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The Road to Nowhere

In 1958, at the height of the Algerian crisis, with Arabs bombing French cafés in Algiers, Paris tacitly condoning the use of torture by the occupying French army, and paratroop colonels demanding a free hand to end terror, the French philosopher Raymond Aron published a small book, L’Algérie et la République.1 Cutting through the emotive and historical claims of both sides, Aron explained in his characteristically cool prose why the French had to quit Algeria. France lacked both the will and the means either to impose French rule on the Arabs or to give Arabs an equal place in France. If the French stayed the situation would only deteriorate and they would inevitably leave at some later date—but under worse conditions and with a more embittered legacy. The damage that France was doing to Algerians was surpassed by the harm the Republic was bringing upon itself. However impossible the choice appeared, it was nonetheless very simple: France must go.

Many years later Aron was asked why he never engaged the heated questions of the time: torture, terrorism, the French policy of state-sponsored political assassination, Arab national claims, and the colonial heritage of the French. Everyone, he replied, was talking about these things; why add my voice? The point was no longer to analyze the origins of the tragedy, nor assign blame for it. The point was to do what had to be done.

In the cacophony of commentary and accusation swirling around the calamity in the Middle East, Aron’s icy clarity is sorely missed. For the solution to the Israel–Palestine conflict is also in plain sight. Israel exists. The Palestinians and other Arabs will eventually accept this; many already do. Palestinians can be neither expunged from “Greater Israel” nor integrated into it: if they were expelled into Jordan, the latter would explode, with disastrous consequences for Israel. Palestinians need a real state of their own and they will have one. The two states will be delineated in accordance with the map drawn up at the Taba negotiations in January 2001, according to which the 1967 borders will be modified, but nearly all of the occupied territories will come under Palestinian rule. The Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are thus foredoomed, and most of them will be dismantled, as many Israelis privately acknowledge.

There will be no Arab right of return; and it is time to abandon the anachronistic Jewish one. Jerusalem is already largely divided along ethnic lines and will, eventually, be the capital of both states. Since these states will have a common interest in stability and shared security concerns, they will learn in time to cooperate. Community- based organizations like Hamas, offered the chance to transform themselves from terrorist networks into political parties, will take this path. There are numerous precedents.

If this is the future of the region, then why is it proving so tragically hard to get there? Four years after Aron’s essay, De Gaulle extricated his countrymen from Algeria with relative ease. Following fifty years of vicious repression and exploitation, white South Africans handed over power to a black majority who replaced them without violence or revenge. Is the Middle East so different? From the Palestinian point of view, the colonial analogy fits and foreign precedent might apply. Israelis, however, insist otherwise.

Most Israelis are still trapped in the story of their own uniqueness. For some, this lies in the primordial presence of an ancient Jewish state on the territory of modern Israel. For others it rests in a God-given title to the lands of Judea and Samaria. Many still invoke the Holocaust and the claim that it authorizes Jews to make upon the international community. Even those who reject all such special pleading point to geography in defense of their distinction. We are so vulnerable, they say, so surrounded by enemies, that we cannot take any risks or afford a single mistake. The French could withdraw across the Mediterranean; South Africa is a very large country. We have nowhere to go. Finally, behind every Israeli refusal to face the inevitability of hard choices stands the implicit guarantee of the United States.

The problem for the rest of the world is that since 1967 Israel has changed in ways that render its traditional self-description absurd. It is now a regional colonial power, by some accounts the world’s fourth-largest military establishment. Israel is a state, with all the trappings and capacities of a state. By comparison the Palestinians are weak indeed. While the failings of the Palestinian leadership have been abysmal and the crimes of Palestinian terrorists extremely bloody, the fact is that Israel has the military and political initiative. Responsibility for moving beyond the present impasse thus falls primarily (though as we shall see not exclusively) on Israel.

But Israelis themselves are blind to this. In their own eyes they are still a small victim-community, defending themselves with restraint and reluctance against overwhelming odds. Their astonishingly incompetent political leadership has squandered thirty years since the hubris-inducing victory of June 1967. In that time Israelis have built illegal compounds in the occupied territories and grown a carapace of cynicism: toward the Palestinians, whom they regard with contempt, and toward a United States whose erstwhile benevolent disengagement they have manipulated shamelessly.

