The Road They Didn’t Take
Thoughts of mortality, of committing thousands of young men and reservists to war, ought to trouble and concentrate the mind. Worrisome, then, are the loose lips of Israel’s top brass like Eli Yishai, who stated Saturday, “The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages”. Disconcerting too are the attitudes of Michael Ben-Ari, who stated he wants to see 2,000 killed in Gaza, and Gilad Sharon, son of Ariel, who wrote in The Jerusalem Post the following:
We need to flatten entire neighbourhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too. There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing.
Their detached attitude to combat, the blasé stance on the sanctity of life, the ease with which they would commit their nation to a war of destruction and desolation, is wicked, callous, and truly frightening. It can’t help but bring to mind, during this month in which we mark the conclusion of the First World War, Wilfred Owen’s take on the Binding of Isaac, “The Parable Of The Old Man And The Young”. After the angel of the Lord appears before Abraham and commands him to offer up “the Ram of Pride” over his threatened son, Owen’s verse takes a grim turn:
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Four years ago, Israel was on the verge of a ground war with Hamas and other militant organisations based in the Gaza Strip after a significant uptick in rocket attacks upon civilians living in the Negev. In the elections that followed Operation Cast Lead – which halted the showers of explosives, at a cost of thirteen dead Israelis and 700 dead Palestinian non-combatants – Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud gained fifteen more seats and formed a government of parties opposed to peace, or to use the father Benzion’s adage, in favour of an accord that they must know the Palestinians would never accept.
To say that history is repeating itself, or is in danger of doing so, would be facetious and a little cheap. Yet the familiarity of the position Israel finds herself in – at war with Hamas once more, no closer to an agreement with the PLO, and weeks away from a general election – should certainly sharpen the focus of the Israeli voter and give them just cause to reflect on the Netanyahu administration’s failings.
Gilad Shalit and the Future of Peace
“For this reason was man created alone, to teach that whoever destroys a single life, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world; and whoever preserves a single life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.” — The Talmud
When faced with the impossible choice – whether to protect the security interests of the State of Israel whilst sacrificing a single soul, or save one life and in the process release over one thousand terrorists who took many lives and make take scores more – the Israeli government and by extension the people of Israel elected to do preserve a single life.
The decision to save Gilad Shalit – as part of a deal that saw the release of a disproportionate number of Palestinian prisoners responsible for some of the bloodiest atrocities to occur on Israeli soil in recent memory – is to the credit of those in Israel who lost family members and loved ones in those attacks. As Bradley Burston termed it in Haaretz, the deal speaks to “a remnant of an Israel which is fast disappearing. It is a remnant of a particular brand of quiet, exceptional courage”.
It is also just to commend Benjamin Netanyahu, who after all made the call on an agreement which witnessed the release into the West Bank, Gaza, and elsewhere of individuals who slaughtered some 599 Israelis, and maimed and disfigured many more. “This is still a difficult day,” Netanyahu told the media after Shalit’s reunion with his parents, Noam and Aviva, “because even though the price was lowered, it was heavy”.
The risk he undertook with this deal speaks not only to his courage, and the bravery of the Israeli people, but also to Judaism itself, a value system which sanctifies and places emphasis on the price of life, unlike those faiths which seem to believe that what happens after death is somehow more important.
The question the Shalit deal seems to have raised, as the New York Times so puts it, is the following:
If Netanyahu can negotiate with Hamas — which shoots rockets at Israel, refuses to recognise Israel’s existence and, on Tuesday, vowed to take even more hostages — why won’t he negotiate seriously with the Palestinian Authority, which Israel relies on to help keep the peace in the West Bank?
It is utterly mendacious, first of all, to create an equivalency between what took place between Israel and Hamas over Gilad Shalit, and the greater problem of coming up with a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The former was a hostage negotiation, whereby Hamas prised a unequal bounty out of Netanyahu by dangling the prospect of one man’s death over his head (evidently forgetting the Qur’an’s commandment, “If anyone saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind” (5:32)). Any talks between Netanyahu and Abbas would occur under more agreeable circumstances, free of preconditions.
