Did Obama navigate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without a map?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Obama administration was reportedly unaware of the true extent of Israeli settlement activity. This reveals either a monumental level of ignorance or a post-facto attempt to justify the failure of the Kerry peace initiative.

Friday 20 July 2018

It reads almost like a political thriller. An intrepid State Department official pages through a (possibly dusty) file and discovers, in 2015, a map that would change his life forever and radically alter his outlook on the world (well, at least on the Israeli-Palestinian part of it).

The official in question was Frank Lowenstein, Barack Obama’s special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The map he found, which helped him see “the forest for the trees”, showed not only the actual Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but also all the land that was controlled by Israel and off limits to Palestinians, according to a report in the New Yorker.

Lowenstein and his team then reportedly “did the math”, drew up a series of larger maps and calculated that Israel had gobbled up 60% of the West Bank, territory that had been earmarked for a future Palestinian state, and that the areas Israel controlled cut off Palestinian population centres from one another. The revelation apparently shocked Obama and John Kerry, then secretary of state and peace envoy.

The New Yorker article shocked me too – albeit for very different reasons. It shocked me because I could scarcely comprehend or credit that the Obama administration was unaware of what, to anyone with knowledge of the topic or who had spent some time on the ground, was very familiar terrain.

In light of his career path and his then recent recruitment as special envoy, it is conceivable that Lowenstein was unaware of these facts, although the so-called Area C of the West Bank, which is under complete Israeli control and represents 60% of the West Bank, is one of the most basic of basics of the conflict.

But the idea that the rest of the team, especially John Kerry, who had been shuttling back and forth trying to broker a deal since 2013, found any of this to be news was almost unfathomable. This is especially the case in light of the fact that the Palestinian negotiating team resigned, in November 2013, because they argued that Israel’s ongoing and accelerating settlement activity had rendered it impossible to establish a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.

Had I known back then that the Obama administration was so reportedly clueless of the extent of the Israeli settlement enterprise, I would have applied for the position of Middle East adviser. That is not because I am especially qualified, but because the Obama administration was so self-admittedly ignorant.

For example, I could have directed Lowenstein and his team not just to the single map he came across but an entire atlas and databases, produced by the UN, mapping out pretty much every conceivable aspect of the Israeli occupation and settlements project in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, including settlements, restrictions and closures, access to water and land, as well as demolitions and communities at risk.

Palestinian, international and Israeli NGOs, not to mention academics and think tanks, also carry out extensive research on these issues, making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of the most researched in the world. For instance, Israeli NGO B’Tselem has published information on settlements for years that would have made for painful reading for Lowenstein and the rest of the team.

Statistics and reports, no matter how good, cannot capture reality quite like seeing the reality on the ground for oneself. If I had access to the Obama team, I would have simply invited them round to the apartment we used to rent in East Jerusalem.

Located on the Mount of Olives, our front terrace overlooked the breathtaking beauty of the Jordan Valley, all the way down to the Dead Sea and beyond, into Jordan. Underneath the magnificence of the natural landscape one could also trace many of the topographical features of the occupation, including settlements and outposts, the Israeli wall, the gleaming modern highways snaking between the settlements, the meandering, ill-maintained roads reserved for West Bank Palestinians, the densely populated Palestinian towns unable to access and grow into the surrounding Area C, defined variously by Israel as restricted military areas, state land or nature reserves, anything to keep them out of the reach of the Palestinians.

I would point to the nearby Palestinian town of Ezeriya, only a couple of kilometres away as the crow flies and home to what is believed to be the tomb of Lazarus, where Jesus is said to have wept before resurrecting his dead follower.

In the past, the tomb and the surrounding town were a short and pleasant hike from our apartment. However, when I lived there, owing to the wall and various movement restrictions, it required a 20km or so detour to reach it.

In fact, driving is one of the simplest ways to navigate the reality of the occupation and clearly witness just how much the road to two states has been bulldozed and obliterated, and how the so-called road map to peace leads to nowhere. In fact, even satellite navigation cannot decipher the complexity of the rapidly changing political reality on the ground, as attested to by the number of times my GPS sent me to a shuttered gate or road block, or a restricted military area.

On the road, I would have driven Lowenstein and his team to view and contrast the settlements, with Palestinian villages and towns, taken them to visit vulnerable and threatened communities in Area C, such as the recently evicted Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, or to the temporary camps set up by activists protesting the attempts to join settlements in a continuous seam.

And even if the Obama team did not have time to undertake such time-consuming field work, all they needed to do was listen to Israel’s ultranationalist, rightwing government, which made no secret of its support of the settlement enterprise and its determination to render the prospect of a Palestinian state an impossibility.

Some time before Lowenstein’s Eureka moment, Likud and Jewish Home members of the Knesset tried to push a bill through to annex Israeli settlements, thereby rendering much of Area C permanently beyond Palestinian reach. Many on the right believe the entire West Bank is and should be Israel’s. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely is a vocal member of this camp: not only does she oppose Palestinian statehood, she also urged Israeli diplomats to tell the world “this country is all ours. We didn’t come here to apologize for that.

Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been ideologically opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state for decades, vociferously opposed and vilified Yitzhak Rabin for forging the Oslo accords, which were also violently opposed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombers, and actively worked to destroy it when he was first elected prime minister in 1996. During his re-election campaign in 2015, he promised the electorate that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch.

If the Obama administration was ignorant of this staggering body of publicly available evidence, it suggests a monumental level of incompetence. However, I suspect there is another explanation which makes more sense: Obama and Kerry did not possess the imagination, courage and political capital to adopt new and more effective approaches to the conflict, and, like previous administrations, they did not have the guts to admit publicly from the beginning what has been clear since the mid-1990s: that the Oslo blueprint for peace was dead in the water almost as soon as it was floated.

After all, it is easier to plead ignorance than admit to spinelessness.

—-

This article was first published by The New Arab on 11 July 2018.

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Netanyahu and the Middle East: The risky business of “business as usual”

 
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By Khaled Diab

Netanyahu’s re-election promises “business as usual”. But this is an extremely risky venture on the Iranian-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian fronts.

'Business as usual' following Netanyahu's re-election is a risky venture.  Image: https://twitter.com/netanyahu/status/572859186972766209

‘Business as usual’ following Netanyahu’s re-election is a risky venture.
Image: https://twitter.com/netanyahu/status/572859186972766209

Monday 30 March 2015

Despite the hope of change entertained by the Israeli left, the recent elections in Israel have confirmed Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud as the largest party.

As Netanyahu strives to cobble together a hard-right coalition – against the earlier wishes of President Reuven Rivlin who wanted a “national unity” government – he is driving yet another nail into the coffin of the two-state solution, as the settlement juggernaut continues its unstoppable momentum, further derailing the prospects for peace.

The future looks bleak for the Palestinians, both within Israel and in the occupied territories. Palestinians in the West Bank are likely to see more of their land disappear under the foundations of new settlements and more of their civil rights trampled under the boots of the occupation.

