What would it take to persuade Israel to rethink its attitude towards its Arab neighbors — and primarily towards the Palestinians? The Hamas victory in Gaza is surely a clear signal that an Israeli change of direction is urgently needed.
All Israel’s efforts to break the democratically-elected Hamas government have failed. Its policies of boycott, siege and starvation, of bombing and shelling, of extra-judicial murder, of withholding tax revenues, of the systematic destruction of Palestinian institutions, have served only to create a time-bomb of hunger, despair and defiance on Israel’s flank.
Yet Israel appears to have learned nothing. Instead of seeking peace with the Arabs — instead of seizing their outstretched hand — it persists in rejecting all peace overtures, preferring to rely on force and still more force, and on its ability to manipulate its American ally.
In Washington this week, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert managed to abort a tentative American initiative to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He persuaded George W. Bush — a president painfully out of his depth in Middle East politics — that this was not the time for peace talks with either the Palestinians or the Syrians.?
The appointment as Israel’s new defense minister of Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and chief of staff, who defines his primary task as restoring Israel’s deterrent capability, is another ominous sign that wars rather than peace talks lie ahead.?
Israeli sources report that Barak will not admit, even in private, that he made some mistakes in 1999-2000 when, as prime minister, he missed the chance of peace with both the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Syrian leader Hafiz al-Asad. This is a bad start for a man who is likely to play a prominent role in Israeli politics in the months and years ahead.
Condoleezza Rice, the unfortunate U.S. secretary of state whom some had thought was planning a new push for Arab-Israeli talks, has clearly been outgunned by pro-Israeli hawks, such as Elliott Abrams at the National Security Council.?
The word from Washington is that combating “terror” remains the U.S.-Israeli priority. President Mahmud Abbas, who rules courtesy of the IDF and the settlers over three or four beleaguered Bantustans on the West Bank, has been instructed to join the war against his Palestinian brothers, if he is to earn a few crumbs from the rich man’s table.
To most independent observers it seems plain that Israel’s cruel, aggressive and expansionist policies have resulted in a steady deterioration in its strategic environment. It has acquired, or rather created, enemies on several fronts — Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, large numbers of dispossessed, brutalized and radicalized Palestinians eking out a living in refugee camps, Syria to the north, Iran not much further away, and radical groups such as Al-Qaeda in many other places reflecting the angry mood of much of the Arab and Muslim world.
Some other trends should cause Israeli alarm bells to ring. Educated European opinion is increasingly outraged by Israel’s behavior; meanwhile the Arabs are getting better educated, better armed, and far, far richer than ever before; and soaring Arab demographics are producing tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of potential recruits for the asymmetric wars which Israel is ill-prepared to fight but which seem to be the pattern of the future.
If this were not enough, the trend to which Israel should perhaps pay the greatest attention is that its main ally, the United States, is bogged down in an unwinnable war, waged in large part because Israel’s American friends, the Washington neo-conservatives, thought that if America smashed Iraq, Israel would no longer have anything to fear from the east. It could then continue its West Bank land-grab and its destruction of Palestinian society without risking any serous Arab reaction.
The neo-cons are now pressing hard for a U.S. war against Iran, as if unaware that the long-suffering American public is increasingly uneasy about their country being dragged into distant and costly wars on Israel’s behalf.?
So, is Israel rethinking its strategies? There is no sign of it. It refuses to see that the regional balance of power may be changing. It continues to believe that it can uproot Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and defeat Syria and Iran — or get the U.S. to do the job on its behalf.?
To avoid peace talks, which might involve ceding territory, it continues to depict Hamas as a “terrorist organization” bent on Israel’s destruction, thereby resorting to the well-worn trick of saying, “How can you negotiate with someone who wants to kill you?”
Is Hamas, in fact, a terrorist organization or is it a legitimate resistance movement to occupation and oppression? The Americans have swallowed the terrorist line and so has the timid and cowardly European Union, although several of its members now regret it.?
Hamas certainly carried out suicide attacks against Israeli civilians during the second intifada beginning in 2000, which would qualify it for the terrorist label. But then, during that intifada, Israel killed more than four times as many Palestinians as Hamas and other groups killed Israelis.?
More recently, in the 16 months from Hamas’ election victory in January 2006 to April 2007, Israel killed 712 Palestinians, including many children, while in the same period the Palestinians killed 29 Israelis (IDF and civilians). If terrorism is defined as the killing of innocent civilians for political ends, which of the two qualifies as the bigger terrorist?
Does Hamas want to destroy Israel? No doubt it would like to, in much the same way as Israel would like to destroy it. But emotions are one thing, policies are another. Hamas is now busy restoring law and order in Gaza. It is disarming the gangs that lived on extortion and blackmail (such as the Daghmush gang which is holding the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston). And it is seeing to the immediate needs of the sorely-tried population of 1.4m, densely-packed in a small territory which Israel has turned into the world’s largest outdoor prison.?
This is what Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister and now the effective ruler of Gaza, told the French newspaper “Le Figaro” last weekend:
“Our program is clear. We seek the creation of a Palestinian state within the frontiers of 1967: that is to say in Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The PLO remains in charge of negotiations on this point. We undertake to respect all past agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority. We would like to see the introduction of a reciprocal, global and simultaneous truce with Israel.”
Would that Ehud Olmert or any of his colleagues said anything as sensible. Instead, Israel is planning to continue, even to intensify, its policy of sealing off the Gaza strip. As Tsipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, told EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg last Monday, “We should take advantage of the [West Bank-Gaza] split to the end. It differentiates between the moderates and the extremists.” She urged the ministers to continue to isolate Hamas while easing the pressure on Fatah by ending the 15-month financial boycott of the West Bank. But will this be enough to save Mahmud Abbas? Can a policy of feeding the West Bank while starving Gaza succeed?
It does not seem likely. Israel’s security establishment will not agree to remove the hundreds of road blocks which make Palestinian life a misery. Israel’s powerful settler movement will not agree to freeze settlements, let alone remove them. And Israel’s political leaders will move heaven and earth to avoid negotiating peace with the Arabs on the basis of the 1967 borders.
As a result, Mahmud Abbas will move into ever greater illegitimacy and will be seen more and more as a quisling; Fatah will continue its terminal decline; and Israel and its neighbors will be doomed to decades more of violence and war. As an acute observer remarked to me this week, “The Middle East today is like Europe on the eve of the Great War of 1914-18. It needs only a spark to set the whole region on fire.”
Copyright © 2007 Patrick Seale