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This Day in Jewish History


Between Iraq and the Palestinians – Israel’s Fateful Choices - Part 2

This is the second installment of a two-part IPF Focus by Asher Susser, distinguished Professor of History at Tel Aviv University and Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. He has written widely on Middle East history and politics.

In part 1, published last week (click here to read) , Susser discussed the decline of Arab influence in the region and the growing importance of Turkey and Iran. In part 2 below, he turns to Israel.

The national historical narratives of Israelis and Palestinians complicate efforts to find an “end of conflict” solution.
Israel is winning the military side of the current Intifada but at an extremely high political price.
Cooperation with the Palestinians on the withdrawal from Gaza would be ideal but disengagement must occur whether or not the Palestinians are willing to work with Israelis, because the occupation is not in Israel’s long-term interest.
Israel, along with Iran and Turkey, is the third of the non-Arab regional superpowers. In its immediate environment and with the Palestinians in particular, it is Israel alone that has the power to set the political and strategic agenda, for better or for worse.

As the Israelis have discovered since Camp David 2000, for Israel and the Palestinians to arrive at a final, end of conflict, settlement is a tall order, perhaps too tall for the moment. If the Palestinians are required to declare the “end of conflict” they are bound to examine the significance of such a declaration through the prism of their national historical narrative. That unavoidably leads them back to the origins of the conflict, to determine exactly what the conditions ought to be for declaring that it has ended. Such an enquiry is not just about politics, but primarily about history, historiography and national narratives.

Trying to negotiate the history of nations does not make the achievement of a settlement easy. For the Jewish-Israeli side, Zionism is a heroic enterprise of self-defense against the miserable historical fate of the Jews. The war of 1948 is the “War of Liberation,” and a magnificent victory of the “few against the many.” In 1948, in the space of just a few years from the horrors of the destruction of European Jewry, the Jewish people rose from the ashes of the crematoria of Auschwitz to the lofty heroic ground of national liberation, Jewish sovereignty and independent statehood. The gross historical injustice of the Diaspora was replaced by the incarnation of historical justice in the Land of Israel.

That, needless to say, is not the way the Palestinians see it. The Zionist enterprise, from the Palestinian point of view, is no more than a movement of settler colonialism, imposed upon them by force. Zionism, for the Palestinians, had no saving grace. It was in no way a movement of self-defense, but rather one of net aggression from start to finish. It sowed the seeds of destruction of Palestinian society in 1948. What was for the Jews their war of “liberation” was for the Palestinians their nakba , national calamity or catastrophe. What is for the Jews their rising from the ashes is for the Palestinians their crushing defeat, the disintegration of their society, their loss of homeland and the transformation of half their number into refugees. This catastrophe of 1948 is the formative experience and crucible of Palestinianness and the backbone of Palestinian identity, and is the foundation of a collective self-image as the victims of a gross historical injustice.

Anyone who seeks to obtain a Palestinian declaration on the “end of conflict” must bridge over this enormous divide between the narratives and provide a suitable political response to the profound Palestinian sense of grievance. For the most part, the evolution and entrenchment of territorial nationalism in the Middle East has been conducive to Arab-Israeli peace making, but not in the case of the Palestinians. Egyptianism and Jordanianism are territorially defined in ways that do not conflict with Israel’s pre-1967 integrity. The same can be said of the issues that had to be resolved between them so that peace treaties could be signed. But Palestinianism as a territorial identity applies to all of the territory of British Mandatory Palestine and has never been confined to the West Bank and Gaza and their residents. It relates to all Palestinians who originated from historical Palestine and their descendants, wherever they may be.

The dispute, in this case, is not restricted to the territories occupied in the 1967 war, but is deeply rooted in issues that stemmed from Israel’s creation in 1948, such as the refugee question or the question of the political status and national rights of the Palestinian minority that remained in Israel proper. These 1948 issues are not territorial matters that determine Israel’s size. They are linked to the very existence of Israel as the State of the Jewish people.

The “end of conflict” Camp David process of summer 2000 thus disintegrated into the worst Palestinian-Israeli bloodshed since 1948. Those who took part in the peace talks were unable to bridge the historical divide. Yasir Arafat by then had also lost any sense of urgency to reach a settlement with Israel. Arafat saw time on his side, and believed that prolonging the conflict served the historical objectives of the Palestinians, even if that meant sacrifice and hardship for his people in the short term. Within a decade or so, in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River the Jews will lose their majority. In these circumstances, known to Arabs and Jews alike, the Palestinians were in no rush to implement a two state solution. If they could hang in long enough they may be able to have it all, in one state.

