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The Problem of Israel
Fifth of six articles for The Bangladesh Today International
April 2008


This concerns a small land with a big obstructing influence on the world. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has dragged on for sixty years, and previous ways of resolving it, either by the victory of one side or by peace process, have not worked.

So we must do some new thinking. It’s fitting to look at some of the underlying longterm factors affecting this conflict. This is a global issue not just because Jerusalem is a holy place to three faiths: the ‘Holy Land’ is a microcosm of the world, into which many global issues are compressed.

In the 1990s I ran a peace conference in which a Nigerian Muslim said an interesting thing. People were agreeing that Nelson Mandela was a great man, for stopping a bloodbath in South Africa. But Mahmoud had an interesting insight. He said that the hero of the day was really President de Klerk, the white Afrikaner who prepared the way for Mandela and the ANC to gain power.

Why was he a hero? Because Mandela had remained consistent throughout his life, while de Klerk had had the courage to change. This silenced everyone at the conference – most were whites, and here was a black man praising a right-wing, nationalist Afrikaner.

Some Israelis call me anti-Semitic because I work mainly with Palestinians and empathise with Hamas. Some Palestinians get upset with me because I talk with Israelis, many of whom are fine people. Working with both is not easy – there’s a physical and psychological gulf between them that is difficult to bridge.

Here comes the bit where I risk being misunderstood: I empathise with Israelis. Not because I support Israel, but because I support people, all people. Looking at the longterm, Israel is in trouble – ultimately, perhaps in deeper trouble than the Palestinians.

Israel’s momentum is sagging, and a difficult time of truth is coming. Palestinians are already accustomed to hard truth and tough times – things can only get better, and if they get do get worse, sad to say, it’s ‘more of the same’. But for Israelis, who have had a more comfortable and successful life, things could get a lot worse, and they would notice the difference, bigtime.

Certain factual issues can no longer be ignored or avoided in Israel and Palestine. The Israeli tendency to stave things off to make them go away doesn’t make them go away. It’s a collection of issues.

First, aliyah, the migration of Jews to Israel, has slowed to a trickle. Israel is not the safe haven Jews initially sought, back in the shadow of WW2 and the Holocaust. The majority of Jews are happier outside Israel, and those who wished to move have already migrated there. Those technically immigrating there often just buy property, visiting for a few months each year and otherwise remaining in their own countries, such as France - they've bought an insurance policy, not migrated.

In addition, some people are trickling away from Israel, to get a job or a better life for their families, or they are alienated after doing military service. They’re not decisively emigrating, but they’re leaving until things get better – perhaps a vain hope. These are signs of deflation of Israel’s national project.

Second, Israelis are a disparate and argumentative lot. Many outsiders find difficulty figuring out how these people stick together as a nation. They are united by their nationalism but, beyond that, ‘two Israelis, three opinions’, strongly held too, and national unity is a troublesome factor. This is partially ethnic – Israelis originate from so many countries and branches of Judaism. Disparities between rich and poor are amongst the world’s highest, and these cleave along ethnic lines, with European and American Ashkenazim at the top of the pile.

At the founding of the nation in 1948, the Israeli Knesset couldn’t even agree on a constitution, so contradictory were the competing views. Today, though Israel is democratic, its successive governments are made up of coalitions in which small, diverse, fringe parties gain disproportionate influence. The nation’s prime ministers are frequently retired military men, as if military affairs, not social wellbeing, were the highest priority.

This political unclarity has long bugged the nation, allowing military and minority agendas to dominate. Anticipation of the threat of annihilation of the Jewish people causes the nation to lock step against its enemies and suppress its internal differences, at least while the heat is up. This is the glue that holds the nation together, but without it, the nation would be in trouble.

This belief in imminent threat has its foundation in history, but it also acts as a prophecy seeking fulfilment. It is growing outdated as the older Holocaust generation dies off – and what would happen if peace actually came and the threat evaporated? The ‘iron wall’ mentality has become a comfort-zone, less threatening than dropping the idea that goyim, non-Jews, are anti-Semitic and not to be trusted. But it presents an enormous moral dilemma too – it causes Israelis to act against their own longterm interests.

In the context of peacemaking, the Zionist tendency, which has long influenced the national agenda, must give way to a more reasonable tendency, willing to make deals and concessions with the neighbours. This would be an historic emotional shift, involving dropping an old historic fear and reformulating the nation’s purpose. Yet achieving genuine peace would give Israeli Jews the safety they seek – after a generation of calming and bridge-building, that is.

