A Middle East piece process?

On a trip to Israel and the West Bank, Mick Hume sees the ‘two-state solution’ already leading to a new partition between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
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After modestly admitting last week that he had ‘saved the world’ from financial disaster, UK prime minister ‘Flash Gordon’ Brown this week took on the rather trickier task of sorting out the Middle East. Brown met with the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) on Monday and the Israeli premier on Tuesday, both in London. The New Labour PM had hoped to stage his own personal peace summit with them both at the same time, possibly so that he could announce peace in our time, but in the event he had to see them separately.

Which seemed appropriately symbolic of what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. The top-level diplomatic peace process may not be making much formal progress, as everybody waits for the arrival of President Obama. But on a trip to Israel this month, I gained the clear impression that, under the auspices of the search for a two-state solution, a new dynamic towards further partition and separation between Israelis and Palestinians already seems to be underway in practice. That must mean that, whatever paper deal might eventually be signed, a truly democratic and just settlement in the Middle East will remain elusive.

Emerging from his meeting with Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad on Monday, Brown was at pains to emphasise the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as a sticking point in the peace process. This reinforces the international impression that Israelis are still engaged in the aggressive colonisation of Palestinian land. In fact, in some ways the opposite is true today.

There is certainly a loud minority of fanatical Jewish settlers seemingly intent on provoking Palestinians, as in recent violent confrontations over their occupation of a house in the West Bank town of Hebron. But the majority of Israelis seem prepared to abandon them and pull back behind the huge security barriers they have built around the West Bank. The mantra you hear most often now is that people will settle for an Israeli state based on the 1967 borders (before Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula after defeating its Arab neighbours in the war of that year), ‘plus or minus’ some land in places.

What this seems to mean is that Israelis will not give up the big, long-established settlements close to the border which, when you drive through them, are really more like manicured suburbs; the security barrier snakes across the map to surround such bastions. But they will abandon the outposts of the religious settlers.

When I asked him about this issue, the Israeli prime minister’s spokesman seemed frustrated by British foreign secretary David Miliband’s allegation that they are allowing the expansion of ‘illegal’ settlements in the West Bank. He insists that agreements already reached under the peace process allow for development within the borders of existing settlements. But ‘no Israeli government has gone further’ in containing the settlers, by refusing to support new settlements and withdrawing all of the old financial incentives to go and live there. As for the most controversial religious settlements, he dismisses them by asking: ‘Are a couple of thousand people ultimately going to change the political facts?’ Religious settlers themselves showed what they think of the Israeli authorities today by branding the soldiers who evicted them from that Hebron house as ‘Nazis’.

This marks a significant retreat by the Israeli state. Settlements in the West Bank have always represented an important symbol of the Zionist claim to all of the Biblical lands. For the state of Israel, constructed on what was foreign soil only 60 years ago, giving up that claim has long been seen as a mortal threat to its very existence. The new willingness to pull Israeli forces and Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2004/2005, and to contemplate doing the same in much of the West Bank, represents the effective abandonment of the Zionist project of building a greater Israel.

At the time of the state’s sixtieth anniversary in May, I wrote on spiked that ‘Israel is not what it was’. That much seemed very clear in my trip. And neither are its enemies what they were.

(Before discussing these issues, we might note in passing that much about Israel is not what we think it is, either. Take Jerusalem, for example – what might seem like an atheist’s nightmare. A city, as my expert guide put it, ‘bursting with passion’: the holy sites of three great religions crammed into one corner of the old city; Jewish, Muslim and Christian pilgrims crowding the ancient streets like an international weird-beards’ convention; the new city’s population becoming increasingly Orthodox as more secular Israelis leave for the bright lights of Tel Aviv. All true, but not the whole story. Shortly before I arrived, a secular Zionist businessman defeated an Orthodox religious candidate in the election to become Jerusalem’s mayor. Even in the old quarters, relations between communities seem more relaxed than elsewhere in the region. We drove into the city past the stunning new Bridge of Chords, architectural symbol of a modern Jerusalem – albeit modelled on King David’s harp. And amid Jerusalem’s multi-culinary food markets, there are still smart Israeli places to drink, smoke hookahs and even eat pork.)

