article: Israel’s Place Under the Sun

Israel’s Place Under the Sun
[ July 22, 2006 ]

The state of Israel started off in inauspicious circumstances as it were. Palestinian natives felt hostile to the Jewish settlers from early on. The Balfour declaration, which sanctioned the cause of a Jewish national home, was issued shortly before Jerusalem was captured by British-led forces, and from 1920 Palestine became a British mandate. The peoples of the area tended to regard Israel as an anachronistic prolongation of the moribund, odious colonial era; the existence of a Jewish state there in Biblical times was too remote for them to recognize as a claim to the land. Israeli sovereignty was subsequently imposed from above, without the consent of the indigenous populations; they were not consulted; no one seems to have even thought of holding a referendum on the matter.

 To be sure, force had been a customary means of acquiring territory for many millennia. But the state of Israel was officially established in 1948, and at the conclusion of World War II the expectation of establishing democratic governance worldwide animated the victors. The United Nations itself was born of that spirit. Hope was that aggression and naked power would never again be resorted to. A precious opportunity was lost there for the immigrants to comport themselves in a manner opposed to the logic of past European colonial practice, by offering to put their brainpower, their know-how at the service of the locals: they could have arrived on the spot with the attitude of friends eager to help. After having been discriminated against and victimized, the Jews might have cherished Palestine as a place where they could finally be duly appreciated equals working for the prosperity of all: a persecuted people teaming up with an oppressed people for contributing to the creation of a better world.

 Perhaps this is just a pipedream; maybe the cards were stacked too high against it, what with religious, ethnic, and cultural differences and distrust. I bring it up mainly in reference to the present situation. At the time of this writing (July 22, 2006), Israel is conducting military operations on two fronts. It wants to crush Hezbollah in a major maneuver that has already caused large numbers of Lebanese and others to flee, considerable casualties including civilians, and the destruction of infrastructure costing billions of dollars. In the Gaza strip, where Hamas, an organization that does not recognize the existence of Israel, has won a democratic election, there are renewed disturbances. Iran and Syria serve as the main suppliers/conduits of armed aid to anti-Israeli organizations, but they receive financial assistance from other sources as well, and moral support from many parts of the Arab world, not to say the entire far-flung Islamic community.

 There have been some peace initiatives over the years. The most important of these, undertaken by the Clinton administration, was halted when a right-wing Israeli assassinated Rabin, who was followed by Netanyahu as prime minister. None of the other attempts at agreement succeeded either. Israel has employed violence and intimidation—state terror—to ensure its survival.

Today, Islam is seething. Israel represents a tiny islet in a vast Islamic sea. The demographics also favor the other side: while the birth rate of Jewish Israelis is low, Mohammedan states enjoy high fertility rates. Arabs now constitute twenty per cent of Israel’s population. Some projections indicate they will eventually outnumber Jews inside Israel if present trends continue. Not only that: at the time of earlier Arab-Israeli clashes, the clear technological and organizational superiority of the Israelis enabled them to defeat a numerically superior foe. But since then the members of militant Muslim groups have been trained and equipped better, becoming adept even at network warfare. And in any case, especially in fighting guerillas, technological superiority is of limited avail.

 The global situation is in some respects analogous to the Israeli-Arab relationship. Whereas in past ages, for some periods at least under the Roman, Ottoman, or British Empire, subject nations could be kept effectively under control, twenty-first-century conditions don’t appear to suit this pattern. The United States is the world’s only superpower, yet many countries refuse to obey its leadership. The Iraq occupation has bogged down. Superweapons are ineffective against individual insurgents. Unless a superpower wishes to take over the world by wiping out all opposition en masse—thus jeopardizing its own existence—it cannot win by force or by terrorizing other states. Its best “weapon” is friendship and ultimately compliance with the principle of equality.

 This brings me back to my starting point. Toward the end of the First World War, the essential prerequisite for establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine seemed the go-ahead of the British, who were about to be masters of the region. With hindsight at least, we can say that the wisest approach might have been to put just as much if not more emphasis on gaining the sympathy and approval of the indigenous population. Today this solution appears more difficult than ever, yet remains a better one than the imposition of force, and probably the only viable long-term answer.

 A key Arab grievance is the fate of Palestinian refugees from Israel. Expensive as the task of compensating them is, it would be a paltry sum if you just compared it to the cost of arms needed for confronting anti-Israeli Moslems. And the implications of the Arab-Israeli conflict reach much, much farther, because in Muslim eyes Israel stands as a symbol of the West, particularly of the United States, which is its staunchest ally and one of its very few supporters in the current crisis. The entire terrorist menace to the United States, the untold billions spent on homeland security, including the spiritual cost in the loss of civil rights for Americans, plus the economic as well as social consequences of losing our credibility internationally, all hang by the Israeli-Muslim conflict to one degree or another. Convincing the Mohammedan world that Israel, and in a larger context the United States, are not their enemies but their friends would need a demonstrative act of the type represented by the compensation—including the permanent resettling and retraining for employment—of the Palestinian refugees.

 Official Israeli and American spokespersons have declared that the defeat of Hezbollah is necessary for eliminating the “root cause” of the present crisis. But this is clearly the signal error of taking effect or symptom for underlying cause. Just as the invasion of Iraq—which, by the way, was also viewed as a move that would take some of the pressure off Israel—did not diminish the terrorist threat, but instead galvanized Mohammedans against the United States, so the campaign against Hezbollah will only pour oil on Muslim hatred for the Jews. In the rather unlikely event that Hezbollah is completely destroyed, five other organizations will probably jump into its place to take up the slack. Or, supposing that this campaign results in the cessation of overt anti-Israeli armed activity for a while, the victory will not be of long duration, and the hostility will just simmer, ready to break out in open warfare again at the first available opportunity.

 L. S.

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