In Israel and Jerusalem, the rising tide of anti-Arab sentiment is likely to surge in light of the clear race-baiting that occurred during the elections. One notorious incident involved Netanyahu, who tried to get right-wingers to flock to voting stations by tapping into their deepest anxieties and prejudices with his warning that “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls.” Earlier, outgoing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman sounded like a wannabe recruit to the Islamic State (ISIS) when he suggested that “disloyal” Arab citizens “deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe.”

But the massing dark clouds have contained some slivers of silver lining. Despite the grim mood in progressive circles, some Israeli leftists are consoling themselves that, collectively, the left has become a little stronger in this election and the right has weakened.

Some Palestinian commentators and observers believe that Netanyahu, with his explicit dismissal of the two-state solution and his vitriolic anti-Arab rhetoric, will force the West to rethink its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and take more robust action to bring about a resolution.

While there are plenty of signs of disappointment, anger and soul-searching in Washington and other Western capitals – which are bound to grow in light of the latest Israeli spying scandal – it is not a foregone conclusion that anything fundamental will change. The USA and Europe may find a novel way to fudge the issues, while paying lip service to the long-deceased peace process. Another possibility is that Washington and the EU may simply disengage from the process, as they fight fires elsewhere.

Galvanised by their increasingly embattled position and right-wing efforts to sideline them politically, the long-divided Arab parties in Israel joined forces, with spectacular results. Under the charismatic and conciliatory leadership of Ayman Odeh, who also tried to reach out to Jewish voters, the Joint List managed the unprecedented feat of becoming the third largest party in the Knesset.

With the ongoing Israelisation of the occupied territories and international inaction, on the one hand, and growing Palestinian rights-based activism, on the other, the next Knesset could mark a turning point for the conflict in which the two-state option is abandoned in favour of a civil rights struggle for the foreseeable future.

In the wider region, Netanyahu’s re-election is likely to spell “business as usual”, short of some radical, unexpected upheaval. The Middle East is caught up in other crises, such as the civil war in Syria, the continued unravelling of Iraq, Arab-Iranian rivalry, the growing threat from the Islamic State (ISIS), and now the war in Yemen, as well as simple survival for most of the region’s regimes.

In such a climate, Netanyahu offers Middle Eastern leaders a form of perceived stability, in the shape of the “devil you know”. Arab leaders will occasionally condemn Israeli excesses and urge Netanyahu to respond to the Arab Peace Initiative, but inaction will be the norm.

However, the status quo is extremely volatile, and so “business as usual” could easily lead to more Israeli-Palestinian violence and war, as witnessed last summer, which could quite easily spiral out of control next time.

Israel’s war against Hamas plays well in places like Egypt, where the once-allied Muslim Brotherhood has been demonised, persecuted, banned and declared a “terrorist organisation”. When it comes to Iran, Israeli, Saudi and Iranian hardliners, though for different reasons, find themselves bizarre and coincidental allies of convenience in their opposition to a possible nuclear deal.

Regionally, it is the Iran-Israel axis that is potentially the most volatile and unpredictable. Though both sides have thus far limited their animosity to the rhetorical sphere and proxy clashes, this contained confrontation carries the risk of spinning out of control.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a new far-right government in Israel will seek to deflect internal opposition and dissent, as well as divert Western attention, by ratcheting up the public fear quotient of the “existential threat” posed by the Ayatollahs.

Likewise, in Iran, hardliners may try to derail the cautious and conciliatory path being pursued by Hassan Rouhani, and undermine his more moderate presidency, possibly by painting him as an appeaser of America and Israel.

This is likely to happen as elections to select a new Assembly of Experts and a new parliament in 2016 loom ever closer. With the ailing Ayotollah Ali Khamenei and his latest powerful conservative ally, the new leader of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, determined to block moderates, Rouhani’s job is likely to get much tougher.

A deal on Iran’s nuclear programme would help to reduce this pressure by giving Rouhani a visible victory and enabling Iran’s staggering economy to recover. However, this is opposed by Netanyahu and influential Republican hardliners in Washington.

It is my view that Iran can gain the upper hand and the moral high ground by abandoning its nuclear ambitions in favour of solar and other renewable energies. If the only reason Iran is carrying out nuclear research is truly to ensure its energy security and prepare for its post-oil future, then renewables are much more promising.

Nuclear power is not only dirty, dangerous and extremely expensive, investing in it will make Iran forever dependent on others, both for the supply of raw materials and for technology. With an abundant supply of sunshine, Iran can be self-sufficient in solar power. In addition, if it diverts the billions it is investing in nuclear energy to renewables, it can quickly become a regional leader in this extremely important and profitable emerging sector, and perhaps eventually even a global one.

But pride at backing down to Western pressure, paranoia, nuclear envy, and hardline pressure make this path improbable, at best.

For its part, to avoid the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, whether with Iran or an Arab country spurred to catch up, Israel should enter its own nuclear arsenal into earnest negotiations for a WMD-free region – an offer that the rest of the region has had on the table for decades.

But pride, paranoia, existential angst and the fear of being seen to back down make this scenario too extremely unlikely.

Though “business as usual” is the path of least resistance on the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Iranian axes, they are also risky enterprises as the old equilibriums shift.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 25 March 2015.

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Spring of hope amid winter of despair

 
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By Khaled Diab

For Palestinians in Israel, the recent race for the Knesset was both the worst of elections and the best.

Voting for change. Joint List's Ayman Odeh casts his ballot.

Voting for change. Joint List’s Ayman Odeh casts his ballot.

Monday 30 March 2015

It was the worst of elections. It was the best of elections. It was the winter of despair but also the spring of hope.

Such is the nature of Israel’s highly fractured and divided political landscape that election night can deliver a number of winners, as well as multiple losers.

Leftist Jews in Tel Aviv and elsewhere wandered around dazed and shell-shocked by the news that Binyamin Netanyahu had not only survived but that Likud had put a six seat lead between it and its nearest rival, the Zionist Union, despite what the polls had forecast.

Although Palestinians shared the left’s revulsion towards Netanyahu’s Velcro grip on power, compounded by the fear of what further damage a strong far-right alliance could cause them, Arab voters in Israel were also in high spirits.

In fact, there was jubilation in Nazareth and other Arab towns and villages at the news that a coalition of Arab (and progressive Jewish) parties had made the unprecedented achievement of finishing third in the elections.

Less than two months after it was formed, the Joint List – an unlikely and once-improbable alliance between Palestinian nationalists, Arab-Jewish progressive leftists and Islamists – had managed the previously unimaginable and become the Jewish state’s third-largest party.

This apparent unity in Arab political ranks spurred Palestinians in Israel, who had grown increasingly disillusioned and apathetic towards the political process in recent elections, to go out and vote, including many who had never done so before.

