14 Jun 2009

Why twisting Netanyahu's arm won't work.

Out of sheer Sunday boredom, I watched Benjamin Netanyahu deliver his much-hyped 'peace' speech live, and I must admit I was genuinely surprised. Netanyahu's people didn't manage to fill the room! For a speech that was expected to put the peace process back on track, the least they could have done is lure a few students into what was after all a small room. Never mind, everyone knew that Netanyahu was merely going through the motions of responding to Barack Obama's pressure without actually conceding anything, a tough exercise in semantics but hardly a gripping spectacle.

But on a serious note, many 'observers' had been filled with optimism now that Obama has decided to apply his magic touch to the thorny issue of the Palestinian question. We've been hearing this sort of talk from all sides of the conflict for a while now: only if America can be more of an 'honest broker', only if it applied friendly pressure on Israel, only if the international community took a tougher stance with Israel, and the rest of that cliche-laden litany, then compromises would be obtained and a two-state solution would magically materialise. Many people seem to think that all the elements of this two-state solution are quite obvious and it's only 'difficult' leaders on both sides that are preventing this from happening.

Wishful thinking, and careful what you wish for while we're at it. Remember what happened the last time America decided to solve the Palestinian issue by pressuring the leaders on both sides? Camp David, July 2000, Clinton gets tough and tries to negotiate a 'final status settlement' between the Israelis and the Palestinians only for the process to fail miserably leading to the third Intifada within the space of two decades and the bloodiest so far. The Palestinians are still suffering the consequences, and it had a big impact on Israeli politics as well. Arafat heroically resisted all the pressure to sign a peace deal that would have been seen as catastrophic by the Palestinian people.

But American policymakers don't seem to have learned the lesson of that episode. What didn't work with Arafat in 2000 will not work with Netanyahu today. Firstly, the 'solutions' that American technocrats have been coming up with are the result of abstract intellectual exercises that are far removed from the actual situation on the ground and do not take into consideration the political aspirations of either side. What may appear as a worthy compromise to someone sitting in an office in Washington means something entirely different to a Palestinian refugee. Secondly, the principle of active intervention itself assumes that the Americans know better than the Palestinians and the Israelis themselves what is in their best interest. But without the principle of self-determination the two parties will be locked in a relationship of dependence on America and the international community, which has in fact been put in place for a while now only to complicate the situation even further.

Any possible compromise and eventual solution would have to be accepted by both sides of the conflict and come as an expression of their aspirations, fully acknowledging that the power balance between them is extremely skewed in favour of Israel. In the wake of Zionism's demise, Israel is still searching for an alternative political project that could shape its future, but such a project remains elusive. Many Arab commentators and politicians misinterpreted Netanyahu's speech as standard Zionist rhetoric, but in reality it was an exercise in evasion and pragmatism. Crucially, Netanyahu did utter the words nobody thought he would ever say, and accepted a future Palestinian state, albeit with a number of caveats that would render it meaningless. This in no way shows Netanyahu's commitment to peace but it clearly illustrates that he and his chums on the 'right' do not have the political will-power to oppose the Americans on what should be a matter of principle and self-determination.

The Israeli obsession with 'security' clearly illustrates the lack of ideological commitment, and Netanyahu expressed that quite clearly by coming back again and again to this subject in his speech. But here is the contradiction at the heart of Zionism that has been magnified after its decline: from the Jewish perspective, Israel did not provide security for Jews everywhere but on the contrary has demanded that every Jew in the world should take an interest in defending it and become a potential citizen. The foundation of Israel in 1948 meant leaving the post-war stable and secure Europe and creating a new troubled state and acquiring a few million enemies in the process. From the Jewish security perspective, Israel did not make sense in 1948 and makes even less sense today. Zionism had overcome this problem historically by turning its attention to nation-building, but today there is little appetite for that among Israelis themselves and Jews everywhere else.

Netanyahu represents this dilemma, his generation grew up on those Zionist 'ideals' but now they find themselves in power and capable only of paying lip service to those ideals, while having no real political project. Pressuring them to make political concessions under those conditions is unwise, without a clear idea about the direction that Israel should take any concession will only muddle the issues and create even bigger problems. American pressure is attempting to relieve the Israelis of the responsibility for their future, but that could only lead to further instability.

The Americans have to realise that any solution to the conflict have to come from the parties involved. They have succeeded so far in making the Palestinians accept the principle of a two-state solution instead of their original demand for a secular state for Jews and Arabs, reducing their cause in the process from a progressive project of change to one of dealing with occupation. Hamas exploited this retreat to offer its own solution, and the Americans achieved the exact opposite of what they intended. Pressure on the Israelis for immediate concessions will also complicate the situation further, America certainly needs to re-examine its relationship with Israel, but the current urgency for a final settlement is misguided and may usher in yet another round of violence. History should not be ignored.


