Creating people's geographies
“There is no peace process. There never was”, Jeremy Salt writes from Ankara. “There is only a war process. The fictions of the Oslo process, Madrid, the Declaration of Principles, Wye River, the Hebron protocol, have all been exposed”:
The spate of reports coming out of the Middle East in the past two weeks are signs of a coming danger greater than the region has known in its modern history. The Israeli onslaught on Gaza; the massacre of civilians; the strafing of hospitals, ambulances and medical staff; the vandalisation of Palestinian homes; the violent, racist graffiti scrawled on walls; the soldiers’ t-shirts patterned with graphics showing a pregnant Palestinian woman in the cross hairs of a rifle; the support by 85 per cent of the Israeli population for an attack on civilians which killed hundreds of children; the evidence of Israeli soldiers themselves of how civilians were murdered in cold blood; the march on Umm al Fahm by the followers of Meir Kahane, at the same time as Palestinian cultural festivals in Jerusalem were being prohibited; the choice of a settler racist as Israel’s Foreign Minister; the two-tier colonial society established on the West Bank, reminiscent of Algeria in the 19th century; the wall, the checkpoints, the closures, the daily humiliation, the seizure of land and demolition of homes; the continuing demographic war against the Palestinians in Jerusalem; the recent attack on Sudan by unknown planes said to have been Israeli; the wars of the past and now the preparations for an attack on Iran – what more evidence could anyone need of how utterly dangerous the state of Israel is to regional and global stability?
The misdeeds of soldiers are not an aberration. All of these actions are part of the same deeply disturbing mosaic. One part cannot be separated from the other. Senior political and military figures keep repeating the same old mantras. This is the most moral army in the world. Against the proven evidence of the same crimes committed over the past 60 years, who on earth could believe it? But apparently the Israelis do. Every criticism of Israel is converted into the refuges of anti-Semitism, Israel-bashing and unfair treatment. Anti-Semitism is said to be on the rise around the world, but it was not the anti-Semites who appropriated the symbol of a religion and put it on the pennants of tanks shelling market and apartment blocks in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, and on the sides of planes and helicopters strafing and assassinating Palestinians in their cities, towns and refugee camps. It was not anti-Semites but the state of Israel which nurtured the arrogant and fanatical Jewish settlers who run wild on the West Bank, beating, killing, vandalizing and intimidating, with kippas on their head, sidelocks flying and guns on their shoulders, in the name of the inalienable rights of the Jewish people. What kind of ammunition has Israel itself, and Jews who do not speak out against the violence committed in their name by ‘the state of the Jewish people’, handed to anti-Semites?
There is no peace process. There never was. There is only a war process. The fictions of the Oslo process, Madrid, the Declaration of Principles, Wye River, the Hebron protocol, have all been exposed. The Palestinians are infinitely worse off than before. Israel has been given numerous opportunities to make peace with the Arab world at the cost of retreating from the territories taken in 1967 and dealing seriously with the refugee issue. It has ignored them all. It now has a government that has no intention of withdrawing from the West Bank, from East Jerusalem or from the Golan Heights, a government that is speeding ahead with the expansion of settlements and the destruction of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, says that this is ‘unhelpful’ to the peace, a clear signal in its weakness that the Obama administration will do no more to restrain Israel than the Bush administration or all US administrations stretching back to Dwight Eisenhower’s time. Unfortunately it is not just a matter of failing or refusing to restrain Israel. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have been criticized for putting too much emphasis on the capacity of the Israeli lobby to shape US policy. In fact they have got it right, but it is also true that a ‘strong Israel’ remains a key US strategic interest. Is it going to take a devastating war, one sucking the US directly into a conflict on Israel’s behalf, for mainstream Americans to realize the folly of giving open-ended support to a client state which the US cannot control?
Outside the US, around the world, Israel has few friends now. The Israelis blame anyone and anything for a predicament entirely of their own making. Israel is Israel’s own worse enemy, with the US acting out the role of an indulgent parent who has totally ruined the child. Some Israelis see this but most don’t and in fact are either indifferent or have switched off to the violations of human rights being committed by their state on a daily basis. Gaza hardly produced a collective twitch. There was no shock, no outrage, except on the dissenting margins, only justification. Mainstream Israelis just don’t seem to care, or they rationalize by shifting the blame to someone else, but either way it is not them or their state who is responsible for the consequences of the actions taken by their government.
Now the same Israeli mainstream has voted in possibly the most extreme government in the state’s existence. Only ‘possibly’ because it would be hard to surpass the dark achievements of Menahim Begin or Ariel Sharon but there is no reason to think that Benyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Leiberman will not be up to the challenge. As soon as it became clear that he had won the right to form a government, Netanyahu put Iran on the agenda as his immediate concern. He will dissemble but the two-state solution is not on his agenda at all. His election victory was followed by the announcement that Israel plans to build 73,000 housing units on the West Bank, which will double the number of settlers when completed. Visiting Israel, the new US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, spoke of the threat from Iran but did not once mention the occupation, settlements and Israel’s refusal even to contemplate the right of return of the Palestinians as the primary obstacles to peace in the Middle East.
