Iraq and the Palestinians – Israel’s Fateful Choices
- Part 2
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.
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
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
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
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.
views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent
the views of Scottish Friends of Israel
Israel Policy Forum.