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Lords of the land: Why Israel's victory won't last

Israel has a strategic choice to make: either to continue as a security state or come to terms with the people it has expelled and dominates
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (AFP)

If Benjamin Netanyahu ever needs rest and recuperation from the travails of being Israel's longest serving prime minister, if there is a shed in which he can hide from any one of the five police investigations threatening him, this place of relative comfort must surely be "the pit".

This is the name given to the bunker some floors beneath the Kirya base in Tel Aviv, which serves as the nerve centre of operations for the Israeli army. It is where prime ministers, defence ministers, the heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet regularly descend when a military operation is afoot.

And it is from here that Netanyahu can survey his life's work: Israel's absolute and unchallenged control of all it surveys.

Lords of the land

The Israeli Air Force can mount repeated attacks on Iranian targets in Syria without having the population of Israel scurrying for the air raid shelters. Its powers of visual identification are such that the Israeli army can identify unarmed Palestinians who approach the fence in Gaza and shoot and maim them at will.  

The protesters are deliberately targeted with bullets that shatter the lower limbs and require surgery for the rest of their life - surgery that can not be obtained. This is what it means to be lords of the land in 2019, as the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim once memorably put it.

Israel's military is ranked the eighth-strongest in the world. Israel can opt out of the international treaties and organisations it finds inconvenient and bully the political elites in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin to maintain impunity for its actions. Palestinian activists find themselves branded as terrorists by data bases, like World-Check, and have their bank accounts closed down by the banking system.

The reputation of politicians like the pro-Palestinian leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, can be tarnished. Politicians with no knowledge of, or interest in, the region are held in a state of terror of being branded anti-semitic. 

 Israel can opt out of the international treaties and organisations it finds inconvenient and bully the political elites in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin to maintain impunity for its actions

Israel has brow beaten the international community into conflating anti-zionism with anti-semitism, pushing the boundaries of the historic definition at exactly the moment when there has been an increase on attacks on Jews in Europe.

As Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz: "It's hard to think of another country that is not the United States, Russia or China that would dare to act like this. Israel can."

It has Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, Oman eating out of its hand. The UAE is willing even to drop the fig leaf of using Amman, the capital of Jordan, through which to route direct flights to an Arab state that has yet to formally recognise it .

Netanyahu writes the foreign policies of Israel's international allies and in Donald Trump, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, he has willing ciphers. America's two envoys, its ambassador David Friedman and its national security adviser John Bolton, are arguably more attached to Israel than they are to their own country.

This is does not mean that Israel and the US will keep on walking in lockstep with each other. There is a growing resentment of, and pushback against, the covert influence Kushner wields on traditional areas of US foreign policy in Washington.

Israel is losing the support of the liberal American Jewish community, for the very reason that Netanyahu has shifted his allegiance to Trump's Christian Zionist base. If Kushner goes, Netanyahu could find Trump musing about the amount Israel is costing him in military aid.

The middle ground

The occupation is stronger while the Palestinians are weaker and more divided then ever. With Mahmoud Abbas, whose presidency expired long ago, Palestine is leaderless and Fatah is divided into warring clans. That suits Israel. Abbas is more eager to continue the siege of Gaza than he is to take Israel to the International Criminal Court.

Small wonder that Trump  found it so easy to whip Abbas' chief negotiating cards - East Jerusalem, the right of return and the status of refugees themselves - off the table.

With over 600,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, an independent, contiguous, autonomous Palestinian state is an ever more distant dream. This is another outcome in which Netanyahu can take personal pride. Once labelled extremist by liberal Zionists, Netanyahu today occupies the middle ground of political discourse in Israel. 

The Israeli left has vanished and the debate is between those who argue for separation and those who push for annexation

There is no-one more charismatic than Netanyahu in today's political spectrum. The Israeli left has vanished, and the debate is between those who argue for separation and those who push for annexation.

If there is one voice which sketches the gulf that lies between an Israeli living within range of the rockets and the Palestinians in Gaza themselves, it should be given to the  woman interviewed recently by the BBC: "They have a blockade of course, but it happens for a reason. People are trying to shoot at my house. I needed to give my dog away because I could not take him for a walk. I could not do that. I was scared. They chose it. They had elections. They chose Hamas."

Game over?

