The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most enduring and volatile in modern history. For the Palestinians, the last hundred years have been about occupation, repression and expulsion. This systematic discrimination has been intensified since the rise of the Second Intifada in 2000 and peaks regularly with operations like Cast Lead (2009) and Pillar of Defence (2012) which both saw massive bombardments of Gaza by the Israeli military machine and thousands of civilians killed and wounded.
But what does this conflict mean to the Israelis? Is it a search for security after centuries of persecution around the world? Is it about self-determination and self-defence after the horrors of Nazism?
It may seem that the key to a lasting peace for both peoples lies with a) the Palestinians, who are often portrayed as the aggressors, and b) the Israeli Government, whose various actions continuously prevent a peaceful Palestinian nation from being formed. In fact, the real power for peace lies with the Israeli people themselves, their history and their values.
In fact, this has never been so plainly obvious as it is today. In the run-up to the Israeli elections on January 22nd ,much has been made of the rise of the ultra-right in the country. As if the peace process hadn’t been hindered enough by Netanyahu’s Likud party in the last few years, what we are now facing is the prospect of characters like Naftali Bennett (of the ultra-right Jewish Home party) – who not only don’t believe peace is possible but openly rally against it – gaining high seats at the table.
In some way it comes as little surprise that such individuals are popular. After all, the conflict has been ongoing for so long that no generation of Israelis have been without it in some form. Many have become disillusioned with peace and as such are seeking something radical to change the stalemate. This may partially explain why a party like Jewish Home, akin to the English Defence League in the UK (except more political less protest), could possibly become so accepted. Netanyahu will find it hard not to make his next Government even more right-wing than it is today.
Conversely, a shift rightward might actually be the very thing that ruptures the Israeli stranglehold over the fate of the Palestinians.
For one, international apologists for Israel may be able to stomach the sanctions, the blockades, the incursions, the settlements and the baseless argument that East Jerusalem should not form a capital for a viable Palestinian state, but few will find it so easy if the country goes ahead with the plans of some Likud members of calling for the annexation of West Bank territories. Bennett, on the other hand, would just prefer the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip entirely.
In the US, where blanket support for Israel might as well be written into the Constitution, a jolt to the right could put off much of the grassroots backing for Zionism, and may make it harder for the powerful lobby groups to preserve momentum. Indeed, supporters worldwide may polarise if Neo-Zionism becomes the dominant ethos of the nation. But will that ultimately block it from making obstinate leaps towards wiping what remains of Palestine off the map? Probably not.
Supporters of the Palestinian cause often associate the mechanisms used against the Palestinians to those used against black South Africans during apartheid – likening the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Bantustans, and stressing the system of political repression. Arab Israelis today own less than 4 per cent of Israel’s land even though they constitute almost 20 per cent of its population.
Others clumsily find similarities between these mechanisms and those used by the Third Reich against the disabled, homosexuals, Romani gypsies and, of course, Jews. True or not, it is this relationship with their history, and the memory of the ‘Final Solution’ still emblazoned in the subconscious of modern day Israelis, that makes the prospect of ultra-right success in Israel so horrific.
The holocaust remains a core issue with Jewish Israelis, as much a part of their heritage now as the Exodus and Mount Sinai. With such an event not yet 70 years gone, it would be natural to forgive Jews, particularly Zionists, of a little over-protectiveness. But at what point does this become paranoia contravening common sense? At what point does victimhood become self-sustaining? Consider this: Israel already has a monolithic concrete wall running 700km around (and inside of) the West Bank, an electrified fence sealing up the Gaza Strip and is in the process of constructing another along its border with Egypt. If plans to build yet another ‘security’ barrier around the Golan Heights are to go ahead – an idea pledged by Netanhayu himself – Israel will literally have shut itself away from the rest of the world. This is an extreme over-reaction to the threat actually posed. Paranoid? Certainly.
But surely what we have seen since the start of the Second Intifada, and punctuated so vividly by the rise and rise of racist nationalists on the Israeli side of the argument, is unforgivable. Unforgivable and morally nauseating. Has paranoia become so widespread, so intense, with Israelis that they are freely shifting towards the kind of discriminatory, vile standpoint to that which their recent ancestors had to suffer under in the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Europe?
In his book “The Crisis of Zionism”, Peter Beinart, former editor of ‘The New Republic’, Orthodox Jew and Zionist, notes that perpetual victimhood cannot answer the Jewish contemporary challenge of how to sustain a democracy in Israel, “a country that for two thirds of its existence has held the West Bank, where it’s democratic ideals do not apply.”
If there is a crisis in Zionism today, it is a moral one, and in conflict not only with the traditional teaching of the Torah which promises the land of Israel to the Jewish people only at the coming of the messiah, but also conflicting with texts that connect the land of the Jews with their behaviour there. In the words of Jeremiah, “If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, forever and ever.”
Revisionist Zionists like Netanyahu reject that such advice has any place in contemporary morality, shunning ancient texts like these.
Beirnart argues that for Netanyahu, “it is always 1938….” in which case, “Jews have no moral responsibility except to survive.”
This is why Israeli civilians hold the key to a lasting peace in the region. First, they must acknowledge that the Palestinian people are just like them, searching for self-determination and self-defence. Next they must admit that the stuttering Second Intifada, begun in 2000, did not come out of nowhere, as an anti-Semitic lashing out by the Palestinians following failed peace negotiations, but was in fact a response to years of apartheid-like discrimination at the hands of the Israeli Government.
Accepting these two things will finally allow Israeli voters to recognise that paranoia and discrimination are not any basis on which to build peace. Love and forgiveness are – coupled perhaps with rational responses to both attacks from outside and propaganda from within.
It is because of the holocaust and their historic experience with discrimination, that Jewish Israelis are the only ones who can understand the complete hopelessness of perpetual violence over peace, perpetual anger over understanding. Not the outsiders, the US or Egypt, who are merely playing politics. Not the Palestinians, who remain a population of victims led by a minority of extremists. Not the nationalists who flaunt their belief in Palestinian inferiority so openly and so eloquently. No, only the Israeli people can bring about the kind of peace their ancestors dreamed of, and they must start by voting for a new, peaceful government on January 22nd. Surely, if Zionism means anything good at all, it must be at the very least about creating a truly nonviolent, democratic homeland where all are free.Tags: Middle-East
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This post was written by Oliver Lewis Thompson