Israel poses no lasting threat to Syria or to the Hizbollah in Lebanon, the military wing of Hamas or any other extremist organization. On the contrary, these have long thrived on its predictable reaction to their attacks. But the present government of Israel has come close to destroying the Palestinian Authority. After the events of the last month Palestinian politicians foolish enough to take Israelis at their word will be castigated as quislings, and dispatched accordingly. The state of Israel has largely deprived itself of credible Palestinian interlocutors.

This is the distinctive achievement of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s dark Id. Notorious among soldiers for his strategic incompetence—his tactical success with bold tank advances was never matched by any grasp of the bigger picture—Sharon has proven as bad as so many of us feared. He has repeated (or in the case of the expulsion of Arafat, tried to repeat) all the mistakes of his 1982 occupation of Lebanon, down to the very rhetoric. Sharon’s obsession with Yasser Arafat brings to mind Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert, his life and career insanely given over to the destruction of Jean Valjean at the price of all measure and reason, including his own (the literary comparison flatters Sharon and Arafat alike).

Meanwhile he has single-handedly raised Arafat’s international stature to its highest point in years. If he ever gets rid of Arafat, and the bombers keep coming, as they will, what will Sharon do then? And what will he do when young Arabs from Israel itself, inflamed by Israel’s treatment of their cousins in occupied Jenin and Ramallah, volunteer for suicide missions? Will he send the tanks into the Galilee? Put up electric fences around the Arab districts of Haifa?

Sharon and the Israeli political establishment—not to mention the country’s liberal intelligentsia who, Pilate-like, have washed their hands of responsibility—are chiefly to blame for the present crisis, but they are not alone. Precisely because the Israelis assume that they have a blank check from Washington, the US is willy-nilly a party to this mess. All serious efforts in the past thirty years to find peace in the Middle East, from Henry Kissinger to Bill Clinton, have begun with American urging and intervention. Why, then, did the Bush administration step aside for so long, provoking international ire and jeopardizing its future influence?

Why did the American president continue to confine himself in late March and early April to the disingenuous suggestion that “Arafat should do more” to rein in suicide bombers, while the leader of the Palestinian Authority sat imprisoned in three rooms, a single cell phone at his disposal? Why, during the buildup to the present crisis, did a man of the sophistication and intelligence of Colin Powell docilely accept Sharon’s cynical demand for an arbitrary period of “absolute calm” (saving sporadic Israeli assassinations) before any political discussions could begin? Why has the US stood by while, as The New York Times put it on April 9, “more than 200 Palestinians have been killed and more than 1,500 wounded since Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships rolled into the West Bank on March 29”? Why, in short, has the US voluntarily attached itself to a leash marked “terrorism” with which Sharon can jerk it to and fro at will?

The answer, sadly, is September 11. Until then, even Bush was mindful of the need to warn Israelis against “targeted assassinations,” as he did last August. But since September 11 the very words “terrorism” and “terrorist” have silenced rational foreign policy debate. Ariel Sharon had only to declare Yasser Arafat the head “of a terrorist network” for Washington to fall sheepishly in line behind any military action he takes. We are mesmerized by the new rhetoric of this “war on terror”: any politician who can convincingly label his domestic or foreign critics as “terrorists” is guaranteed at least the ear of the American government, and usually something more.

Terrorist” risks becoming the mantra of our time, like “Communist,” “capitalist,” “bourgeois,” and others before it. Like them, it closes off all further discussion. The word has its own history: Hitler and Stalin typically described their opponents as “terrorists.” Terrorists really exist, of course, just as there are real bourgeois and genuine Communists; terror against civilians is the weapon of choice of the weak. But the problem is that “terrorist,” like “rogue state,” is a protean rhetorical device which can boomerang: Jewish terrorists were among the founders of the state of Israel and it may not be long before the United Nations passes a resolution defining Israel as a rogue state.

The first stage of any solution in the Middle East, then, is for the United States to abandon its self-defeating rhetorical obsession with a war on terrorism, which has put US foreign policy into Ariel Sharon’s back pocket, and start behaving like the great power it is. Instead of being blackmailed into silence by the Israeli prime minister, Washington must require of him and any Palestinian representatives who have survived his attentions that they begin talking. Two years ago, even one year ago, it might have been reasonable to demand of the Palestinian Authority that all bombings halt before such talks begin. But thanks to Ariel Sharon, no Palestinian open to negotiations is in a position to meet such a demand. So it must be talks and a peace agreement with or without bombings.

