Israel’s Poisoned Fruits of Oslo

Against the Current, No. 63, July/August 1996

The Editors

HOW DID SHIMON Peres lose the Israeli election?  Few commentators seem to remember the real turning point, four months before the May 29 vote-the day Israel assassinated the leading Hamas operative Yahiya Ayyash, “the engineer.”  As readers may recall from the gloating network news accounts at the time, this was an ultimate high-tech murder, with an airplane over the target’s hideout detonating by remote-control the bomb hidden in his cellular phone.

This great success of Israeli military intelligence was one of those periodic spectacular acts that serve to cover the generally poor performance of Israel’s security apparatus in recent years-not least its failure to protect Yitzhak Rabin.  The massive outpouring of Gazans for the Ayyash funeral showed what impact the murder had on popular Palestinian opinion.  Anyone who could count to forty, the number of days of the Muslim period of mourning, could readily compute when the reprisal bombs would start going off.

And go off they did, no high-tech stuff but suicide bombers self-detonating on buses in Jerusalem and on a crowded Tel Aviv street, leaving five dozen dead and instant telegenic carnage to be meticulously recorded by the global media (who so rarely seem to be around when Israeli bulldozers crush Palestinian homes and fields for the newest “Greater Jerusalem” development).  The murder of Ayyash and its aftermath proved to be a defining moment in closing yet another short-lived opportunity for some semblance of an Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation between peoples, not just between political elites.  It resumed the latest sequence of horrors, stretching from the Rabin assassination through Israel’s destruction of southern Lebanon for the third time in fifteen years.

These events, culminating in a nearly deadlocked Israeli election, have illuminated the actual human realities underlying the “Middle East peace process.”  Tragically, few of these realities are new, and one of the oldest is this: The people of Israel need, and want, peace -at least in some distorted fashion, almost exactly half the electorate voted for that-but the ideological apparatuses of Zionism and the Israeli state thrive best in a near-permanent state of tension.  The presence of a perceived “threat to Israel’s survival” is needed to override people’s desire for a normal life. Today, after the failures and the spectacular corruption of secular Palestinian nationalism before and after Oslo, Islamic fundamentalism offers the perfect official enemy.  This is the dynamic that has now exploded.

How the Election Was Lost

Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish religious student, under the spiritual and political guidance of rabbis in the West Bank (whose identities are known, but who are not being arrested or seriously investigated) had put the Israeli right wing, and especially the religious settler movement, on the defensive.  And no wonder: In Israeli Jewish society, the murder of the Prime Minister represented the equivalent of both Kennedy assassinations and the Oklahoma City bombing combined.  The ensuing shock wave had lifted the popularity of peace (leaving aside, for the moment, the content of the “peace”) to its high point among Jewish Israelis and Palestinians alike.  The right-wing Likud and its leader “Bibi” Netanyahu were widely held responsible for creating the climate for Rabin’s assassination.  Even the Islamic movement Hamas unofficially suspended military operations in apparent deference to the overwhelming sentiment of the Palestinian population.

Then Israel’s killing of “the engineer” transformed the political equation on the Palestinian side, wrecking the credibility of Yasser Arafat (it was symptomatic that many Gazans even suspected him of somehow being complicit in the murder plot) and giving the Islamists the mantle of leaders of popular resistance.  And the Israeli state, for its own purposes, could not invent a more perfect enemy.

The suicide bombings-without posing the remotest threat to the Israeli state itself-are a truly terrifying, and real, threat to the lives of ordinary Israeli citizens in the heart of their own neighborhoods.  In this sense, Islamic fundamentalism represents exactly the regressive inverse of the Intifada, the popular nationalist Palestinian uprising that rocked the Occupied Territories from 1987 until the Gulf War.

The Intifada truly did threaten some of the power of the Israeli state-its ability to hold onto the Occupied Territories-without really threatening the safety of any Israeli citizens except, occasionally, settler provocateurs who are held in contempt by much of Israeli society itself.  It’s not unusual for the defeat of popular movements to be followed by hopeless acts of terrorism.  In the Arab-Israeli context, the Islamist movement supplies an ideology that matches the mood of part of a population whose hopes for a better life have been disappointed.  Yet if the hardest enemy for the Israeli state to fight was the Intifada-with its ability to mobilize the Palestinian population and to attract active solidarity inside Israel and internationally- terrorism inspired by Islamic fundamentalism makes the easiest target.

