Avoiding the ultimate price tag in Israel

 
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By Khaled Diab

With the rise in Jewish fanaticism, Israelis are faced with a paradox: peace with the Palestinians could stoke conflict within their own ranks but avoiding full-blown civil war requires an end to the occupation.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Once upon a time, the words ‘price tag’ evoked nothing more ominous in my imagination than something attached to the inside collar of a new shirt. But in Israel it has come to be associated with the destruction of Palestinian property, the burning of their fields, the poisoning of their wells, and the desecration of burial sites. 

And the standoff seems to be escalating, as demonstrated by the recent spate of attacks, such as the torching of a mosque, this time inside pre-1967 Israel. In fact, according to one estimate by the UN, ‘price tag’ attacks rose by a stunning 57% in the first seven months of this year. 

But it is not just Palestinians who have been suffering the wrath of these extremists. Increasingly, the price tagging movement has done the once unthinkable and targeted Israelis, both soldiers and leftist activists.

Political violence perpetrated by Israelis against Israelis has shocked Israel – which is hardly surprising, since the extremists have effectively placed their own compatriots in the enemy camp. It has also taken many Arabs by surprise, since one of the few things that Arabs admire about Israelis – even if it is begrudgingly or for the purposes of self-criticism – is how apparently tightly knit and unified of purpose they are.

Now that the unthinkable has occurred, could the unimaginable one day happen? Could Israelis go to war with each other?

In the past, despite the vast ideological, cultural and political diversity of its Jewish population, Israel was able to pull rank and manufacture consent surrounded as it was by enemies, both real and imagined. But as the threat from its Arab neighbours subsided and they began extending their hands in peace rather than rattling the sabres of war, Israel’s efforts to paper over its internal cracks and fault lines could not arrest the deepening divisions.

 In some ways, it can be said that Israel is already in a state of internal ideological warfare – a sort of quasi-civil war that has not yet turned violent, the ‘price tag’ campaigns excepted. This can be seen in Israel’s fractured political landscape and in the bitter division between secularists and religious Jews who have effectively ‘ghettoised’ themselves geographically. Contrast, for example, the relatively liberal, relaxed and hedonistic atmosphere of fun-loving Tel Aviv with the mini-theocracies that have emerged in pious Jerusalem.

There is also the tension between the geographical maximalist supporters of a ‘Greater Israel’ and the more pragmatic backers of the two-state solution. In the wake of the 1967 war, the Israeli political mainstream was generally reluctant to cede the territorial gains Israel had made, and they were helped in their resolve by Arab rejectionism at the time, which was intensified by the bitter and humiliating sting of rapid defeat.

Since the Oslo process began, the mainstream has largely been won over to the idea of ceding land for peace, though there are vast differences of opinion over how much land for how much peace should be exchanged.

This mainstream dithering, along with the need to maintain a consensus of sorts by following the path of least internal resistance, was exploited by extremists – right-wing revisionist Zionists in alliance with religious Zionists who, ironically, are the ideological descendants of the ultra-Orthodox movements who opposed Zionism on religious grounds but were ‘converted’ into a messianic movement by Israel’s spectacular military victories in 1967. In fact, many residents of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood of Mea Shearim are still opposed to the existence of Israel – as was advertised on a big banner ther just last week – and some refuse to speak Hebrew, which they see as too holy for secular use. 

Together, the different groups that make up the settler movement managed to pull off the feat of accelerating settlement activity in order to create ‘facts on the ground’ to the extent that more than half a million settlers now live on land which had been earmarked for the future Palestinian state, where the most extreme have enjoyed pretty much a carte blanche to live and act outside the law.

Emboldened by this sense of impunity, this hoodwinking and political coercion has now, with the emergence of the ‘price tag’ movement, turned into open and violent intimidation, in a classic case of ‘blow back’.

But what can be done to turn the tide?

Debate in Israel has largely focused on law and order issues, of catching and punishing the perpetrators of these violent acts and challenging their sense of impunity. Though necessary, this is only a case of attacking the symptoms and not treating the disease.

Undermining the increasingly fanatical settler movement requires an end to the settlements. The silent Israeli majority who have consistently voiced their support for the two-state solution – most recently in a poll that found 70% of Israelis support a possible UN vote in favour of an independent Palestine – must come out of their bunkers and be counted.

Now it is time for them to back up their sentiments with deeds. If the Israeli mainstream wishes to keep the two-state solution alive, now is the time to act forcefully and resolutely to abandon all the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which are impeding the creation of an independent Palestine, or hand them over to Palestinian sovereignty where they can be opened up and transformed into mixed Arab-Jewish communities.

But such a course of action – which would not only bring about peace with the Palestinians but preserve Israel’s corroding democracy against this extremist onslaught – paradoxically carries with it the risk of escalating the ‘price tag’ campaign into full-blown civil conflict or war. Look what happened when Ariel Sharon, the one-time darling of the settler movement, tried to dismantle the relatively small settlements in Gaza, some will point out?

But this risk will rise with time, not diminish. For now, extremists willing to turn on their Jewish compatriots are a relatively small minority, but they are winning fresh converts constantly.

As numerous Israeli visionaries have warned for decades, the occupation is a corrupting, divisive and draining influence on Israel. If Israelis wish to salvage the secular and democratic nature of their country, and to live at peace, not only with the Palestinians but also among themselves, there is no more room for complacency and dithering.

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