For example, Tamer Nafar of the socially aware and politically active Palestinian hip-hop band DAM recorded a pre-election video in which he raps about having never voted in his life, until now.

Some voters hoped that the Joint List would put Arabs on Israel’s political radar and force their Jewish compatriots to notice them. “I want Israelis to realise … that they do not live in Europe, that, like it or not, they live in the Arab Middle East,” one voter asserted.

And the Joint List has certainly succeeded in putting Arabs on the Knesset’s map. “I’m delighted with their performance,” Diana Buttu, a prominent Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and activist, told me. “They ran an honest, democratic campaign, unlike Netanyahu’s.”

Netanyahu’s bid for re-election raised eyebrows and drew accusations of scare-mongering and racism, both from Jews and Arabs. In addition to his well-rehearsed and repeated warnings about the imminent and “existential threat” from notional Iranian nukes – which he has been rehashing at the American Congress since 1996 – Netanyahu talked, like a paranoid Middle Eastern despot, of an unholy alliance of foreigners and leftists out to unseat him.

Moreover, when polls forecasted that Likud was falling behind, Netanyahu sought to galvanise the party’s traditional but increasingly apathetic support base by tapping into its deepest prejudices, fears and anxieties. “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls,” he warned ominously, in one of the election’s ugliest moments. “Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses.”

This contrasts sharply with the measured, inclusive campaign spearheaded by the Joint List’s leader and perhaps Israel’s fastest-rising political star, Ayman Odeh. With his background in the joint Arab-Jewish Hadash party, he has moved the Arab coalition he heads away from identity politics and towards questions of universal social and economic justice.

“Our Joint List calls for the unification of all the weak and oppressed populations, regardless of race, religion or sex,” he insists. “We will be an alternative camp, the democratic camp – where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies.”

With Arabs being the most under-privileged segment of Israeli society, they are the focus of a 10-year programme devised by Odeh to narrow inequalities. “It’s a win-win, as any economic boom within the Arab community will bring economic prosperity to the whole of Israeli society,” he explained. Taking a leaf out of Martin Luther King’s civil rights handbook, Odeh even plans a march to Jerusalem to raise awareness of this programme.

Odeh’s Joint List also intends to champion the cause of their Palestinian compatriots in the occupied territories. “We say that there can be no real and substantial democracy as long as the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories continues,” he said. “And we believe that only by respecting the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and independence can Israeli society be freed from this ethical, economic and social burden.”

But Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not holding their breaths for any improvements to their lot. While many praise the Joint List and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas even endorsed it, Palestinians generally doubt the Arab coalition can overcome the ultranationalist, rightwing juggernaut.

Despite this, there is a line of thinking among Palestinian activists that the ideological honesty of a hard-right government may make life worse for them but it will work out better in the long term because it will lead to more international isolation for Israel and will prompt more countries to view it as a pariah.

“[This is] a much better outcome than the so-called leftwing government that disguises itself as a lamb with the cover of the international community, yet perpetuates the status quo and continued colony building in ‪‎Palestine,” one Jerusalemite said, reflecting this sentiment.

In Gaza, where the differences between most Israeli parties are hair-splittingly small, “people are not hopeful at all”, describes Majd Al Waheidi, a young journalist who rose to prominence during last summer’s war.

“[Ordinary] people in Gaza don’t really care or differentiate between Israeli parties… They say all of them are the same enemy who denies our rights and freedom,” she elaborates. “Maybe there’s a sense of frustration because Netanyahu has made it again but this frustration is only between intellectuals and experts who know the threat of Netanyahu on Gaza.”

Buttu is more upbeat. “I am under no illusions that the Joint List will be able to be miracle workers: the tide of racism is too high,” she says. “But they will push back and, as always, push for an end to Israel’s military rule, blockade over Gaza and colonisation of the West Bank.”

For the Joint List, the going will be both tough and unclear. “They face an uphill battle. They obviously won’t join any coalition, as they cannot be partners to the occupation but they will be front and centre in pushing back against the racist legislation,” adds Buttu.

On the other side of the aisle, even the Zionist Union is unlikely to reach out to the Joint List, even to block Netanyahu, if history is anything to go by, as no Arab party has ever been invited to join a ruling coalition before.

The best hope for the Joint List having any parliamentary clout is a “national unity” government (President Reuven Rivlin’s preferred outcome), which would leave it in the unprecedented position of leading the opposition. But if Netanyahu succeeds in his determination to form a rightwing, ultra-nationalist coalition, this would place the Zionist Union at the helm of the opposition, putting the Joint List out in the cold or, at most, in a supporting role.

Regardless of whether it leads the opposition or not, some are convinced that the Joint List will have negligible influence on Israel’s politics. “[It] is going to have zero influence through parliament on Israeli domestic or foreign policies,” the prominent Israeli dissident New Historian Ilan Pappé told me.

Conversely, the Joint List is likely to have a profound impact on Palestinian politics, argues Pappé. “The Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian representatives in the Knesset are formations based on a certain Palestinian strategic logic that adheres to the two-state  solution as the only way forward,” he maintains. “As the chances and prospects of such a solution seem to disappear daily, we are all in need of a new strategy.”

And this new strategy? A civil rights struggle which will deliver “a true ANC-kind of leadership to follow and be part of, for a better future,” believes Pappé.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 March 2015.

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The mystery of Arab joy at Netanyahu’s re-election

 
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By Khaled Diab

When Netanyahu’s election victory was declared, rather than grieve, Arabs in Israel were out on the streets celebrating. 

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Dashing the hopes and wishes of the Israeli centre and left, the rightwing Likud party came out as the top party in the country’s notoriously fractured political system, which would give those of Italy and Belgium a run for their money.

Despite the depressing prospect of another Netanyahu-led hard-right coalition, rather than mourning, Palestinians in Israel are in a celebratory mood. In the northern city of Nazareth, for example, motorists beeped their horns as if on their way to a wedding.

The reason for their apparently paradoxical jubilation had nothing to do with the Likud or Netanyahu but was related to the unprecedentedly strong showing of the Arab-dominated Joint List. “This is an excellent result because it represent a renewed vote of confidence from Arab citizens to their representatives,” reflected a friend from Nazareth.

And two men were to thank for this “vote of confidence” and the large Arab turnout following years of apathy.

One was Avigdor Lieberman of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party. The outgoing foreign minister initiated legislation to raise the electoral threshold which was widely interpreted as a bid to muscle out Arab parties, who tend to draw fewer votes than their Jewish rivals, from the Knesset. This, along with his and the far-right’s vitriolic anti-Arab rhetoric, pushed these small parties to form an unlikely alliance, the Joint List, between Palestinian nationalists, Arab and Jewish progressives, not to mention Islamists.

The other was the lawyer-turned-politician from Haifa, Ayman Odeh, who came from relative obscurity to lead a charismatic campaign for the Joint List which had some observers describing him as the most exciting Arab politician in the Middle East.