At least half of the Israeli public is conflict-weary. But the ‘iron wall’ mindset is strong as a national habit and most Israelis toe the line when under pressure, close their eyes, stay ‘in the bubble’ and hope the problem of conflict will go away. Which it doesn’t. Peace is inevitable – it’s simply a matter of how long it takes and what it involves. Israelis have to face this sometime, and facts on the ground are nowadays pushing things forward.

Third, Israelis pay an enormous price for war, military preparedness and the insecurity of conflict. This is psychological, multi-generational, and it harms society and the economy. West Bank settlements are claustrophic, the Israeli security wall isolates Israelis as well as Palestinians, domestic violence is escalating, and many Israeli adults are damaged by military service. Tourism and pilgrimage have declined, Israel is regarded by some as a pariah state, taxation is high, conflict and uncertainty keep returning, and poverty hits some people hard. This price cannot be borne indefinitely.

Fourth, USA is Israel’s only serious supporter. USA’s capacity to continue supporting Israel is decreasing, yet Israel depends on it. Without this support, Israel will need to fully acknowledge its position in the Middle East, by necessity making friends with its neighbours. Not only because Israel is surrounded, but also because time simply moves on, and new and different things need to happen. Time indeed is moving on – its defeat by Hezbollah in 2006, and USA’s failure in Iraq, show that the impassioned feelings of fighters can overwhelm mighty military machines.

Fifth, it’s those Palestinians. Despite losing their conflict with the Israelis again and again, the Palestinians have two factual advantages. One is their high birth rate. Whatever their status, they are becoming a majority of the joint population of Israel and Palestine – even the proportion of Arabs living in ‘Israel proper’ has increased, currently around 20% of the population. In the end, numbers count. The Palestinians haven’t gone away.

The other advantage is that, despite Palestinians’ misery, their society is in a strange way socially healthier than Israeli society. Palestinians have been so thoroughly deprived and have lived without proper governance for so long that they have adapted in ways that make their society quite resilient. A mixed blessing, this spirited accommodation to hardship and tragedy represents a valuable and rare community resource.

Despite the tendency of young Palestinian men to squabble and fight when they get worked up, and the recent schism between Fatah and Hamas, Palestinian social bonds are a strength. They’re economically poor and socially relatively rich – meanwhile developed countries are rich materially and poor socially.

Israelis know little of this: most never meet Palestinians or see their living areas. When Israeli soldiers serve in the Palestinian Territories, it often takes them a year of national service to realise that what they have been taught about Palestinians does not reflect what they see – and many soldiers land up angry, disorientated or go into exile as a result.

There are further issues. One is environmental: Israel is a toxic mess, and Palestine too. Military and economic priorities in Israel have prevailed over the ‘luxury’ of environmental cleanup, except now it is no longer a luxury. Palestine’s hardships, shortages and weak infrastructure render it into a health and pollution risk both for itself and for Israel – Palestinians are not in a position to attend to environmental and public health issues. There is a massive water resource problem for both countries, and paradoxically Palestinians, Syrians and Shi’ite Lebanese, ‘the enemy’, live on top of Israel’s main water-sources. Environmental issues are like a time-bomb waiting to go off, and they could be determining factors in the future.

Another matter is the wider world, where things are moving on, and to an extent Israel and Palestine are being left behind. In the longterm, this could benefit Palestine more than Israel. Palestine, especially Gaza, being walled off from the world, suffers great hardship, yet this insulates it from some of the development-related problems experienced in other countries. Martin Bell, a veteran BBC war correspondent, once wrote, "Peace and freedom can be defined as the peace that makes traffic jams possible and the freedom to be stuck in them".

In the longterm, Palestinian sufferings could have some advantages. Hamas, despite the economic embargo imposed by Israel and the West after its election to government in early 2006, is still more popular than Fatah. If its project of building a society based on the principles of the umma eventually succeeds, its tough stance of resisting Israeli and foreign pressure might pay off in the longterm – though this is currently an open question. Palestine could become a seedbed for a new kind of society in a generation’s time, under different global conditions.

Meanwhile, Israel, rather self-preoccupied, and defying the world on matters of international law and decent behaviour, is missing out on important developments. A small and crowded country, it cannot forever live within walls. The course Israel has followed since its founding sixty years ago is changing. This ‘whither next?’ feeling eats away at the Israeli heart. Israel was a land of hope and promise for Jews, and things have gone strangely sour.

As an immigrant land, the nation needs a clear sense of purpose to define itself, and Israel is faced with finding a new one. Currently it is reluctant, clueless and divided, stuck in a loop of blocking progress in peace, behaving badly and denying it. The fear is that if its defensive aggression stops, the nation will lose out and fall apart. Still, the wider agenda surrounding Israel is changing, in the Arab world and globally, the Israeli army is not as strong as it once was, and sooner or later Israel will need to square up with emergent facts. It’s a matter of how easy or painful this is to be.