The Israelis, of course, will ask how they can speak to men who have condoned suicide bombings of Israeli civilians. Palestinians will retort that they have nothing to say to those who claim to want a permanent peace but have built thirty new colonial settlements in the past year alone. Both sides have good grounds for mistrust. But there is no alternative; they must both be made to talk.2 And then they will have to start forgetting.

There is much to forget. Palestinians remember the mass expulsions of 1948, land expropriations, economic exploitation, the colonization of the West Bank, political assassinations, and a hundred petty daily humiliations. Israelis remember the war of 1948, the Arab refusal to recognize their state before 1967 and since, reiterated threats to drive the Jews into the sea, and the terrifying, random civilian massacres of the past year.

But Middle Eastern memories are neither unique nor even distinctive in their scale. For two decades the Irish Republican Army regularly shot to death Protestant civilians on their doorsteps, in front of their children. Protestant gunmen responded in kind. The violence continues, though much reduced. This has not stopped moderate Protestants from talking publicly to their Sinn Fein counterparts; Gerry Adams and Martin McGinnis are now accepted as legitimate political leaders. Elsewhere, less than six years after the 1944 massacre at the village of Oradour, where the SS burned alive seven hundred French men, women, and children, France and Germany came together to form the core of a new European project.

In the final convulsions of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Poles and Ukrainians were killed or expelled from their respective territories by neighboring Ukrainians and Poles, in a frenzy of intercommunal violence unmatched by anything ever seen in the Middle East; at their present rate it would take Jews and Arabs many decades to reach comparable death tolls. Yet today Poles and Ukrainians, for all their tragic memories, live not only at peace but in growing collaboration and cooperation along a tranquil border.

It can be done. In the Middle East today each side dwells within hermetically sealed memories and national narratives in which the other side’s pain is invisible and inaudible. But so did the Algerians and the French, the French and the Germans, the Ukrainians and the Poles, and, especially, Protestants and Catholics in Ulster. There is no magic moment when the walls come down, but the sequence of events is clear: first comes the political solution, typically imposed from outside and above, often when mutual resentment is at its peak. Only then can the forgetting begin.

The present moment, with Ariel Sharon about to set in motion a long cycle of death and decay across the region, may be the eleventh hour, as the American president has belatedly acknowledged. It surely is for Israel. Long before the Arabs get their land and their state, Israel will have decayed from within. The fear of seeming to show solidarity with Sharon, which already inhibits many from visiting Israel, will rapidly extend to the international community at large, making of Israel a pariah state. Bad as he is for the Palestinians, they will survive Sharon. The prospects for Israel are less sure. For the rest of the world the Middle East crisis represents an enhanced risk of international war, and a likely guarantee that America’s war on terror, however described, will fail.3

Well-meaning observers of the contemporary Middle East sometimes place their faith in the enlightened self-interest of the warring parties. Palestinians, they suggest, would be so much better off accepting Israeli hegemony in return for material prosperity and personal security that sooner or later they will surely abandon their demands for full independence. To the extent that there is a strategic calculation behind Sharon’s tanks, this is it: sufficiently cowed, the Arabs will see how much they have to lose by fighting and agree to a peaceful life on Israel’s terms.

This is perhaps the most dangerous of all colonial illusions. There is little doubt that most Algerian Arabs would have been better off under French rule than under the repressive indigenous regimes that replaced it. The same is true for the citizens of many of the postcolonial states once ruled from London. But the measure of the well-lived life is not readily taken by calculations of income, longevity, or even safety. As Aron observed, “It is a denial of the experience of our century to suppose that men will sacrifice their passions for their interests.” That is why, in their treatment of their Arab subjects, the Israelis are on the road to nowhere. There is no alternative to peace negotiations and a final settlement. And if not now, when?

—April 11, 2002

  1. 1

    Paris: Plon, 1958. See also his La Tragédie algérienne (Paris: Plon, 1957).

  2. 2

    One real impediment is that Ariel Sharon is on record as opposing any final peace settlement remotely acceptable to anyone outside Israel. He cannot negotiate in good faith. The Israelis need to find someone who can.

  3. 3

    American commentators and officials are quick to deny any link between anti-Americanism and the Israel– Palestine conflict. But to just about everyone else in the world the relationship is grimly obvious.

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