March 14, 2007
While hardly above criticism, former President Jimmy Carter’s bestseller Palestine Peace Not Apartheid offers Americans some useful insights into what it is like for Palestinians to live within the racial security state that Israel maintains in the West Bank. It’s equally important for us, of course, to understand why the Israelis feel driven to undertake such harsh measures against the Palestinians. Indeed, to begin to grasp what Israel needs to do to preserve itself as the Jewish State, it’s crucial to comprehend how it arrived at its current impasse.
Like many Americans, I was for most of my life fanatically pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian. What began to push me towards a more balanced view was, ironically enough, reading the enormously long article in the September, 1999 issue of Commentary by Justus Reid Weiner, “”My Beautiful Old House” and Other Fabrications by Edward Said.” It denounced the Palestinian-American intellectual for falsely implying that his father’s mansion in Jerusalem had been stolen by the Israelis during their War of Independence in the late 1940s.
I already despised Said because his impact on academia—launching post-colonial studies—was malign. His 1978 book Orientalism made it unfashionable to actually study non-Western cultures. Instead, grown men and women are supposed to devote their careers to acting shocked, shocked about what Western writers in the past had written about non-Western cultures. (Is that pathetic, or what?)
So, I sat down with enthusiasm to read the muckraking piece in Commentary. Indeed, I decided to boil the essay down to a nutshell to make it even stronger”as I do with most things I read that I admire. But when I summarized the central assertion in the essay, all I could come up with was the following:
That big house in Jerusalem that the Israelis took for themselves wasn”t owned by Said’s father at all. It was [pause for the punchline] merely owned by his aunt! Ha-ha-ha. What a liar!
“Wait a minute,” I thought to myself. “That didn”t come out the way I wanted it to. That’s not terribly persuasive. I mean, sure, Said is exaggerating, but it’s perfectly natural for anybody to be sore if your aunt’s mansion got taken, even if it wasn”t your father’s. Look at how the Miami Cubans can”t forgive Castro.”
This unexpected spasm of empathy for a single Palestinian started nagging at me. I eventually wondered how I, a native Southern Californian, would have felt if back in the 1940s the Japanese had taken over the coast of California from Santa Barbara to San Diego, established a “Shintoist State,” expropriated my aunt’s house when she fled their advance, and gave it to refugees from Hiroshima. Would I be philosophical and understanding about it? Would most Americans?
Does this analogy mean that Israel has no right to exist? Of course not, no more than the dubious origin of the Mexican-American War means that Mexico should get back California. But it does explain a little about why the Palestinians and the rest of the Arabs feel the way they do.
It also helps explain what is otherwise a mystery: Why are the Arab citizens of Israel so much less homicidal toward Jews than their non-citizen cousins in the West Bank? So far, at least, Arab Israelis have not proven a dire threat, engendering few suicide bombers. By contrast, the rage of West Bank Palestinians is legendary.
Here’s one important reason: the Israelis let Arab citizens keep their homes. The victorious Israelis permitted many Arabs who hunkered down in their houses during the 1947-48 fighting to stay where they were, and keep their farms. In contrast, those who fled were dispossessed. Not surprisingly, the descendents of these families, still living on their old acres, seldom go off and become terrorists.
These Arabs living within the pre-1967 boundaries of the Jewish State are indeed more or less second-class citizens of Israel, being subject to systematic (although not brutal) discrimination. On other hand, they enjoy the benefits of living in a more or less first-class country. So there hasn”t been much recent outflow by Arab Israeli citizens to Arab countries where they could be first class citizens in third-rate republics such as Syria.
In the very long run, however, as the Arab citizens of pre-1967 Israel slowly catch up with the Jewish citizens in voting numbers, perhaps as early as the second half of this century, their numbers will doubtless prove incompatible with the continued existence of the Jewish State as, well… a Jewish state. Indeed, the Committee of Arab Mayors in Israel sponsored a report last December calling for Israel to define itself no longer as a Jewish state, becoming instead a “consensual democracy for both Arabs and Jews.”
Why would Arabs be loyal to the Jewish State? Would you?
The state of Israel avowedly exists for the good of a single, hereditarily-defined group. (See the “basic law of Israel,” the Law of Return for the ancestry-based definition of who can immigrate to Israel.) There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Many other states similarly exist to be the political expression of a single extremely extended family, such as Japan and Iceland. These states can work well, fostering harmony, democracy, and human rights (as Japan and Iceland do), but only so long as the state rules over its own racial group and no other large group.
Before Arab Israel citizens approach a voting majority, Israel will likely implement ways to exclude them, such as by trading Arab-dominated villages in Israel for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Another possibility is buying many of them out by offering Arab Israelis sizable payments to leave Israel, just as it successfully bought out its own Jewish settlers in the Sinai in 1981 and in Gaza in 2005.
Israel faces a far more pressing problem, though, with the families of those who fled in 1947-48. The 656,000 Arabs who escaped inland from the war had their homes in Israel taken. This had beneficial consequences for the fledgling country’s homogeneity and stability. Paul Johnson notes in his History of the Jews that the Palestinian exodus “reduced the Arab population of the new state to a mere 160,000. That was very convenient.”
In 1967, Israel conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where a majority of the dispossessed refugees had wound up. By now, it’s clear this was very inconvenient for Israel, since many of the sons and grandsons of those families are still angry about it.
