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.
Economics Over Easy
For $50,000 per head, guests at the King David Hotel on Monday morning received a menu which included croissants, coffee, various cheeses, eggs, salad and shakshuka. On the side, attendees at this fundraising breakfast were treated to a joint economics and social studies lecture from Mitt Romney on the “dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality” between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. “Culture makes all the difference” Romney said, citing David Landes’ findings in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations as his inspiration for such a conclusion.
Landes’ work, oft-cited by Romney, argues that beginning with the United Kingdom, nations which have become wealthy and prosperous have done so because their national cultures were and are amongst other things capitalistic, meritocratic, technocratic and science-orientated. By extension, countries that have experienced stunted development have failed to integrate these qualities into their own cultures. It is Landes’ assertion, for example, that Islam has discouraged diversity, initiative, and education in the countries where it is the predominant religion under authoritarian, oil-rich regimes.
Within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic, Romney’s emphasis on Landes’ shambling and sweeping conclusions regarding national culture could not be less helpful or enlightening. Rather, the present disparity – where the GDP per capita in Israel is $31,400 compared to $2,900 in the West Bank – is directly attributable to the ongoing politico-military conflict and the influential role of governments and institutions, of the political culture.
Romney in Israel: Now We Know
Now we know that Mitt Romney did not really much care for the idea of not criticising the President, or contradicting the nation’s current foreign policy, when outside the United States. “Diplomatic distance that is public and critical emboldens Israel’s adversaries,” he proclaimed in a speech in Jerusalem on Sunday. In the same address, he referred to the city as “Israel’s capital”, in defiance of official U.S. policy on the matter.
Now we know, or rather we can confirm, that Romney has no ear for poetry or language, and lacks the ability to turn a phrase and convey real human emotions. During an address at a fundraising breakfast Monday morning that was supposed to convey his appreciation and even love for Israel, Romney said, “As I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognise the power of at least culture and a few other things”. I recognise the power of at least culture and a few other things. The trees are the right height. Its roads and houses are small.
Now we know there’s nothing Romney will not do to peel Jewish voters away from the Democrats, no matter how offensive his gesture. Jeffrey Goldberg described as “very vulgar” his decision to be photographed in prayer at the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av – the day on which the First and Second Temples were destroyed, “one of the most solemn days on the Jewish calendar”. “I’m sure, by the way,” Goldberg added, that conservatives “would endorse an Obama campaign stop at Yad Vashem on the Holocaust Memorial Day”.
Kadima Means Nothing — Ariel Is Worse
The break-up of Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz’s marriage of convenience bears no significance for the future of the peace process. The partnership between Likud and Kadima was never a serious endeavour to begin with, in spite of much talk about reforming the electoral process, introducing a universal draft, and even kick-starting the moribund talks between Netanyahu and Abbas. Rather, the deal was made entirely out of necessity: for Mofaz to elongate the life of his sham of a party, a project he has now surely annulled; for Netanyahu to continue his principal policy of inactivity on all fronts, under the auspices of national unity.
Far more noteworthy, at least when it comes to the hope that, someday, a democratic, Jewish state might reside with a democratic, Palestinian state in a condition of perpetual if uneasy peace, is the decision by the Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education (JSCHE) to recognise the Ariel University Center as a full-fledged university. In doing so, the JSCHE have gone over the heads of the Council for Higher Education which recommended against recognition, thereby establishing Israel’s first university beyond the Green Line in the occupied territories.
But, as Liel Leibovitz notes in Tablet, the word of the council is essentially meaningless when it comes to the occupied territories:
Because Israeli law doesn’t apply in the West Bank…all civilian affairs in the region are overseen by the Israel Defence Forces. In 1997, after the council refused to supervise a number of nascent Jewish academic institutions established east of the Green Line, a new body was formed, called the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria (CHEJS). Its members are appointed by the army.
And, that this university has been established in Ariel only augments the controversy, given the settlement’s position in the West Bank. Ariel competes with Ma’ale Adumim for the indignity of being the most controversial settlement in all of the West Bank, principally due to its size – a city of some 17,700 people – and its location, some 13km west of the Green Line, north of Ramallah and southwest of Nablus. Netanyahu has previously referred to Ariel as a suburb of Tel Aviv, “the heart of Israel”, and “an integral, inseparable part of the state of Israel in any future arrangement”. Yet having the borders of any prospective Israeli state swoop around the settlement would create a lengthy talon of land that not would only threaten the contiguity of a Palestinian state, but would be indefensible and vulnerable to enemy assault.
The decision by the JSCHE is a far more dangerous and destructive event than the slipping away of Shaul Mofaz and his gang of status quo politicians into the political night. Because, much like the Levy Report, its acceptance beyond those who have a vested interest in its continuation represents a normalisation of perpetual occupation or eventual annexation, either of which would end finally and irreversibly the notion of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state.
In Israel, How to End an Occupation
How does one solve a problem like a messy occupation of two and a half million people that threatens to make invalid a state’s Jewish and democratic character? Or, to put it another way, when is an occupation not an occupation? Apparently, when you appoint a committee to declare it so — that, in fact, because “Judea and Samaria have been under Israeli control for decades, and it is impossible to foresee a time when Israel will relinquish these territories, if ever”.
A report by a committee formed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to examine the legal aspects of West Bank land ownership rejects the claim that Israel’s presence in the territory is that of an occupying force and asserts that its settlements and settlement outposts there are legal.
The Levy Committee, headed by former Supreme Court vice president Edmond Levy, recommends a fundamental change in the legal regime in the West Bank, including the annulment of a long list of laws, High Court of Justice Rulings and procedures in order to permit Jews to settle in all of Judea and Samaria.
The committee also propagated the following: the legalisation all the outposts even without a retroactive government decision; the cancellation of the order that allows the head of the Civil Administration to force settler-farmers off ostensibly Palestinian land, even if there is no Palestinian complainant; and the annulment the High Court of Justice decision of 1979 that forbids the expropriation of land for “military needs” when the intent is to build settlements.
In other words, the Israeli government becomes master of the land — to hell with the people who live there. The corrupting impact of the lengthy and unwanted occupation is evident in such beggared and bankrupt thinking.
Diplomatically, it is almost impossible for Benjamin Netanyahu to accept and ratify the findings of the very committee he appointed, for it would unleash a torrent of condemnation and divestment which would result in the near-total isolation of his state. Should he reject the panel’s recommendation, then once more he would have ended up satisfying all sides without doing anything to actually advance the cause of peace: the settlers will have their document, their pamphlet, their justification; the peace movement will be content that their notions never became law.
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.