Lying ahead of the Palestinians and Lebanon is more of the same treatment Israel has dished out for decades. If anything the future looks more threatening. The ‘Dahiye strategy’ has just been applied in Gaza and may be directed against Lebanon on an even more massive scale in a future war. Dahiye was the predominantly Shi’a suburb of Beirut pulverized in the attack of 2006. The ‘enemy as a system’ doctrine is the current paradigm for wars in the Middle East. It is based on the destruction of the concentric infrastructural rings that are the core of any society. Destroy the rings one by one and society will soon be dislocated and dismembered, incapable of supporting an army even if there is one. The greater the force applied the sooner this point is reached. The doctrine was used against Iraq in 1991, against Iraq again in 2003, against Lebanon in 2006, against Gaza in 2009 and has been used on a smaller scale during Israel’s numerous attacks on the West Bank and Gaza in the past ten years. It may well be used against because an attempt to destroy its nuclear sites could not stop there. To prevent Iran striking back immediately its air (missiles and aircraft) and naval defence systems would have to be destroyed. To prevent an Iranian riposte in the foreseeable future such an attack would have to be extended to civilian infrastructures – roads, bridges, power plants, airports, fuel depots, water treatment and sewage plants and the country’s manufacturing base. If Israel does reach the point of taking such a drastic step – with or without official US involvement – it would not want Iran to be able to lift its head up for many years.
The options for dealing with Israel are now extremely narrow. George Mitchell has been sent back to the Middle East, and Barack Obama says he is determined to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a two-state solution but without an equal commitment to lay down red lines and punish Israel if it crosses them these initiatives are likely to disintegrate in the face of Israeli obstruction at every level. The formation of a Middle East team that includes Dennis Ross, Rahm Emmanuel and a Secretary of State who has threatened Iran with ‘total obliteration’ if it dares to attack Israel (including an Iranian response to an attack by Israel?) indicates that Obama is not contemplating any real break with the past. And that is what has to be done if that elusive chimera – a Middle East peace – is ever to be pinned down.
Israel has made it plain for six decades that it will not voluntarily comply with international law as it relates to the rights of the Palestinians. It took part in the Camp David charade only because these rights were specifically excluded as a basis for discussion at the outset. When they did finally come up for discussion they were dismissed. Dialogue does not work because Israel knows from long experience that no government, bloc of governments or international organization is prepared to move from request to demand to sanctions if it refuses to do what it doesn’t want to do. That is the plain evidence of the past going back to 1948. Negotiations between Israel and/or Arab or Palestinian leaders has invariably worked to the detriment of the latter. The ‘concession’ of Sinai in the 1970s took Egypt out of the Arab camp and freed Israel’s hands for the attacks on Lebanon in 1978 and 1982. In fact there was no concession by Israel because Sinai was not Israel’s to give away in the first place but was grabbed along with other territories in 1967 partly so it could be used as a bargaining chip in any future negotiations. Israel ‘gave away’ nothing to which it had any right. The ‘price’ paid was small compared to the return – the removal of the most populous Arab state from frontline states. The Oslo ‘peace process’ was utilized to strengthen Israel’s hold on the territories occupied in 1967. The language of peace – dialogue, negotiations, withdrawal, a viable Palestinian state – turned out to be sleight of hand, a walnut shell concealing the real intention.
Insofar as Israel is concerned the ‘international community’ might be likened to a club with a fractious member whom it refuses to suspend let alone throw out no matter what rule it breaks or for how long it breaks it. One has to ask why any state which bombs schools and universities, when not subjecting them to long periods of closure, should be allowed to remain a member of international educational organizations; why a state which bombs hospitals, strafes ambulances and kills medical personnel, as Israel has done over a long period of time, should be given the benefits of affiliation with international medical organizations; why a state which subjects a captive population to every human indignity should be allowed to remain the member of any international organization concerned with human rights. The ‘window of opportunity’ for a Middle East settlement is now no larger than the eye of a needle, through which a camel could pass more easily than peace.
The Palestinians are not going to surrender or disappear. Israel is preparing for new wars and noone is issuing warnings that it will be punished if it dares go ahead. Against the refusal of governments to act, the international campaign for boycott, isolation and disinvestment is the only hope left that Israel can be made to see reason. The groundswell against Israel is gathering force following the onslaught on Gaza. For the first time since 1948 war crimes charges against Israeli politicians and generals, and maybe the ordinary soldiers who fired the tanks shells and missiles and sent instructions to armed drones to bomb civilians in their homes, are a real possibility. They may open the door to other charges being laid over crimes committed elsewhere and they embolden some politicians to speak out and some newspapers in the ‘western’ cultural mainstream to be more critical. But if there is to be peace in the Middle East the point has to be reached where Israel is compelled to pay a price for the devastating consequences of its action. Sixty years is long enough to reach the conclusion that without pressure Israel will not move and will continue to do exactly what it wants to do irrespective of law or the opinion of anyone else. Some Israelis – dissenting soldiers, B’Tselem, Women in Black and other organizations – are actively standing by the Palestinians in their struggle against discrimination and occupation but the state grinds on remorselessly as if it does not notice or does not care. If governments will not apply pressure against Israel it must come from people, which is why, between surrender and war, disinvestment and an economic and cultural boycott of Israel and its institutions, is the only choice that can be made for peace.
– Jeremy Salt teaches in the Department of Political Science, Bilkent
University, Ankara, and is the author of the recently published The Unmaking
of the Middle East: A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2008).