Two-state solution?

As the debate about settlements indicates, one big change is that, with the February Israeli general election approaching, support for a two-state solution and a Palestinian homeland now stretches almost across the board of Israeli politics and society. Many Israelis have been prepared to think the previously unthinkable about pulling back, and there is even talk of finding some special arrangements for the administration of the contested city of Jerusalem, claimed as their capital by both Israelis and Palestinians.

Yet the apparent paradox is that, despite widespread public support for a two-state solution, the more hardline Likud party, led by former prime minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, is ahead in the polls. This suggests that the unprecedented levels of Israeli support for a two-state solution are driven above all by the defensive politics of fear and insecurity, which have filled the gap as the old grand ideologies of the Israeli left and right have collapsed.

The Zionist dream of a confident and united Israel seems a thing of the past. The proud Labour party that forged the Zionist state is, in the words of the liberal Hebrew newspaper Haaretz, ‘crushed, dying and now a laughing stock’. Likud, too, has abandoned many of its past Zionist principles. The crisis of Israeli leadership is summed up by the ghost government that is in charge until the election, led by a discredited phantom prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who has resigned as leader of his Kadima party – a breakaway from Likud – yet who refuses to leave office, and is still holding fantasy peace negotiations with Western leaders and his Palestinian counterpart.

The old nationalist spirit of Israel can certainly still be found. Sitting in a seafront bar in trendy Tel Aviv, a grey-haired former head of the Mossad security service and Labour politician dismissed the idea of negotiating with Iran over its nuclear programme by quoting Eli Wallach from the spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: ‘When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.’ Even he, however, sounded a defensive note, insisting that he does not want Israel to be ‘a mouse in the lab when they are experimenting’.

Many Israelis, especially younger people, seem less sure of Israel’s place in the world. The changing demographics of the country, with a million mostly-secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union making up one-in-seven of the population, have helped further to undermine the traditional ethos. There are divisions and debates about many issues now, even including the meaning of the Holocaust for Israel today. The young British-born Jews who organised the press trip I was on, from the charity BICOM (British Israel Communications and Research Centre), have made a conscious commitment to Israel, including serving in its armed forces. Yet they admit that for many Israelis today, ‘Zionism is not a movement of choice’. While many young people who barely look old enough to carry a gun wear their Israel Defense Forces (IDF) uniform with pride, the numbers of those avoiding military service are on the rise.

The West Bank: a showcase for whom?

Much has changed, too, on the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. If the confident Zionist dream is no more, then neither is the dream of Arab nationalism. The influence and unity of the old Arab world have declined drastically, and the Islamist state of Iran has usurped it in the Middle East. The Palestine Liberation Organisation has degenerated politically (as have many other international leftist movements since the end of the Cold War), splintering into factions that appear to be divided less by ideology than by clan rivalry and petty power struggles.

The crisis of leadership in Israel is more than matched on the Palestinian side. A potential constitutional crisis over whether to hold new presidential elections in the Palestinian authority is looming in January. There are currently two separate Palestinian entities vying to be the model for the homeland. Neither seems a very attractive option.

There is the West Bank (a rather confusing name, since it lies largely to the east of Israel, but was on the west bank of the river Jordan when under Jordanian control until 1967). This is what the international community, fronted by Middle Eastern envoy Tony Blair, dreams of turning into a ‘showcase’ for Palestinian success. We were told it is ‘relatively prosperous’ and there are banks and car dealerships dotted around Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Administration. But it still looks mostly like a dusty, rubble-strewn and impoverished ghetto in the desert – and under Israeli supervision, albeit increasingly at arm’s length.

