Israel’s Irrational Rationality

Reseña de libros
New York Review of Books, 22.06.2017
David Shulman, profesor (U. Hebrea de Tel Aviv)
  • The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East , by Guy Laron (Yale University Press)
  • The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, by Nathan Thrall (Metropolitan)
  • In Search of Modern Palestinian Nationhood , by Matti Steinberg (Tel Aviv University/ Moshe Dayan Center)
  • Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation , edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman (HarperPerennial)
  • A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict , by Gershon Shafir (University of California Press)

Israeli policemen removing a protester during the eviction of Jewish settlers from the illegal settlement of Amona in the occupied West Bank, February 2017. Corinna Kern/NurPhoto/Getty Images

This June, Israel is marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War. Some Israelis, including most members of the present government, are celebrating the country’s swift victory over Egypt, Jordan, and Syria as the beginning of the permanent annexation of the entire Palestinian West Bank; others, like me, mourn it as the start of a seemingly inexorable process of moral corruption and decline, the result of the continuing occupation of the West Bank, along with Israel’s now indirect but still-crippling control of Gaza. As it happens, my own life in Israel coincides exactly with the occupation. I arrived from the US in 1967, not as an ideological Zionist but as a young student who had fallen madly in love with the Hebrew language. Sometimes I think it is my passion for the language that has kept me here for five decades, although I would now want to add the strong feeling that it is my fate and my good fortune to be able to fight the good fight.

The country I came to live in fifty years ago was utterly unlike the one I live in today. It was no utopia, but its society was broadly moderate and humane, a mildly Mediterranean version of a modern European social democracy. Despite what some would say, it was not a colonial settlers’ society. There was widespread fear and even hatred of Arabs, including Arab citizens of Israel, but it was nothing like the rampant racism one now hears every day on the radio or TV. Shame, sincere or not, had not yet disappeared from public life.

In those early years, most Israelis regarded the occupied territories—which included the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—not as providing an opportunity for enlarging the boundaries of the state through colonization but as bargaining chips in an eventual and hoped-for peace settlement with the Arabs. There were as yet no Israeli settlements in the territories and hence no fanatical, messianic settlers; the Israeli army could still claim, with some justice, to be an army of defense, not a police force sent to ensure that the project of seizing Palestinian land take place without too much resistance from the local population.

Not surprisingly, a number of new books have appeared in this grim anniversary year, some of which attempt to make sense of how the Israeli state was hijacked by the settlers and how the occupation of most of the territories captured in 1967, not counting Sinai, was made permanent. Those who want to understand the conditions that led to the Six-Day War will find a good account, better than most earlier ones, in Guy Laron’s The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East.

Laron examines the shifting configurations that preceded, and in some ways determined, the outbreak of the war: these included Lyndon Johnson’s stark turn away from John F. Kennedy’s policy of dialogue with and strong economic support for Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt (Nasser had promised Kennedy to keep the Israeli–Arab situation “cool” as the quid pro quo) and Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin’s increasingly belligerent moves toward Syria. Rabin, according to Laron, wanted to go to war with Syria and took every opportunity to push the Israeli cabinet in this direction in the critical months of spring 1967.

By far the most cogent of the new books, however, is Nathan Thrall’s The Only Language They Understand, which surveys the last five decades and comes to a remarkable conclusion: the only way to produce some kind of movement toward resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is to apply significant coercive force to the parties involved, and in particular to Israel.

No amount of coddling and reassuring, no increased bribes in the form of more money or military aid, will have any effect on Israeli policy for the simple reason that Israel considers any sacrifice that would be necessary for peace far worse than maintaining the current situation. As Thrall writes, “no strategy can succeed if it is premised on Israel behaving irrationally.” In this reading of the worldview that has driven all Israeli governments—right, pseudo-left, or center—over these decades, “it makes no sense for Israel to strike a deal today rather than wait to see if…imagined threats,” such as an apartheid state ruling over a Palestinian demographic majority, and thus the end of Israeli democracy, “actually materialize.” The assumption that Israel genuinely wants a peace agreement is simply wrong; the costs of such an agreement are tangible, immediate, and perhaps overwhelming, involving the loss of territory, an end to colonization, and potential political collapse, whereas the costs of maintaining the status quo are for many Israelis, if at times unpleasant, eminently bearable.