Netanyahu has every reason to sit back in his claustrophobic pit, down another cone of his favourite vanilla and pistachio ice cream, and declare game over.

How interesting then that it is at this juncture in the 70-year-old conflict that Israeli voices are being heard warning that victory can not last, that the project to establish the State of Israel on the biblical Land of Israel from the River Jordan to the sea will consume itself and crumble from the inside.

The latest figure to give voice to doom is Benny Morris, one of Israel's leading historians.

Morris once described himself as a "New Historian" for his work in uncovering the truth about the birth of Israel, which those who took part in it had spent time and energy obscuring. His book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 detailed the mass expulsions, ethnic cleansing and war crimes involved. As a reservist, Morris refused to serve in the occupied territories during the First Intifada.

Since then, Morris has rejoined the ranks of historians who heap deceit on deceit, kicking over the traces of the evidence he himself uncovered. When he claimed that "deep, basic Palestinian rejectionism" was the core of the conflict, and that settlements can be "finessed," he was giving what Daniel Levy called a veneer of intellectual respectability to a well-rehearsed lie. 

Morris is known for his apologies for Israeli crimes against Palestinians (Ben Gurion University)

As Levy pointed out when he replied to Morris in 2012, settlements in the West Bank covered 42 percent of the area under municipal and regional planning. The 13 settlements beyond the international armistice line in East Jerusalem were then home to 187,000 Jews, one quarter of the population of municipal Jerusalem. All these figures have changed.

Morris has since called the dispossession of the Palestinian people a necessary evil. He said that David Ben-Gurion did not go far enough by expelling all the Palestinian people to the other side of the Jordan river in 1948, and proposed imprisoning Palestinians in cages because "there are wild animals there".

"If only the War of Independence had ended with a total separation of populations – the Arabs of the Land of Israel on the east side of the Jordan [River] and the Jews on the right side of the Jordan [River], the Middle East would be less unstable, the suffering of the two peoples in the last 70 years would be much smaller. They would have been satisfied with a state – of a sort [in the present-day Kingdom of Jordan] – not exactly what they wanted; and we would have received the whole Land of Israel," Morris lamented to Haaretz.

In his latest utterance, Morris has declared that Israel will not last.

"I don't see how we get out of this," Morris says. "Today there are already more Arabs than Jews between the [Mediterranean] Sea and the Jordan [River]. The whole territory inevitably becomes one state in which there is an Arab majority. Israel still calls itself a Jewish state, but a situation in which we rule over an occupied people that have no rights cannot persist in the twenty-first century, in the modern world. And the second they have rights – the state will not be Jewish."

Morris thinks of the Arabs as congenitally violent, hostile, and intent on the destruction of Israel, although he still claims a separate Palestinian state is desirable, but conveniently, not now. The Middle East, in Morris's lexicon, is code for backward and here he is entirely representative of his people.

Two Palestinians who became refugees when they were expelled from their home in 1948 (Wikimedia)

Of the current one-state reality, Morris says: "This place will deteriorate into a Middle Eastern state with an Arab majority. The violence between various populations inside the state will continue to increase. The Arabs will demand the return of the refugees. The Jews will remain as a small minority in a large Arab sea of Palestinians – a persecuted minority or a slaughtered minority, as it was when they lived in Arab countries. The Jews that are able will flee to the USA and the West."

Morris's latest intervention ignited a vigorous debate in the columns of  the liberal-leaning Israel newspaper Haaretz. Fellow columnist and contributing columnist to Middle East Eye, Gideon Levy, launched into him: "According to Morris and his ilk, the Arabs are born to kill. Every Palestinian gets up in the morning and asks himself 'Which Jew shall I slaughter today, and which shall I drive into the sea?' It's a kind of hobby. And if so, there's nothing to talk about and no one to talk to.

"This lying school of thought frees Zionism of all guilt and Israel of all responsibility. In any case, anything Israel does will be met with slaughter; it's only a question of time.

"Yet the historian who described how it all began, who understood that the beginning entailed a terrible original sin - dispossessing and expelling hundreds of thousands of people, then forcibly preventing their return, as he detailed in his next book - isn't willing to connect the cause with the effect," Levy wrote.

