Another view of Israel and Palestine

A recent gathering of retired diplomats and others met under the Chatham House Rule (usually misnamed ‘Chatham House Rules’), i.e. with the understanding that everyone present spoke on condition of anonymity, to hear and discuss an alternative view of the Israel-Palestine problem from a distinguished analyst, Dr Green – not his real name.  Dr Green’s account of the present situation was so radically at odds with the general perception of it in Britain, and I think elsewhere, that it seems worthwhile to offer this brief summary of what he said.  In case you’re tempted to dismiss his views as hopelessly over-optimistic to the point of perversity, I stress that even his most controversial assertions were generously backed by facts, figures and cogent reasoning.

According to Dr Green, as a result of the Iraq war and the building of the fence in the West Bank, Israel was now in a stronger position than for many years, economically, technologically and in terms of security.  Compared with the dire situation of 2002, Palestinian attacks on Israel by suicide bombers and others had significantly declined, although there was despair about the ability and indeed willingness of Yasser Arafat to bring them under control.  Strikingly, 65-75% of Israelis endorsed disengagement from Gaza and the West Bank, although a higher percentage favoured a seriously tough response by Israel to all acts of terror.  A similar percentage of Palestinians favoured a two-state peace settlement, but (also similarly) a higher percentage supported suicide bombings and other attacks on Israel.

Dr Green detected a growing “paradigm shift” in Israeli attitudes, not so much in the extremes of left and right, but rather at the political centre, in which (perhaps surprisingly) he included the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.  There was a new and growing realisation that military measures alone could not produce a peaceful settlement: a political solution had to be found.  Sharon had come to the realisation that his life-long devotion to offence would no longer do:  defensive measures were also needed.  There was massive public support for the security fence to separate Palestinians from Israelis.  This important change in attitudes was based on six areas:

(a)         Demography. There was much greater understanding of the demographic threat to Israel, apparent to some for the past 20 years.  Jews accounted for only 53% of the population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.  (But only about 35% of the one million Russian Jews – i.e. 350,000 – were of questionable Jewish origin, so they didn’t significantly affect the figures.)  There was growing awareness that unless Israel found a way of disengaging from the large centres of Palestinian population, they would be faced with either losing the Jewish character of Israel, or having to deny the Palestinians a democratic status in Israel, thus in effect creating a form of apartheid.

(b)        Time. Time had always been seen as being on the side of the Zionists, but now, in the light of the demographic realities, time was increasingly seen to be against them.  A peace settlement was for the first time widely regarded as urgently needed.

(c)        Settlements. The expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza was no longer seen as central to the continuing existence of the State of Israel.  Dr. Green distinguished between the big Israeli towns, and other settlements further away from the main urban centres along with illegal outposts:  territorial adjustments to accommodate the reality of the big Jewish centres in the West Bank had long been a staple of Israeli/Palestinian negotiations and there was a large measure of agreement on them.

(d)        Jerusalem. The old Zionist fixation on the reunification of Jerusalem as the sole and indivisible capital of Israel was now giving way to a recognition that there was no value to Israel in trying to hold on to 200,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem whose continuing presence had to be recognised, e.g. in the Knesset.  More Israelis were now prepared to contemplate renewed partition in Jerusalem.

(e)        Palestinian State. The creation of a Palestinian State was no longer seen as a threat to Israel, but rather as an essential element in a durable settlement.

(f)         Economy. Both Sharon and his chief rival, Netanyahu (Sharon’s finance minister), realised that the Israeli economy could not flourish without a peace settlement.  Outside investors or potential Middle East partners were simply not willing to engage with Israel unless the politics had been resolved.

Sharon’s problem was how to carry his own party with him.  He recognised that he had made a major mistake in trying to get his Gaza Separation Plan agreed within Likud, rather than nationally.  His activist opponents in Likud had been very successful at bringing out the vote against him.  If Sharon pressed ahead with the disengagement plan, all the parties to his left were bound to support him.  His problem lay with the existence of a large unreconciled opposition to his right.  The personal threat to Sharon was as great as the threat had been to Rabin in 1995.

Finally, Dr Green noted that the Americans understood and welcomed these crucial shifts in attitudes and policies on the part of Israeli leaders and an important segment of Israeli opinion.  Dr Green claimed, with much supporting detail, that Bush in his letters and public announcements had in fact deviated hardly at all from the ‘parameters’ laid down by Clinton after the abortive Camp David negotiations in 2000.  The one major change was that what Clinton had set out as the core ingredients of a resolution to the conflict had been turned by Bush into official US policy.  The challenge was how to engineer a peace settlement which did not conflict with important symbols such as the right of return of Palestinian ‘refugees’ [my quotation marks]. Outsiders had to remember what detailed discussions had already taken place and how much agreement had already been registered in various forums, both between governments and in ‘Track II discussions’ (i.e. semi-private and informal meetings between semi-official or unofficial representatives of the two sides) over recent years.

