The day after the assassination in Gaza of the Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, Yuval Steinitz was interviewed on Israeli radio. Steinitz is the Likud chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee in the Knesset. Before that he taught Western philosophy at the University of Haifa, where his epistemological world-view was shaped by romantic nationalists such as Gobineau and Fichte, who stressed purity of race as a precondition for national excellence. The translation of these European notions of racial superiority to Israel became evident as soon as the interviewer asked him about the government’s plans for the remaining Palestinian leaders. Interviewer and interviewee giggled and agreed that the policy will be, as it should be, the assassination or expulsion of the entire current leadership: namely, all the members of the Palestinian Authority – about forty thousand people. ‘I am so happy,’ Steinitz said, ‘that the Americans have finally come to their senses and are fully supporting our policies.’
On television, Benny Morris of Ben Gurion University repeated his support for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, claiming this as the best means of solving the conflict in Palestine. The New York Times and the New Republic were among the many stages on which Morris was invited to rehearse his views.
Opinions that used to be considered at best marginal, at worst lunatic, are now at the heart of the Israeli Jewish consensus, and disseminated by establishment academics on prime-time television as the only truth. Israel in 2004 is a paranoid society led by a fanatical political elite, determined to bring the conflict to an end by force and destruction, whatever the price to its society or its potential victims. Often this elite is supported only by the American administration, while the rest of the world watches helpless and bewildered.
Israel nowadays is like a plane flying on autopilot. The course is preplanned, the speed predetermined. The destination is the creation of a Greater Israel which will include half of the West Bank and a small part of the Gaza Strip (almost 90 per cent of historical Palestine): this will be a Greater Israel without a Palestinian presence, with high walls separating it from the indigenous population of Palestine, who will be crammed into two huge prison camps in Gaza and what’s left of the West Bank. Palestinians inside Israel can either leave and join the millions of refugees languishing in the camps or submit to an apartheid system of discrimination and abuse. In many parts of the Western world the media still describe this as the only safe route to peace and stability. The discourse of peace employed by the Quartet – the US, the EU, Russia and the UN – since the Road Map came into being seems to blind many reasonable observers, who still seem to believe that this course makes sense. But it should have long been clear that Israel is heading for disaster.
Ariel Sharon’s latest proposal – yet another destructive ploy masquerading as a peace plan – fits very naturally into the history of peace-making in Palestine since Oslo. The process began with a genuine effort to create two independent states in Palestine and Israel, but turned into a way for the Zionist centre in Israel to impose its vision of a Greater Israel with a Palestinian Bantustan alongside it, and no rights of restitution and return for Palestinian refugees. In the summer of 2000, Israel and the US demanded that the Palestinians back this vision of their future.
Sharon’s ‘peace’ plan may not deviate much from previous Zionist schemes, and yet it seems that things have got worse in Israel during the last few weeks. The assassinations of Sheikh Yassin and Rantissi, with America’s support for Sharon’s plans in the background, are terrifying landmarks. The feeling is of being trapped on a plane which is following a course that will end in catastrophe for the Israeli citizens onboard, and will also annihilate the Palestinians in our way.
Yet this course has now been sanctioned by Washington, and is no longer questioned in Israel. Dissenting voices inside and outside the country seem to have weakened or disappeared. Past attempts to impose the vision of Greater Israel under the pretext of a peace plan were challenged: many used to shun such policies, or at least hesitate before supporting them publicly. This has changed: the critical instincts of both intellectuals and journalists have petered out in the last four years. There is an ethical void which allows the government to go on killing unarmed Palestinians and, thanks to curfews and long periods of closure, starving the society under occupation. Even worse, it also encourages mainstream politicians and intellectuals to call for ethnic cleansing and the further ruin of Palestine and its people.
Previous American governments supported Israeli policies, as long as they represented Jewish consensual positions, and regardless of how they affected, or were perceived by, the Palestinians. This support, however, used to require negotiation and some give and take. Even after the outbreak of the second intifada in October 2000, some in Washington tried to distance America from Israel’s response to the uprising. For a while, Americans seemed uneasy about the fact that several Palestinians a day were being killed, and that a large number of the victims were children; there was also unhappiness about Israel’s use of collective punishments, house demolitions and arrests. But they got used to all this, and when the Israeli Jewish consensus sanctioned the military assault on the West Bank in April 2002 – an unprecedented episode of cruelty in the unsavoury history of the occupation – America objected only to the unilateral acts of annexation and settlement that were expressly forbidden in the Anglo-American sponsored Road Map. Now, exactly two years later, Sharon has asked for American and British support for the colonialist settlement of the West Bank, and got it. His plan, which passes in Israel for a consensual peace plan, was at first rejected by the Americans as unproductive (the rest of the world condemned it in stronger terms). The Israelis, however, hoped that the similarities between American conduct in Iraq and Israel’s policies in Palestine would cause the US position to change.