I think Thrall has got this right. Endless discussions of why this or that initiative or attempt to mediate failed are shown to be superfluous. We can stop wondering why the whole process of negotiations, beginning in the late 1980s, has remained so barren. Was it because Ehud Barak was not very courteous to Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000? Or because Ehud Olmert was burdened by scandal and political crisis when he finally made an offer to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008? It has been clear for many years that the very notion of peace negotiations between the two parties has been little more than a device to perpetuate, not to end, the occupation. As Thrall writes:

The United States has consistently sheltered Israel from accountability for its policies in the West Bank by putting up a façade of opposition to settlements that in practice is a bulwark against more significant pressure to dismantle them.

What would make a difference? According to Thrall, only coercion by those who have the power to coerce. This was effective during the Carter administration, which pushed through the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1979 partly by threatening to cut off all aid to Israel, and in a more limited way under George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, in 1991, when a very reluctant Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was forced to attend negotiations in Madrid; these eventually led to the Oslo Accords in 1993 between the Israelis and the Palestinians and a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1994. Baker was the first—and until now the only—American secretary of state to say clearly that Israeli settlements in the territories are the main obstacle to peace; Bush refused to approve loan guarantees of up to $10 billion that Israel badly needed. Cornered, Shamir gave in and went to Madrid. In the case of both Carter and Baker, US officials took a strong stand despite pressure from the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Their successors, Thrall notes, have rarely tried.

In Thrall’s view, “contrary to what nearly every US mediator has asserted, it is not that Israel greatly desires a peace agreement but has a pretty good fallback option. It is that Israel greatly prefers the fallback option to a peace agreement.” The fallback is a continuation of the status quo, which allows the settlement enterprise to go on; protects the government from political chaos, including insurmountable challenges from the extreme right; assumes the useful security collaboration of the Palestinian Authority, or what is left of it; and comes with enormous amounts of US aid. Only a credible threat to diminish or cut off that aid, or a move toward serious sanctions against Israel by the UN or other major powers, could produce the kind of change within Israel that would make a peace agreement possible.

Israelis, of course, love to blame the Palestinians for the impasse. And while the Palestinian side has plenty to account for, above all a long history of violence, it requires an impressive degree of willful blindness for Israelis to ignore what is happening under their noses and with their collective collusion. A major component of this obtuseness is the failure to notice or understand the changes that have taken place among Palestinians in recent decades. The Hebrew-language news media largely inhabit a mythic realm in which Palestinian hostility to Jews is seen as absolute, eternal, and entirely independent of Israel’s own actions. Most Israelis are only too happy to subscribe to this distorted view.

Deeper insight is to be found in Matti Steinberg’s In Search of Modern Palestinian Nationhood, a magisterial study by the leading Israeli scholar of Palestine. Steinberg served for many years as a senior adviser to the heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s main intelligence agency, and to several prime ministers. His book traces the history of Palestinian “conscious collective thinking” about the conflict, roughly from the Yom Kippur War in 1973 to the present. He offers a picture of striking heterogeneity and relatively rapid evolution: his readers, he says at the outset, “will find that the Palestinian attitudes went further and further from the original unanimity [that Israel should be destroyed and replaced by a Palestinian state on all the land west of the Jordan River] as far as means and aims are concerned.”

Steinberg discusses critical moments such as Arafat’s “Palestinian Declaration of Independence” speech to the Palestinian National Council in 1988, in which he made a clear distinction between the borders of the “historic homeland”—that is, all of Palestine—and those of the Palestinian state to be established on part of that land. The speech was written for Arafat by Mahmoud Darwish, who was considered the Palestinian national poet. In 1998, when another fifty-year anniversary was marked—that of the nakba, or Palestinian national disaster of defeat and exile following the 1948 war—Darwish, an early member of the PLO and probably the most articulate voice in the Palestinian mainstream, called for “eliminating all trace of the nakba by means of a permanent agreement based on the concept of two states for two peoples.” At that time, not long after the Oslo Accords, a full peace agreement seemed to be possible, even imminent. Three years later, during the second intifada, Darwish published another manifesto suffused by despair and by the fear that the Palestinian people faced annihilation. Israelis might do well to note the unhappy symmetry between this and their own enduring anxiety about being driven into the sea.

