Thinking about Israel


The word “Israel” has a quite unusual resonance in English, especially in the United States. To hear politicians repeat the familiar mantra about supporting Israel and keeping it strong is to realise that an actual country or state is not at issue, but rather an idea or a talisman of some sort, one that far transcends the status of every other state or country in the world. A few weeks ago, Senator Hillary Clinton publicly declared that she was donating $1,250 to Israeli settlers so that they could buy more gas-masks and helmets, all this she added solemnly, without a trace of irony or of the macabre humour that the situation deserved, as part of her commitment to keeping Israel strong and secure. Naturally enough — at least for those of us who live in the US — this episode was reported as if it were an unremarkable, as opposed to a bizarre or preposterous, occurrence.

Newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post are filled with columnists such as William Safire and Charles Krauthammer who in any other context would seem completely crazy. Both have taken to crowing over Sharon’s tenure as head of Israel’s government, not because he has shown a propensity to brute force and, on the whole, stupidly destructive actions, but because they argue with a completely straight face that he is the only figure capable of showing Palestinians the kind of disciplinary reasoning that will set them straight. He proposed magnanimously to give them 42 per cent of the West Bank, or maybe a bit more, plus keeping all the settlements for Israel and ringing the Palestinian territories with permanent Israeli fences: this is reasonable and good as a way of solving the Intifada. He said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that after all, “we” have one million Arabs in Israel; why can’t “they” (the Palestinians) tolerate a few hundred thousand Israeli settlers? And one more thing about Sharon’s American defenders. What is fascinating is how they arrogate to themselves as Americans the right to tell Israel what it should be doing and thinking for its own good.

Israel has therefore been internalised as the private personal fantasy of every American supporter, or so the appearances seem to suggest. Yet, American Jews have a special relationship that entitles them to perhaps a greater degree of involvement in telling Israel what it should be, in particular — and this is the most amazing feature of what I am discussing — on matters of security. No one bothers to note that Israeli citizens are the ones doing the fighting and planning, not long-distance diaspora Jews. It’s all part of the domestication of Israel, that keeps it away from history and the consequences of its actions. When you venture that Israel is laying up hatred and vindictiveness for itself in every Arab breast by virtue of its bombing and collective punishment, you are told in response that you are being anti-Semitic. Justice and wisdom don’t enter into it, only what purports to be (in the case of Israel’s Arab critics) an insensate, deeply ingrained hatred of Jews.

It is therefore little short of miraculous that despite its years of military occupation Israel is not ever identified with colonialism or colonial practices. That seems to me the greatest failing of all, both of Palestinian information and discourse and even of Israeli dissent, when they undertake to be critical of Israeli government policy. There is an excellent analysis of “How Far Will Sharon Go?” in the current New York Review of Books (dated May 17, 2001) by Avishai Margalit, professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University, which is totally unlike American analyses of the situation in that: a) it minces no words about Israeli collective punishment against Palestinians; and, b) it doesn’t attempt to dress up the situation with any fancy language about Israeli security, an appalling habit of intellectuals who feel the need to talk as if they are generals in order to take themselves seriously. My only criticism of Margalit is that he doesn’t come straight out and call for the end of military occupation and for an Israeli acknowledgement of injustices done against the Palestinian people. That’s what intellectuals are supposed to do, rather than go on about politics from the point of view of politicians. Be that as it may, what is very important about Margalit’s writing here is that it demystifies Israel’s aura which has been slowly built up and carefully structured over the years so as to eliminate Palestinians from the picture altogether.

I think therefore that what any Palestinian peace effort must accomplish is first of all to connect Israel with its deeds, and to focus on ending those practices, rather than trying to make a deal with them or to have one brokered. One of the gravest flaws in Oslo was for the PLO leadership (ie Yasser Arafat) to have ignored what Israel had done as an occupying force, and even having ignored the fact of occupation itself; one can’t make a deal with occupation, which is like cancer in that it continues to expand, unless it is identified, surrounded, and then attacked. Israel’s history proves it. For those who say that Israel must be accepted, the only sane response is to ask which Israel, since the country has never had internationally declared borders, but continues to tinker endlessly with its own size. No other country since World War II has been in such a position, and there is no reason to let that go on indefinitely. Peace can only be made on the basis of full withdrawal and the end of occupation. These are concrete rather than general matters, which often divert us from our goal as a people seeking self-determination.