The most brutal form of Israeli collective punishment- closure of the Occupied Territories, deliberately reducing much of the Palestinian population to the edge of complete economic ruin and potential starvation-was not merely tolerated but welcomed by the majority of the Israeli Jewish population, including its wretched official “peace” movement, the Meretz party.

Especially under Rabin, the Israeli government has been constructing a system of dominance over the Occupied Territories that combines many features of classic colonialism and apartheid.  Indeed, the essence of the Rabin- Peres notion of “peace” lies in separating the peoples (I would prefer to see Gaza disappear from the earth, the now- sainted Rabin loved to say) while maintaining ultimate Israeli sovereignty over practically all the land. This is exactly the opposite of an authentic peace program, which would divide the land into Israeli and Palestinian sovereignties while enabling the peoples to live together.

There is a remarkable myth that since Oslo the Rabin government halted the construction of settlements in the Occupied Territories and undertook other conciliatory initiatives.  In fact, the cessation of “new” settlements, where no one wants to live, only thinly disguises Israel’s never- ending “thickening” of existing settlements, the inexorable expansion of “Greater Jerusalem” and the confiscation of its Arab residents’ properties, the building of roads that enable settlers to bypass Palestinian population centers and the transformation of the latter into bantustan-style semi-rural ghettos.

Under South African apartheid, at least that liberal minority of whites who didn’t want permanent civil war recognized that somehow apartheid must come down-even if they were for most of four decades unable or unwilling to do much about it. It seems that in Israel today, liberal opinion views apartheid-like segregation as the pillar of peace.  Such fantastic blindness cannot last forever, but inducing it among so much of the population must be considered Rabin’s most notable, and destructive, political legacy.

Yet when the suicide bombs went off in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, inevitably (and surely as intended in the plans of the Hamas factions that directed the bombers) Israeli popular support for “the peace process” in any form was profoundly shaken.  If the “nationalist camp” of Likud and Netanyahu had been thrown into crisis by the Rabin assassination, now it was the turn of the “peace camp.”  Peres and Labor had thrown away a virtually sure victory.

The Murder of a Nation

Politicians in power can get seriously vicious when pre- election polls turn against them. All in the name of national security, Boris Yeltsin incinerated Chechnya, Bill Clinton locked Haitian refugees into concentration camps-and Shimon Peres bombed southern Lebanon to smithereens.  The pretext for the action was of course Hezbollah shelling of northern Israel (following extreme Israeli provocation).  Yet it is telling that a critical Israeli journalist barely found it necessary even to mention the official excuse, noting only “in Israel there was not a single civilian victim” at the time the Israeli shelling began.

“We killed 170 people in Lebanon last month,” wrote columnist Ari Shavit of the newspaper Haaretz.  “Most were refugees .  .  .  We killed them under the umbrella of a peace campaign.  Under the leadership of a peace Government and in the midst of an election campaign that features peace .  .  .  because our peace coalition needed to prove it is just as tough as the opposition.  “How easily we killed them- without shedding a tear, without establishing a commission of inquiry, without filling the streets with protest demonstrations … What would have been unthinkable during the years the peace elite was in the opposition now occurred without a murmur of protest.”

“This time, we killed with yuppie efficiency,” Shavit continues, and with prior knowledge “that a large-scale killing of civilians was inseparable from the futuristic combat style the Israeli Defense Forces have chosen,” including the 102 refugees in the United Nations site at Qana “who had only the blue-clad soldiers from the Fiji Islands to collect them into body bags.”  (“How Easily We Killed Them,” New York Times, May 27, A21)

When Bill Clinton said that Hezbollah “is guilty of the massacre in Qana,” many Israelis were ashamed to hear it, reported the daily Haaretz.  Little publicized, furthermore, is the fact that in military terms, this Israeli operation, like its predecessors, was essentially a failure.  (“Cabbalistic Curses Would Have Been At least As Effective As the `Grapes of Wrath’ Operation,” as Amos Karmel wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot.)