There’s no space for a detailed record of the discussion which followed Dr Green’s presentation, but at the risk of being thought egotistical I think it’s perhaps worth recording two essentially pessimistic questions which I put to him, and his replies:

(1)  Since the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, Israel was probably now the only independent state in the world whose key immigration and citizenship laws under its constitution entailed discrimination on grounds of racial origin.  Perhaps because of being half Jewish myself, I had always regarded the existence and success of the Jewish homeland of Israel as the minimum reparation owed by Europe for the centuries of persecution of and discrimination against European Jewry, culminating in the ultimate horror of the holocaust.  I could not seriously contemplate the extinction of Israel as a sovereign state where any Jews who wished to do so could settle in safety.  But the element of racial discrimination at the heart of Israel’s constitution, policies and identity would be increasingly difficult to defend in a world where in the 21st century, after the holocaust and apartheid, civilised people everywhere regarded racial discrimination as inherently wrong and indefensible.  Yet if Israel were to abandon racial discrimination, Israel would eventually lose its essential character as a Jewish state and a safe sanctuary for all Jews everywhere. Indeed, in the end it could well become just another middle eastern Arab state, predominantly Muslim, but with a sizeable Jewish minority.  It was understandable that Israelis could not contemplate such an eventuality.  But how could they square this circle?

Dr Green replied that this was a “monumental question”.  The justification for the element of racial (but not, he emphasised, religious) discrimination in Israel’s immigration laws and constitutional provisions was that it was by no means inconceivable that at some time in the future, Jews in Europe or elsewhere would again be persecuted on a huge scale (witness for example the rise of extreme right-wing parties in many western countries), so that it was essential to preserve the one safe haven to which Jews could go in that event.  Discrimination could also be defended on the same basis as ‘reverse discrimination’, commonly regarded as legitimate in many western countries, in favour of people disadvantaged by their ethnic origin, gender, economic circumstances, physical disabilities, or otherwise.  Dr Green asked whether we accepted that this was morally acceptable?  (Several of us replied that in our view it was not.)

(2)  I asked:  Was it really possible or realistic to imagine that there would in the foreseeable future be a sufficiently large section of Palestinian opinion to form a critical mass in support of a future Palestinian administration committed to abandoning the use of war or violence against Israel, to genuine acceptance of Israel’s right to exist within secure and recognised borders, and to maintaining trade, social, political and cultural relations with it?  Could a Palestinian leadership pursuing such policies survive as long as there remained, for as far ahead as one could see, a solid mass of Palestinians – and indeed other Muslims around the world – who would not rest until Israel was eliminated from the map and who regarded the use of violence to that end as not just legitimate but even as a solemn religious duty?

Dr Green replied that there was already a growing body of opinion among Palestinians who genuinely wanted an end to violence and who recognised that a two-state solution, including acceptance of Israel as a permanent presence, was the only way of achieving it.  But he acknowledged that this was another ‘monumental question’ to which there was at present no definite answer.

Comment:  Much of Dr Green’s account contrasted sharply with current perceptions in Britain and elsewhere in Europe of Sharon as a right-wing extremist uncompromisingly practising aggressive over-reaction to Palestinian attacks and with little or no interest in a genuinely peaceful political settlement involving significant concessions or compromises by Israel.  It’s difficult to know how much weight to give to Dr Green’s essentially optimistic version of events without a detailed knowledge of the region and the long history of negotiations and conflicts, knowledge which I for one don’t possess.   His optimism is obviously somewhat qualified by his tentative answers to my two questions and by his recognition of the immense problems for Israel (and indeed for the Palestinians) which they reflect.  But his vast range of contacts on both sides of the divide, and his knowledge and understanding of the discussions and negotiations that have taken place over many years, clearly entitle his perceptions to considerable respect – even if the current violence in Gaza may seem to negate them.

Two further comments:

Our discussions didn’t really cover the difficult question of the ‘right of return’ to Israel of Palestinians or their descendants who were, or claim to have been, originally expelled from what is now Israel when it was first established (or later).  Dr Green’s comment on the demographic realities, and his reply to my question about the international viability of a state still practising racial discrimination, have an obvious bearing on this problem.  It’s hard to imagine a solution which would both satisfy the Palestinians and their Arab and other Muslim allies, and at the same time enable Israel to preserve its identity as a Jewish state.

And one more pessimistic point.  It’s widely argued that a solution to the Israel/Palestine problem would, more than any other measure, strike at the heart of the  support by Islamic extremists, by no means representative of Muslims generally, for international terrorism directed against the United States and the west generally.  I have serious doubts about this proposition.  Hatred of the west and its values on the part of a small but significant minority of Muslims seems to me to go far deeper than the failure to produce a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.  Its roots lie in a rejection of western materialism and secularism as fundamentally incompatible with and inimical to core Islamic values and morality; a rejection of the west’s values and practices involving the role of women, the nature of western sexuality, the commercialisation of relations, the rejection of religious belief and practices, the nature and purposes of state-inflicted punishment, Hollywood and the character of other popular entertainment, and the abandonment of a major political role for religious leaders.  It lies also in the yawning gap between the lavish prosperity of the west and the dire poverty of much, though certainly not all, of the Arab and Muslim worlds.  It lies in the resentment of western influence in predominantly Muslim countries and the obstacle that this represents to the establishment in those countries (and eventually elsewhere also) of fundamentalist Muslim régimes based on Shari’a law.  Antagonism towards American support for Israel and resentment of the west’s failure to resolve the Israel/Palestine problem are certainly an additional ingredient in this noxious brew.  But it’s hard to be convinced that its removal, even if one could realistically believe that to be possible, would make a really fundamental contribution towards ending the curse of international terrorism.

Note:  This account draws heavily on the notes of the discussion written for his own purposes by the convenor of the group, to whom I am most grateful, and also on the notes which I made at the time.  But it is purely my own account, and has not been cleared with ‘Dr Green’ or any other participant in the discussion.  Any inaccuracies or misrepresentations in it are entirely my responsibility.

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