Whereas I can understand the Palestinian leadership’s desire to do something now to try to end an obviously draining war of attrition, I also think it is grossly immoral and stupid simply to resume the Oslo negotiations as if nothing has happened. In September 1996, a mini-Intifada broke out after Israel had provocatively opened a tunnel under the Haram, but that ended with many Palestinian deaths and nothing changed either on the ground or in the negotiations. Under Barak, as Margalit correctly notes, settlement building increased along with every imaginable Palestinian difficulty. What is the point of the PLO continuing the unendurable sufferings of its people just for Mr Arafat to be invited back to the White House? There is no point at all, but what surprises me is the Authority’s brazen attitude of simply continuing with its talk of resuming negotiations as if 400 people had not died and 13,000 had never been wounded. Do these leaders have no dignity at all, no sense of propriety or even of their own history?

It would therefore seem that Israel’s official callousness to the Palestinians has been internalised, not only by extreme American Zionists, the dreadful Ariel Sharon, and the Israeli political establishment, but also by the Palestinian leadership. In his 27 April Jerusalem Post interview, Sharon kept repeating that the Intifada consists only of “terrorism” and therefore reduces all Palestinian action, except ending resistance and re-arresting Islamic activists, to that and that only. For Arafat to negotiate peace with Sharon without removing the word “terrorism” from their vocabulary is tantamount to accepting the equation of the Palestinian struggle against occupation with terrorism, yet so far as I know, no concentrated effort is being made through information and addressing Israelis and Americans to restore reality to discourse. The logical assumption seems to be that Israel=military occupation=Palestinian resistance. So, what must become central to Arab efforts now is to disrupt and even destroy the equation, not simply to put forward abstract arguments about the Right of Return for the Palestinian refugees.

Sharon’s re-entry into politics has brought with it a quite conscious effort on his part to shift the scene back to 1948, to attempt to re-stage Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians as a battle for Israel’s very survival. He seems to have had no difficulty in finding support for this atavistic, extremely regressive view among some (but obviously not all) Israelis, who have responded to the unstated idea that Jews can never live free of persecution and hostility. To an outsider, such a notion seems both improbable and untenable. For surely having established in many respects a powerful and successful state, Israeli Jews would seem now in an excellent position to be both confident and magnanimous in their attitude toward the victims they have so wrongfully treated. But now, they continue to re-enact the original situation in which they first dispossessed Palestinians, thereby re-experiencing the hostility and consternation that they themselves caused in others, feeling, however, that the trauma was theirs, not the Palestinians’. Sharon exploits this terrible syndrome, as dramatic an example of the neurosis Freud called the compulsion to repeat as one can find; one returns again and again to the scene of one’s original trauma, allowing oneself to remain in the grip of a powerful neurotic fear without availing oneself either of the solace of reason or of reality.

Israeli policies therefore have to appear as they are, rather than as its propagandists wish them to seem. For this, we need the combined efforts of Israeli dissenters, as well as of Arab intellectuals and ordinary citizens. For not only have the corruptions of language and of unexamined history infected the peace process fatally, but they seem to have entered the very thinking of leaders whose first responsibility is to the people they lead, rather than to their enemies or their supposed patrons (in this case, the US). The right lessons should be drawn from Colin Powell’s remarks to Israel about its invasion of Gaza. He was basically condemning Palestinian resistance, then condemning the Israeli response to that as disproportionate; this is very far from the truth of course, and it prolongs the distortions of perception that have crippled our arguments as an unjustly wronged people. If we are seen only as disrupters of Israel’s presence — which, falsely portrayed as a beleaguered and victimised state, continues to be the image by which our resistance is judged — then we can only aspire to a mutilated solution and an even more ridiculously skewed kind of peace process. It would therefore seem to me that the first political task of any negotiations that stem from the Intifada is to labour mightily to correct the initial error, and restore Israel to its proper place as a mature colonial power collectively abusing an entire people against the laws both of war and of peace. Even the obdurate and hopelessly disorganised Palestinian leadership must be persuaded of this elementary reality before it goes on to do more damage than it has already.

In other words, as I argued in my last article, we must seize the high moral ground and press our case from there against the injustice of prolonged military occupation. Simply to make a temporary security agreement now is both futile and immoral. Besides, no such agreement can last, so long as Israeli settlements are still being constructed while Palestinians remain locked up in their collective prison. The only negotiations worth anything now must be about the terms of an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in 1967. Anything else is a waste of our time as a people.

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