“Our Joint List calls for the unification of all the weak and oppressed populations, regardless of race, religion or sex,” explained Ayman Odeh in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “We will be an alternative camp, the democratic camp – where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies.”

And with Arabs making up the bulk of Israel’s under-privileged, the Joint List has devised a 10-year plan to close the socio-economic gap between them and the mainstream. “We intend to march on Jerusalem… to raise awareness of our 10-year plan and demand justice and democracy,” Odeh declared, echoing civil rights pioneers such as Martin Luther King.

Another important plank is strident opposition to the occupation in an Israel apathetic towards its subjugation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and fixated on “managing” the conflict. “We say that there can be no real and substantial democracy as long as the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories continues,” Odeh observed.

It is unclear how successful the Joint List can be in its declared goals when faced with a possible ultra-nationalist rightwing coalition or a status-quo-friendly “national unity” government. But one thing is clear: the Joint List’s success at the ballot box has finally and belatedly put Palestinians in Israel on the political map in which they may end up leading the opposition.

This carries the potential of being a game-changer and future historians may look back at this time as being the turning point when the Palestinian struggle began to morph into a civil rights movement.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Corriere della Serra on 19 March 2015.

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The concealed links between Israel’s “invisible” citizens

 
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By Khaled Diab

An electoral campaign video targeted at Israel’s “invisible” poor unwittingly highlights the long-neglected links between Mizrahi Jews and Arabs.

The Israeli Black Panthers focused on class issues, not nationalism, and believed that Israel's marginalised Mizrahim and Palestinian citizens were natural allies.

The Israeli Black Panthers focused on class issues, not nationalism, and believed that Israel’s marginalised Mizrahim and Palestinian citizens were natural allies.

Friday 6 February 2015

It is a very powerful electoral message. The ad features middle-class Israelis complaining about how tough they have it, while phantom figures around them beg for money, scan their shopping at the supermarket checkout, fill their petrol tanks and clean their homes.
[YouTube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4PyeR1YsD8]

This savvy appeal to the almost 1.7 million “invisible” Israelis who live below the poverty line was not produced by Meretz, Hadash, Labour or any other party on the left of the political spectrum. Surprisingly, the video is the work of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox religious party on the right, most closely associated with Israel’s Sephardi and Mizrahi populations.

Analysts suggest that this video is part of a bid to break free of Shas’ traditional image of being a religious and ethnic party, and to appeal to a group not explicitly targeted by most of the other parties: Israel’s economically marginalised.

“The target audience is obviously broader than anything any ultra-Orthodox party tried before,” Israeli journalist, blogger and analyst Dimi Reider observed. “The ad’s inclusivity is particularly startling when one looks at the other parties hoping to swoop in on the social-economic protest vote,” he adds, pointing to how Labour, for example, has fielded only one Mizrahi candidate, who occupies the unelectable 23rd position on the party’s list.

Shas’s rehabilitated leader Aryeh Deri, who was imprisoned on bribery charges, is credited with this apparent shift to the left, though much of the party does not seem to share his politics, while his leadership is in doubt.

Despite Shas talking the talk of the poor, it is still solidly, like religious parties across the Middle East, walking the walk of the neo-liberal business elites, as reflected in its backing for Likud-led privatisation programmes and austerity measures. “Their campaign is a great one but it is really far away from their politics in the real political world,” notes Mati Shemoelof, a progressive Iraqi-Israeli poet, writer, journalist and activist. “They are part of the problem and not the solution.”

While Shas’s campaign video features poor Jews, there is an elephant in the room. Missing from the picture are Palestinian-Israelis, the invisible among the invisible, who make up the bulk of Israel’s poor.

The Palestinian citizens of Israel account for 44.5% of Israel’s poor, according to a report by Adalah, an NGO that advocates for the rights of Israel’s Palestinian minority. Over half of Arab families in Israel are classified as poor, compared to a national average of 20 percent, according to the report. This is a reflection of the fact that Arabs on average earn 32% less than Jews, while the net income of Arab household is less than two-thirds of what their Jewish counterparts take home, the report observes.

Although the Mizrahim are generally somewhat better off than the Arabs of Israel and their relative situation has improved, they still lag considerably behind the Ashkenazim. This is reflected in the fact that Ashkenazi Israelis earn 30 percent more on average than Mizrahim.

Despite being in a similar socio-economic boat, it is highly improbable that the Mizrahi and Palestinian citizens of Israel will find common cause – at least not in the forthcoming elections. The bulk of Israel’s Sephardim and Mizrahim sit firmly in the anti-Arab, nationalist right. After decades of jettisoning their Arab and Middle Eastern heritage to assimilate into Israel’s Ashkenazi-dominated “melting pot”, and expressing bitterness at how their native societies rejected them, few have the appetite to admit that they share much in common with their Palestinian compatriots.

Previous attempts to make this link essentially failed. Take the Israeli Black Panthers, a radical political group that emerged to agitate for Mizrahi rights. Many Panthers believed that the Mizrahi class struggle was intimately connected to that of the Palestinian-Israelis and that social peace in Israel was not possible without peace with the Palestinians. “There will be no equality and no chance for the Mizrahim as long as there’s an occupation and a national struggle,” believed former Black Panther Kokhavi Shemeskh. “The national struggle will not be over as long as the Mizrahim are at the bottom of the ladder, and are practically an anti-Arab lever.”

However, this view was not common or popular among the Mizrahim, and the movement faded into obscurity, though it is notable that Mizrahi intellectuals helped pave the way to the peace process.

Were they to set aside their nationalist narratives and embrace their common struggle for socio-economic and cultural equality, the Mizrahim and Palestinian-Israelis could form a formidable voting bloc that would carry significant weight, since together they make up an estimated 60% of Israel’s citizenry (about 40 percent Mizrahi and 20 percent Arab).

Beyond their shared socio-economic woes, Mizrahi and Palestinian Israelis have in common that they believe that their history is insufficiently taught in Israeli schools, and that their Middle Eastern culture is still, despite improvements, regarded as inferior. But the younger generation are taking greater pride in their heritage, which could pave the way to joint action to end discrimination against them, dilute the “us” and “them” formula of the conflict, and drive home the realisation that Israel, rather than being a Western “villa in the jungle” of the Middle East, actually possesses a very Middle Eastern socio-cultural complexion.

Moreover, in the bitter identity politics that have resulted from decades of conflict, both the Mizrahim (sometimes referred to as “Arab Jews”) and Palestinians in Israel, contradict the simplistic narrative that Arabs and Jews are completely different animals. In fact, as anyone who has lived in the Holy Land can attest, Israelis and Palestinians share much in common culturally and socially, and the differences within each society are greater than the differences between them.

As I outline in my book, Intimate Enemies, in which I also explore these “conflicting identities, if the civil rights path to liberation is pursued, rather than being stuck in the nationalistic abyss dividing Arabs and Jews, the Mizrahi and Palestinian Israelis may well become the future bridge to peace and justice the two sides desperately need.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 3 February 2015.