No Palestinian state

There is a silver lining to these thunderous clouds. In stripping Israel of a moral purpose, in baldly stating that the project to maintain a Jewish majority state trumps all other considerations, and not least the human rights of the Palestinians who live there, the debate has turned the clock back to 1948.

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This is at least more honest than all the words that were written for decades about the "peace process," all the diversionary flak about Israel wanting a settlement but having no-one to talk to, of the Palestinians rejecting any offer they were given.

I got a first hand account of the duplicity involved in the promises made in the Oslo Accords from someone who invested his career in making a two-state solution work and in a plan to share Jerusalem as an international religious centre. Adnan Abu Odeh, King Hussein's information minister and his adviser on Palestine, recalled to me an incident from March 1991. This was before the Madrid Conference and two years before the Oslo Accords.

The king had got wind of a US push for peace in Palestine and wanted to find out  what was going on. Abu Odeh was sent to Washington to find out what the Americans had in mind. To shake off the press, Odeh accompanied a  member of the Jordanian Royal Court to a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council in San Francisco, and then flew back to Washington  unnoticed.

This is how Odeh found himself sitting in the office of  James Baker, who was US secretary of state at the time. Odeh noticed a clock on the wall, which was twinned with one in his secretary's room. It sounded every 15 minutes. This was the signal for the secretary to enter and escort the guest out.

Baker talked smoothly about plans for the forthcoming international conference. After 15 minutes, the clock rang and the session was over: "Have I been clear?" Baker asked, rising from his seat. "No," Odeh replied. Baker sighed and sat back down again. He nodded and the secretary disappeared. After another 15 minutes, the clock rang and the assistant re-appeared. Odeh refused to budge: "What are we going to this conference for?" he asked.

Baker told his secretary to leave again.

“Look, Mr Odeh, I will tell you one thing as secretary of state. There will be no Palestinian state. There will be an entity, less than a state, more than autonomy. Okay now? That is the best we can reach with the Israelis," Baker said.

Two-state solution: A convenient fiction

The Palestinian got the answer he came for. He had already heard the same from the Soviets 10 years before, and they were the prime backers of the Palestinians. Yevgeny Primakov, chief Soviet Arabist told him in 1981: "Adnan, forget it. There will be no Palestinian state."

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Ever since, the concept of a "two-state solution" has been a convenient fiction for liberal Zionists. For other Israeli historians like Ilan Pappe, there was never any real Israeli intent in Oslo to create a Palestinian state.

Liberal zionism, which Pappe defines as a classical settler-colonialist movement, always had a problem equating geography with demography: "How can I have as much of Palestine as possible, with as few Palestinians in it as possible, without undermining my reputation as the only democracy in the Middle East?" said Pappe posing as a Zionist.

Oslo helped this enterprise by providing a screen."The biggest fabrication of Oslo was the formula: let's have peace and if peace is successful, Israel will stop arresting people without trial, demolishing houses, stop the assassinations, the expulsions," Pappe said.

"Even the Palestinians who supported a two-state solution said: 'No, it's the other way round. You stop the occupation, you take your soldiers out, and then we can have a chance for a dialogue on an equal footing.'"

At least the fog about what has really been happening has been blown away and it's clear for all to see.

A clear choice

This is not the first time in history that this part of the Middle East has been colonised by Europeans. Nor is it the first time that a project to colonise it drew its legitimacy from biblical texts. Nor is it the first time it was specifically designed to de-Islamise Jerusalem.

Amin Maalouf's The Crusades Through Arab Eyes is an account with uncannily modern resonance. One city after another fell to the Frankish armies as their commanders turned on each other. How like the Gulf states of today.

The history is full of irony. The leader of the Arab resistance to the Frankish invaders were anything but Arab. Saladin, the hero, was a Kurd. Zangi, Nur al-Din, Qutuz, Baybars, and Qalawun were Turks. Some field commanders needed translators to understand each other.

This is not the first time in history that this part of the Middle East has been colonised by Europeans. Nor is it the first time that a project to colonise it drew its legitimacy from biblical texts

The resistors regarded themselves as more civilised than their attackers. They were certainly more advanced in hygiene and medicine and they were arguably less barbarous than the Franks who sacked the city of Ma’arra in 1098. The chronicler Radulf of Caen recorded: "Our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled."