Steinberg is no less interested in Palestinian extremists than in pragmatic centrists, if such a word is appropriate in a polity so weakened and diffuse. He never underestimates the power of Hamas and the militant factions. Again and again he shows the diabolical interplay between such groups and the dominant Israeli policy of strengthening the occupation:

Neither “targeted killing” [the assassination of Hamas leaders by the Israeli army] nor Israel’s overwhelming military and technological superiority is the sworn enemy of Hamas. Its archenemy is the political settlement with Israel.

In a more general formulation: “It is a common wisdom that when pragmatism fails, then the way is paved, by default, towards radicalization.” Steinberg has nothing but scorn for the rationale put forward by Israeli prime ministers, from Ehud Barak to Ariel Sharon to Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israel has no Palestinian partner. Such a claim is self-serving, factually wrong, and above all self-fulfilling; it will, no doubt, be loudly trumpeted in Israel (and perhaps by Trump’s White House) in the event that Hamas takes over the West Bank, as if Israel had no responsibility for such an outcome.

Particularly trenchant in this respect is Steinberg’s analysis of the effect of the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002, in which a pan-Arab consensus supported comprehensive peace with Israel in return for full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. The support of Arab governments for the API has remained remarkably consistent despite recent turmoil in the Middle East and was reaffirmed yet again at the Arab League Summit in Amman in March of this year. Steinberg argues that the very existence of a realistic peace plan served to stoke hypernationalist positions in both Israel and Palestine, as if the looming prospect of a solution were simply too awful to contemplate. The whole thrust of his book could be summed up as: Things could have been different, and maybe they still can and will be, though time is running out.

Steinberg’s view converges with a stark statement by Thrall:

When peaceful opposition to Israel’s policies is squelched and those with the power to dismantle the occupation don’t raise a finger against it, violence invariably becomes more attractive to those who have few other means of upsetting the status quo.

This conclusion, however, casts doubt on the idea that Israeli policy, however shortsighted, is nonetheless rational. Systemic cruelty inflicted over generations on innocent populations will eventually exact a price—probably a terrible price. It is an illusion to believe that large-scale eruptions of violence can be controlled, or their costs and results easily sustained.

Perhaps “rational” is not the word we want. A policy driven mostly by greed, and also to no little extent by sheer malice, such as Israel’s, may be intelligible, but that doesn’t make it rational, and it is certainly far from wise. However, there is another dimension that we miss if we stick primarily to hard-nosed calculations of self-interest and strategic advantage. A fifty-year anniversary invites us to take stock of the moral consequences of our decisions.

No matter how we look at it, unless our minds have been poisoned by the ideology of the religious right, the occupation is a crime. It is, first of all, based on the permanent disenfranchisement of a huge population. Many Israelis seem not to know this. Once I was detained by soldiers in a rocky field in the South Hebron hills (in what is known as Area C, under full Israeli control). These soldiers had just driven several Palestinian shepherds and their flocks of sheep off their traditional grazing grounds. One of the soldiers—hardly more than a boy—was curious about the Israeli activists he had encountered, and he came to talk to us. We informed him that what he had just done was clearly illegal, according to a Supreme Court ruling from 2004. “What do you mean?” he said. “I’m here to protect democracy.” “Really?” we replied. “What democracy do these Palestinians have? For example, do they have the right to vote for candidates who will represent them?” The young soldier thought hard for a moment. He had obviously never considered this problem. Finally, he said, “I don’t know, but there must be someone they can vote for!”

