Can Israel avoid its own looming Nakba?

63 years ago Israel was born at the United Nations General Assembly. The Palestinians called it their ‘Nakba’ – catastrophe. In a twist of fate, history may be repeating itself.

Some thoughts on the situation.

Richard Goldstone can’t stop what he’s started. The brilliant, yet naïve jurist thought he was helping to make the world a better place, thought he could bring human rights to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, thought he could get Hamas to abide by international law [he was so proud he got the mandate to include Hamas violations of human rights]. He was terribly wrong, and now he knows it, and wishes he could change it. It remains to be seen how far he’ll go to make amends. Goldstone may have retracted his war crimes charge against Israel, but his report has a life of its own. The damage has been done and will continue to be done. In September, just as the Palestinians will be asking the United Nations General Assembly for recognition of their new state, the UN Human Rights Council will be holding a scheduled status review of the implementation of the Goldstone Report. The fact that Hamas has done nothing – and will do nothing – to investigate its human rights abuses and war crimes charges [in Gaza they call outbound rockets ‘legitimate resistance’ and inbound retaliatory Israeli rockets as ‘war crimes’] will have no effect on Hamas. Israel’s dozens of internal probes and convictions will be lauded, but any open investigations will be used to hit Israel over the head with charges of non-implementation, which will then go back to the General Assembly, where, as I’ve just mentioned, the Palestinians will be asking for recognition of Palestine. Not that the Palestinians need the Goldstone Report to convince member states to vote in favor of their independence.

By any count, Palestine will get recognized by a large majority of UN General Assembly members come September when the Palestinians invoke Resolution 377 [United for Peace]. Palestine will be officially born by popular vote, like Israel was. It will be an historic day for Palestinians everywhere, the Arab world will be festive, and so will many other nations in the world. People will dance in the streets from Ramallah, Cairo, Amman, to as far afield as Paris, Chechnya and Pakistan. Hundreds of boats from all over the world will set sail for Gaza. For Israel it will be a diplomatic tsunami, a catastrophe of seismic proportions – something akin to a ‘Nakba’. And as when Namibia gained independence and stopped being South West Africa, Israel will be the only country in the world not invited to attend the independence celebrations – scheduled to take place in East Jerusalem. For it’s part, Israel will find itself in a catch-22: it will not want to allow the world’s dignitaries entry into East Jerusalem for the ceremony, but if it doesn’t, and puts up checkpoints, roadblocks, and deports people from the airport, well, let’s just say it won’t be pretty [will Israel deport Medvedev and Hu Jintao from the airport?] When the Palestinians first floated their threat of invoking 377 many Israeli officials took it as a bluff and ignored it. It might have been a bluff then, but the Palestinians have steadily made it their policy: gaining international recognition for a unilateral declaration of statehood, and pushing Israel into a very tight corner. Some security officials here call it the Rumba, Salsa, Cha-cha effect: every month a different South American country says it will recognize Palestine. Problem is, this could quickly spread to include the Waltz, the Kazachok, traditional Chinese Lion Dancing, Butoh, the Mazurka, the Fandango, Step Dancing, Square Dancing, etc etc. Click here for a list of world folk dancing names.

Once Palestine is recognized it instantly becomes a UN member state. Right off the bat it will claim that it is being occupied by another UN member state, and will seek Security Council action. At that point, Israel’s diplomatic wiggle room is dramatically reduced. The argument that the West Bank is disputed land and that the Jews have a historical claim to it is in dispute only amongst Israelis: the rest of the world does not prescribe to this claim in the least. Despite Camp David 1 and 2, despite Oslo, Zinni, Annapolis, Mitchell and so many other attempts at peace, the world is still not convinced that the Israelis have done their utmost to make peace with the Palestinians. According to even Israel’s best friends abroad, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are occupied, filled with Israeli settlements that are an obstacle to peace which need to be dismantled, and the land handed back over to its rightful owners, the Palestinians. What our friends are willing to give us is security guarantees and support for a negotiated land swap in certain blocs – C’est Tout. Israel’s freedom of movement will be further reduced, and the process of unsolicited branding that Israel is being subjected to, that of an Apartheid state, will accelerate. As free nations emerge all around us, Israel will be challenged to maintain its image of a stable democracy if it continues to keep the lid on Palestinian national aspirations. The cries of freedom all across the Middle East are authentic, and the Palestinians are part of this train whether the Israeli government likes it or not.

