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Israel: The Threat from Within

A recent front-page New York Times article on Condoleezza Rice’s role in shaping US foreign policy reported that in the spring of 2002, when violence was escalating between Israel and the Palestinians, President Bush asked the following of Dr. Rice: Beyond the question of whether the US is “pushing this party hard enough or that party hard enough,” what is the “fundamental problem” that has defeated all previous peace initiatives and continues to stand in the way of a political agreement?1

Dr. Rice’s answer was that the fundamental problem is Yasser Arafat—his refusal to act to stop terrorism and the absence of democracy and accountability in Palestinian political institutions. She concluded, therefore, that sidelining Yasser Arafat, democratizing Palestinian institutions, and bringing to the fore a new Palestinian leadership would improve the prospects of an Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement. This insight, according to Dr. Rice, countered the “prevailing wisdom” that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was “just about land.”

Of course, the conflict has never been just about land, but what has defeated every previous peace initiative—from the Oslo Accords to the Mitchell proposals to the Tenet guidelines to the current roadmap—is the struggle over land. And what has made land the central issue is Israel’s unilateral expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, an expansion that continues relentlessly even as Prime Minister Sharon speaks of disengagement, withdrawal, painful concessions, and the dismantling of settlements.

Israel’s expansion into the West Bank threatens to preclude a two-state solution, the only outcome that would resolve the conflict without the disastrous result of ending either Jewish or Palestinian national existence. The settler movement, which has enjoyed the patronage of Sharon from its inception in 1967, has made no secret that it is precisely the prevention of a Palestinian state in the West Bank that is its central goal.

While the physical space taken up by the inhabited areas of the Jewish settlements is not more than 3 percent of the West Bank, the municipal borders of these settlements and the infrastructure that supports them take up about 50 percent of the West Bank. It is land that under the terms of the Oslo Accords was designated Area C, considered “government land” when Jordan occupied the West Bank. Un-der the terms of the Oslo Accords, this area—except for military bases in which the Israeli Defense Force would remain for varying periods of time to deal with residual security concerns—was to have been returned to the Palestinians.

The 1947 UN partition plan that divided Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs of Palestine allotted roughly 50 percent to each side. Because of the wars that followed Arab rejection of the UN resolution, Israel enlarged its share to 78 percent of pre-1948 Palestine, annexing over 50 percent more territory than allotted by the UN partition plan. Following the 1967 war, when the remaining 22 percent of Arab Palestine came under Israeli occupation, the UN adopted resolutions 242 and 338, which affirmed the obligation of Arab countries to recog-nize Israel’s legitimacy and its right to live in security, but also insisted on the inadmissibility of Israel’s acquisition of territory in the West Bank and Gaza as a result of the 1967 war. While these resolutions do not foreclose the possibility of adjustments to the pre-1967 border to accommodate Israeli security concerns, nothing in these resolutions suggests that such changes could be made unilaterally by Israel.

The answer to President Bush’s question to Dr. Rice therefore is that the “fundamental problem” that has undermined every previous peace initiative is the notion entertained by Prime Minister Sharon’s government, and to a greater or lesser degree supported by all previous Israeli governments, that the 22 percent of the pre-1948 Palestine Mandate which now constitutes the West Bank and Gaza remains subject to further surgery by Israel.

The political damage done by the settlements to the peace process has been ratcheted up several orders of magnitude by the separation fence. For Palestinians, the fence confirms Israel’s intention to leave most of its settlements in place and to confine the Palestinian population within less than half of the West Bank (i.e., about 10 percent of pre-1948 Palestine). No amount of verbal acrobatics by Prime Minister Sharon will persuade any Palestinian that the purpose of this fence, in which Israel, despite its parlous economic situation, is investing billions of Israeli shekels, is anything other than the creation of South African– style bantustans to contain an emerging Arab majority.

According to current plans, the route followed by the separation fence veers deeply into the West Bank along its western border. Sharon has approved the continuation of the fence to enclose Palestinians along the eastern (Jordanian) border as well. The effect of the fence, once it is completed, will be to enlarge Israel’s share of pre-1948 Palestine from 50 to 90 percent. The remaining 10 percent (about half of today’s West Bank) conforms to Sharon’s definition of a “viable Palestinian state.” Palestinians see no point in engaging in internal debates about compromises they need to make to achieve a peace agreement with Israel if such an agreement will yield nothing more than a collection of tiny fenced-in enclaves under Israeli control.

