Gilbert Achcar, 29 June 2010
Gilbert Achcar is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His most recent book is Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, Saqi 2010.
Successive Israeli cabinets have worked to enforce on the ground in Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories a situation that they could present as irreversible. Have they now reached the point where the biblical book of Daniel’s prophecy is once again relevant?
Negotiating in good faith
Abba Eban, the most sophisticated foreign minister Israel ever had, is said to have declared in 1973, after the aborted Peace Conference that was convened in Geneva in December of that year: “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” The saying accords with Eban’s speech at this conference when, after emphasizing that “a new opportunity is born,” he declared: “We have no way of knowing whether this opportunity will be fulfilled or wasted. … Israel for its part is resolved to seize the chance.”
Those were the times when Israel could present itself as a seeker of peace confronted by Arab governments and political forces that were still reluctant to negotiate with it, let alone conclude a peace. Syria indeed boycotted the Geneva Conference, although the gathering was cosponsored by its patron, the Soviet Union. Its attitude was not altogether negative, however, and soon after, in May 1974, Damascus signed a military disengagement agreement with Israel. In the following years, the boldest initiatives in seeking a Middle East peace agreement were indisputably taken by Arab leaders.
Whereas a maverick Abie Nathan had flown from Israel to Egypt on February 28, 1966, requesting to meet President Gamal Abdel-Nasser only to be deported back to Israel and arrested there, it was Nasser’s successor himself, President Anwar El-Sadat, who flew from Egypt to Israel on November 19, 1977, extending the hand of peace to the Israeli Knesset and power elite in scenes that looked almost unreal. The world watched Sadat descending the staircase from his plane in the same state of stupefaction, if not more, with which it had watched a few years earlier the first man walking on the moon.
And it was with similar astonishment that the world learned of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s secret negotiations with the Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in Oslo, Norway, and their conclusion of a peace deal signed in Washington in October 1993 – in another surreal ceremony that raised much hope. In both cases, Israel conceded none of its fundamental interests: it gave back to Egypt the Sinai that it had occupied in 1967, while making sure that this vast stretch of semi-desert land remained under surveillance and devoid of Egyptian army troops. Sadat, for his part, broke with all Arab states as he violated their principles of collective negotiations and collective peace, undercutting fellow Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Palestinians.
Likewise, Arafat concluded the Oslo deal behind the backs of most members of the PLO executive committee. He recognized Israel officially and accepted an outcome that did not provide for any of the basic demands of the Palestinians – not even a freezing of Zionist settlements in the Occupied Territories, let alone their dismantlement. The Israeli concessions that he obtained in return were only implementing the plan that Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon had designed for the perpetual control of the West Bank, shortly after Israel invaded it in June 1967. It was indeed during the early negotiations on the implementation of the Oslo accords, in 1994, that Rabin’s government started building what would become the Separation Wall.
As for the only spectacular Israeli so-called peace initiative of all those years, the evacuation of Gaza ordered by Oslo-opponent turned into Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, in 2005, it was part of a ‘unilateral disengagement’ purposely avoiding striking a deal with the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas. Sharon did not want a precedent that could be invoked for the West Bank. Indeed he never hid the fact that he was willing to concede to the Palestinian Authority much less of the occupied West Bank than the area his Laborite predecessors were willing to give up. In the same year as the unilateral Gaza disengagement, he revised the route of the Separation Wall, annexing de facto a larger portion of the West Bank to Israel. After consigning Yasser Arafat to forced residence under siege from 2002 until the Palestinian leader’s death in 2004, Sharon did his best to undermine the credibility of Abbas, thus facilitating the electoral victory of Hamas in January 2006 – the month Sharon went into a coma.
The truth is that it is Israel – not the Arabs – that never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to conclude a real peace with its neighbors. And this has been true since the outset. Claims, like that of Abba Eban’s, about Arab intransigence are usually buttressed with a reference to the founding act of the creation of Israel in international law: the UN General Assembly’s vote on the partition of Palestine in November 1947, at a time when the majority of UN member states were western and western-dominated countries. The Arabs and the Palestinians are blamed for having rejected this partition, which would have granted them a larger portion of Palestine than the one they – more accurately the Jordanian accomplice of the Zionist movement, King Abdullah – ended up controlling after the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. In other words, the Arabs are blamed for having rejected a deal that granted 56% of the territory of Palestine west of the Jordan River to Jewish inhabitants, who constituted one-third of its total population – most of them immigrants/refugees who had arrived from Europe during the previous fifteen years.