While the IDF watches events from behind its border posts and roadblocks, the West Bank is now patrolled by a new Palestinian police force, trained in Jordan with the support of the US and European authorities (including a large contingent of British army officers, senior policemen and officials). Yet obvious problems remain with the claim of Palestinian law and order. The IDF continues to launch anti-terrorist operations as it sees fit. Palestinian forces did not dare to intervene during recent disturbances involving fanatical Jewish settlers in Hebron, but instead called on the Israeli state to ‘carry out its responsibilities to restore calm’. For its part, the IDF seems unwilling to trust the Palestinian forces to pursue Islamic militants. ‘They are still traumatised by the Second Intifada of 2000’, notes one Israeli observer, ‘when Palestinian policemen turned their weapons against their Israeli “buddies”’.

On the other hand, the US-led international contingent is highly sensitive to allegations that the new force is an Israeli stooge – or that they are simply helping to train the West Bank-based Fatah wing of the Palestinian movement to police Hamas. One source insists instead that they are ‘teaching them to be Palestinians’, loyal to more than political factions, with an emphasis in the officer training on human rights. An Israeli journalist who specialises in Palestinian affairs takes a less rosy view. ‘Of course these new police are Fatah’, he told me. ‘Nobody will admit it, but it’s still the truth.’ Brigadier General al-Sifi, Palestinian police commander, is a former ally-in-exile of the late Yasser Arafat, Fatah leader and Palestinian president.

While Israel withdraws further behind its security barriers around the West Bank, foreign secretary Tzipi Livni, who is running for prime minister in the February elections, makes clear they can only ‘hand over the keys to an effective and responsible government able to restore law and order’. Yet so long as the intractable issues of sovereignty remain unresolved, there are limits to how much power can be ceded on the ground. ‘It is not only that the Israelis don’t trust the Palestinians to deal with terrorists’, says a local observer, ‘but who is even going to define what “terrorist” means?’. One international source sought to cast the new police force in a positive light by comparing it to a new sheriff in a lawless Wild West town – ‘backed up by the US cavalry’ – who establishes order and then hands over to ‘civil authority’. That analogy, some might point out, leaves open the question of what becomes of the Indians?

Cold War at Gaza Strip

And then there is the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Islamic movement Hamas, which won the PA parliamentary elections in 2006 and in a ‘coup’ last year drove the remnants of Fatah out of Gaza. Israel has no contact with the Hamas authorities. They agreed a ceasefire earlier this year, but that has been strained to breaking point since 4 November when Israeli forces raided and closed a tunnel out of Gaza that they feared would be used to kidnap another soldier. In response, Gaza militants began firing rockets at nearby Israeli towns again, and the Israelis closed the crossing. The Palestinian prime minister’s spokesman in Ramallah told us he believes this amounts to Israeli support for Hamas, since they will benefit from the hardships of the people.

Looking through binoculars over the security fence at the grey and white concrete blocks of Gaza, the only signs of life near the barrier are grazing sheep on the Palestinian side. Inside more than one-and-a-half million Palestinians are living in grim conditions, with only a little food and fuel allowed through the crossing. The rest of what they get is smuggled through tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border (that crossing is also closed – Egypt does not want Hamas crossing its doorstep).

Normally 5,000 to 10,000 Palestinians a day would come through the Erez crossing to work in Israel, while trucks moved the other way. When we visited there were just two white men in suits coming out of Gaza and getting into a UN car, and a Palestinian woman with two small children showing her papers to be allowed back into the Strip. At the IDF base, a major from the Coordination, Liaison and Administration team told us that ‘we will take all steps to protect our soldiers. We just want peace and quiet. If they stop firing at us, more food will go inside.’ His Powerpoint presentation made clear that ‘the main aim for the IDF’ is not to stop the rockets, but to rescue Gilad Shalit, a soldier kidnapped by Hamas and held hostage in Gaza since June 2006. That seemed a remarkably defensive priority for an army of occupation.

The Cold War-style stand off around Gaza appeared to symbolise the dangerous direction in which relations may be heading amid the talk of two-state solutions: the Palestinians divided and ghettoised, venting their fury at the Israelis who are retreating into their bunkers and sporadically lashing out. We went to the Israeli border town of Sderot, in range of the rockets fired from within Gaza, where the streets are lined with small bomb shelters that look like public conveniences and schools have protective arches built over their roofs. Behind the police station there is a graveyard of the remains of crude home-made rockets, most made from lamp-posts, some labelled in a display cabinet for the benefit of visitors such as us. There are also more sophisticated missiles from Iran. An information board records that, since 2001, rocket attacks have caused 24 fatalities and 1,010 casualties.

