Thursday, 3 February 2011

Will Arab Democracy Isolate Israel?

Israeli scholar Yossi Klein Halevi is concerned that the recent push for democracy in the Middle East might leave Israel isolated. In an International Herald Tribune piece entitled Israel, Alone Again he repeats the usual Israeli narrative that a collapse of the autocratic Mubarak regime could present Israel with existential threats to its very existence.

Perhaps it is time for Halevi and others to consider that Israel’s feared isolation may well be largely self-induced. Maybe it’s time to recognize that Israel is actually part of the Middle East, and it might be useful to get serious about making real peace with its neighbours.

This will not be an easy mental re-alignment. The so-called New Historians in Israel have been reviled as ‘self-haters’ or ‘de-legitimizers’ of the State of Israel for daring to suggest that the real history of the country does not quite match up to the nursery school version of the plucky little Zionist resisting overwhelming Arab enemies. There is another version. And you don’t have to deny the existence of Israel to accept this revised version.

Relying on Israeli archives scholars like Avi Shlaim contend that Israeli leaders from the very earliest days of the Zionist movement were never very interested in making peace with their Arab neighbours. The present ambivalent, at best, stance of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toward real peace is merely an extension of this earlier policy. Needless to say, Shlaim’s book Iron Wall is not exactly required reading in Israeli schools.

A series of essays published in an interesting example of revisionist history called The War For Palestine: Rewriting The History of 1948 provides another version of the most sensitive issue of all, the expulsion of the Arabs from their homes during the conflict. The dominant Israeli narrative, and one they have successfully sold to the Americans, is that the Palestinians left of their own volition or because they were told to leave by Arab leaders. The archives and diaries of the founders of the State of Israel show that this is not necessarily so. These documents show that the Jewish forces did everything they could to expel the Palestinians and create an exclusively Jewish area.

This reluctance to deal with their neighbours on equal terms has pushed Israeli leaders into supporting autocrats who make treaties without doing the hard ground-work of winning popular support. Israeli leaders now fear that that popular resentment of Israel’s arrogant and condescending treatment of the Arab people is about to blow up into full scale confrontation with new leadership in Egypt. Netanyahu and his minions overseas are doing everything they can to frighten the Americans and Europeans about the possibility of the Moslem Brotherhood having any role in the new government.

Real friendship instead of the cold peace that now exists could actually increase Israel’s long-term security. Israel is rightly concerned about potential Iranian nuclear weapons. This concern, fear, is shared by most of the Arab countries as well. Were Israel willing to establish a real peace, versus one imposed by a stronger military power, it might find a lot of allies in its anti-Iranian policy. But such a real peace means first and foremost settling the Palestinian issue. And this is something Israel seems reluctant to do on any terms half-way acceptable to the Palestinians.

Israel wants us to believe that the fate of Palestine and the related issue of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank are not major issues in its dealings with the Arab states. In reality, those two inter-related issues are THE major stumbling blocks to any sort of normal relations with the Arabs. The occasional treaty might get signed, and Israeli tourists might go to Egypt, but there will be nothing approaching close cooperation until the open wound of Palestine is healed.

Instead of trying to scare the Americans away from a non-Mubarak solution for Egypt, one that might just include a role for the Moslem Brotherhood, the Israeli leadership could more usefully reconsider its Palestinian policy as the key to better relations with its neighbours. Part of this smoke screen of fear is a bald attempt to frighten the U.S. Congress to contribute even more money to Israeli defence needs. Although just why the United States should continue to give more than $3 billion a year to a country that can use its own strong economy and cash from its major natural fields to meet its defence expenditures is not quite clear.

In one of today's editorials the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, no friend of Netanyahu’s, put the issue of real peace with the Arabs succinctly: “Israel’s foreign policy must adapt itself to a reality in which the citizens of Arab states, and not just tyrants and their cronies, influence the trajectory of their countries’ development . . . Instead of clinging to the old, collapsing order, Netanyahu must seek peace agreements with both the Palestinians and with Syria in order to make Israel a more welcome and desirable neighbour.”

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