Israeli soldiers interrogating a Jordanian Arab during Israel’s capture of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, June 1967. Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

Even worse is the continuous theft—literally hour by hour—of Palestinian land. There should be no doubt that this is the real point of the occupation; soldiers, policemen, the military courts, the bureaucrats of the civil administration, a majority of the politicians, and most of the Israeli media serve this overriding aim. Recently, we were treated to a truly astonishing national farce, perhaps possible only in Israel: settlers from a place called Amona in the central West Bank, built on privately owned Palestinian land from the villages of Silwad, Ein Yabrud, and Taybeh, were forcibly evacuated, and their homes demolished, in compliance with a Supreme Court order from 2014. This came after a Supreme Court decision in 2006 declaring the settlement illegal and a police investigation that proved the settlers had forged documents in claiming ownership of the lands.

The settlers and their vociferous spokesmen in the government and the Knesset presented this tragedy as something on the order of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Netanyahu, as usual, pandered to the extreme right; he was also quoted as telling the Amona settlers that he could understand their plight perfectly, since he and his wife were forcibly uprooted from their home—the prime minister’s residence—and “thrown into the street” after he lost the election of 1999.

In any case, the Amona evacuees are to be handsomely compensated for this inconvenience (some half a million Israeli shekels—more than $130,000—per family) and resettled a few hundred yards away from their former homes, once again, of course, on Palestinian land. The soldiers who carried out the evacuation were unarmed and under orders to use the utmost delicacy in dealing with the settlers, who had barricaded themselves inside their houses. Such are the melodramas of Israeli politics. The Knesset has recently enacted a law that retroactively legalizes the appropriation by the state of huge chunks of private Palestinian land for Israeli settlements. It is unclear whether the Supreme Court will strike it down.

Let me offer some examples of life under the occupation of which I have personal knowledge. On March 5, 2017, the residents of the Palestinian hamlet of Twaneh in the South Hebron hills woke up to discover fifteen of their olive trees hacked and destroyed, almost certainly by the notoriously violent settlers from adjacent Chavat Maon. If we were to count the number of olive trees uprooted by settlers from the Twaneh lands over the last ten years or so, it would easily reach the low hundreds. Olive trees are the primary source of support for many impoverished Palestinian families. In addition to the decimated trees, two fields of lentils were sprayed with poison.

Two months earlier, on January 7, the same settlers from Chavat Maon violently attacked a group of Israeli peace activists who were accompanying Palestinian farmers seeking to plow a field. I was there with another party of activists, a little farther down the hill, and I witnessed the arrival of the wounded in Twaneh: one hit by a rock on the head, two others badly beaten, still more with contusions, and one with a smashed camera.

Children from the Twaneh area are at constant risk of being attacked by settlers on their way to school in the village; the daughter of a friend of mine, Ali from Tuba, nearly lost an eye in such an attack. The army has been forced to provide a military escort to take them to and from school, but even that is not always enough; there have been occasions when the soldiers stood idly by while settlers beat the Palestinian children with clubs and metal chains.

In the northern Jordan Valley, Bedouin shepherds from a tiny place called al-Hammeh are subject to continuous attacks by settlers from a new illegal settlement that sits on the al-Hammeh land; these settlers have murdered Bedouin sheep, threatened the shepherds with guns, beaten them savagely, invaded their tents, and in general done whatever they can to make their lives miserable.1 At nearby al-Auja, on April 21, a gang of masked Israeli settlers from Habaladim, an illegal West Bank outpost, used clubs and rocks to attack a group of Palestinian shepherds and more than a dozen Israeli activists who were there to protect them. The result: one activist with an open head wound, another with a broken arm, and several others badly bruised.

A diary that kept track of such assaults on Palestinians would run to thousands of pages, with daily, perhaps hourly, entries. And I have not yet mentioned the endless demolitions of Palestinian houses—entire villages, such as Susiya and Umm al-Khair, are in danger of extinction—or the remorseless processes of expulsion and ethnic cleansing that we see everywhere in the occupied territories. The occupation is also a surreal world of denial, where lies mask themselves as truth and truth can’t be uttered, at least not by the officers and politicians who hold power. I recommend the graphic and moving descriptions of the current situation in the West Bank and Gaza in Kingdom of Olives and Ash, a volume of personal essays by well-known writers, including the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman and published to coincide with the fifty-year anniversary.

