By Jeff Halper
Here is the question: If Israelis truly crave peace and security—“the right to be normal,” as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put it recently—then why haven’t they exhausted each and every opportunity for resolving the conflict? Why do Israelis continually elect governments that aggressively pursue settlement expansion and military confrontations with the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors even though public opinion polls clearly show that a majority of Israelis want to get the albatross of Occupation off their necks? Why, if most Israelis truly yearn to “separate” from the Palestinians, do they offer the Palestinians so little that separation is simply not an option, even if the Palestinians are willing to make major concessions?
Over the course of the past fifty-eight years, Arab states have made numerous and repeated peace overtures to Israeli governments. King Abdullah of Jordan, with whom Israel had an “understanding” in the 1948 war, engaged in two years of negotiations with Israel (including offering to meet with Prime Minister David Ben Gurion), but was never able to break through. In 1949, Syria’s leader Husni Zaim openly declared his readiness to be the first Arab leader to conclude a peace treaty with Israel, but he was rebuffed, as were successive Syrian presidents up to the present one. Gamal Abdel Nasser, too, made repeated appeals to Ben Gurion and Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, but finally gave up when a young Ariel Sharon led an attack on an Egyptian military base in Gaza. In 1988, the Palestinians already formally recognized Israel within the Green Line, yet never succeeded in getting Israel to negotiate a genuine two-state solution, even during the Oslo process. Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity came during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, when Sharon refused to even acknowledge a Saudi-led initiative by the Arab League, which offered recognition, peace, and regional integration in return for ending the Occupation. Only two Arab leaders, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein, managed to get a reluctant, at times resistant, Israeli leadership to sign peace treaties, and then only at their own initiative.
In fact, despite its highly conflictual relations with its Arab neighbors, Israel has succeeded in becoming an accepted part of the Middle East, as indicated in particular by the 2002 Arab League offer, which Israel continues to disregard. But this also pinpoints the problem. Israel ignored the initiative (it even insisted that the Americans remove it as a term of reference in the Road Map) because it was contingent upon a full withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. True to form, Israel responded to the offer “on the ground” rather than through diplomatic channels. Sharon carried out his plan of “disengagement” from Gaza explicitly to ensure Israel’s permanent and unassailable rule over the West Bank and east Jerusalem, while his successor, Ehud Olmert, vigorously pushed a “realignment” plan under which Israel would annex its major settlement blocs and lock the Palestinians into a series of bantustan-like enclaves, transforming the Occupation into permanent Israeli control.
All of this conforms to an Israeli foreign policy first formulated by Ben Gurion, which asserts that if Israel limits its aim to achieving a modus vivendi rather than full-fledged peace with the Arab world, it can ensure its security while retaining control over the entire Land of Israel west of the Jordan. To be sure, occasional conflicts will erupt, such as those in Gaza or with the Hezbollah in Lebanon. But such “mishaps” (or so the thinking went before the Lebanese debacle) are easily contained.
Non-Constraining Conflict Management
Israeli realpolitik rests on the extremely pragmatic, akin to what the British termed “muddling through.” If Israel’s goal was to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians and seek genuine peace and regional integration, it could easily have adopted policies that would have achieved that long ago. The goal, however, has been conflict management, maintaining the “status quo” in perpetuity, and not conflict resolution. Muddling through similarly suits Israel’s attempt to balance the unbalance-able: expanding territorially at the expense of the Palestinians while maintaining an acceptable level of security and “quiet.” This strategy enables Israel to meet each challenge as it arises rather than to lock itself into a set of policies that fail to take into account unexpected developments (Yesterday we tried Oslo, today we’ll hit Gaza and Lebanon, tomorrow we’ll try “convergence”). It may not look rational or neat, but conflict management means going with the flow; staying on top of things, knowing where you are going and having contingency plans always at the ready to take advantage of any opening, always dealing with events as they happen. There are no long-term strategies, just a vision implemented in imperceptible stages over time and under the radar so as to attract as little attention as possible in order to progressively secure territorial gains.
