Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sheriden - Anti-Semitism the real issue that dare not speak its name

Greg Sheriden
The Australian
25 September '11

A YEAR or two ago, I took a taxi from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. It was a brilliant sunny day and all around me the hills were green, as we passed a prosperous Arab village, a beautiful kibbutz, a bit of jangled traffic.

The taxi driver was English, an English Jew who had found a better life in Israel - better pay, less anti-Semitism, safer streets, an easy air commute to his daughter in England, but close to other relatives in Israel, and lots and lots of sunshine.

That day, a Roger Whittaker song was playing on the taxi radio. This Israel, I thought, there's something beautiful here.

Let me offer you a couple of other images.

On the BBC website, a British journalist, neither Jewish nor Israeli, recounts this experience in Cairo: "While walking in the street, someone pushed me from behind with such force that I nearly fell over. Turning around,

I found myself surrounded by five men, one of whom tried to punch me in the face. I stopped the attack by pointing out how shameful it was for a Muslim to assault a guest in his country, especially during Ramadan.

"Relieved that the assault was over, I was appalled by the apology offered by one of my assailants: 'Sorry,' he said contritely, 'we thought you were a Jew'."

Here's a third image, this time from outside the Middle East. An acquaintance of mine, an American woman, neither Israeli nor Jewish, nor in any way connected with the Middle East, was helping to run an outreach program in southern Thailand involving Muslim and Buddhist students.

At the end, one of the Muslim students said to her words along the lines of: thank you, that was very nice. Much better than I expected. And the final sentence: "I'd never met a Zionist before."

The key issue in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and in the wider Israeli-Arab dispute, is the issue that dare not speak its name, the pervasive and profound anti-Semitism that permeates the contemporary Islamic world, especially the Middle East.

This is the real barrier to peace, and people who are concerned with peace will try to ameliorate it.

It is analytically false, historically untrue and conceptually impossible that all this anti-Semitism has arisen from Israel's sins, real and imagined.

As Richard Cohen pointed out in The Washington Post last week, when Anwar Sadat was a young army officer in 1953, he was interviewed by Al-Musawwar magazine and asked what he would say to Adolf Hitler. His reply? "My dear Hitler, I admire you from the bottom of my heart".

When he addressed the UN General Assembly in New York yesterday, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd spoke of the urgency of getting a final settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. If this did not happen soon, he feared a "spiralling of violence". If a settlement were reached, huge new Arab markets would open up to Israel, it would receive diplomatic recognition from all its Arab neighbours and attention could focus on the real security threat to the region, Iran. If it did not reach a final settlement soon, then the consequences for Israel's security would be dire.

I do not doubt Rudd's goodwill, nor his analytical competence, but I believe this analysis to be profoundly flawed at four levels.

First, Israel cannot will a peace agreement into existence if there is not a partner on the other side both willing and able to make and enforce a peace agreement that provides for Israel's security.

Second, a failed peace agreement, or one not enforced, could gravely compromise Israel's security, in far more damaging ways than exist today.

Third, Israel's security position has grievously deteriorated in recent months, through dynamics that have nothing to do with the Israel-Palestinian dispute, but which provide a far more dangerous context in which to ask Israel to take existential risks.

Fourth, you cannot have a lasting peace settlement when Israel's neighbours are consumed with hatred for Jews and contempt for Israel as a political entity.

Here's another thought. Very often, normalisation and a period of non-violence precede a peace agreement, rather than a peace agreement producing normalisation. Israel, and international partners, are working hard to normalise life in the West Bank, so that it becomes prosperous and decent, so that the Palestinians have something to lose, as it were.

It's at least as likely that normalisation could lead to peace, as that a peace agreement would magically produce normalisation.

Rudd is not alone in his analysis. It is conventional wisdom among the international conference-going class that the dispute could and must be settled quickly. But let's take my four analytical objections one by one.

Is there a peace partner for the Israelis? This is not a rhetorical question. It's a practical one. If you make peace with an enemy, you must be confident the enemy can control the forces on his side, that attacks won't continue on you.

