Friday, June 1, 2018

Israel, Palestinians, and the United States: Peace Will Never Happen

Henry Siegman is a Jew who was born in Frankfort Germany in 1930.  As a young boy he was one of the few German Jews to make it into the United States in 1942.  He was subsequently ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi and served as a chaplain in the Korean War where he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.  As a Jew and a scholar, most of his adult life has been spent tracking and evaluating the events surrounding Israel’s foundation and evolution as an entity within the greater Middle East.  Given the recent events associated with the US government’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the London Review of Books gave him space to record his current feelings.  He is described as: “president emeritus of the US/Middle East Project and a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.”

Siegman produced an article that was titled Two Terrorisms in the paper version and The Two-State Solution: An Autopsy in the online version.  Both titles are relevant because understanding the fate of the two-state solution requires a familiarity with the terrorist history of both the Palestinians and the Israelis.

First some background is required.  In the early part of the twentieth century, Zionism was a mostly secular movement encouraging Jews to work towards some sort of recognized legal presence in Palestine, a region controlled by the British.  If such a thing was to come to pass, then the Palestinians would bear the brunt of the sacrifice.  When the British wished to depart, the UN sponsored a partition plan in 1947 that would divide the region into a Jewish-controlled area and a Palestinian-controlled area.  This source describes the impact.

“To address problems arising from the presence of national minorities in each area, it suggested a land and population transfer involving the transfer of some 225,000 Arabs living in the envisaged Jewish state and 1,250 Jews living in a future Arab state….”

Both sides had claims to the land that they considered nonnegotiable.  If the stakes are existential and there is no acceptable political solution, then violence soon follows in the form of terrorism.  That was the case in 1948 and that is the case today.  Siegman provides this perspective.

“The violence to which Palestinians have resorted in their struggle for statehood is not any different from the measures to which Zionists resorted before and during the 1948 war. According to Morris [Benny Morris, historian], ‘the upsurge of Arab terrorism in October 1937 triggered a wave of Irgun bombings against Arab crowds and buses, introducing a new dimension to the conflict.’ While in the past, Arabs ‘had sniped at cars and pedestrians and occasionally lobbed a grenade, often killing or injuring a few bystanders or passengers’, now, ‘for the first time, massive bombs were placed [by Irgun] in crowded Arab centres, and dozens of people were indiscriminately murdered and maimed.’ Morris notes that ‘this “innovation” soon found Arab imitators’.”

“During Israel’s War of Independence, Jewish defence forces acted in similar ways to Irgun and Palestinian terrorist groups. As Morris explained in an interview in Haaretz, documentation declassified by the IDF shows that ‘in the months of April and May 1948, units of the Haganah were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages.’ The Haganah, which became the IDF, was responsible for at least 24 deliberate massacres of unarmed civilians; the number of victims in each operation ranged from single figures to several hundred. ‘What the new material shows,’ according to Morris, ‘is that there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought, [including] an unusually high concentration of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion’.”

The Jews were vastly outnumbered.  If they were to produce a democratic nation to their liking, the number of resident Palestinians had to be greatly reduced.  This could be accomplished by killing them, moving them into the equivalent of concentration camps, or simply driving them away.  Their Bible told them that all three options were acceptable.

It is difficult to view this situation as a case of the “good” guys versus the “bad” guys.  But that is the narrative the Israelis sold, and the US bought it.

“The point of recognising this history is not to justify terrorism by either Israelis or Palestinians, but to acknowledge the outrageous double standard that has been applied to the two parties and has undermined the possibility of a peace accord. Without knowing that history, it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand the extent to which Israeli propaganda has succeeded in shaping a narrative about the creation of Israel that presents the Palestinians who were brutally expelled from their homes as the aggressors and the Jews as their victims. Without that history, it is impossible to understand the outrage Palestinians feel over having been portrayed as the bad guys for so long.”

After the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel had demonstrated military dominance in the Middle East.  They could do what they wished, and what they wished was for the Palestinians to go away.  The set up “temporary” occupations of the still contested Gaza Strip and the West Bank.  They have no permanent presence in Gaza, but they control all access by land, sea, or air.

“Nothing more profoundly expresses the dishonesty of the dominant Israeli narrative and its perverseness than the statement directed at the Palestinians by Israel’s former prime minister Golda Meir: ‘We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we cannot forgive you for making us kill yours.’ Even if Israelis don’t know about what happened during the 1948 War of Independence, they can be in no doubt about the malicious blockade imposed on Gaza, which, according to the UN, will make it uninhabitable for its two million residents within two years. Almost half of that number are children.”

If there was ever to be a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians it would have to involve ceding all or most of the West Bank to a Palestinian state.  While US negotiators tried valiantly—and naively—to broker such a peace, Israel was blatantly working to make such a state impossible.  Israel has long been allowing Israeli settlers to move into the West Bank and create communities.  Many of these settlers are determined to never give up their land peacefully.  Their current role, and that of the Israeli government is to make life miserable for the Palestinians who refuse to leave.  Their access to jobs, water, and farmable land can be taken away from them at an Israeli’s whim.   Violence between the better armed and organized settlers and the resident Palestinians is common.

The existence of the settlements means that a viable West Bank state cannot be constructed.  That is the reason for the settlements.  Even if a liberal Israeli government were to be formed with a two-state solution in mind, it would take a bloody civil war to make it happen.  And it is not clear that the Israeli military would even be on the government’s side.

Whenever Israel’s actions raised an international outcry, the US was always there to provide it cover.

