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In Israel, twisted logic skews understanding


Many Israelis and progressive American Jews blame Arafat for escalating the violence in the Middle East and even contend that there is no real partner for peace. This position conveniently disregards Israel’s occupation -- the torture, Jewish settlements, land confiscation, house demolitions, poverty and daily humiliations -- and advances a paternalistic interpretation of the events: Arafat decided to send his people to war, and like a herd they obediently complied.

The nifty maneuvers of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton during the Camp David summit also swayed many Israeli peaceniks. These two leaders managed to convince the world that Barak was willing to make great concessions by offering Arafat municipal control over some East Jerusalem neighborhoods and sovereignty over three small villages located on the city’s outskirts. The international media readily appropriated this position and helped form public opinion by presenting Barak as moderate and Arafat as an impulsive peace rejectionist.

But a critical examination of Barak’s performance since entering office reveals that he ought to bear most of the blame for the current crisis. The prime minister owes his electoral victory to the Palestinians -- he received 95 percent of the Arab vote, which comprises 20 percent of the electorate body. Yet following the elections he did not for a moment consider the Arab parties as prospective coalition partners, since, according to Barak’s bizarre rationale, in order to make peace with Arabs one must cut off all relations with them. The premier’s decision to exclude the Arabs from his government -- simply because they are Arabs -- was not considered outrageous, since this kind of blatant racism informs the mindset of many Israeli Jews.

The deep prejudice against Israel’s Palestinian citizens has manifested itself in many ways, but economic disparity is its most salient expression. Of the 20 towns that have the highest unemployment rate in Israel, 18 are Arab. National average unemployment rate is currently 9 percent, while the average unemployment rate in these Arab towns is twice that amount. In Israel’s most impoverished Jewish towns, average per capita monthly income is about $180, while in the impoverished Arab towns it is less than $100. Since 1975, the Israeli government has built 337,000 public housing units, yet only 1,000 of them were erected in Arab communities. Israel has established about 600 new settlements since 1948, and all of them have been for Jews.

Although Barak inherited most of the problems, since entering office he has done very little to ameliorate them. Considering the racism, rampant discrimination and poverty, it isn’t surprising that Israel’s Palestinian citizens decided to rebel.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, matters are even worse. Since the 1993 Oslo agreements, the per capita gross national product, which was already dreadfully low, has declined by about 25 percent from $2,250 to $1,725. By way of comparison, Israel’s per capita gross national product is currently around $17,500. The grinding poverty in the territories affects all aspects of Palestinian life. Amira Hass from the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reports that from the estimated 190,000 children under the age of 5 who are living in the Gaza Strip, 28,000 are in need of urgent treatment for malnutrition.

To be sure, the Palestinian Authority, through embezzlement of funds and corruption, has contributed to the economic decline. But Israel is not guiltless. It handed control over civil affairs to the Palestinians after more than a quarter of a century of occupation in which total economic dependency on Israel was produced and fostered. During those years, Israel not only failed to invest in economic infrastructure, but also obstructed all Palestinian efforts to establish their own independent industries.

Despite the fact that the Palestinian economy relies on Israel for some 25 percent of its gross domestic product (economic relations with Palestine represent less than 1 percent of Israel’s gross domestic product), Barak recently decided to cut off all economic ties with the nascent entity. He seems to think that total “separation,” eschewing all responsibility for the harsh poverty in the territories, can be a tenable solution to the conflict. The history of South Africa teaches, however, that a unilaterally determined separation is just euphemism for apartheid.

In his speeches regarding Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, Barak reiterates four principles. Each principle begins with the word no:

  • No to Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem;
  • No to Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 border;
  • No to dismantling most of the Jewish settlements (he proposes that 80 percent of the settlers will remain under Israeli sovereignty);
  • No to the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

The pragmatic and moderate Barak says no, and Arafat is depicted as the one who is unwilling to make the necessary moves for peace. This is the twisted, yet prevailing, logic one often encounters in the West, whereby the ally, regardless of the facts, is considered rational and practical, and the “recalcitrant” Third World leader is portrayed as erratic and unpredictable.

But once the issues are examined with a bit of impartiality, it becomes apparent that a tragic irony characterizes the Israeli-Arab conflict. Ever since childhood, I have heard politicians state that Arabs only understand force. However, it is Barak and his predecessors who have made difficult decisions only after being impelled to do so by force. Time and again, Israel has rejected reasonable agreements only to adopt them (or even worse accords) after blood was spilled. Israel had the opportunity to return the Sinai desert and make peace with Egypt prior to the gory 1973 War. We could have pulled out from South Lebanon before the Hezbollah expelled us and could have withdrawn from “Joseph’s Tomb” before being forced to flee.

All this escapes many Israeli doves. In their desire to embrace Barak, even his intention to collaborate with war criminal Ariel Sharon -- who was found partly to blame for the 1982 Sabra and Chatilla refugee camp massacres -- is no longer considered contemptible. Nonetheless, it is time for the Israeli left to start looking for a leader who is really moderate and practical, one who will pull out of Gaza before it turns into Sabra and Chatilla, and withdraw from the West Bank before it becomes another South Lebanon.

Neve Gordon teaches in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. He can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2000