Inside the bomb-proof room at the town’s new ambulance station, a chief paramedic called Tiger showed us a short homemade film about rocket attacks on the town, a mixture of bloody real images and semi-comic staged scenes. He told us it is hard to live there, ‘my daughter has slept in a bomb shelter for five years’, but that it gives him ‘a sense of purpose’ in his life. While the Israelis were keen to show us the results of past rocket attacks, nobody mentioned the two Gazan youths killed in an Israeli airstrike the day before.

Separate but unequal?

What support for the two-state solution seems to reflect in practice is a growing feeling among Israelis that they need to get away from the Palestinians – that the only alternatives are a single state in which Jews are swallowed up by Muslims, or a grim apartheid-style Israel in which Jews preserve their majority by abolishing democracy for Arab-Israeli citizens. Foreign minister Livni recently appeared to imply that these Arabs, too – a sizeable minority of Israel’s population – might find a new home in a Palestinian state. All Israeli parties are adamant there is no question of agreeing a right to return to Israel for all Palestinian refugees.

Many Israelis now appear willing simply to quit the West Bank and leave it to the PA and its Western allies – but then again, they point out, look what happened when we upped and left Gaza and Lebanon: Hamas and Hezbollah moved in, with Iranian support. Meanwhile even the moderates on the Palestinian side are not prepared to settle for scraps from the table. ‘There can be no peace unless Israel deals with the settlers, and no Palestinian state unless east Jerusalem is its capital’, says the spokesman for the PA.

‘This is a bad neighbourhood’, says one Israel expert. ‘But we’re not leaving.’ The Palestinian spokesman adopts similar language to make the point to Israel that ‘just because you ignore your neighbour doesn’t mean they are going to go away’. Meanwhile, behind the rhetoric there is a sense that, with the absence of any political vision, the two sides are separating further, in their minds and on the ground, long before any top-level diplomatic deal is done.

One Israeli observer talks of ‘an Israeli imperative to separate from the Palestinians’. Another observes that ‘the worst thing would be if we get divorced but then stay in the same place’, yet also concedes that their futures are locked together in a ‘bear hug’. To an outsider even their Hebrew and Arabic tongues sound much the same. This outsider still feels, however far off it may seem, that there will need to be some sort of federal solution involving all of the peoples of the region in the end. The grim history of the Middle East over the past century surely shows that partition and re-partition is not the answer to their problems.

That brings us to the international community. There is much talk of new peace initiatives under US President Obama. Some people seem to share the international excitement about his election, many others are cynical about anything much changing. One way or another, all sides seem to agree, however, that it needs a more concerted intervention from the US and/or Europeans to bring an agreement about. Yet for me the history of intervention in the Middle East is a big part of the problem. From the age of empire to the peace process, whether on the side of Israel or the Palestinians, Western interference has done much to perpetuate the conflicts and divisions and take the peoples’ shared destiny out of their own hands.

Perhaps we in the West need to interfere less in the Middle East and understand more. It might be a start if we could stop projecting our own prejudices and hang-ups on to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, treating it as a simple moral parable for us to feel self-righteous about, with either the Palestinians or the Jews cast as victims according to political taste. The likes of Gordon Brown are so vain, they think somebody else’s life-and-death issue is about them.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume said Israel is not what it was. He also pointed out that Western ‘culture wars’ have been exported to the Middle East. Frank Furedi dispelled the myth of a powerful Israel lobby and looked at what’s behind the ‘new anti-Semitism’. Brendan O’Neill said Gaza had been imprisoned by the peace process. Nathalie Rothschild asked who’s afraid of Israeli academics, examined the death of the ‘Zionist dream’ and said Waltz with Bashir revealed Israelis’ post-Zionist stress disorder. Or read more at spiked issue Middle East.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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