By Frank Armstrong.
There are two possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: one realistic the other miraculous. The realistic solution conjures divine intervention; the miraculous, a voluntary agreement between the parties.
The latest round of conflict is, mercifully, largely over. On August 26th, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) accepted a ceasefire agreement after a 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza had left 2,100 Palestinians dead and devastating destruction in its wake; 71 Israelis were killed, all but 5 soldiers. The agreement calls for an end to military action by both Israel and Hamas, as well as an easing of the ongoing Israeli siege of Gaza. Essentially, nothing has changed.
To explain the conduct of the Israeli authorities it is important to understand the ideology behind the Likud party, the dominant political force in Israel since its foundation in 1977 under the leadership of Menachem Begin. Although Ariel Sharon split with the party and formed Kadima in 2006, relegating Likud to fourth place in the ensuing elections, it has since returned to power under the immanent figure of Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Arab-Israeli wars which began with the foundation of Israel in 1948 have mostly resulted in comprehensive Israeli victories, notably in the 1967 Six-Day War. This ascendancy has been consolidated by the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the US, Israel’s Cold War patron, as lone Superpower. The Palestinian geopolitical position was further weakened by PLO support for Iraq in the first Gulf War.
But, despite accords with Egypt and Jordan, Israel faces perpetual conflict with neighbouring countries, as most Arabs nurse a fixed view of Israel as a colonising, oppressive presence in the region. It is only continued autocratic rule in Egypt and Jordan that keeps these sentiments in check.
The Israeli electorate has consistently favoured leaders unwilling to countenance concessions, and the expansion of settlements has become a fixed policy. The withdrawal from Gaza in 2006 was a simple realisation that it was untenable to maintain 10,000 settlers inside a grossly over-populated strip of land containing over a million and a half Palestinians. There were bigger fish to fry in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
To explain the intransigence it is necessary to understand the ideology underpinning the Likud Party. Likud ideology can be traced to three principal sources: first, the writings of the Revionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky; second, the experience of the Holocaust; and third, the emergence of religious Zionism after 1967.
Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky (1880-1940), a Russian-born Jew, is generally viewed as the spiritual founder of the Israeli Right. In 1923 he wrote a still influential article entitled ‘On the Iron Wall (We and the Arabs)’. In it he asserted that a “voluntary agreement between us and the Arabs of Palestine is inconceivable now or in the foreseeable future”, since: “Every indigenous people… will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the dangers of foreign settlement”.
In response to resistance Jabotinsky advocated “an iron wall” of military might which “they [the Palestinians] will be powerless to break down”.
With military ascendancy achieved Palestinians would be ready to yield and only then “will they have given up all hope of getting rid of the alien settlers. Only then will extremist groups with their slogan “No, never” lose their influence, and only then will their influence be transferred to more moderate groups”. At that point limited political rights could be granted.
Such a vision ordains that negotiations can begin only when the Palestinians produce a malleable leadership willing to accept their permanent exclusion. Jabotinsky’s metaphorical ‘iron wall’ was given a literal interpretation by Sharon’s construction of the ‘security fence’ that runs through the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas was perhaps viewed by Sharon as a leader who would acquiesce to Israeli demands, but Hamas most certainly was not.
But Jabotinsky’s analysis was flawed as it ignored how the policy of the ‘iron wall’ could generate fatalistic extremism in the form of suicide bombing and the use of civilian shields for rocket attacks. He also failed to foresee the internationalisation of the Palestinian cause.
The second major influence on Likud, and Israeli society in general, is the trauma of the Holocaust experience. The collective memory of Jewish passivity in the face of genocide mandates a policy of fierce reprisal in response to the taking of Jewish life. Restraint is characterised as appeasement.
The leadership of the Israeli Right manipulates this latent fear of destruction, appealing to an international as well as a domestic audience.