The settlers themselves, however obnoxious, bear only a portion of the blame for the atrocities they commit. They carry out the policies of the Israeli government, in effect maintaining a useful, steady level of state terror directed against a large civilian population. None of this can be justified by rational argument. All of it stains the character of the state and has, in my experience, horrific effects on the minds and hearts of young soldiers who have to carry out the orders they are given. A few unusually aware and conscientious ones have had the courage to speak out; as always in such situations, most people just go along.2

In the end, it is this ongoing moral failure of the country as a whole that is most consequential, most dangerous, and most unacceptable. This failure weighs more heavily on our humanity than any of the concerns mentioned earlier. We are, so we claim, the children of the prophets. Once, they say, we were slaves in Egypt. We know all that can be known about slavery, suffering, prejudice, ghettos, hate, expulsions, exile. I still find it astonishing that we, of all people, have reinvented apartheid in the West Bank.

Has the corruption gone so far that it can no longer be reversed? Or, to state the question in more practical terms, is the Israeli colonial project in the West Bank so deeply entrenched that any mutually acceptable form of partition is already ruled out, as Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, has been arguing for years? Gershon Shafir, in his subtle history of the occupation, suggests that while the notion that the settlement project is “irreversible is best rejected…the remaining obstacles to territorial partition, though not insurmountable, are formidable.” Assuming that the so-called settlement blocs, most of them relatively close to the pre-1967 borders, would be annexed to Israel in exchange for more or less equal territory from inside Israel, he calculates that “only” some 27,000 settler households would have to be evacuated from Palestine as part of a workable peace agreement.

Shafir also convincingly cites Shaul Arieli—a former colonel in the army, a member of the prestigious Council for Peace and Security, and an expert on the earlier rounds of negotiation and the feasibility of a future breakthrough—to the effect that the settlement project has, in practice, slowed to a trickle, despite attempts by the government to persuade ever more Israelis to move into Palestinian territory. Unfortunately, this has not caused Israel to give up on the nationalist dream of colonizing as much of Palestine as possible. Reality has a way of puncturing illusions, though usually too late.

There exist other templates for some sort of resolution. The most interesting and creative is probably the Two States One Homeland proposal by Meron Rapoport, Awni al-Mashni, and the group of Palestinians and Israelis they have gathered around them. They envision two states within a single geographical space and a movement toward simultaneous sharing and separation. The blueprint speaks of two independent polities with Jerusalem as their capital; freedom of movement and even freedom to settle on both sides of the border, subject to agreement on the number of citizens of each state who will become permanent residents of the other; a Joint Court for Human Rights, a Joint Security Council, and other common institutions functioning alongside the institutional structures of each state.3

I’d like to think this idea has a chance of coming true. Shafir, however, concludes that, in the absence of a viable plan for a single binational state, “the two sides are most likely to stumble ahead heedlessly.” He may be right, for now. But if I had to guess, I’d say the occupation will eventually collapse under the cumulative weight of wrongdoing, misery, and existential peril that it entails, maybe even in our lifetime—not, however, with a whimper.

One can’t help wondering about the effects of the new American administration on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In March President Trump’s special emissary to the region, Jason Greenblatt, arrived with the apparent aim of generating movement toward a regional settlement. Somewhat surprisingly, people on both sides liked him—including Palestinian refugees in the camps and Israeli settlers on the West Bank. One major exception, it seems, was Benjamin Netanyahu, who, according to reports, was asked by Greenblatt to come up with concrete steps to curtail settlement activity along with some statement of what compromises he would ultimately be prepared to make.

Predictably even under Trump, the old blueprint for partition, along familiar lines, has surfaced again; it refuses to go away. One should never underestimate Netanyahu’s uncanny ability to stall, prevaricate, and eradicate even the slightest glimmer of hope. But maybe the Thrall principle will yet be put into practice.4 The president’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Palestinian Bethlehem in May, on his first foreign trip, is, I suppose, meant to suggest that he is serious about pursuing a deal. As several friends of mine, Israelis and Palestinians, have said, if Donald Trump were somehow to impose an agreement, this would prove not that God exists but that, if He does, He has a sense of humor.

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