Saladin has frequently been invoked as a role model by modern Arab leaders. Nasser loved the comparison. Two of the three divisions of the Palestine Liberation Army were named after the decisive battles against the Franks, Hittin and Ayn Jalut.

Unfortunately, that is where the comparison ends. Saladin's reconquest started by uniting the forces against the European invader. He managed to create a strong Arab state, ending the fragmentation of city states. But it still took  another 98 years after the death of Saladin to end two centuries of Frankish presence in the Orient. But end it did.

The Crusades failed because it was a project to replace rather than integrate with the peoples of the region. The Crusaders set up durable institutions. Rule passed from one generation to another without bloody civil wars. They knew how to use alliances with Muslim emirs in their fight with other princes. But they could not integrate with the region.

One giant Crusader castle

Israel today surrounds itself with walls. It is one giant Crusader castle, whose alliances are with the emirs of other Arab city states. Given half a chance to express itself, the Arab street expresses undying hostility.

Embassies were stormed in Egypt and Jordan. It is this that Israel should reflect on after decades of conflict. It is incapable of sharing Jerusalem as an international religious centre.

The Christian population of Jerusalem is disappearing. What greater rallying cry could be made to the Arab world? To count, as successive Israeli prime ministers do, on the status quo of divide and rule, to depend on Arab disunity, to only talk to dictators whose legitimacy is paper thin and who fear and suppress public opinion, to treat their existence as a permanent fact of life in a dramatically changing world (while of course bemoaning the fact they life in a "tough neighbourhood") is to be taking the real gamble.

"On the eve of the new year, Israel is not facing challenges that endanger its belligerent super-powerful status. It seems that it can probably go on doing what it is doing – in the occupied territories, the Middle East and the whole world. Only history itself insists on reminding us from time to time that such shows of unbridled power drunkenness usually end badly. Very badly," Levy wrote.

There is a way out of this self-igniting  and self-perpetuating conflict and here a clear strategic choice has to be made.

Israel can either dig itself deeper and deeper into its pit. It can continue as an act of force, a security state, whose only security relies on ever deepening levels of repression and confinement. It is taken as normal that 40 per cent of the Palestinian male population pass through Israeli jails.

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Or it can do what it has never yet tried. It can come to terms with the people and culture it has expelled and which it dominates. It can treat them as equals, people with the same rights to their property, their land, their villages as they have awarded themselves. It can dare to pronounce their name and acknowledge their identity. It can treat them as a people with a history and a memory.

The only path

To argue as Morris does, that the moment Israel "gives" Palestinians back their rights, Israel ceases to be a Jewish state, is to reveal the true nature of the enterprise.  

Yes, for this to happen Israeli descendants of Jews from Europe, Russia and Arab states would have to close the door on their collective history which shouts at them that they can only enjoy security and self determination in a Jewish majority state.

But so would the Palestinians have to bury their history, a history of ethnic cleansing, dispossession and imprisonment, a fire which burns just as keenly. This memory is indelible and there is nothing Israel can do to erase it. No Palestinian has to be taught about their history. No Palestinian school child has to be incited. They know it, they breathe it, they live their dispossession every day of their lives.

And no, there would be no guarantee of security for a Jewish minority in a Muslim and Christian majority state, other than the guarantee provided by peace, other than the guarantee which comes from shared security, shared justice, and shared government.

This is the path that South Africa and the north of Ireland have embarked on. It is now the only path to peace and legitimacy and its the only strategy that will endure. Conflicts can and do end.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

David Hearst
David Hearst is the Editor in Chief of the Middle East Eye. He left The Guardian as its chief foreign leader writer. In a career spanning 29 years, he covered the Brighton bomb, the miner's strike, the loyalist backlash in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in Northern Ireland, the first conflicts in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in Slovenia and Croatia, the end of the Soviet Union , Chechnya, and the bushfire wars that accompanied it. He charted Boris Yeltsin's moral and physical decline and the conditions which created the rise of Putin. After Ireland, he was appointed Europe correspondent for Guardian Europe, then joined the Moscow bureau in 1992, before becoming bureau chief in 1994. He left Russia in 1997 to join the foreign desk, became European editor and then Associate Foreign Editor. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he worked as education correspondent.