But the larger answer to the Times’ question can be discovered in an examination of the Palestinian response to the gift they received as part of this bargain. The response in Gaza to the repatriation of wanton criminals and murderers was a cocktail of jubilation and vitriol. A crowd of 100,000 Gazans lined to streets to welcome the released back to Palestinian territory. At a rally in the Strip’s capital the assembled cried, “We want another Shalit!” Yehiye Sinwar, a freshly unshackled Hamas leader, even stated clear as day, “We urge the al-Qassam Brigades to kidnap more soldiers to exchange them for the freedom of our loved ones who are still behind bars”.
This has come to be expected of Hamas, an organisation which, after all, does not recognise the right of the state they were bargaining with to exist. Yet on the West Bank – the territorial flank the Times asserts to be the moderate wing – the reaction was equally as strident. “We thank God for your return and your safety,” Mahmoud Abbas said. “You are freedom fighters and holy warriors for the sake of God and the homeland”.
Abbas greeted the prisoners by adding that he wished soon that those freed would be reunited with such mass murderers as Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Sa’adat. Barghouti was the head of al-Tanzim, the armed wing of Abbas’ party Fatah, and was a leading figure responsible for the organisation of the al-Aqsa Intifada, which resulted in the deaths of 731 Israeli civilians between 2000 and 2008. Sa’adat led the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and ordered the 2001 assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.
Gilad Shalit’s capture, imprisonment, possible torture, and its tawdry aftermath demonstrate that not only is the chasm between Israel and the Palestinians one of policy and principle – over borders, Jerusalem, and the right of return – but also a state of mind. Whilst families all across Israel were contemplating the nature of the deal they had shaken on to save one life, and remembering those struck down by the killers they had just set free, people across the West Bank and Gaza were lionising individuals complicit in some of the most grievous and heinous acts of terror to occur on Israeli soil.
Shalit’s live, back in his village of Mitzpe Hila in northern Israel, is being to return to something which might be described as normalcy. “He’s begun going out of the house a little bit, riding his bicycle, he wants to take walks, he’s playing some ping-pong and he’s seeing some people, meeting childhood friends,” his father said. His freedom is something to be celebrated, and news such as this is uplifting. But five years of incarceration following a kidnapping will inevitably have deep psychological and physical consequences of which we do not and cannot yet know. His scars are too etched onto Israeli-Palestinian relations – greatly damaged by Shalit’s ordeal.
A Note on Palestinian Statehood
“The core issue here is that the Israeli government refuses to commit to terms of reference for the negotiations that are based on international law and United Nations resolutions, and that it frantically continues to intensify building of settlements on the territory of the State of Palestine." — Mahmoud Abbas, September 23, 2011
Avi Shlaim stated in a 2010 lecture at the LSE that the obstacles to peace can be surmised in three words: settlements, settlements, settlements. In 2009, some 304,569 Israelis lived in West Bank settlements, with growth rates topping out at 4.5pc in places like Modi’in Ilit. Estimates suggest too that around 192,000 reside in East Jerusalem.
The failure to prevent their expansion has, undoubtedly, hampered progress towards a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the commencement of Benjamin Netanyahu’s reign. Principally, settlements continue to act as a barrier not only because of their implications on the ground, in relation to the building away of the Palestinian state, but because parties to the talks have made it more of an issue than it need be.
The various proposed concords over the past thirty years have taken account of the fact that land scarred by concrete can not be returned to nature. Whether we’d prefer it or not, the major settlements will become part of the future State of Israel, once a Palestinian counterpart has been established. Indeed, Ehud Olmert’s plan provided for the incorporation of all major localities in the Seam Zone, the patch of land between the Green Line and the Security Barrier: Gush Etzion, a collection of villages south-west of Bethlehem; Ma’ale Adumin east of Jerusalem, and Ariel in the north near Salfit.
Thus settlements aren’t really the core issue, at least not at this precise moment anyway. Rather, I’d assert that it is government, or an absence of it, that remains the greatest obstacle to the foundation of Palestine. In Israel, there exists an administration led by Netanyahu yet, in terms of the Palestinian issue, commandeered by extreme nationalist and religious elements, which intends to delay the coming of Palestine to the point where annexation becomes the sole alternative to perpetual occupation.