It is harder now to start a diplomatic process in the current regional climate than it was before the fall of Mubarak, the riots against Assad, the looming American withdrawal from Iraq and the Wikileaks expose of Palestinian negotiating positions. PA President Mahmoud Abbas used to go to the Arab League every time he needed help climbing up or down a ladder. Now they’re too busy dealing with a region in upheaval. The Old Guard of Arab statesmen are gone, or on their way out, so Abbas cannot rely on them for diplomatic support. Israel can’t rely on Mubarak anymore to broker peace, or even any of the other Arab leaders it quietly spoke to over the years. Despite being autocrats, yesterday’s Arab leaders could be counted on to keep the peace with Israel [the Egyptian and Syrian fronts have been quiet for a generation]. But the cold peace never reached the Arab street, which is instinctively hostile to Israel. There is no love lost between the Egyptian street and Israel. Israelis visit Egypt in droves, but there is not one Egyptian travel agency dealing with Egyptian tourism to Israel. Some of the most popular TV shows, films, theatre and music in the Arab world are virulently anti-Israeli [“Ana Bakrah Israel” – I hate Israel, was a smash hit in Egypt for popular singer Sha’bān Abdel Rahīm]. Whoever emerges as the power brokers in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, and other places will be sensitive to the populist anger at Israel, especially if Israel stifles a newborn Palestine recognized by the General Assembly. The alarmist theory here is that to create a new electorate of secular Arab voters large enough to beat the highly organized and motivated Islamists at the polls, politicians will not only have to promise the Arab street a brighter future, but also, perhaps, a common enemy. Blaming Israel for the ills of the Arab world won’t work anymore, but if secular parties are forced to form coalitions with more religious elements, their stance towards Israel could become very harsh.

The sense in Jerusalem is that even if Abbas were to agree to any peace initiative that Prime Minister Netanyahu could potentially offer him [which naturally would be less than Olmert’s offer], Abbas’ signature on the dotted line of a peace accord would be almost worthless anyway. The ‘Rais of Ramallah’ simply does not have the political and security clout to forge, implement and maintain a peace deal with Israel, senior officials here say. Hamas, Abbas’ rival for the Palestinian national leadership, is buoyed by the demise of Mubarak and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as Egypt’s most organized political group. There are some in Israel who believe that Hamas and Fatah will eventually reconcile as their national interests dovetail. Hamas will never stop dreaming of destroying Israel, but it could, according to some in the Israeli government, find a way to live with Fatah, and through a broader framework share the running of Palestine. There are others though who believe Hamas will never stop trying to eradicate Israel, and through its support from Iran and others in the region, will work to first bring down the PA, and then Israel.

Taking a wider view of the region, the flames that started in Tehran almost two years ago and were recently reignited in Tunisia, have spread across the entire region [but have stopped at Bahrain for now]. The harsh regimes of Iran and Syria are more immune to the Arab Spring, largely because of the intense loyalty and brutality of their security services. We’ve never seen anything like this pan-Arab freedom movement before. From North Africa to deep in the Middle East, uprising after uprising has shaken the old order to its core. There is no telling what its long-term effects will be, but they will be big, and irreversible. What comes next could be worse than what came before, but the Arab people, and especially the young, have broken through the veil of fear that their parents never dared to break. It’s exciting to see nations rise up and demand freedom, women’s equality, accountable government, and all the things that we in the West take for granted. It is exciting to see how Arab youth have made use of technology in a region technology and progress forgot for so long. It’s exciting, but challenging. Israel’s foreign and security policies will have to change in line with a changing environment. We can’t stand still while all around us there is movement. Keeping our internal stability is obviously important, and creating a dangerous crisis with the settler population is not advisable – but there does need to be some tangible movement towards real talks with real outcomes with the Palestinians.

It must be hard for Netanyahu and his advisors not to match the Palestinians’ threat of a unilateral declaration of statehood with counter-threats of annexation of West Bank territory, an end to security cooperation and damaging economic steps. But if he looks around him, Netanyahu cannot fail to see a region in absolute upheaval: will Assad survive the growing tide, and will he be tempted to divert attention by heating up his border with Israel? If he does get toppled, who will replace him – a hardline Sunni junta or a democratic regime? Will Jordan’s King succeed in keeping his nation stable? What of the Eastern Front when the Americans leave Iraq?

Netanyahu has let himself become stuck in a situation where, on the one hand, he believes the Palestinian side is not ready for a deal, and on the other, he does not believe in unilateral separation from the Palestinians [he says: “we left Gaza and got Iran; we left Lebanon and got Iran; if we leave the West Bank we’ll get rockets on Ben Gurion Airport”]. This is a powerful and necessary argument, but it is not sufficient an excuse not to find another way to deal with the Palestinian issue. If he tries hard enough and works creatively enough, it is possible that Netanyahu could create the Parliamentary backing he needs to sign a deal with Abbas. Neither Israel Beiteinu nor Shas are overly eager to bring down Netanyahu’s government, and with sufficient support from friends inside the Likud, and friends in the White House, Netanyahu could bring Abbas back to the table.

Whatever he decides, Netanyahu should not let Israel be carried away by the tide of events. Rather, he needs to navigate a course of separation from the Palestinians – polls consistently show there is a large Jewish majority for a peace deal with solid security guarantees. But the government still has not decided on the crucial question: are we headed towards becoming a bi-national [aka Apartheid] state, or a Jewish and Democratic state? We can’t have both, and the longer our prime minister waits to chart out a course, the stronger the tide we swim against becomes.

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