Two Views of the Middle East: A Bipolar Disorder
Usually about halfway into my weekly phone conversation with my friend Peter he asks me, “What do you think is going to happen?” We both know that we’re talking about Israel and Palestine. Peter has asked me that question for years and my guess is he will keep asking for sometime hence. Yet, what has changed recently is the context of the question here in the USA.
A lot of people are suffering from some form of “Jerusalem fever,” becoming obsessed with events there, and, most disturbingly, taking ever more polarized positions. Where are the “peace rallies”? I don’t mean the bellicose pro-Israel or bitter pro-Palestinian rallies which have taken place in Washington and New York. The only real peace protest in the past few months was the Peace Now rally in Tel Aviv in early May, in which 60,000 Israelis called for ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and for reaching a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. In the U.S. there is nothing of the sort. The pro-Israel rallies have become increasingly right-wing in their orientation, with racialized denouncement of all Palestinians as terrorists. Meanwhile, the equation of a swastika equaling a Star of David has become ubiquitous as A.N.S.W.E.R. and other pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Who wants to march with any of these people?
It is truly a dangerous fever when the folks you expect to have some critical distance are just as radicalized. A recent petition circulating through universities in the U.S. and Europe advocates a boycott of all Israeli academics. In practice, this would mean not grading Israeli student papers, not advising Israeli graduate students, and not taking courses with Israeli professors (nor reading their papers, nor inviting them to conferences, or anything else). How does such blacklisting help matters? Most Americans I know wouldn’t want to be judged solely on the basis of their government’s actions. Conversely, since when do the messianic philo-Semitic leanings of the Christian Right justify the Anti-Defamation League paying for a half-page ad in the New York Times promoting the thoughts of Ralph Reed?!
This polarization has real consequences, because it plays to the reactionaries on both sides, undermining our ability to influence the situation over there. Ariel Sharon depends on suicide bombings, and Yasir Arafat depends on IDF assassinations and demolitions, to secure his political position. Think about this. Who has prospered the most from the 18 months of violence? Sharon and Arafat are not even the end of it. Benjamin Netanyahu is running to the right of Sharon, advocating even more violent action towards the Palestinians. Hamas, in turn, has secured a more prestigious position for itself with the recent IDF attacks in the West Bank.
Both peoples have internal problems that are going unaddressed. The occupation keeps Likud in power, although barely. Yet the end of the occupation would give more prominence to such leaders as Avraham Burg, the dovish and religious speaker of the Knesset. He offers the opportunity to address the internally debilitating struggles between secular (usually leftist) and religious (usually rightist) Israelis. The Palestinians also were just beginning to grapple with democratic reform within the Palestinian Authority before the second Intifada began. Palestine offers to become one of the few true democracies in the Arab Middle East. But, all of this is on hold.
Here in the U.S. pro-Israel supporters need to realize that Israel is not politically monolithic. Despite the Likud Party extremists, every Israeli knows that there is going to be a Palestinian state. Ariel Sharon has stated this multiple times. Moreover, the settlements have to go. Israeli economists have pegged the figure for moving all the settlers to within Israeli borders at under $3 billion, roughly equivalent to one year’s worth of U.S. contributions to Israel. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian supporters need to realize that the bombers are martyrs only insofar as Japanese kamikazes were martyrs. Look at other successful liberation movements. Do you want to emulate the African National Congress, or act like the Algerians? The future of the Palestinians will depend on their own agency as much as the structural constraints of Israeli occupation.
In the larger historical arc there are some distinct positive changes. The most significant is the recent Saudi, now Arab League, initiative. The main reason cited for the refusal or inability of Arafat to accept Ehud Barak’s proposals was that the Palestinians did not feel they had the support of the Arab world to make necessary concessions. That is no longer the case. Regardless of their motives, many of which are to quell their own local populace, the other Arab countries are now supportive of a peace treaty between the Israelis and Palestinians. Sharon, despite all the blood on his hands, is also the person who dismantled the settlements in Sinai when the Egyptians and Israelis made peace. Arafat is getting old, and if he wants to see a genuine Palestinian state he will have to make it happen soon.
In the U.S. we can only help the Palestinians and Israelis reach an agreement if we keep the lines of communication open between ourselves. We must stop trying to figure out who is “really” responsible for the violence, stop claiming the greater victimization, and stop looking at the situation as one of good and evil. The “either you’re with us or against us” mentality of both sides has not and will never bear any fruit.