This is scary for Israelis, perhaps more scary than the threat of Palestinians or Arabs. It involves building a new national consensus based not on a post-Holocaust mentality but on the demands of the future. Historically, Jews have had a legitimate fear of persecution and annihilation, but new generations are growing up for whom the Holocaust is their grandparents’ history. In the 21st Century Israelis are in a position to make peace with the world and to end this cycle.

The main problem is not the fact of being Jewish, or anti-Semitism, but the current behaviour and perceived behaviour of Israel. Its settlement- and wall-building, its oppression of Palestinians and Lebanese and its international intransigence are simply unsustainable, if Israel wants friends. Given time to cool down, many Arabs and Palestinians would be willing to accept a friendly, fair and neighbourly Israel: but first, crucial matters of justice and correction have to be worked out.

This involves Israelis and Arabs making a profound choice to get on with each other. Here lies the basis of Hamas’ proposal that a final peace settlement cannot be achieved in this generation. They propose making a longterm truce and interim agreement, allowing time to cool tempers, leaving a final settlement to a later generation.

This is a mature viewpoint, recognising the depth of the damage done on both sides. But it rather confronts Israelis’ hidden fears too: Israel’s many ‘tribes’ will then have to come to an accommodation between themselves – the Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the seculars and the religious, the different nationalities and interest groups who jostle together for influence in Israel. For they have come to rely on having an enemy to keep them united.

Israelis yet need to clarify whether they wish to live in a state reserved for Jews, or a multi-ethnic state with significant Palestinian, Bedouin, Druze and foreign populations. Current Israeli delaying tactics are eroding the possibility of a two-state solution, so Israel will have to square with this question and the Palestinians in another way. This is emotionally and politically difficult for them. But it’s easier than the alternative – continued conflict.

Palestinians have already seen downfall and hardship. Israelis fear the worst – and this prospect eats at their belief in themselves. Though Palestinians suffer immensely, their agenda is relatively simple: they need a better life. How to get there divides them but, while significant, this is a manageable issue.

Meanwhile Israelis are deeply confused, their government fails to represent their needs, and they resort to digging in, repeating past errors, for want of another strategy. For them, a lot of soul-searching, social and emotional reorientation lies ahead. Israelis will ultimately gain from this. It leads toward the building of a safer, happier society, at peace with its neighbours, no longer surrounded by walls, watchtowers and barbed wire, openly playing a part in the wider Middle East and the world.

Meanwhile, the Middle East is moving surreptitiously toward a reuniting process – whether in the form of a common market as proposed by the sheikhs and magnates of the Gulf states, or a caliphate as proposed by Islamists. However this process unfolds, the Middle East is likely, within fifty years, to be relatively unified, very different from today. This would re-contextualise Israel’s position, especially since the Middle East might by that time be more central and in charge of its fate than it has been.

For millennia, Jews have been spread around the Middle East, integral to its societies. Returning to this might be anathema to some Muslims, but let’s remember that Jews and Muslims coexisted well enough for centuries until the arrival of Israel in the mid-20th Century. Events in Europe set the founding of Israel and its militant stance in motion, and many Middle Eastern Jews had grave reservations over it.

The reuniting of the Middle East implies a weakening of the national borders drawn by Britain and France in the 1920s and a gradual reintegration of its diverse societies. Whatever anyone’s feelings are today, the linking of ethnic security with territorial control is likely to be superseded by bigger regional and global priorities in the coming time. We’re all in this rather threatened world together, and we sink or swim together.

We can thus imagine a time when Jews form a grouping within a larger Middle East, in which the different peoples of the region define themselves not by territory but by their social niche and role. Over the centuries, Jews lived in Sumer, Babylon and Baghdad, in Damascus and Alexandria and from Spain to Central Asia. The future has a place for Jews, just as South Africa has remained a place for whites, living together with blacks. The big issue of the future is ecological survival and international cooperation, not narrow national interest or ethnic or religious strife. This massive shift of global priorities is coming.

But such a fundamental change requires an act of trust, a getting-real process in the Middle East. This is easier when it’s behind you than in front of you. Israelis have a big choice ahead. If they fail to make that choice, their nation might be doomed – not by being driven into the sea by Arabs, but because Israelis lose hope and a sense of future. For this reason, Israelis deserve some understanding. But to deserve it fully, the behaviour of the nation of Israel needs to change.


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