Of course, Israel’s government has not only the right but the obligation to protect its citizens against the murderous suicide bombings of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian terrorist groups; a government that fails to protect its citizens loses its right to govern. As even Yasser Arafat declared recently,2 Palestinians have no objection to a separation fence if it is built on Israeli territory. But no one I know of in Israel’s government, including the IDF and the security services, would deny that a fence whose purpose is the protection of Israel’s citizens would be far more effective if it were constructed along Israel’s pre-1967 border rather than snaking its way around Israeli settlements deep inside Palestinian territory. The argument that the fence’s intrusions into Palestinian territory are necessary to protect the settlements establishes a new standard for chutzpah. In effect, Palestinians are being told that Israel must steal more Palestinian land to protect Israelis living on previously stolen Palestinian land.

President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have often objected to the current path of the separation fence and to the continued expansion of settlements. They have also said that the borders of the new Palestinian state must assure its viability. But other than their rhetorical exhortations, they have done nothing that might lead Sharon to believe that his indifference to their demands will have the slightest adverse consequences for Israel. And they have resisted every attempt to get them to define their use of the term “viable Palestinian state” so that it is understood to require a return to the pre-1967 border, subject only to changes in that border agreed to by the parties.

In view of the American refusal to take a clear position on the illegality of Israel’s unilateral confiscations of Palestinian land and on the emerging cantonization of the West Bank resulting from the path followed by the separation fence, the implication for Palestinians of Dr. Rice’s comment about the need for reform that will lead to new Palestinian leadership is that the US expects this new leadership to be more accepting of Sharon’s dismemberment of Palestinian territory. Ironically, this has enabled Arafat to discredit Palestinians who have opposed his corruption and authoritarianism by accusing them of collaboration with those who seek to defeat the Palestinian national enterprise. This has devastated the Palestinian reform movement as thoroughly as the post–Camp David intifada devastated the Israeli peace camp.

Unfortunately, Secretary of State Powell’s treatment of the Middle East peace process in his article in the January–February 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs can only serve to reinforce Palestinians’ fears. The central point of his article is a rejection of the criticism that President Bush’s foreign policy is “unilateralist by design” and biased toward preemptive action. Powell cites the Quartet—the US, Russia, the EU, and the UN—as well as the Middle East roadmap as evidence of President Bush’s commitment to “partnership” with America’s friends.3 They are in fact poor examples of the Bush administration’s respect for the views and expectations of its allies. The deep sense of frustration and anger felt by America’s Quartet partners over President Bush’s unwillingness to enforce the roadmap’s provisions evenhandedly is an open secret.

But it is Secretary of State Powell’s rendering of the failure of the “hopeful premiership” of Mahmoud Abbas that is particularly revealing. Powell attributes this failure solely to the obstructionism of Yasser Arafat. Arafat’s obstructionism was indeed a major reason for Mahmoud Abbas’s downfall. However, it was clear to everyone from the outset that hopes for Abbas’s success were not based on the expectation that Arafat would cease playing an obstructionist role; there would have been no need to replace Arafat if he no longer obstructed progress toward peace. Instead, the expectation was that improvements in the Palestinian situation that would result from changes in Israeli policy—changes made possible by Abbas’s rejection of violence and his commitment to reform—would give the new Palestinian prime minister the credibility he would need in order to prevail over Arafat. But these changes, advocated even by the IDF and Israel’s intelligence services, were blocked by Sharon.

There is no hint in Secretary Powell’s article of Sharon’s role in the failure of Mahmoud Abbas’s government. There is no reference to Sharon’s continued expansion of settlements, or to the charade of removing outposts (which serve as embryonic settlements) while their number actually increased. Nor is there any hint in Powell’s ar-ticle of America’s own contribution to Abbas’s fall because of President Bush’s failure to “ride herd” on both parties to secure compliance with the terms of the roadmap, as he had promised at the launching of this initiative at Aqaba in June 2003.

It is hard to believe that Secretary Powell’s one-sided account represents his view of what actually happened. Admittedly, it takes some courage to tell the truth in an election year. But US officials have always exhorted both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to muster the courage to tell their respective publics the truth about the price a peace agreement entails. When it comes to the Middle East peace process, Washington has hardly set an example of either courage or truthtelling.