As Machiavelli observed, “Men sooner forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.” And as real estate agents never fail to remind us: “Real estate”they ain”t making any more of it.”
As Israel became the regional military superpower, the strategic justification for hanging on to the West Bank diminished. But Israel’s economy became more dependent on cheap Palestinian labor, an addiction that proved deleterious during the two intifadas.
In this decade, Israel has finally started to wise up, replacing Palestinians workers with foreigners, such as Thais, who don”t have a claim to the land. (In contrast, President Bush hopes to import more hewers of wood and drawers of water from Mexico, a country that indoctrinates its schoolchildren in the not wholly unjustified belief that the United States stole California and the Southwest.)
After suicide bombings in Israel by West Bank Arabs became endemic, Israel belatedly began to build a security fence similar to the one that had proven quite effective in stopping suicide bombers from Gaza from penetrating Israel. (Neoconservatives who rightly support the building of this fence show a strange reluctance to tolerate a similar fence along the U.S/Mexico border, to control human trafficking, drug smuggling, and illegal immigration. The Bush administration has exerted all its diminishing political capital to sabotage the construction of any such fence.) In principle, no one should object to a sovereign nation fencing its border. But here’s the problem Israel’s fence often snakes around within the West Bank, absorbing some of the best land and making travel difficult for the Palestinians. That’s probably why so many people now refer to the Israeli fence as the “apartheid wall.”
Nonetheless, the partially complete fence appears to have had a salutary effect, with suicide bombing dropping sharply. Five years ago, Palestinian suicide bombers were blowing themselves up in Tel Aviv pizza parlors and in buses. Some more excitable American commentators warned that suicide bombing was now the “ultimate strategic weapon,” and urged Israel to make a “clean break” with its old policies and conquer most of the Middle East”if only to put an end to such terrorism. In the event, none of this was necessary; building a fence mostly solved the problem. (It would go a long way towards solving our own problems with Mexico, by the way.)
Israel now must deal with lesser troubles. Last summer, terrorists tunneled under the Gaza fence and kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Soon after, Hezbollah’s minor border provocation set off an imprudently massive Israeli reaction, with the subsequent war turning into a bloody exercise in futility. Israel couldn”t completely smash the Lebanese Shi”ite militia because they were dug deeply into their own land. Meanwhile, due to Israel’s air supremacy, Hezbollah’s fighters couldn”t spend enough time on the surface to aim their missiles accurately enough to do more than random damage to Israel”killing one or two civilians a day, many of them Israeli Arabs.
Why is it important for Americans to think about this? In part, because so much of our foreign policy centers on the Middle East. But also”and this may surprise readers, but it seems undeniable”because many of President Bush’s strategic concepts have come from Israel. Most famously, he credited his obsession with promoting democracy in the Middle East to reading Natan Sharansky’s book The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror.
Sharansky is a former housing minister of Israel, with strong ties to the settler movement that lives on seized Palestinian land. His book argues that the solution to the Israel-Palestine problem is for Palestine to become a democracy. Only then can Israel start true negotiations to settle their mutual differences. That has a lovely ring to it, but you”ll see that Sharansky sets the bar for “democracy” pretty high. In order to qualify as a “negotiating partner” with Israel, the Palestinian Authority must first attain majority rule, the rule of law, the protection of minority groups, an independent judiciary—all those Anglo-American civic goals which have been attained nowhere else throughout the Arab world—before Israel even sits down with it to consider making a deal. Till then, Israel will keep on building its settlements.
Very much along those lines, Ariel Sharon’s closest advisor Dov Weisglass, who was Sharon’s point man in dealing with the Bush Administration, gave a fascinating interview to Ha”aretz newspaper in which he boasted:
“There will be no timetable to implement the [West Bank] settler’s nightmare [of withdrawal]. I have postponed that nightmare indefinitely. Because what I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns… “
Which won”t be anytime soon.
If I might, as a foreign observer who wishes Israel well, make a hard-headed suggestion: Instead of democratic neighbors, what Israel needs now are more moderately well-armed dictatorships on its frontiers, along the lines of Jordan, Egypt, and even Syria. Israel, the regional military superpower, can intimidate these into suppressing their native terrorists.
The Jordanian government, for example, knows that if some group within its borders shoots rockets at Israel, the Israeli military will come and break with impunity the shiny war toys that are the symbol and sword of the monarchy’s stranglehold on domestic power. So, the Jordanian secret police makes sure nobody in Jordan does anything that will make the big bad Israelis too mad.
Even Syria, which hates Israel (which has occupied Syria’s Golan Heights for a third of a century), has rigorously made sure that its territory is not the point of origin for direct attacks on Israel.
Unfortunately, Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon aren”t well-established dictatorships, but semi-anarchic territories, so Israel will continue to be intermittently pestered by organizations operating out of them. Eventually, if Israel is lucky, they may coalesce into centralized dictatorships that the IDF can intimidate into stopping terrorism.
Then again, they may not.
That is the nature of the Middle East. It may seem intolerable, but Middle Easterners have lived (and died) like that for thousands of years, and they won”t stop anytime soon. As Dave Barry once said:
“Billions of years from now, when Earth is hurtling toward the Sun and there is nothing left alive on the planet except a few microorganisms, the microorganisms living in the Middle East will be bitter enemies.”