In the meantime, however, with the Arabs in disarray, Israel has effectively crushed the Palestinian war effort. Its combination of offensive and defensive measures has proved very effective. The targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants, from the operational cadres to the upper echelons of the leadership, have had a debilitating effect. The security fence has made the penetration of Israel’s defenses by suicide bombers much more difficult. As a result, Israeli casualties have declined dramatically as those of the Palestinians continue to rise.

There can be little doubt in the minds of Palestinians and Israelis that the Palestinian endeavor to coerce Israel to accept the unacceptable has come to a dead end. Israeli society has proved to be far more resilient than the Palestinians (and perhaps many Israelis too) had expected. The Palestinian effort to break the Israeli spirit by force has failed. The Arabs have let the Palestinians down again. If the Palestinians believed momentarily that their war with Israel would draw the Arabs into the fray they were mistaken. Even financial aid was no more than a pittance.

The Palestinians desperately sought to internationalize the conflict. This did not materialize either. Arafat was discredited in the eyes of important segments of the international community. And though the vision of President Bush and the Quartet included the formation of an independent Palestinian state, the Palestinian objective was not to be included in the international community’s vision, but for their own vision to be imposed on Israel. That is hardly likely. In sum, then, not any of the major Palestinian war aims were fully attained. That is the definition of failure. But Israel’s victory in the battlefield has exacted a very heavy price.

Israel’s image in the international arena has suffered severely. The seemingly endless footage of devastation in the West Bank and Gaza has eroded Israel’s international legitimacy. Moreover, the re-occupation of the Palestinian territories will not decide the historical struggle between Israel and the Palestinians in Israel’s favor. The occupation is more detrimental in the longer term to Israel than it is to the Palestinians. Prolonged occupation poses a threat to Israel’s raison d’etre as a liberal, democratic state of the Jewish people. The sine qua non for a state so defined is the maintenance of a stable, longstanding decisive Jewish majority. Prolonged occupation will add some 3.5 million Palestinians to the 1.25 million already in Israel proper (including East Jerusalem) and set Israel on the fast track to losing the Jewish majority in the areas under its effective control. Israel, therefore, must take the initiative, whether the Palestinians are ready for an agreement or not.

Israel’s decision to withdraw unilaterally is neither “flight from terrorism” nor a victory for its Palestinian rivals, but a rational policy choice for Israel, in light of its demographic vulnerability, which is neither a function nor a consequence of the recent war. Disengagement and the construction of a secure barrier on the boundary would in all probability keep most of the potential suicide bombers out, lead to a de-escalation of the current hostilities and an overall improvement in the short term security situation. These tactics could be enhanced if accompanied by a dismantling of isolated settlements and outposts and a more concentrated and effective military deployment.

If Israel chooses to abstain from disengagement, unilateral or otherwise, it will soon find itself facing demands not for two states for the two peoples but for one state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Such a state will have an ever-shrinking Jewish majority that will eventually become a minority in an Arab state. Paradoxically, therefore, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel has become an Israeli self-interest even if this process has to be jump-started without agreement with the Palestinians, by a unilateral act of disengagement. Conversely, for the Palestinians, it is becoming ever more apparent that this is hardly their ideal solution, but the grudging acceptance of reality for lack of any better choice.

What is really at stake now is not the withdrawal from Gaza, but the struggle for Israel’s soul. Israelis are now finally coming to grips with the truly existential questions that they have avoided since 1967. They must now decide between the Jewish biblical heritage and realpolitik, between an Israel which is an essentially secular, liberal, democratic state of the Jewish people or an altogether different Israel, which would be a messianic, fundamentalist state, where divine law becomes the source of authority overriding the democratic process, where the Rabbis reign supreme and the Jews, in the end, lose their state, as the holiness of the Land of Israel triumphs over the raison d’etat of the State of Israel.

The onus of decision is on Israel. In the current condition of Arab inertia, the power vacuum in the Arab East and Palestinian disarray it is only Israel that can make the necessary decisions to reshape the environment. In the post-Arafat era it may become easier to achieve Palestinian reform, or to arrange a cease fire or even an interim agreement. It may become possible for Israel to coordinate its withdrawal from Gaza with a more effective Palestinian Authority. But under no circumstances should Israel make its withdrawal conditional upon such an understanding. If coordination can be attained it would be worth the effort, but if it cannot the withdrawal must go ahead regardless. Nothing should be allowed to lock Israel into the status quo of occupation, which is so detrimental to its long term interests.

Written by Asher Susser.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Scottish Friends of Israel

Source: Israel Policy Forum.

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