Sharon’s plane stood on the tarmac for three hours while, inside, Sharon refused to allow it to take off for Washington until he got American approval for his new plan. He said he wouldn’t be able to unite the Israeli Jewish public behind his disengagement programme without American support. It used to take a while for the US finally to submit to Israeli politicians’ need for a consensus (and in this case Sharon’s need to persuade the Israeli public to trust him in the face of a pending court case in which he might be found guilty of widespread personal corruption). This time it took only a few hours.
It ought to have taken the American administration much longer than that. In essence, Sharon was asking Bush to forgo almost every commitment the Americans have made over Palestine. The plan offers an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza (although the Israelis left it in 1993), and the closure of the handful of settlements which remain there, as well as several others in the West Bank, in return for the annexation of the majority of the West Bank settlements to Israel. This will happen only after Israel has cordoned off the entire West Bank with a wall which will take years to complete and which most countries believe constitutes a violation of the Palestinians’ human rights. Sharon also demanded a clear American rejection of the Palestinian right of return – a right which was recognised by the UN in December 1948. For the first time, Washington gave its support to a road map that leaves most of the West Bank in Israeli hands and all of the refugees in exile.
Bush is influenced by Christian Zionists who see in the present Israeli ploy yet another step towards the fulfilment of a doomsday scenario that will bring about the Second Coming of Christ. His more secular neo-con advisers are impressed by the war against Hamas which accompanies Israel’s promises of eviction and peace. The seemingly successful Israeli operations are a proof by proxy that America’s own ‘war against terror’ is bound to triumph. Israel’s ‘success’, trumpeted every day by the defence minister, is a cynical distortion of the facts on the ground. The relative decline in guerrilla and terror activity has been achieved by curfews and closures, by imprisoning more than two million people in their homes without work or food for protracted periods of time. Even neo-conservatives should be able to see that this is not going to provide a long-term solution to the hostility and violence provoked by an occupying power, whether in Iraq or Palestine.
Sharon’s plan has been approved by Bush’s spin doctors, who can present it as another step towards peace and a distraction from failures in Iraq. It is probably also acceptable to more even-handed advisers, who are so desperate to see something change that they have persuaded themselves that the plan offers a chance for peace and a better future. These people long ago forgot how to distinguish between the mesmerising power of language and the reality it purports to describe. As long as the plan contains the magic term ‘withdrawal’, it is seen as essentially a good thing by some usually cool-headed journalists in the United States, by the leaders of the Israeli Labour party (bent on joining Sharon’s government in the name of the sacred consensus), and even by the newly elected leader of the Israeli Left party, Yossi Beilin.
Two senior political scientists from Tel Aviv University, one on the radio this morning, the other on the TV news this evening, explained that Hamas has moved its headquarters to Damascus, and so – they have this on good authority – Israel will have to act there as well (Haaretz carried a similar report). They also estimated that since it would take years to complete the wall around the West Bank, there would be no real withdrawal from the Gaza Strip for a long time. The good news was that the intifada had been broken and Israel has time to decide, without any outside pressure being put on it, especially not by the US, how best to construct its future state now that Palestine is gone for ever.
The key term is ‘outside pressure’. The governments of Europe and the US are unwilling or unable to stop the occupation and prevent the annihilation of the Palestinians. Those Israelis who are willing to take part in an anti-occupation movement are outnumbered, demoralised and crippled in the face of the consensus and its hegemony. The onus is on civil society in Europe and the US to do all it can to make the Israelis understand that policies such as Sharon’s have a price. From academic boycott to economic sanctions, every possible means should be considered and employed in the West: their governments are no less responsible than Israel for the past, present and future catastrophes of the Palestinian people. This should be done not only for moral or historical reasons, but also for the sake of Europe’s security and even survival. As the violence that has followed the events of 11 September 2001 has so painfully shown us, the Palestine conflict is undermining the delicate multicultural fabric of European society, as it pushes the US and the Muslim world further and further into a nightmare. Putting pressure on Israel is a small price to pay for the sake of global peace, regional stability and reconciliation in Palestine.