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Palestinian history ✝ – Christians are Arab too

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite what some in the Knesset think, Christians in Israel are Arabs too and have been prominent in Palestinian politics, society and culture.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 6 March 2014

“This is a historic and important move that could help balance the state of Israel, and connect us and the Christians,” said Yariv Levin, the Likud Knesset member behind the controversial new law to distinguish between Israel’s indigenous Christian and Muslim minorities.

While being a minority within a minority does make Palestinian Christians more vulnerable than their Muslim compatriots, the issues facing the two are generally the same. Besides, the law seems to be about anything but the enfranchisement and empowerment of a shrinking minority – otherwise its sponsor would’ve made some effort to understand the group he was targeting.

In fact, for someone who calls a law “historic”, Levin shows precious little understanding of history.

“I’m being careful about not calling [Christians] Arabs because they aren’t Arabs,” Levin asserted confidently, throwing prudence, intelligence and knowledge to the winds of his bigotry.

My incredulity was driven by the fact that not only are Christians in this part of the world as much Arabs as Muslims, there were actually, it would shock Levin to learn, Arab Christians, as there were Arab Jews, long before there were ever any Muslims.

In the modern era, it might perplex Levin to discover, that Christians actually invented and defined “Arab” in its modern meaning… at least in part. Whereas once “Arab” referred solely to the inhabitants of Arabia and those descended from the Arab tribes, in the modern era, the word took a far, far broader and more inclusive meaning.

The Ottoman millet system divided people according to their religious faith, giving each community autonomy over its own affairs. But as the Ottomans turned into the original “sick man of Europe”, the subject peoples of the empire, influenced by ideas imported from 19th-century European nationalism, struggled for independence. These included the Arabic-speaking peoples of the region.

The Arab struggle against the Ottomans took place at three levels: Islamic, local nationalist and pan-Arabist. Unsurprisingly given their traditional dhimmi (non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state ) status, Christian intellectuals were among the leading proponents and inventors of the idea of secular Arab nationalism, in which all Arabic speakers, regardless of religion, would be equal citizens in a utopian Arab nation which would stretch from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea.

Some of the most prominent leaders of the grassroots Arab uprising against the Ottomans were Christians. One of the earliest Arab nationalists, the Syrian Christian Ibrahim el-Yazigi, who eventually became a member of a secret anti-Ottoman society, penned a rousing patriotic poem which was incredibly popular in the mid-19th century, Arise, ye Arabs and Awake.

Today, the pan-Arabist movement of the 20th century is generally associated with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But Nasser actually started off essentially as an Egyptian nationalist. The roots of pan-Arab nationalism actually lie in the Levant.

Jurji Zaydan – a Lebanese Christian intellectual and one of the Arab world’s first media moguls who was interestingly a prolific writer of novels themed around Islamic history – is often credited as its founding father.

In Palestine, though a relative cultural backwater at the time, Khalil al-Sakakini – who would eventually be excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church – pioneered a progressive schooling system based on collaboration, rather than competition, and Arab nationalism.

As a coherent secular political ideology, pan-Arabism was first formulated by three Syrian thinkers – Constantin ZureiqMichel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi – all of whom belonged not to the Sunni Muslim majority, but to the Christian and Alawite minorities.

In the Palestinian context, many of the leading champions of the Palestinian cause, especially on the left, were Christian, as were many of its most prominent figures in all walks of life. For instance, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the second-largest faction in the PLO, was founded by George Habash, who, like Che Guevara, was a doctor turned Marxist revolutionary. Without a single Islamic or Islamist bone in his body, Habash advocated, following the crushing 1967 defeat, the idea of armed, revolutionary struggle, including spectacular acts of terrorism, as the only way to liberate his homeland.

One of the first intifada’s most eloquent young leaders, who marked the shift to a new generation of more savvy, media-genic Palestinian politicians, Hanan Ashrawi, is also a Christian. Ashrawi is also a prominent Palestinian academic, who was the protégé of Edward Said who, though he became an agnostic, was raised as a Protestant.

In addition to being a pioneer in the critical study of Orientalism and one of the founding figures of Post-Colonialism, Said was the face of the Palestinian cause in the United States for much of his life.

Given the contempt in which many Israelis and pro-Israel activists hold Edward Said and George Habash, it is puzzling that Yariv Levin should claim that: “We and the Christians have a lot in common. They’re our natural allies.”

But perhaps the situation is different within Israel? While Christians in Israel have made significant cultural and economic contributions to the state, this can often be critical. Take Elia Suleiman’s bleakly beautiful Divine Intervention, which highlighted how love can conquer all, with the exception of checkpoints and occupations.

Nevertheless, Christians in Israel are “a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within”, insists Levin.

And Levin has been at the vanguard of efforts to protect Israel against these efforts “to destroy the country from within”. He was the co-author of the “Bishara Law”, which stripped an Arab MK of his pension following allegations of “aiding the enemy”.

The enemy in question was Hizbullah and the Knesset member who was allegedly using “state resources to destroy it”, in Levin’s words, was none other than Azmi Bishara.

The trouble for Levin is that Bishara was no Jihadist Muslim but happens to be a Christian from Nazareth who identifies very much as an Arab and a Palestinian, being the founder of the Balad party, as he is.

If Levin truly believes that Christians are “our natural allies”, why did he not stand up for Bishara, whom many believe was the victim of a political witch-hunt which lead him to flee the country, instead of leading the charge against him?

The cavernous contradictions in Levin’s discourse and positions suggests that he is either engaging in classic divide-and-rule politics or is ignorant. Most dangerous of all, I suspect that he is both.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 March 2014.

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Refuge in exile

 
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By Khaled Diab

Is it possible for Israelis and Palestinians to find common refuge in their shared notions of exile and return?

Thursday 23 August 2012

Like for Palestinians, refugee camps became a part of the Mizrahi Jewish experience. Photo: Zoltan Kluger

The United States House of Representatives is now considering a bipartisan bill, submitted last month, that would effectively equate the plight of Palestinian refugees with that of Jews whose origins were in Middle Eastern countries.

Although the tragedy that befell Jews in Arab countries following the creation of Israel certainly requires recognition and redress, many Mizrahi Jews resent the linkage.

“The basis of this equivalence is spurious. Arab Jews and Palestinians have two different histories and their experiences are not similar,” insists David Shasha, who directs the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn. “Israel has maintained that Arab Jews are members of the Jewish nation and are part of Israel. The fact that they were or were not expelled from Arab countries should not then be relevant to any peace negotiations.”

Peace activists see in this latest initiative a transparent political ploy to undermine the claims of Palestinian refugees. Noting that congress has never proposed such a bill for Palestinian refugees, Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now points to a similar Israeli foreign ministry initiative whose “focus is not only (or even primarily) seeking justice for Jews from Arab countries. The main goal is to impose new terms of reference on future peace negotiations.”

