Knesset Member Jamal Zahalka, an old friend of mine, once said that he is not particularly afraid of those who cry “Death to Arabs”. The real threat comes from those who sing “We Have Brought Peace Upon You”. Causticity and joking aside, there is much bitter truth in those words. Way back in the days of the Hasmoneans, Alexander Yannai expressed concern about the hypocrites, who were worse than the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
But in times of hardship and distress even people of the principled Left tend to find consolation in establishment politicians who are a little bit less worse than the others. A few years ago I conducted acrimonious debates, in this column and also in political and social encounters, with men and women who were shocked at my hostile indifference to the candidacy of Ehud Barak for the Prime Ministry. Today some of them are willing to admit that he closely resembles his sworn enemy Bibi Netanyahu, and bolder ones will even say that Barak is worse than Bibi. But it must be assumed that in the next elections most of them will rally around the “least worst” candidate against Netanyahu. It is a shame to waste time on such pointless preoccupations, but I do not expect most of them to learn the lesson. Fear may be a bad counselor, but no one has yet been able to unseat it from its post as the counselor-in-chief.
The belief is still widespread among the elites, who have something to lose in the event of a political and economic disaster, that it will be possible to reach a provisional solution if we concede a little bit to the pro-American Right in the Palestinian Authority. We can empower the rich in the West Bank (everybody has already given up on the Gaza Strip) to make deals in Europe and the Arab world and to waste their people’s money in the casinos of London and Monaco. President Shimon Peres is the supreme embodiment of that school, and therefore he permits himself, after many years of ignominy and marginalization, to take pride in his role not only in building the nuclear bomb but also in establishing the settlements in the West Bank.
The “elite” is not a monolithic group, it contains various tendencies, but the debate is usually about the means of execution and not the end. The ideological spectrum exists also regarding socio-economic matters. Not only in publicists’ stories but also in the news sections we are seeing more and more reports about people who have experienced economic deterioration and are unable to find jobs due to their age or for professional reasons, even as statistics indicate a decline in the number of unemployed. A short article in “Yediot Aharonot” this week about an educated ex-kibbutznik who is unable to find work in the north of the country touched my heart deeply. But the manufacture of identity is not able to bestow upon readers a feeling of emotional closeness if it is just Oriental Jews and Arabs who are unemployed. It is easier to insert into the newspapers a moving passage about the hardships of a small, known group of people; it is harder to write articles in those newspapers that attack the capitalist system itself and the American hegemony that dictates economic policies to the whole world that disinherit the poor, wage-earners, women, the retired, and foreign workers.
At quite regular intervals we are shown the appalling truth about the situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories only due to the work of journalists and commentators who make no claim to be manning the barricades or to represent any revolutionary truth. Danny Rubinstein of “Haaretz”, who like Nahum Barnea is a pupil of “Davar” and of “Working Israel”, does not see himself as a revolutionary. He is the salt of the earth but his sense of humour permits him graciously to say things that would anger the general public if they were said by any other writer. At the beginning of the week, after I immersed myself in anxious reading of reports about the unemployed in the north, Rubinstein described how the Palestinians see themselves. He explained, with convincing simplicity, that the Palestinians (and this is reflected in all reportage and commentary in the media in the West Bank) are not particularly impressed by the Regional Conference and the joint Statement of Principles that Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) are supposed to sign.
A representative quote from Rubinstein’s article will clarify matters for the readers very well: “You have to see the headlines in the Arab press in general and the Palestinian press in particular, that report every day about killed and wounded, about incidents that are classified as acts of slaughter, or murder in cold blood, and to add to that the reports of the women from MachsomWatch, that tell of harassment and humiliation – to understand that the distance between talk and action is vast.”
Palestinian distress is severe, unemployment and the economic siege have brought the residents to a state of despair and the same people who have brought about economic polarization in Israeli society are dreaming of an accord with the Palestinians that will perpetuate and deepen the already large gaps in the territories of the Palestinian Authority as well.
Rubinstein belongs to the school that takes a dim view of the validity of territorial accords that involve partitioning the country, despite his clear distaste for the occupation and its inhuman manifestations. He explains that a process of great radicalization has taken place in Palestinian society. He does not write precisely those words but the unavoidable conclusion is that Oslo and 1993 belong in the Stone Age historically. What could perhaps have been achieved then, for a reasonable and fair price, now lies beyond a range of mountains that we built with our own hands. Abu-Mazen may submit to American-Israeli pressure and sign some accord. But so what? Remember the agreement with Lebanon on 17 May 1983 that Menachem Begin saw as one of his greatest achievements before he sank into deep depression? It is quite clear that accords that have no political, global, cultural or economic basis are not worth the paper they are printed on.
If Abu-Mazen represents the rich and their American horizon, then any accord with him will only worsen the alienation and the hatred between the two nations.
Our disregard of the results of the Palestinian Authority elections will continue to exact a high price. I agree that the radicalization of the two nations should not be ignored, but we must completely change our approach to Hamas. We need to negotiate on pragmatic matters in order to avoid a conflagration that will do nothing but harm the people of the region. I do not claim that any government in Israel can arrive at an acceptable compromise with Hamas in the next few years, but there is great value in continuous contacts to solve humanitarian and economic problems – maybe not in order to reach a permanent arrangement but at least to avoid mutual bloodshed and acts of terror.
It is particularly important to learn historical lessons from our conceptual failure regarding the PLO. For too many years the Israeli leadership feared any sign of moderation within the Palestinian leadership under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. Such moderation, explained the leaders of the Israeli establishment before 1993 and, after a brief interval, since 1996, would produce international demands on Israel to dismantle settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem and even to give up the holy places on the Temple Mount. To that end they constantly brandished in our faces the Palestinian National Covenant – a document that nobody even remembers today. It is easier for the establishment to deal with an extremist leadership than a moderate one. Even after Arafat himself publicly dissociated himself from the Covenant, the Israelis abused him and caused his death in effect. The Covenant was Israel’s best propaganda asset and our leaders had difficulty forgiving Arafat for abrogating it. I would not invoke that shameful episode, were Israel not repeating the same mistake today as well.
Israel’s basic conception, which requires that all contacts with the neighbours be based on collaborators and procurators, or on shady characters like Jibril Rajoub and Muhammad Dahlan, was always fraught with disaster. Thatcherites like Olmert, Netanyahu, Barak and Peres are not capable of relating positively to the interests of the residents of the Occupied Territories, just as they have no interest in the welfare of the lower echelons in Israel itself. When Peres speaks of the economy as a bridge to peace he is thinking of the construction of factories with Israeli and foreign capital, with overt or covert Israeli management, to exploit cheap Arab labour. A negligible number of people from the two nations will get rich and even Europeans or Americans will get their cut, but apart from the employment of a few thousand workers under slave conditions there will be no rise in the standard of living of the Arabs, neither in Jordan nor in Palestine.
There is no connection, therefore, between the peace that the Left aspires to and the contacts between the Prime Minister and the Palestinian Authority Chairman. Whoever wants to join the forces in the world that are struggling for liberation from American hegemony and from the control over their lives by big business, will seek ways to talk to the real representatives of the people in Palestine, and not with the profiteers and the corrupted. This requires the construction of a bridge to dialogue with Hamas as well, and a rapprochement with the Islamists within Israel so that they will a part of that effort. I do not know if it is possible, but it is clear that it is necessary.