The UN 1947 partition resolution could not have been reasonably accepted by any Arab leader – or by any people in their shoes, for that matter. Accepting it would have amounted to capitulation without battle and relinquishment of fundamental rights. As for sympathy for the plight of Jewish Holocaust survivors, the Arabs, let alone the Palestinians, could legitimately say that they had already accommodated much more than their fair share of them, compared with the rest of the world, especially the victors of World War II. On the other hand, the League of Arab states had made a peace offer that is hardly mentioned in the propagandistic literature that prevails on this topic. Their proposal was summed up by the UN Special Commission on Palestine in September 1947:
(a) That Palestine should be a unitary State, with a democratic constitution and an elected legislative assembly,
(b) That the constitution should provide, inter alia, guarantees for (i) the sanctity of the Holy Places and, subject to suitable safeguards, freedom of religious practice in accordance with the status quo; (ii) full civil rights for all Palestine citizens, the naturalization requirement being ten years’ continuous residence in the country; (iii) protection of religious and cultural rights of the Jewish community, such safeguards to be altered only with the consent of the majority of the Jewish members in the legislative assembly,
(c) That the constitution should provide also for (i) adequate representation in the legislative assembly of all important communities, provided that the Jews would in no case exceed one-third of the total number of members [that is, the proportion of Jews in the Palestinian population in 1947, regardless of the date on which they immigrated]; (ii) the strict prohibition of Jewish immigration and the continuation of the existing restrictions on land transfer, any change in these matters requiring the consent of a majority of the Arab members of the legislative assembly; (iii) the establishment of a Supreme Court which would be empowered to determine whether any legislation was inconsistent with the constitution.
This proposal was congruent with the perspective of a binational state in Palestine as advocated by pacifist “cultural” Zionists – the likes of Martin Buber and Judah Magnes – and, officially at least, by leftwing Zionist organizations such as Hashomer Hatzair. It was flatly rejected by the Zionist leadership, dedicated to the project of a Jewish State in Palestine. In reality, the Ben-Gurion Laborite leadership of the Zionist movement was always much closer to its rightwing rivals of Revisionist Zionism founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky than to the “cultural Zionists” and the radical left. In essence, the statist project of Ben-Gurion matched Jabotinsky’s aspiration, albeit in a more ‘realistic’ and tactical fashion. Thus Jabotinsky said openly and loudly what the others thought as well, but did not want to proclaim lest it spoil their Machiavellian manoeuvering.
The iron wall
The most commented-on essay by Vladimir Jabotinsky is certainly his 1923 piece entitled “The Iron Wall.” It is rightly regarded as a premonitory statement of what actual Zionist policies in Palestine/Israel would become and why they missed no opportunity of missing an opportunity to make peace with the Palestinians. While affirming that the Arabs are culturally “500 years behind us,” the man whom Laborite Zionists denounced as a fascist teased them by expressing more respect for the Arabs than he attributed to them:
Any native people – it is all the same whether they are civilized or savage – views their country as their national home, of which they will always be the complete masters. … And so it is for the Arabs. Compromisers in our midst attempt to convince us that the Arabs are kind of fools who can be tricked by a softened formulation of our goals, or a tribe of money grubbers who will abandon their birth right to Palestine for cultural and economic gains. I flatly reject this assessment of the Palestinian Arabs… Individual Arabs may perhaps be bought off but this hardly means that all the Arabs in Eretz Israel are willing to sell a patriotism that not even Papuans will trade. Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement.
Hence, Jabotinsky’s assertion of the Iron Wall doctrine:
Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population – an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs. To formulate it any other way would only be hypocrisy.
Eventually, added Jabotinsky, the Arabs will come to peace under Zionist conditions, when they have no other choice left:
All this does not mean that any kind of agreement is impossible, only a voluntary agreement is impossible. As long as there is a spark of hope that they can get rid of us, they will not sell these hopes, not for any kind of sweet words or tasty morsels, because they are not a rabble but a nation, perhaps somewhat tattered, but still living. A living people make such enormous concessions on such fateful questions only when there is no hope left. Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then do extreme groups lose their sway, and influence transfers to moderate groups. Only then would these moderate groups come to us with proposals for mutual concessions. … But the only path to such an agreement is the iron wall, that is to say the strengthening in Palestine of a government without any kind of Arab influence, that is to say one against which the Arabs will fight. In other words, for us the only path to an agreement in the future is an absolute refusal of any attempts at an agreement now.
This view informed the action of Jabotinsky’s heirs in the Likud toward the Palestinians, ever since they took the helm of the Israeli state in 1977. Having secured Egypt’s neutralization, Menachem Begin thought he could force the Palestinians to capitulate by occupying their last stronghold in Lebanon in 1982. The occupation of Lebanon proved a very costly undertaking for Israel, which was compelled to complete the evacuation of the country 18 years after, in 2000. Meanwhile, squeezed financially by its traditional Arab backers among the oil states and facing what, after 1991, looked like a solid US hegemony in the Middle East, a Yasser Arafat who was both hopeless and naively hopeful seemed willing to make the “enormous concessions” that Jabotinsky foresaw. He had become hopeless about his goal of securing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza as part of a regional deal under international auspices; and he lured himself into believing that his Israeli interlocutors would grant him such a state if he showed them, and showed their sponsors in Washington above all, how compliant he could be.