Despite this manipulation of the tragedy of the Middle East’s ancient Jewish populations, there are clear parallels between that calamity and the one that befell the Palestinians. In fact, you could say that Arab Jews are the Middle East’s “other Palestinians”.

“Both Palestinians and Jews from Arab lands were at the mercy of competing nationalisms – Zionism and Arab nationalism – sweeping the region at the time, playing off each other and insisting on reductive definitions of identity,” observes journalist and writer Rachel Shabi, herself of Iraqi Jewish descent, who is the author of Not The Enemy, a book on the history of Israel’s Mizrahi Jews.

Recalling how well-integrated into the fabric of Iraqi society and relatively successful Jews were, the prominent Iraqi-Israeli poet, academic and translator of Arabic literature Sasson Somekh told me how in light of World War II, and the fascism it unleashed, and the conflict in Palestine: “Everything changed forever. In 1948, I was 15 and I recall how people would curse Jews and throw stones at them.”

By 1951, the situation for Iraqi Jews had become so untenable that most agreed reluctantly to give up their citizenship and property in return for safe passage out of Iraq. By the 1970s, the Middle East’s rich Jewish heritage had all but disappeared, though fairly sizeable Jewish communities continued to exist in Iran and Morocco.

Although Palestinians and Arab Jews do have the loss of their homelands in common, the Mizrahim, particularly those in Israel, generally do not wish to return to their ancestral lands – indeed, many Mizrahim are actually situated on the anti-Arab end of the Israeli political spectrum. Some do visit their places of origin, such as Jews of Yemenite descent (who are the only Israelis allowed to travel to that country), as well as Moroccan and Egyptian Jews, but it should be recalled that Israeli Jews from most Arab countries are not allowed to visit their ancestral lands.

The majority of Mizrahi Jews today appear to be ideologically committed to the idea of Israel as their homeland. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that the Mizrahi vote brought the settler-friendly Likud to power in 1977 and has acted as a core power base for the party ever since. This implies that most Mizrahim no longer qualify as refugees, though they once were.

However, there are some, albeit a minority, who do still regard themselves as refugees and dream of unlikely return. Take Mati Shemoelof, a second-generation Iraqi-Israeli poet, journalist and activist who defines himself as “Arab” and believes that Mizrahi Jews went “from exile to exile.”

He wants Iraq, which he wishes to visit “more than anything in the world,” to make up for its historic crime by granting Iraqi Jews the right of return and full citizenship, while allowing them to retain their Israeli nationality and identity. His vision: “I want to live in two worlds.”

Shemoelof’s sentiments echo those of many Palestinians. Not only do many of them dwell in perpetual limbo in refugee camps across the Middle East, but the experience of exile and dream of improbable return is a central pillar of Palestinian identity. In his evocative memoirs of exile and return, I Saw Ramallah, the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, who was stranded in exile due to the outbreak of the 1967 war, reflected upon his return how Israel “took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land” and that the “long occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine”.

“[Exile is] a feeling that I have to carry my roots with me, so to speak, but can never fully put them down anywhere,” describes Jennifer Jajeh, a Palestinian-American actress.

Many in the diaspora feel that both they and their homeland have become phantoms. “I feel like I’m a visitor to my own home, like a ghost walking around in a land where other people refuse to see us even when we’re talking with them,” says Ray Hanania, a prominent Palestinian-American columnist, broadcaster and comedian from Chicago who visits Israel and Palestine regularly.

Those who cannot live in or visit the old country dream of being allowed at least to make it their final resting place. “When we die, bury us in Palestine. If you can’t manage that, then try to bring some of its soil and bury it with us,” the parents of a Jordanian-Palestinian friend used to tell her.

And this sense of exile can be just as acute among the Palestinians who stayed behind, as they watch the land of their forefathers morph into another country. For instance, one young Palestinian I know from a village near Bethlehem lives frustratingly within eyeshot – across a railway line which became part of the Green Line – of what was once his family’s farmland but became part of Israel.

“When I go to Jerusalem and walk around certain parts of it, I don’t feel that I belong to that place, because it has been colonised,” says Hurriyah Ziada, a 22-year-old Palestinian student and activist in Ramallah.

Living within the boundaries of her historic homeland does not blunt Ziada’s keen sense of being an exile and refugee, perhaps partly because the movement restrictions imposed by Israel mean she has not been able even to visit her ancestral village of Faluja, near Gaza but now part of the Israeli town of Kiryat Gat. In 1948, Faluja’s residents had refused to flee the fighting but were subsequently driven out following the 1949 armistice.

Echoing the early Zionists, Ziada dreams of making Faluja her home – even though the town does not exist anymore and the surrounding area has become completely Israeli – and living the life of a Palestinian pioneer there. “It’s true that I’m used to living here [Ramallah] and all that, but it is my right to return to the village,” she insists, noting that “I’m willing to pay the price, and to start from scratch because this is the only way.”

It is unclear how representative Ziada’s views are of Palestinian refugees in general, since little research has been carried out on the taboo question of actual versus symbolic return and recognition of the historic wrong committed against the Palestinian people.

For most Israelis, even peace activists and pacifists, the idea of Palestinian return to what is today Israel is a complete non-starter. The creation and development of Israel “entails an essential injustice to the Palestinian people,” Amos Oz, one of Israel’s leading novelists, told me during a long and riveting conversation in his basement study.

In Oz’s view, it is essential for Israel to maintain “a Jewish majority” – though he diverges from the mainstream in his belief that Israel should be a state for all its citizens – even if it means shrinking its territory. His reasoning? That Jews have a right to live free of persecution and to determine their own destiny.

Palestinian return, in his view, should be to a Palestinian state within the full pre-1967 borders, referring to the armistice lines before the 1967 Six Day War. He argues that this is the pragmatic and realistic thing to do. But for an influential segment of Palestinian society, the idea of refugees not having the right to return to anywhere other than the actual homes and towns they abandoned is anathema.

So what’s the solution? According to some, compromise on both sides is the only way to ensure “a means of both of us surviving”, as Ray Hanania puts it.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 20 August 2012.

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Recognising the weakness of mutual rejectionism

 
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By Khaled Diab

Palestinian reconciliation offers a golden opportunity for a peace deal. But reaching one requires Israelis, Palestinians and the international community to recognise some hard facts.

Friday 13 May 2011

The Egyptian-brokered Palestinian ‘national unity’ agreement between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, took the world by surprise when it was announced on 27 April.

Palestinians hope this internal peace deal – officially inaugurated in Cairo last Wednesday – will bring an end to years of infighting and conflict between Fatah, which currently dominates the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, and mend the burnt bridges between the two Palestinian territories. With national unity, Palestinians also hope they will get a government that can best serve their immediate and long-term national interests.