Now here is the situation Israel confronts. Nearly half the Palestinian population is controlled by Hamas, designated by Australian and US law as a terrorist organisation. Hamas is also formally part of the broader national Palestinian government. It has not, as Western interlocutors once required, renounced terrorism, accepted Israel's right to exist, nor agreed to abide by any past agreements of the Palestinian Authority. Israel cannot just magically make Hamas into a Kumbaya peace movement. Even in the West Bank, the Fatah-led government promotes incitement and hatred against Israel from earliest school materials through to TV broadcasts and the rest. Every map of Palestine contains the whole of Israel, not just the occupied territories. More importantly, perhaps, the Palestinian government maintains itself in Ramallah only through the force of Israeli arms. It is not unreasonable for Israel to have extreme concerns about the sort of government that would eventually emerge in Ramallah.

The second objection is that a failed peace agreement could be much worse than the situation today. If the West Bank goes like Gaza, there will be a flood of rockets and other weapons into it once Israeli soldiers are gone. No Palestinian national movement is likely to accept indefinite Israeli control of its border with Jordan, yet if that border is not controlled the West Bank will likely go like Gaza. But Israel is a small, skinny nation. A Palestinian state would be within a few kilometres of the main Israeli population centres. Gaza-style rocket launches could cripple the Israeli economy. Even stray mortars would paralyse Tel Aviv airport. What if, as Hamas frequently does in Gaza, a West Bank Palestinian government encouraged such rocket launches, but then said they were really being launched by some shadowy militant group beyond its control?

This is not an argument to say that there can never be a Palestinian state. But it is entirely reasonable to ask that a Palestinian partner be able to ensure that Israel's security will be respected, as it has never been respected in the past.

Some very senior figures say privately that if outrageous attacks occurred Israel could simply re-invade Palestinian territory, but the world would know that Israel had tried to offer an independent Palestinian state.

This is wildly unrealistic. Israel never gets any credit for any offer it makes. In 2000, Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat about 95 per cent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, East Jerusalem and territory from Israel proper to compensate the 5 per cent of the West Bank that would accommodate the major Jewish settlement blocs.

Nearly a decade later, Ehud Olmert made essentially the same offer. In neither case could the Palestinian leadership accept the offer because it would have necessitated an end of claims against Israel and an end of conflict. The Palestinians will never get a better offer than they got from Barak and Olmert, who were prepared to take the enormous risks outlined above.

You are forced to ask in the end whether the Palestinian leadership is even serious about an independent state on realistic terms or whether it is caught up either in mere short-term manoeuvering, with no long-term vision at all, or if the long-term vision is some apocalyptic plan for Israel's ultimate destruction.

The late Abdurrahman Wahid, the former president of Indonesia, once told me of his disgust when Yasser Arafat said to him in private conversation that his ultimate aim was to tip the Jews into the sea. Perhaps the greatest analytical problem with those who urge an immediate solution is their failure to recognise the devastating deterioration in Israel's external security situation. The Israeli diplomats in the embassy in Cairo were nearly murdered by a mob two weeks ago. The Egyptian government declined to take calls from their Israeli counterparts as the mob was struggling to smash down the concrete around the embassy so they could smash to pieces the diplomats inside.

Only when US President Barack Obama personally intervened did the Egyptians dispatch soldiers to save the Israelis' lives.

Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, has in effect decided to end his country's long alliance with Israel. He seeks popularity in the Arab world now by demonising Israel and has threatened to send his navy to confront Israel. These are enormous and adverse changes to Israel's security environment. They were not remotely caused by anything to do with the Palestinian dispute. They both reflect the radical decline of US influence in the Middle East. Those arguing for an immediate Palestinian state say Israel can propitiate these concerns by granting a Palestinian state. But where is there one zot of evidence for this?

Instead, regional powers, if they want to help the Palestinians, would be reassuring Israel. But, as we have seen, Israel's neighbours hate Israel and demonise Jews.

The Palestinian leadership itself has more or less guaranteed there can be no settlement by insisting on the right of return of all Palestinians who ever lived in pre-independence Israel, and all their descendants. This amounts to five million people. It ignores, of course, the millions of Jews, and their descendants, forced to leave Arab lands because of murderous anti-Semitic violence. But in any event, as all senior Palestinian leaders know, no Israeli government will ever commit suicide by inviting five million Palestinians to live in Israel proper.

In previous private negotiations, Palestinian leaders have been willing to give up this preposterous claim. But they have made it such a strong part of their emotional denigration of Israel that to do so publicly will inevitably invite a hostile reaction among Palestinians and within the wider Arab world. Taken all together, this means no permanent settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is possible at present. To pretend otherwise is at the very least irresponsible.

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