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'.
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.