However, the agreement is so vague and brief that it raises questions as to whether it can serve as a basis to heal the deep-seated political and ideological rifts between the two parties. But if it enables the Palestinians to create the infrastructure for a state-in-waiting, then it will serve a useful purpose. Encouragingly, it also details a clear path to elections, which will enable the Palestinian people to choose between Fatah and Hamas.

Although much of the world welcomed the news of the deal and saw in it an opportunity to inch towards an eventual Palestinian-Israeli peace deal, Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, immediately rejected the agreement, calling on the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, to cancel it.

“The agreement… is a hard blow to the peace process,” he said following a meeting in Jerusalem with former British prime minister and Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, and just ahead of a European tour aimed at mobilising European opposition to the deal.

Netanyahu’s position has raised Palestinian suspicions that Israel prefers a ‘divide and rule’ approach to the Palestinians in order to keep alive the idea that Israel has “no partner for peace” while it quite literally cements its hold on the West Bank through settlement building.

Of course, Hamas’s own pronouncements do not help matters. In response to Nethanyahu’s rejection of the Palestinian unity deal, Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh, who is the prime minister in Gaza, called on Fatah to withdraw its recognition of Israel in wake of its “denial of the rights and unity of the Palestinian people”.

To the minds of many Israelis, this confirms Netanyahu’s assessment, when he asked: “How is it possible to achieve peace with a government – half of which calls for the destruction of the State of Israel…?” Of course, Netanyahu is conveniently overlooking that his own Likud party’s political platform “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river”.

Haniyeh’s comment is particularly unwise when considering that it is targeted at a society in which memories of mass murder and near-extinction at the hands of the Nazis are still alive and traumatic, as illustrated by the sombre spectacle of the annual Holocaust Memorial Day in May. The prism of the Holocaust makes the symbolic recognition of Israel an issue of paramount importance to many Israelis.  

If Haniyeh’s heart is really with the Palestinians and he truly wishes to serve “the interests of our people”, then refraining from such harmful statements would be a first step. This is especially true since he and other senior Hamas figures have, since coming to power, indicated their acceptance of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, as recently reiterated by Hamas’s Khaled Mashal in Cairo.

It is high time for the Hamas leadership to stop beating about the bush, in order to appease hard-liners within the movement, and come out with a clear statement that it recognises Israel’s right to exist within its pre-1967 borders.

Among Israelis, although concern over Hamas’s record of violence and its refusal to recognise Israel is understandable, it is important to distinguish between the symptoms (strident Islamism in Gaza) and the disease (a crushing occupation, poverty and denial of a people’s rights).

It is also wise to recall that Israel helped empower Hamas by illicitly supporting the movement and its precursors as a counterbalance against the secular PLO in order to avoid negotiating with Yasser Arafat and then by refusing to deal with it once it came to power. Such blowback illustrates that the only way to break the cycle of hardening positions is for Israel to recognise Hamas and Palestinian statehood, just as Hamas should recognise Israel.

 

The gun has failed to deliver peace. It’s time to give the olive branch a real chance.

This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.

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Hallucinatory states

 
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By Khaled Diab

Instead of obsessing over how their identities clash, Israelis and Palestinians need to focus more attention on where they mesh.

30 August 2009

AR version

The rise to power of Hamas, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu represents a frightening hardening of nationalistic visions that does not bode well for the future. Instead of obsessing over how their identities clash, Israelis and Palestinians need to focus more attention on where they mesh.

For all their mutual loathing and animosity, these extremist Israeli and Palestinian parties have one thing in common: their political vision of the future has no space for the other side except as a vanquished, subject people.

Under immense pressure from the United States, however, Israel’s hardline Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu went against his own convictions and his Likud party’s platform and, for the first time, grudgingly and conditionally accepted the eventual emergence of an independent Palestinian state.

Similarly, on the other side of the divide, Hamas’s charter also rejects the existence of a Jewish state, but the extremist Islamist party has modified its rejectionist stance since it came to power by offering Israel tacit recognition and a 10-year truce if it withdraws to the pre-1967 borders.

Needless to say, both positions are still unacceptable to the other side. Yet again, peace based on two independent states seems to have stalled in the concept phase, with the key difference being that, in the Oslo years, some real progress was made on the ground.

So, why is it that the two-state solution, despite having been the only diplomatic show in town for nearly two decades, never seems capable of making the leap from the notional to the real?

Part of the problem is the enormous power disparity between the two sides. Ideologically tinged perception is another major hurdle. At their core, many streams within Zionist and Palestinian nationalism are rooted in a claim to the entire territory of Mandate Palestine. In such a climate, concessions are seen not as pragmatic attempts to coexist but as acts of treachery of the highest order.

In the 1970s, some PLO members, such as the organisation’s London representative, Said Hammami, advocated the two-state option and paid for it with their lives. Meanwhile, their Israeli counterparts, such as the peacenik and journalist Uri Avnery, were ostracised and demonised. During the Oslo years, Yitzhak Rabin, despite treading a cautious and slow path that undermined the peace process, also paid for his “betrayal” with his life.

Albert Einstein once described nationalism as “the measles of the human race”. In the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, I would hazard to liken it to an immune system which evolved originally to defend against oppression and weakness but which has grown over the years into a cancer corroding the humanity of all those involved.

Like the 19th-century European models upon which they are based, Arab and Jewish nationalism started off as a quest for self-determination. However, the medicine that sought to cure oppression and overcome weakness quickly morphed into a dangerous and highly addictive hallucinogen which has led the most hardcore abusers on such a wild trip that they have become almost entirely detached from reality. Many people have woken up to the terrible side effects of the nationalism drug, but fear the withdrawal symptoms too much to kick the habit or allow themselves to be lured back into the opium den by charismatic pushers like Avigdor Lieberman or Khaled Meshaal.

With Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Hamas currently calling the shots, it is hard to imagine that there was once a time when identities were more fluid – when the term “Palestinian” also encompassed Jews, when Middle Eastern Jews freely identified themselves and were seen as “Arabs”, while some European Jews, including Britain’s only prime minister of Jewish extraction, Benjamin Disraeli, held the romantic notion that they were “Mosaic Arabs”.

But after a century of conflict, perceptions have hardened and identities have narrowed to the extent that the mere suggestion that Israelis and Arabs have something in common is widely regarded as an insult.

But if this conflict is ever to be resolved, we need to invade this common ground, occupy it and make it our own. For both sides, the prospect of dividing up the land into two separate states is painful because it would deprive them of access to areas of great symbolic and emotional value. Acknowledging that Israelis and Palestinians actually live in a single country, and striving to make that state a fairer one that serves all its people, will avoid this distressing carve-up.

We need a bi-national confederated state made up of an autonomous, secular Israeli and Palestinian component – each of which can keep the cultural trappings of nationhood, such as the flag and national anthem. Freedom of movement within this federation would ensure that Israelis and Palestinians have access to all the places they hold sacred and dear, such as Jerusalem, Hebron and Jaffa. In this scenario the energies currently consumed by conflict can be re-diverted to creating prosperity for all.