If my analysis is correct, Israel is willing to settle for peace and quiet rather than genuine peace, for management of the conflict rather than closure, for territorial gains that may perpetuate tensions and occasional conflicts in the region, but which do not jeopardize Israel’s essential security. Declaring “the right to be normal” thus becomes a PR move designed to blame the other side and cast Israel as the victim; it is not something that Israeli leaders sincerely expect. Indeed, their very policies are based on the assumption that functional normality—an acceptable level of “quiet,” a strong economy, a fairly normal existence for an insulated Israeli public most of the time—is a preferred quid pro quo to the concessions required for a genuine (and attainable) peace.
What About the Battered and Exhausted Israeli Public?
The Israeli Jewish public only partially buys into all this. It would prefer peace and normalization to territorial gains in the occupied territories, though it definitely favors separation from the Arab world to regional integration. If this is the case, then why do Israelis repeatedly vote for governments that pursue the exact opposite? Mystification of the conflict by Israeli leaders plays a large role, as does the “clash of civilizations” discourse in other Western countries. Since Israel’s strategy of enduring a certain level of conflict as an acceptable price for territorial expansion would not be tolerated if it was stated to Israelis in those precise terms, successive governments throughout the country’s history have instead convinced the public that there is simply no political solution. The Arabs are our intransigent and permanent enemies; we Israeli Jews, the victims, have sought only peace and a normal existence, but in vain. And that’s just the way it is. As Yitzhak Shamir put it so colorfully: “The Arabs are the same Arabs, the Jews are the same Jews and the sea [into which the former seek to throw the latter] is the same sea.”
This manipulative representation of the conflict fashions discourse in a way that prevents the Israeli public from “getting it.” Reinforced and made coherent, it is a compelling national narrative that permits us to do whatever we like without ever being held responsible. This framing, which underlies all Israeli public discourse, goes something like this:
The Land of Israel belongs exclusively to the Jewish people; Arabs (the term “Palestinian” is seldom used) reside there by sufferance and not by right. Since the problem is implacable, Arab hatred and terrorism, and the Palestinians, are our permanent enemies, and the conflict has no political solution. Israel’s policies are based on concerns for security. The Arabs have rejected all of our many peace offers; we are the victim fighting for our existence. Israel therefore is exempt from accountability for its actions under international law and covenants of human rights.
Any solution, then, must leave Israel in control of the entire country. Any Palestinian state will have to be truncated, non-viable and semi-sovereign. The conflict is a win-lose proposition: either we “win” or “they” do. The answer to Israel’s security concerns is a militarily strong Israel aligned with the U.S.
One of the many problematic elements of this framing is its glaring omission of the Occupation. Without that, debate is reduced solely to what “they” are doing to us, in other words, to terrorism and security. There are no “occupied territories,” only Judea and Samaria, the heart of our historic homeland, strangely disembodied but certainly hostile “territories.” Quite deliberately, then, Israelis are studiously ignorant of what is going on in the West Bank, whether in terms of settlement expansion and other “facts” on the ground, or in terms of government policies. One can listen to the endless political talk shows and commentaries in Israel’s media without ever hearing a reference to the Occupation. Pieces of it, yes: settlement outposts, perhaps; the Separation Barrier (called a “fence” in Israel) occasionally; very rarely house demolitions or references to the massive system of Israeli-only highways that have incorporated the West Bank irreversibly into Israel proper. But never the “Big Picture.” Although Olmert’s Realignment plan, which is of fundamental importance to the future of Israelis, is based upon the annexation of Israel’s major settlement blocs, the public has never been shown a map of those blocs and therefore has no clear idea of what is actually being proposed or its significance for any eventual peace.
Framing, then, becomes much more than a PR exercise. It becomes an essential element of defense in insulating the core of the conflict—the Occupation itself, the proactive policies of settlement that belie the claims of “security,” and Israel’s responsibility as the occupying power—from both public scrutiny and public discussion. Defending that framing is therefore tantamount to defending Israel’s very claim to the country, the very “moral basis” of Zionism we Israelis constantly invoke. No wonder it is impossible to engage even liberal “pro-Israeli” individuals and organizations in a substantive and genuine discussion of the issues at hand.