“The members of the US diplomatic corps who served in the Middle East during the more than half a century that I worked professionally on this subject were outstanding. They understood that, given the vast disparity of power between Israel and the Palestinians, without determined American intervention the outcome of the conflict would be entirely on Israel’s terms. But US politicians consistently undercut its diplomats by assuring Israel’s governments that even though the US objected to policies that violated previous agreements, international law and democratic norms, they would always have Israel’s back.”

“And the US has had Israel’s back, and not only when Israel’s security was threatened; it has also scuttled Security Council resolutions that might have changed Israeli calculations about the costs of its permanent subjugation of the Palestinian people. America’s assurances convinced successive governments that they could safely turn their country into an apartheid state, a transformation that far-right governments headed by Netanyahu have now made a reality.”

“To this day, the official position of Likud, Israel’s ruling party for much of the past half-century, is that it will never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state anywhere in Palestine. The largest caucus in the Knesset is the one devoted to assuring the establishment of a Greater Israel in all of Palestine, and, until that goal is reached, preventing Palestinian statehood on even a square foot of Eretz Yisrael. Likud’s official dismissal of Palestinian statehood never led the US to challenge Israel’s qualification as a peace partner….”

The free pass Israel received from the US was due to immense influence of Jewish advocacy groups and the large amounts of money that could be made available for campaign contributions. 

Interestingly, most US Jews that practice their religion are in either Conservative or Reform movements.  Israel only recognizes the Orthodox version as the true religion.  This leaves the US Jews in an increasingly awkward position with respect to Israel.  You can be Jewish if you are born to a Jewish mother, but the increasingly powerful Orthodox Rabbis would like to be able to proclaim that only Orthodox conversions to Judaism are valid.

“I believe I am more aware than most of the profound Jewish religious attachment to the Land of Israel. I was raised in a deeply Zionist and religiously observant home. Moreover, I am old enough to have experienced personally what it meant to live under the Nazis. …Zionism was rejected by the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jewry as a heresy, just as completely as the Zionist movement rejected Orthodoxy as an anachronism that held back the political and cultural modernisation of Jewish life. No one could have imagined at the start of the 20th century how completely Zionism would be taken over by Orthodox Jewry in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The possibility that the government of this new Zionist state might someday fund an organisation that seeks to restore restore the ancient priesthood and the sacrificial cult it presided over, as this and previous Israeli governments have actually done, would have sent the founders fleeing to the exits.”

The Orthodox religious are the most strident in demanding that Israel must return to its “God-given borders.”  They increasingly have influence over what are considered “Jewish values.”

“Anyone who has followed the recent flood of new legislation by Netanyahu’s government aimed at protecting the Jewish identity of the state from encroachment by democratic norms, will agree that these early Zionist advocates grossly underestimated the threat to Israel’s democracy posed by the current defenders of ‘fundamental Jewish values’. Legislation that allows Israeli Jews to bar Israeli Arab citizens from Jewish neighbourhoods – which in Israel means virtually everywhere other than Palestinian neighbourhoods – is one result of this new dedication to fundamental Jewish values. Another example is the appalling treatment by the government of migrants from African countries who have sought asylum in Israel. Not entirely unrelated is a recent statement by Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, a government official, on the kinship of black people to monkeys.”

Netanyahu has had a troubled relationship with US Jews because they tend to wish for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian solution.  Netanyahu seems to be turning his back on them in favor of a bigger and more powerful US and world constituency—evangelical Christians.  Many evangelicals believe that the Bible contains the roadmap to the future.  And that roadmap indicates that the reestablishment of the Jewish nation must occur before the second coming of the lord can take place—a highly anticipated event.  The evangelicals thus provide a large number of people who will support the territorial goals of the Israeli leadership.

An article in the New York Times, Israel and Evangelicals: New U.S. Embassy Signals a Growing Alliance, provides background.

“Mr. Netanyahu has had rocky relations with liberal American Jews, partly over what they see as his lack of interest in resuming peace talks with the Palestinians, but even more over his acquiescence to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox rabbis on contentious debates with Reform and Conservative leaders involving conversions to Judaism and prayer at the Western Wall. The alliance with evangelicals may free him of the need to appease liberal Jews.”

“’He believes they’re going to assimilate and won’t be interested in their Jewish identity,’ Anshel Pfeffer, author of a biography of Mr. Netanyahu, said in an interview. ‘He sees the Orthodox minority of American Jews, much more in line with his right-wing thinking, becoming the majority of American Jews in a generation or two. And he sees the Republicans and the Christian evangelicals as being the real base of support for Israel in the U.S., rather than American Jews’.”

“Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington and a regular participant in events there to rally evangelical support, said that ‘devout Christians’ were now the ‘backbone’ of the United States support for Israel. ‘It’s got to be a solid quarter of the population, and that is maybe 10, 15, 20 times the Jewish population,’ he said in an interview.

“Worldwide, the proportion is even more staggering, with the number of evangelicals estimated at 600 million, led by the boom in traditionally Catholic Latin American countries.”

Donald Trump’s support for Netanyahu’s agenda and the ties with the evangelical community has led to a somewhat unusual source of support for Israel.  Siegman explains.

“More recently, alt-right and neo-Nazi elements that form the most loyal members of Trump’s base have joined this circle of supporters: they now see Israel’s embrace of a religiously defined national Jewish identity (replacing its previous status as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’) as a validation of their own Christian, racist, fascist and white supremacist ideology. White supremacists can now join with Netanyahu in castigating Jewish critics of Israel’s xenophobic and far-right nationalistic policies as self-hating Jews.”

The United States was once the only power that could influence Israel’s actions.  Now any notion that we would try to apply constraints to Israel seems hopelessly naïve.  Israel is still the most potent military power in the Middle East.  The only nation that might conceivably challenge it is Iran, a country with whom Israel seems on a collision course.

Stay tuned!

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