By recognising that Israelis and Palestinians possess equal stakes in a common homeland, one can do away with the familiar and uncompromising terms of reference of who holds historic title to the land, of occupation and resistance, of terrorism and retaliation, of Cane and Abel, of David and Goliath.

This column first appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 26 August 2009. It was written as part of a special series on nationalism for the Common Ground News Service.

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The God veto

 
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By Khaled Diab

Belief in the sacredness of the holy land has long bedevilled the quest for peace. It’s time to challenge the ‘God veto’.

September 2008

The possibility that Tzipi Livni will become Israel’s next prime minister has re-ignited hopes of a breakthrough in the peace process, but chances are we are probably in for yet another false dawn.

Why is it that, since the 1990s, efforts to reach a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been going round and round in vicious circles, while the situation on the ground has been deteriorating constantly?

There are no shortage of thorny practical issues – from the question of Palestinian refugees to final borders – standing in the way of a deal, not to mention the power disparity between the two sides, but what role does rigid religious or pseudo-religious ideology play in perpetuating the struggle?

To get an idea, we need to rewind to the most hopeful period of the Oslo years. Finally at ease in his role as a dove, Yitzhak Rabin, the one-time hawk, soared on the wings of the biggest mass demonstration in Israeli history. “This rally must send a message to the Israeli public, to the Jews of the world, to the multitudes in the Arab lands and in the world at large,” he urged the 150,000-strong crowd that had turned out to hear him speak in Tel Aviv, “that the nation of Israel wants peace.”

The message was apparently all too clear to the hawks that had been circling around the then prime minister ever since he had decided to talk directly to his one-time archenemy Yasser Arafat and the PLO.

On that autumn night, 4 November 1995, Rabin paid for his “betrayal” with his life. The assassination sent shockwaves across the country, the region and the world, with that rare spectacle of Arabs expressing grief for a slain Israeli politician.

The killer was Yigal Amir, a university student who was a far-right religious Zionist. After his arrest, he told police that he had acted on “the orders of God”. Reflecting the distrust and hate elicited among the settler movement, Amir confessed to a later Commission of Inquiry: “I felt as if I was shooting a terrorist.”

Although religious and revisionist Zionists quickly distanced themselves from the murder, many Israelis are convinced that, even if Amir pulled the trigger, the extremists provided him with the ideological ammo. The settler movement had accused Rabin of planning to withdraw to “Auschwitz borders” and Orthodox rabbis had called on soldiers to disobey any orders to evacuate any part of the West Bank.

Rabin’s grieving widow, Leah, refused to shake hands with the Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu, one of the staunchest and most vitriolic opponents of Rabin’s peace overtures, but shook Arafat’s. “I feel that we can find a common language with the Arabs more easily than we can with the Jewish extremists,” she said.

The Likud and other revisionist Zionists, the right-wing religious parties and the settler movement oppose the peace process because they advocate the annexation and settlement of the whole of Eretz Israel (Land of Israel), the vaguely defined Biblical territory which God “promised” to Abraham. “Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel,” reads the Likud party’s platform.

Even the ostensibly more pragmatic religious party Shas, which is vaguely in favour of making some concessions to the Palestinians, advocates the ‘Greater Israel’ enterprise. Despite his ‘fatwa’ that the sanctity of human lives is more important than that of the land, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Sha’s spiritual leader, instructed his men to leave Rabin’s government in protest against the Oslo accords and, again in July 2000, the rabbi withdrew Shas from Ehud Barak’s government to undermine the Camp David summit.

But it is not just extremist Israelis who believe they own a divine deed to the land, Palestinian Islamists, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad possess the inverse view. According to Hamas’s 1988 charter, “Palestine has been an Islamic Waqf (endowment) throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon it or part of it.”

Unsurprisingly then, Hamas – created during the first intifada as a reaction to the increasingly oppressive Israeli occupation and the increasing willingness of Palestinian secularists to reach an accommodation with Israel – was incensed by Oslo and started a suicide bombing campaign to undermine the process. This, coupled with the death toll and humiliation inflicted by the Israeli military on the Palestinian population, sought to chip away at public confidence in the peace process on both sides and to restore mutual distrust.

An Arabic proverb talks of people who kill and then lead the funeral procession. And that is what the extremists seem to be on the verge of doing with the two-state solution. On the Israeli side, Rabin’s murder marked the beginning of the end for the moderates and pragmatists. A shaken Shimon Peres was unable to regain momentum and shot himself in the foot with his Grapes of Wrath invasion of Lebanon, and the election of Binyamin Netanyahu sounded the final death knell for the Oslo process.

On the Palestinian side, the continued failure of the Palestinian Authority to deliver an independent state, as well as its endemic corruption, strengthened the hand of the extremists, propelling Hamas to a series of local election victories, crowned by their success in the 2006 parliamentary elections.

Israeli and Palestinian extremists achieved this by having the unshakable drive and conviction – one could say ‘delusion’ – to take advantage of the fractured political landscape, by preying on the fear and distrust of the enemy, and by hoodwinking the electorate. For instance, Hamas dropped the call for the destruction of Israel from its election manifesto prior to the 2006 election, while Netanyahu promised to respect the peace process and deliver “peace with security”.

What the extremists have been unable to answer is what to do with the elephant in the room: the millions from the ‘enemy camp’? How do they achieve their fantasies of territorial maximalism without having to oppress an entire people permanently, which is impossible?

Neither Jewish nor Palestinian extremists are likely to abandon their ultimate dreams easily, but there are signs that they can be pushed to become more practical and pragmatic. Ariel Sharon, the die-hard warhorse, broke away from the Likud he founded to take a somewhat more pragmatic path with his new Kadima party. The responsibilities of office have shown that Hamas can be more accommodating than its past suggests, with the Islamist party indicating its willingness to end its armed struggle with Israel in return for a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders. Unfortunately, the Israelis and international community have failed to engage with Hamas.

Despite the best efforts of the extremists, the Israeli and Palestinian public still crave peace, as poll after poll confirms, but agreeing a fair price for it is the challenge. The Oslo process had many faults: its fixation on Israel’s short-term security and its vagueness on the shape and form of a Palestinian state; accelerated settlement building, as well as the deferral of all the thorny issues to the final status talks. However, given the current hopeless mess, one cannot help feel a window of opportunity closed with Rabin’s assassination.

Had Rabin lived, the final status talks which were due to start on 4 May 1996 may have led somewhere, rather than the empty shell they proved to be. After all, six months earlier, with Rabin and Arafat’s blessing, a blueprint for a mutually acceptable deal was hammered out in secret talks under the auspices of Yossi Beilin and Mahmoud Abbas.

The two-state solution is on life-support and if it is to be saved, the passive majority needs to mobilise in opposition of those who continuously veto the quest for peace by invoking the wrath of God. As any just deity would now, it is the sanctity of people, not land, which matters.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 18 September 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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