  1. Philip Cunliffe Wrote:

    If the Americans are going to pull the plug on the Israelis, so to speak (which I think is a realistic medium-term possibility), then the Israelis' only rational response (which is not to say that they will make it) is to cut a deal with the Arabs and the Palestinians. As you say, their leadership is probably too blinkered to see that option, and will continue to degenerate internally and lash out externally. But what about the Palestinians in Israel? Do you think a case could be made that their time has come, given that the PLO surrendered and the Islamists have taken over the rump Palestinian nation outside of Israel?

    I disagree with you about Jews in 1948 by the way - Europe in 1948 was neither stable nor secure (everyone thought there was going to be another world war), and given that no one looked out for the Jews in the last war, why would they expect someone to look out form them this time around?

  2. Their time has come indeed! And in fact, they have been getting more politically organised but also Israel has been getting tougher towards them, such as in the case of Azmi Bshara, the Arab member of parliament. The justification for accepting a two-state solution was that the Palestinians would get their own state, while Israel would still be open to question because of the Palestinians who live there and who will agitate until they turn it into a secular state. I think that was somewhat mistaken there, but still the role of the Palestinians inside Israel is very important in the coming years.

    On 1948, thorny question and circumstances play a bigger role of course, but in initiating a mass exodus for European Jews it meant that this was in fact a victory for the logic of the Holocaust, and in a sense it reinforced what the Nazis wanted which is a Jew-free Europe. It meant that integration was declared impossible, and also giving up on the idea of rebuilding European nations on solid grounds that would prevent this from happening. Which ever way you look at it, it was a blow for enlightenment ideas and a victory for narrow self-preservation.

  3. Philip Cunliffe wrote:

    Just on European Jewry, I agree that the post-war exodus perversely ended up realising the Nazis' goals, as well as relieving all the collaborators and anti-Semites of Europe of any further accountability. My point was only that if you were a European Jew in 1948, I can see that Zionism would have its appeal.

    On the Israeli Palestinians - the Israeli right baiting them speaks, I think, to the wider impasse of Zionism, and I can see it being self-defeating if it ends up prompting the Palestinians to further organise themselves in self-defence, and to develop a sense of their own strength in direct proportion to the Zionists' fear of them. But accounting a greater role to the Palestinians in Israel as agents of historical change to replace the Palestinians in the territories begs the question of why the former have not been more active in the past. Do you have any thoughts on this?

  4. You ask a very important question, that is why have the Palestinians inside Israel not been more active in the past. This in fact applies not only to them, but to the Palestinians in the occupied territories that also joined the struggle relatively late. A friend told me that in the early 80s Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were even serving as municipal police for the Israelis, and they didn't think there was anything wrong with that.
    The political consciousness of the Palestinian people developed in the Diaspora for very specific reasons. Palestine as a nation came into being in 1948, even though it still hasn't become a state. The real articulation of Palestinian nationalism happened in the 60s, under the leadership of Arafat but with significant contributions of an emerging intelligentsia that had the freedom not only to struggle but to think and publish in places like Beirut. Whereas all the other Arab countries came to the nation state through western mandates, the Palestinians in the Diaspora formed their ideas about the state they wanted through their class-consciousness and the need for self-determination.
    The situation that the Palestinians lived in Arab countries reinforced this consciousness and aspirations. Relatively speaking, their counterparts within Israel itself had an easier existence, although this is not in itself an explanation for the lack of political activism, but the conditions they lived through were substantially different to those that the refugees lived in. What is crucial as well was that the 60s witnessed the formation of Palestinian nationalism as opposed to Pan-Arabism specifically, and it is a struggle that has not stopped until now, with other Arab countries trying to appropriate the Palestinian cause. In contrast, the Palestinians within Israel were denied the possibility of organisation but also their struggle was not as urgent and pressing as that of the refugees.
    Despite all the talk of the 80s intifada being spontaneous, it was in fact prepared for and organised by the PLO, and specifically Abu Jihad (Khalil Wazir) who was assassinated by Israeli commandos in Tunisia in 1988, at a time when the PLO was not militarily active but the intifada was at its peak. This is crucial to understanding the big role that the PLO played in agitating within the West Bank and Gaza, and similar action was taken to rouse the Palestinians living within Israel itself. This is what makes the Palestinian struggle so distinctive, but at the same time explains its political decline today. Once it was transformed from a progressive project for self-determination and wider change it has lost some of its clarity.


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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