The most dramatic evidence that territory remains the fundamental issue in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is the recent statement—in Ha’aretz and other Israeli papers on January 9—by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, and repeated by Hamas’s Abdel Aziz Rantisi and the Islamic Jihad’s Nafiz Azzam, that their organizations are ready to postpone indefinitely their “military” operations in return for an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders. This change in policy, which relegates the recovery of all of Palestine to an indefinite future, was not linked by these organizations to the return of refugees, to claims to Jerusalem, or to other issues concerning a permanent status agreement between Israel and Palestine; it was linked only to the territorial issue.

Yassin’s statement will be seen by many as meaningless, since it leaves Hamas free to revert to its previous position at any time. But this reaction ignores not only the unique religious context within which Hamas operates but the essential nature of all religious cultures that claim divine sanction for their beliefs. For Hamas to abandon what it has maintained is a divinely ordained obligation to recover all of Palestine is to bring into question its very identity, which it defines as its obedience to God’s immutable will. It must therefore resort to theological fictions, i.e., relegating this obligation to future history, in order to be able to claim it has not compromised its orthodoxy.

This way of reconciling contradictions that often exist between the requirements of orthodox religious doctrine believed to be divinely ordained, and therefore unchangeable, and the exigencies of contemporary life is entirely familiar to practically all religious systems based on fidelity to a divinely revealed scripture, literally understood. For example, Orthodox Judaism affirms that the sacrificial rites (the slaughtering of animals and the ritual sprinkling of their blood) performed by the ancient Israelites in the Jerusalem temple are divinely ordained. In order to deal with the conflict aroused between a return to such a mode of religious worship, for which Orthodox Jews pray daily, and changing cultural sensibilities, Orthodox Judaism, not unlike the Islamic Hamas, has postponed a return to the rite of animal sacrifices to future history and messianic times. (An opinion by the great twelfth-century scholar and philosopher Maimonides that sacrifices would be abolished in messianic times, because prayer is a higher form of worship than animal sacrifice, nearly led to his excommunication, and was therefore retracted.)

In any event, Palestinian recognition of Israel’s legitimacy is an issue for the Palestinian Authority, the body officially representing the Palestinian people, not Hamas. The government of Israel would similarly reject out of hand a Palestinian demand that the settler movement renounce its claims to the West Bank and Gaza as a condition for a peace agreement with Israel. Israel would insist that the settler movement’s ideology is irrelevant as long as Israel’s government accepts the legitimacy of Palestinian national sovereignty within mutually agreed borders. There is no reason why the same criteria should not apply to the Palestinian Authority.

Whatever one’s conclusions about the significance of Hamas’s and Islamic Jihad’s willingness to suspend indefinitely their terrorist operations in return for a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza, this change in rhetoric underscores the importance of territory for all Palestinians. Therefore, if the US is to persuade Palestinians to take the difficult measures required to end terrorism and to reform their political institutions, Washington will have to be far clearer than it has been about its commitment to a Palestinian state whose territory will diverge from the pre-1967 lines only by agreement between the parties. A peace initiative that falls short of this kind of precision by the US about where it stands on the territorial issue has no chance of breaking the current impasse.

Many in Israel and in the West may believe Palestinian fears of their eventual confinement in a collection of bantustans to be irrational, or simply a ruse to discredit Sharon’s government. But the plausibility of those fears could not have been confirmed more dramatically, or more shockingly, than by what Benny Morris, a leading Israeli historian of Israel’s War of Independence, recently said in an astonishing interview in Ha’aretz on January 9, 2004.

According to Benny Morris, recently declassified documents in the archives of the IDF reveal that in 1947, Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders concluded that a Jewish state could not come into being in the territory assigned to Jews by the UN

without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians…. In the months of April–May 1948, units of the Haganah were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.

This resulted in “far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought,” including “many cases of rape [that] ended in murder” and executions of Palestinians who were lined up against a wall and shot (in Operation Hiram).

The dismantling of Palestinian society, the destruction of Palestinian towns and villages, and the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians were not unavoidable consequences of the war declared on the emerging Jewish state by Arab countries. Rather, as Morris repeatedly confirms, it was a deliberate and planned operation intended to “cleanse” (the term used in the declassified documents) those parts of Palestine assigned to the Jews as a necessary pre-condition for the emergence of a Jewish state.

The incredulous interviewer asks Morris, “Ben-Gurion was a ‘transferist’?” Morris replies, “Of course.” He adds, “Ben-Gurion was right. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.” Indeed, Morris faults Ben-Gurion for limiting the “cleansing” to the 1948 armistice line. “Even though [Ben-Gurion] understood the demographic issue and the need to establish a Jewish state without a large Arab minority, he got cold feet during the war. In the end, he faltered.” Morris believes that it is only a question of time before Israel will have to complete the job begun in 1947 by “cleansing” the entire West Bank as well.