Bombings and shellings that shatter the civilian population in southern Lebanon have had little impact on the Hezbollah resistance fighters.  Indeed such operations do the fundamentalists’ recruiting for them. And the Israeli military no longer undertakes major ground operations against the resistance because of unacceptable losses suffered in previous attempts.

The unbelievably vicious and cynical government that carried out this election-campaign massacre deserved a fate far more miserable than a mere election defeat-a trial for crimes against humanity would be more appropriate.  Yet it is not the political opportunists and hacks of Labor and Meretz who suffer the real consequences, of course, but the people on the ground.

For Palestinians, Stark Options

If Lebanon showed just how morally bankrupt Israeli Labor and the “peace camp” have become, their performance in practical politics can be measured by the fact that they managed to lose to Benjamin Netanyahu, a figure whose stature in Israel is far from that of a Menahem Begin.  “Bibi” enjoys the intellectual weight, roughly, of Dan Quayle and the statesmanlike image of Patrick Buchanan, combined with the sexual reputation of Bill Clinton.

Yet Netanyahu in power, despite his razor-thin election as Prime Minister, will control a relatively solid rightist/religious parliamentary coalition.  The only possible favorable aspect of this outcome for Israeli Jewish society may be a backlash among ordinary secular people who are sick of the Falwell-like Jewish “Torah sages” trying to run their lives.

For Palestinians, the immediate prospects are considerably more stark.  Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA) staked much of its credibility on having Rabin-Peres as partners.  Still, a Likud government will almost surely continue to give Arafat the single plum he most desires-the license to operate a petty police state in the sliver of territory he controls, devoid of national sovereignty or a viable economy but replete with the apparatus of censorship and powers to detain his opponents.  The depth of U.S. involvement with Arafat’s regime is demonstrated by the opening of a CIA office in Gaza (formerly the agency’s Gaza operations were run from its station in Israel).

In essence, the people of the Occupied Territories face three difficult options.  The first is to attempt to carve out the best semblance of a normal life in the incredibly narrow space allotted by the “autonomy.”  Such a choice is infinitely understandable after decades of oppression and misery, yet it implies acquiescence in the neo-apartheid structures that the Israeli state is creating and in Arafat’s personal dictatorship.

Inevitably, many Palestinians will be unwilling or unable to adopt the course of acquiescence.  The second option, then, is the militant Islamic movement of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the existing form of resistance to the post-Oslo framework.  We cannot presently know, of course, whether this resistance will revert back to suicide bombings or find new means of expression.

Like their fellow fundamentalists the world over-Christian, Jewish, Hindu, whatever-these leaders seek first, last and always control over the lives of their own people.  To be sure, Hamas leaders may entertain the ultimate apocalyptic dream of an entire Muslim world arrayed in battle against Zionism and the Great Satan-yet they are more than equally likely, should some future opportunity present itself, to accept a deal with Israel that cedes to them theocratic control over the Palestinian population.

Such a future dispensation, if it were ever to come about, would most likely come from an Israel dominated by social reactionaries and fundamentalist rabbinical authorities, with whom the Islamists have in fact the greatest affinity.  Logically, then, both the short-term struggle and the long- term goals of Islamic fundamentalism require the destruction of Arafat and the total defeat of secular Palestinian nationalism.

The turn to Islamic fundamentalism today, in any case, would encounter not only more brutal Israeli oppression but, more important, the accelerated development of neo-apartheid and the likelihood of a Palestinian civil war. Is there a third option?  Perhaps-but by no means an easy one. Conceivably, the resistance of Palestinians to land confiscations, Israeli military encroachments into “sovereign” towns, or other atrocities could reignite the radical democratic flames of the Intifada.  Such a prospect certainly doesn’t seem imminent.  The forces that might provide leadership are fragmented, the popular energy of the Uprising of the 1980s dissipated, and conditions of life unbelievably difficult.

Yet the hope for a new Palestinian upsurge from below, with its potential impact on Israeli politics and a very bleak regional situation, must not be lost. The very fact that such a revival is so difficult to undertake, or even to imagine, in the present moment must be considered among the poisoned fruits of an Oslo “peace process” that once seemed to offer at least some limited progress.