Successive Israeli cabinets from both Labor and Likud – Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak – took advantage of the Oslo framework and the end of the first Intifada in order to considerably intensify the building and expansion of settlements in the West Bank, thus enforcing on the ground a situation that they could present as irreversible in order to justify Israel’s annexation of a substantial part of that remaining 22% of Palestinian territory. As a result, the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank – excluding the Jerusalem area, the largest settlement of all – which had build up to 112,000 in the 26 years from the beginning of the occupation until 1993, doubled in the six years between 1994 and 2000, the year the Oslo process came to its explosive end; and has increased to 305,000 since then. At the same time, these successive cabinets were building the Separation Wall, thus fulfilling literally Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall vision.
When Likud’s foremost firebrand Ariel Sharon came to power in February 2001, he reversed the Oslo process by bloodily reoccupying the territories under Palestinian control, and accelerated the construction of the wall while revising its route in order to expand the amount of territory annexed. This policy continued under Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s successor at the head of Kadima, the party that Sharon founded out of a split from Likud, and then under Likud’s Netanyahu, now heading a cabinet that brings together Zionist parties ranging from Labor to the racist far-right party of Avigdor Lieberman. Simultaneously, the Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza have been facing the most tragic period in their history, enduring the most desperate conditions since they came under Israeli occupation in 1967. The cruel assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 moved the world’s conscience – a conscience that Judge Richard Goldstone admirably embodied, thus provoking the fury of Israel’s rulers.
For all that, the Palestinians are not any closer to accepting Israel’s land grab in the West Bank and the less-than-Bantustan “state” that Israel’s rulers are offering them. If any of them were willing to make such ‘enormous concessions’, however, they know that they would be isolated and repudiated by the overwhelming majority of their people. That is where Jabotinsky got it wrong indeed: his vision foreshadowed the Zionists’ policies, but not the Palestinians’ stance. For behind the apparently higher consideration in which Jabotinsky held the Arabs, he still despised them too much to understand that their self-pride and sense of justice would never allow them to accept demeaning surrenders. His lack of realism combined with his racist view of the Arabs prevented him from facing the truth: given the sheer fact of numbers and geographic extension, there is no way by which Israel could subjugate the Palestinians and the Arabs to the point of getting them to accept its inflexible conditions.
Oslo was based on contradictory calculations. Israel’s rulers seem to have tried to test whether the Palestinians are “some kind of fools who can be tricked by a softened formulation of our goals, or a tribe of money grubbers who will abandon their birth right to Palestine for cultural and economic gains.” Confronted with the failure of this expectation, they increased their repression of the Palestinians – to little avail. Even the extremely ‘moderate’ Mahmoud Abbas – who is seen as a traitor by part of his people – proved unable to deliver what the Israelis wanted from him without substantial Israeli concessions in return. The increasing violence of Israel’s rulers in applying the Iron Wall doctrine, far from reaching its goal, only succeeded in increasing resentment and the desire for revenge among Palestinians, and beyond – far beyond.
Over the last decades Israel has managed to antagonize a formidable range of forces that were not part of its enemy spectrum until then. It has already lost quite a few teeth in attempting to subdue Lebanon, where it faced the firm resistance spirit of Hezbollah combatants resorting to their ‘asymmetric’ advantage as guerrilla fighters in defending their land against a conventional army. The increasing levels of hatred sown in the whole Middle East by western invasions, as well as by Israeli violence, are fostering the rise of an ‘apocalyptic terrorism’ that contemplates resorting to weapons of mass destruction as another ‘asymmetric’ means of offsetting the overwhelming military superiority of its enemies. Last but certainly not least, Israel is now facing the prospect, in the short or medium term, of a nuclear-armed Iran – a development that would bring the region dangerously close to a nuclear holocaust if Israel keeps threatening to launch military strikes.
Jabotinsky should have remembered that the image of the wall is associated in the Jewish tradition with bad omens. His present disciples would be well advised to anticipate the impending catastrophe, before it is too late: they would be well advised to reverse their colonizing and aggressive policies, stop trying to dictate to the Palestinians who should represent them, and renew the kind of attitude that Israeli negotiators displayed in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that were held in Taba in early 2001. And, they should completely lift their criminal blockade on Gaza to start with. For they do not need a new interpreter of the writing on the wall that they are building on the West bank with so much hubris: the biblical Daniel’s interpretation has become relevant again.
Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin: the days of your kingdom are numbered; you have been weighed and found wanting; your kingdom will be divided and lost. The last word Pharsin carried a dual meaning: it was interpreted as referring also to the Persians, who took over Babylon when King Belshazzar was assassinated little after the writing appeared on the wall. Persia, of course, is the former name of Iran.