The interviewer asked Morris whether he was not justifying war crimes. Morris replied that the necessity and nobility of the Jewish people’s return to their patrimony justified what the Jewish forces did. “There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing…. The need to establish this [Jewish] state in this place overcame the injustice that was done to the Palestinians by uprooting them.”

Morris and those in Israel who agree with him presumably reject what President Bush said in a speech before the UN on November 10, 2001, outlining his war on terror, that “no national aspiration, no remembered wrong, can ever justify the deliberate murder of the innocent.” But the question they must answer then is why the necessity and nobility of the Palestinians’ return to their patrimony do not justify the suicide bombings of Hamas. Is it a crime for Palestinians to believe that their national cause is no less noble or less compelling than the Jewish one?

If Morris’s account of the declassified IDF documents is confirmed, then the Palestinian narrative of their 1948 nakba (disaster) is true, and Israel’s counternarrative is not. It should hardly come as a surprise that even Palestinians who accept the impossibility of a return of Palestinian refugees to Israel insist that a peace agreement with Israel must at least include an Israeli acknowledgment of responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy. Anyone reading the Morris interview would find it difficult to disagree.

The early history of the State of Israel is not unique. Other countries have chapters in their history of which they should be deeply ashamed. And it must also be stated that Morris’s shocking revelations of death and destruction deliberately inflicted on the Arabs of Palestine do not justify Palestinian terrorism against Israel’s civilian population. But Morris’s account points to the sorry fact that there is not much that distinguishes how Jews behaved in 1948 in their struggle to achieve statehood from Palestinian behavior today. At the very least, this sobering truth should lead to a shedding of the moral smugness of too many Israelis and to a reexamination of their demonization of the Palestinian national cause.

The implication of the above for the territorial issue is that it would be irrational for Palestinians not to believe that the goal of Sharon’s fence is anything other than their confinement in a series of bantustans, if not a prelude to a second “transfer,” which Morris insists in this interview is inevitable.

It is extremely unlikely that the US will reengage seriously in the peace process and press for the implementation of the roadmap, or finally take a clear position on the territorial issue prior to the forthcoming presidential election, or anytime soon thereafter. It is therefore hard to imagine what will prevent a descent into chaos in the occupied territories, where the writ of the Palestinian Authority is giving way to the anarchy of criminal gangs and of local warlords. The complete collapse of the Palestinian Authority, which may be imminent, would very probably rule out the two-state option, for there would be no central authority capable of delivering a Palestinian commitment to—much less the implementation of—the terms of any Israeli–Palestinian peace accord. Unless Israelis are willing to preserve their majority status by imposing a South African–style apartheid regime, or to complete the transfer begun in 1948, as Morris believes they will—policies one hopes a majority of Israelis will never accept—it is only a matter of time before the emerging majority of Arabs in Greater Israel will reshape the country’s national identity. That would be a tragedy of historic proportions for the Zionist enterprise and for the Jewish people.

What will make the tragedy doubly painful is that it will be happening at a time when changes in the Arab world and beyond (i.e. the Saudi initiative of 2002, the removal of Saddam Hussein, Syrian isolation, Libya’s amazing opening to Israel and removal of its WMD program, and the opening of Iran’s nuclear facilities to international inspection) are removing virtually every strategic security threat that for so long endangered Israel’s existence. That existence is now threatened by the greed of the settlers and the political blindness of Israel’s leaders.

—January 28, 2004

  1. 1

    See Elisabeth Bumiller, “A Partner in Shaping an Assertive Foreign Policy,” The New York Times, January 7, 2004.

  2. 2

    The New York Times, December 11, 2003.

  3. 3

    In its first phase, the roadmap requires that Palestinians unconditionally cease violence, institute political reforms, appoint a prime minister, draft a Palestinian constitution, and hold elections. Israel is required to withdraw from areas occupied since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000, dismantle settlements built since Ariel Sharon took office in March 2001, and freeze all other settlement activity. The second phase of the roadmap calls for an international conference to initiate negotiations that would establish an “independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty.” The third and final phase, involving a second international conference, envisions an end to the occupation and the subsequent establishment of an “independent, democratic, and viable Palestine” at an undefined point in 2005.

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