War and peace in Israel

Why has Israel launched all-out war on Palestinians? The answer won't be found in the Palestinian territories that are being bombed, but in Israel itself.

Nicholas Frayn

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Topics Politics

Over the past week, newspapers have warned of an escalation in the Middle Eastern conflict – overlooking the fact that Israel has already declared all-out war on Palestinians.

Israel’s F16 strikes on the West Bank towns of Nablus and Ramallah on Friday 18 May, which killed eight Palestinians and injured scores more, were just the latest in a series of massacres (1). But still the media perpetrates the idea that this is a war of two sides.

The Palestinian leadership is desperate to return to the negotiating table. Palestine National Authority leaders accepted the recent Mitchell Report ‘100 percent’ – even though the report, following an inquiry into Israeli-Palestinian violence chaired by former US senator George Mitchell, refused to ‘apportion blame’, and equated Palestinians’ stone-throwing resistance with Israel’s military attacks (2).

Many of the attacks carried out by Palestinians have been directed at settlements in the Occupied Territories – areas of relative indifference to mainstream Israeli opinion (at the end of May, 61 percent of Israelis polled said they would swap a settlement freeze for a ceasefire). And even the much-vaunted splits between the Palestinian leaders and their grassroots will most likely be healed in the event of a face-saving deal for PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

So why is Israel prosecuting this war? The answer to this question won’t be found in the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, but within Israel itself.

Israel has lost its way in the post-Cold War world. In the past, the Israeli authorities derived a clear sense of mission from the military threat (real or perceived) to their existence. Now that coherence has unravelled – a process that reveals itself in various ways, like in the questioning of Israel’s founding myths by the ‘new historians’, or the problems the Israelis have in getting their reserve army to turn up for duty in the Occupied Territories.

And in these difficult times the Israeli elite has instigated a ‘national’ war in an attempt to recapture a sense of togetherness.

Israel has also lost, or rather changed, its traditional role in the international order. When it was the Middle East’s ‘regional policeman’, on behalf of the USA, Israel secured massive support for keeping its hostile neighbours under control. But in 1990/91, when Arab states supported America’s war against Iraq, it became clear that Israel would have to reassess its position.

The Oslo process that begun 1993 offered Israel a new opportunity, as then US president Bill Clinton staked everything on the success of the ‘peace process’. Israel could play the part of the petulant child whom Clinton cajoled into smiling for the cameras.

But following Clinton’s lack of success in securing a lasting deal, George W Bush initially tried to reduce America’s role in the conflict. Instead he chose to make attacks on Iraq the cornerstone of his Middle Eastern policy, looking for opportunities to play the strong man role. This spelt disaster for Israel – because without US involvement the ‘peace process’ was a meaningless sideshow. No doubt Israel has had one eye on the reaction of the USA all through the current slaughter, desperate for America to get involved again. And this week’s news that the USA is sending an envoy to the Middle East suggests that their strategy might have worked (3).

A settlement freeze looks possible – and polls suggest that most Israelis would accept it. This would be a relief for some of the Western press who could return to their mantra of ‘condemning extremists on both sides’, while lauding Israel as a beacon of democracy and tolerance in an otherwise illiberal region.

With the USA back on the scene Israel might scale down its brutal assaults. Yasser Arafat’s leadership will welcome any paltry scraps that will get them off the hook. Meanwhile, the best the Palestinians can hope for is a return to the drudgery of pre-Intifada life of closure, Israeli land grabs and poverty.

(1) Israeli warplanes hit back, BBC Online, 18 May 2001

(2) Mitchell Report: main points, BBC Online, 23 May 2001

(3) US envoy is old Mid-East hand, BBC Online, 22 May 2001

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Topics Politics

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