But Mahmoud Abbas needs to recognise that no viable or contiguous Palestinian state can be established when its two territorial blocks are divided between two psuedo-democratic governing parties, one of which is a Islamist terror organisation bent on rolling back Israel to the point of non-existence. How can Abbas stand in front of the United Nations and ask for statehood, when he does not speak for nearly half of all Palestinians in the former Mandate?
A reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas was attempted in June 2011, but was derailed after the latter rejected the idea of Salam Fayyad as the unified Prime Minister. Before there is to be Palestinian state — an entity which is essential to the security, prosperity and vitality of a Jewish state — the question of who rules Palestine needs to be answered.
Obama on Israel and the Palestinians
Unlike the speeches of the previous commander-in-chief, those made by President Obama are orated for the purpose of dissection. They are written by a meticulous language of fairness, accuracy and a little caution that open the door to numerous interpretations. By contrast, where can one go with such nuanced statements as “you’re either with us or against us”?
Obama’s speech on Thursday was intended as a second address to the Arab world, after his famous Cairo speech of 2009. After all, its broadcast was timed specifically for when citizens of the Near East and North Africa would be home from work. It set out state by state how the United States viewed events related to the Jasmine Revolution, though it is his remarks on Israel and the Palestinians that I shall focus on now.
What is clear right off the bat is that Obama views the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as integral to the stabilisation and eventual flourishing of the Arab Spring. “At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past,” he proclaimed, “the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever”.
At the same time, the speech seemed to heave cold water on the idea of talks resuming in the immediate, particularly in the wake of the emergence of a unity government in the Palestinian Territories. On this, Obama said:
“Recognising that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel: How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognise your right to exist?”
Here, Obama has fallen into line with the standard Israeli position since the Fatah-Hamas split, adding that Palestinian leaders need to come up with a “credible answer” to this question. Moreover, the President fired a warning shot in the direction of Fatah: “For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimise Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.” This would appear to signal that the United States will indeed vote against and perhaps veto any resolution on Palestinian statehood as a threat to Israeli security.
As to justification such a stance toward the Palestinians, one which puts that out of kilter with the rest of the international community, Obama pivoted to make some important statements with regard Israel’s role on the West Bank. He referenced with regard to the Palestinians the “humiliation of occupation” and settlements as a barrier to peace. Most importantly, Obama stated: “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation”. Such a bold notion has never been articulated by a sitting United States President, and Obama deserves credit as such.
The most contentious paragraph of the speech, the one which Media has most aggressively analysed, focused on the issue of borders:
“We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”
The use of the word ‘contiguous’ is one Obama has used before during the 2008 presidential campaign, in the speech he made to AIPAC (the one that called for a united Jerusalem, for reference). Perhaps the President is merely referring to the proposal for a disengaged corridor on Israeli soil that links Gaza to the West Bank, which was part of the Olmert Plan. If not, then Obama seems to be signalling a desire to enlarge Palestinian territory to the stage where the two entities meet, thus in turn slicing Israel in two, which would do a great deal to threaten Israeli security and indeed its very existence.
His comments on borders are not in fact radical, to put it mildly. The notion of having boundaries centred about those which existed pre-1967 is a consensus opinion amongst European and world leaders, and is in fact something most Israelis believe ought to be the outcome of talks. Again however, no sitting American President has ever said this out loud before, even though the idea of using the Green Line as the basis for peace negotiations was the foundation of the Clinton Parameters, the Bush Road Map and the Olmert Plan.
Overall, the speech reflects an approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict that is a mirror of the attitude he has brought to the presidency: one of care, even-handedness, an awareness of the necessary stances he must adopt, and a desire to always seek resolution. I believe Obama is genuine in his desire to resolve the dispute, to maintain a secure Israel and to allow for the creation of a Palestinian state, based on the belief that “people should govern themselves”. What is not clear, however, is what the administration will do to make this happen, or whether they believe it’s even possible at all.