The result of such discursive processes is the disempowerment of the Israeli public. If, in fact, no solution is possible, then all that’s left is to hunker down and carve out as much normality as possible. For Israelis, the entire conflict with the Arabs has been reduced to a technical question: how do we ensure our personal security? Since conflict management assumes a certain level of violence, the public has entered into a compact with the government: You reduce terrorism to “acceptable” levels, and we won’t ask how you do it. In a sense, the public extends the government a line of credit. We don’t care how you guarantee our personal security. Establish a Palestinian state in the occupied territories if you think that will work; load the Arabs on trucks and transfer them out of the country; build a wall so high that, as someone said, even birds can’t fly over it. We, the Israeli Jewish public, don’t care how you do it. Just do it if you want to be re-elected.
This is what accounts for the apparent contradiction between Israeli public will and the policies of the governments it elects. This explains how in 1999, Ehud Barak was elected Prime Minister with a clear mandate to end the conflict, and when he failed and the Intifada broke out, that same public, in early 2001, elected his mirror opposite, Ariel Sharon, the architect of Israel’s settlement policies, who eschewed any negotiations at all. Because of such events, “peace” carries a negative political connotation amongst most Israelis. It denotes concessions, weakness, increased vulnerability. The notion that Israel is in a permanent struggle against intractable enemies lowers public expectations that peace is possible; instead, the public is satisfied merely with “peace and quiet.”
Because the “situation” (as we call it) has been reduced to a technical problem of personal security without political solution, Israelis have become passive, bordering on irresponsible. They have been removed from the political equation altogether. Any attempt to actually resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict (and its corollaries) will have to come from the outside; the Israeli public will simply not make a proactive move in that direction by themselves. While the government will obviously oppose such intervention, the Israeli public may actually welcome it—if it is announced by a friend (the U.S.), pronounced authoritatively with little space for haggling (as Reagan did over the sale of AWACs surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s), and couched as originating out of concern for Israel’s security.
Israeli Jews may be likened to the whites of South Africa during the last phase of apartheid. When international and domestic pressures became unbearable and President de Klerk finally said, “It’s over,” there was no uprising, even among Afrikaners who had constructed the regime. I sincerely believe that if President Bush would get up one morning and say to Israel: “We love you, we will guarantee your security, but the Occupation has to end. Period,” you would hear a sigh of relief from Israel all the way to Washington.
The Signs Are Not Good
In the meantime, the war in Lebanon and the unending conflict with the Palestinians has left Israel staring into the abyss. In the wake of the war, Olmert has announced that his convergence plan, the only political plan the government had, was being shelved for the time being. (But only for the time being: in early September the Housing Ministry announced the approval of an additional 690 housing units in the occupied territories, while the Justice Ministry will legalize more than 100 settlement “outposts”.) Without the ability to end or even manage its regional conflicts unilaterally, faced with the limitations of military power, increasingly isolated from a global community to whom human rights does matter, neither Israeli governments nor the public are able to formulate policies that might break Israel out of its self-destructive status quo. Israel’s proportional electoral system, in which voters cast their ballots for parties rather than candidates, saddles it with unwieldy coalition governments incapable of formulating and pursuing a coherent foreign policy and only adds to the Israeli public’s disempowerment and frustration.
Only when the international community—led by Europe rather than the U.S., which appears to be hopeless in this regard—decides that the price is too high and adopts a more assertive policy toward the Occupation, will the ability of Israeli governments to manipulate it end. Since governments will not do the right thing without being prodded by the people, what the Israeli public needs for a peaceful resolution to the conflict is not the
“support” of its supposed “friends” but the active intervention of international civil society. Even if the Israeli government accepted this, the organized Jewish community in the Diaspora and Christian fundamentalists may not appreciate it.
On September 25, Syrian President Bashar Assad said his country wants peace with Israel and does not support wiping it off the map. Olmert replied that same day, stating, “conditions are not ripe for peace,” and that, “the Golan Heights will remain forever in our hands.” Case closed.