In his book ‘A Place Among the Nations’ Benjamin Netanyahu dwelt on the lessons of appeasement of Nazi Germany and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the Western powers for the contemporary Middle East. Arabs are likened to Nazi Germany, Palestinians to the Sudeten Germans, and Israel to the small democracy of Czechoslovakia, the victim of Chamberlain’s 1938 deal with Hitler. For Netanyahu the lesson is clear, to grant concessions to Palestinians is to endanger the survival of the state of Israel.
This Holocaust motif was also employed by opponents of Yitzhak Rabin after he signed up to the Oslo Accords. Inside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, two Likud deputies proceeded to open black umbrellas comparing Rabin’s peace deal to Chamberlain’s capitulation, while effigies of Rabin dressed in SS uniform were set alight at right wing demonstrations..
Suicide bombing and rocket attacks cunningly target this traumatic inheritance, perpetuating a cycle of violence that is difficult to contain, and generated support for the extremists on the Palestinian side. The loss of Israeli life calls for harsh reprisal, which in turn radicalises the Palestinian population. Acting out of the core Likud dogma, Netanyahu must respond to an attack even if this completely discredits moderate Palestinian leaders. The ferocity of Israel’s response to terrorism works against the moderate Palestinian leadership that Jabotinsky’s model requires. Likud policy exceeds the idea of the ‘iron wall’.
The last major influence on Likud is the rise of religious Zionism, especially generated by the 1967 Six-Day War. The enormous territorial gains of this war were interpreted as a sign of divine favour and settlement of the land became a religious imperative.
Politically, this generated a raft of religious parties in the Knesset in the 1970s. Likud was also strongly influenced by this messianic message and still relies on the support of religious parties. The principle at work is that anyone prepared to entertain abandonment of the sacred land is a traitor to the Jewish people.
Its force was demonstrated by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which effectively de-railed the Oslo Peace Process. Rabin’s killer was a young extremist by the name of Yigal Amir. During his trial Amir told the court that according to halacha (Jewish law), a Jew who gives his land to the enemy and endangers the life of other Jews must be killed.
The political durability of the religious right was shown by Sharon’s difficulty in removing settlers from Gaza, which ultimately saw him leave Likud, forming Kadima and entering into coalition with Labour. The difficulty of removing settlers from Gaza would be magnified ten-fold if it were attempted on the West Bank, containing the Biblical province of Judea as well as a third of Israel’s water supply, let alone sacred Jerusalem.
The Likud Party has thus moved to the right of its ideological founder, Jabotinsky, who envisaged some form of political settlement. Policy is hamstrung by paranoid reprisals born out of a cathartic need for pro-activity in response to provocation and a religious right that interprets sovereignty over land in religious terms.
In such circumstances it is hard to hold out any hope for peace, but there has been at least one instance where Israel was moved along the road to compromise. Under George Bush Senior ten billion dollars in loan credits were denied to them which forced the then Likud government under Yitzhak Shamir to the negotiating table.
A clear message, with financial clout behind it, that the international community, including the United States, will not tolerate continued intransigence could lead to electoral success for the more pragmatic Labour party and other secular parties. Unfortunately, however, the prospect of America leaning on Israel seems slight. In such circumstances the European Union should consider withdrawing the preferential trade status currently enjoyed by Israel under the EU-Israel Association Agreement.
Fatah has a bottom line, which is the 1967 borders – including partial control over Jerusalem. For any peace to hold there would also have to be concessions to the 1948 dispossessed. Whether Hamas would sign up to recognition of the state of Israel is not clear, although there have been suggestions that this could happen. Indeed it has been suggested that the latest round of conflict was motivated by fear of the unity government between Fatah and Hamas. It serves Likud ideology to confront corresponding intransigence.
A Likud administration will never allow a viable Palestinian state to emerge, and in the current circumstances the dominance of the Likud party will subsist. In the meantime the peace process stalls, and the suffering of Palestinians continues to be a source of regional and global instability, and shame.