.