Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An Israeli right-wing view of the peace process

One of the fundamental paradoxes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that since the peace process began in 1993, just about everything has gotten worse. Before the first Palestinian uprising, in the days of the occupation, Palestinians and Israelis largely coexisted, did business, and traveled freely throughout the territories. While the Palestinians were lacking in many basic political rights, at least there was some semblance of peace. But when territory began to be divided between Israeli and Palestinian control in the 90s, terrorism skyrocketed, Israeli security measures became more stringent, and the old relationships frayed beyond repair. Israel has fought three horrifying wars with the Palestinians and Lebanese since the “peace process” began.

Why have negotiations led to more suffering and violence than before? The January 2010 issue of Commentary magazine carries an excellent summary of the right-wing Israeli answer to this question. The article is sunnily entitled “The Deadly Price of Pursuing Peace,” and is authored by Evelyn Gordon, “a journalist living in Israel.” According to Gordon, Israeli concessions and withdrawals in the negotiations have only served to embolden Israel’s enemies, leading to more violence.

Gordon makes many good points. Perhaps the most insightful is that the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces tends to rise dramatically after an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory – because that territory is then used to launch terrorist attacks on Israel, and Israel has no choice but to respond militarily, from the outside, rather than simply using their control of the territory to hunt down and arrest the perpetrators. This observation highlights Israel’s legitimate demand for a responsible Palestinian government to step into the void after the occupation ends.

I’d recommend this article to anyone who wants to step into the shoes of a right-wing Israeli. (OK, I know too many people who would not find that appealing at all. But neoconservatives are human too, folks.) Nevertheless, Gordon’s biases undermine her article and conclusions. The three biggest failures I see in her thinking are:

- A failure to recognize the reality of the occupation of the Palestinians, and the resulting moral obligations Israel has to resolve the crisis. Gordon criticizes former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his 2003 statement: “I think the idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation—yes, it is occupation, you might not like the word, but what is happening is occupation—is bad for Israel, and bad for the Palestinians.” Gordon says that this statement undermines Israel’s negotiating position and international standing by surrendering its “legitimate” claim to the West Bank and Gaza. But she never tries to refute it. Sharon had it exactly right. There are 3.5 million Palestinians whose lives are determined by the military and policies of a foreign government. That is occupation. And while Israel does have a legitimate claim to possess Gaza and the West Bank, surely that claim does not outweigh the Palestinians’ right to exist as a nation.

- A failure to recognize the ways that Israel itself is to blame for the failure of the peace process - namely, continued settlement-building. To Gordon, the entire story is one of Israeli concessions followed by Palestinian terrorism. This is not accurate. As Palestinian academic Rashid Khalidi explains in his book The Iron Cage, Israeli settlement-building has made life under the "peace process" worse for the average West Bank Palestinian, because the checkpoints and Israeli-only roads set up to connect and protect settlements in the midst of Palestinian territory have hindered travel and economic growth to an intolerable extent. These actions surely undermine Palestinian support for the peace process (if not peace per se), and fan the flames of Hamas’ extremism.

- A failure to recognize the reality of Israel’s demographic crisis. Israel is the Jewish democratic state. Therefore, by definition, it can only survive so long as the majority of its citizens are Jewish. But Palestinians (both those occupied by Israel and those who are Israeli citizens) already outnumber Jews in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, and they have a much higher birthrate. If the occupation does not end soon, the Jewish population will either be overwhelmed, or will have to transform itself into the ruling class of an apartheid state. Contrary to popular opinion in many quarters, Israelis are not monsters, so neither of those options are appealing to them. But Gordon simply glosses over this problem: “Finally, Israel must stop projecting a sense of panic, through both words and deeds, which merely emboldens its enemies,” she writes. “Israel has not only survived for 61 years despite the absence of peace; it has thrived. Its population has increased more than seven-fold; its per capita income has risen nine-fold; it has maintained a strong democracy in a region where democracy is otherwise unknown. And it can continue surviving and thriving without peace for as long as necessary.” Hey, we’ve been around for 61 years. That’s practically forever! What could possibly change?

If these three failures of thinking are overcome, even the most ardent Israel supporter must conclude that Israel has not only a strategic, but a moral, obligation to make peace. No, the Palestinians aren’t exactly on board yet. But that’s no excuse to keep settling their land, Mr. Netanyahu.

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