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ISRAELIS AND PALESTINIANS: WHAT WENT WRONG?

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by Amos Elon
The New York Review of Books
December 19, 2002 Issue


One of Israel�s most distinguished thinkers and writers.
Author of eight widely praised books on Germany, Jewish history, and the Middle East.



1.
In a letter he wrote shortly before his death in 1904, at the early age
of forty-four, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, admonished
his successor: "Macht keine Dummheiten während ich tot bin." (Don't
make any stupid mistakes while I'm dead.) It was a tongue-in-cheek
remark and I am citing it only because of all other nineteenth-century
attempts to found new nation-states, Herzl's was undoubtedly the most
unusual and certainly one of the most difficult. If there was ever a
national project which because of its complexity and uncertainty of
success could ill-afford Dummheiten, it was Herzl's.

Zionism was a national project unlike any other in Europe or overseas.
It involved colonizing without a mother country and without the support
of state power. A difficult task, to say the least, in an arid country
without natural resources, without financial attractions. One of
Herzl's friends asked Cecil Rhodes, the great British imperialist, for
his advice. Rhodes answered: "Tell Dr. Herzl to put money in his
pocket." Herzl scarcely had any money. "The secret I keep from
everybody," he wrote, "is the fact that I am at the head only of a
movement of beggars and fools" (Schnorrer und Narren). The rich, with
very few exceptions, opposed his scheme. The early settlers were mostly
penniless idealists, social anarchists, Narodniks, practicing a bizarre
"religion of hard labor." Ninety percent of those who arrived in
Palestine between 1904 and 1914 returned to Europe or wandered on to
America.

Other nationalisms aimed at liberating subjugated peoples who spoke the
same language and lived in the same territory. The Zionists, by
contrast, called on Jews living in dozens of countries, speaking dozens
of different languages, to settle far away in a remote, neglected
province of the Ottoman Empire, where their ancestors had lived
thousands of years before but which was now inhabited by another people
with their own language and religion, a people�moreover�in the first
throes of their own national revival and, for this reason, opposed to
the Jewish project as a dangerous intrusion.

One of Herzl's closest associates is said to have come running to him
one day, exclaiming: "But there are Arabs in Palestine! I didn't know
that!" The story may well be apocryphal but it sums up, as such stories
often do, the central facts of the case. In his answer, if there was
any, Herzl would not have made an appeal to "historical rights," as
many others did and still do to this day. He didn't believe in
"historical rights" and he was too well informed not to know the damage
that had been done by the quest for such rights during the nineteenth
century by Germans, French, and Austrians, as well as in the Balkans,
to name only a few examples. But he had an almost uncanny premonition
of the dark period ahead. He was sure there were powerful historical
currents that would justify the Zionist cause, a confidence that was
fully vindicated by later events.

With so many seemingly insurmountable difficulties, it is remarkable
how few stupid errors the Zionist leaders made. Fifty years after
Herzl's death in 1904 they were still rare and the damage they caused
was not fatal or irreparable. The Zionist project was led by sober men,
experienced in the ways of Europe and the world, unwilling to take
undue risks; with the exception of a handful, whom Chaim Weizmann, the
eminently rational Zionist leader in the interwar years, called
disparagingly "our own D'Annunzios," they were reluctant to overplay
their hand. They realized that they were conducting an unusual
enterprise which in some ways ran counter to the basic trend of world
events. Confronted with a mainly hostile Arab population, they wracked
their brains to come up with compromises, binational solutions, and
partition plans, even when they were damaging to the Zionists, as with
several proposals for partition mooted over the years, which they
accepted but the Arabs declined.

When you look at the maps outlining these partition plans in the 1930s
and 1940s, with their contorted borderlines, narrow corridors, and
British or international enclaves�the last was the UN partition
resolution of 1947�you get the impression of two antagonists locked in
a deadly embrace. By 1948, the British threw up their hands and quit
the scene. But when, on the day they finally sailed away, the Jews
declared an independent state in their part of the country, it was
readily recognized by most nations, after a while even by Britain.
Israel was admired for successfully defeating a combined attack by the
regular armies of three neighboring Arab states.

The new state was still led by the same cautious leaders, though they
were getting older. Their practical frame of mind made these men
recognize their limits. They were not easily intoxicated by the recent
victory of their ragged army. They usually knew the difference between
force and power. The then prime minister David Ben-Gurion has since
been accused of further exacerbating the Palestinian tragedy during the
war�with fateful consequences later on�by authorizing his generals to
expel perhaps 100,000 innocent villagers and townspeople, in addition
to the approximately 500,000 who had fled the battle zones earlier
during the war to seek refuge in the West Bank and the neighboring Arab
countries.

And yet Ben-Gurion can hardly be faulted for his caution after the war.
He firmly resisted the urgings of brash, young generals to seize the
rest of the country, later known as the West Bank, which made up about
22 percent of the former Palestine, including the Old City of Jerusalem
with its holy places. What is now the West Bank had been annexed by the
Hashemite kingdom of Jordan according to a tacit agreement with the
Jewish state. The prime minister had reason to hope at that time that a
formal peace treaty would now become possible with Abdullah, the
Jordanian king, with whom he had remained in discreet contact
throughout the war. Ben-Gurion preferred legitimacy to real estate,
even if that real estate included the Wailing Wall and other historical
and sacred sites. It was a memorable decision, in the tradition of some
of the wisest nineteenth-century European statesmen.

His caution did not lead to peace. The Jordanian king was assassinated
by a religious fanatic. But nevertheless it paid off. Postwar Europe
was guilt-ridden and contrite over the anti-Semitism of its past. For
two decades, support for Israel became virtually a matter of piety in
Europe. Except in Britain, the 1948 armistice lines were widely
regarded in Europe and America as sacrosanct, much like the post-war
partition of Europe between the Western powers and the Soviet Union.
The Arabs, of course, rejected them. But it is instructive to compare
attitudes in the West toward Israel's post-1948 borders with attitudes
thirty years later to Israel's de facto borders following the 1967 war.
Not even Stalin, during his last years of anti-Semitic paranoia,
suggested that Israel withdraw from the 1949 armistice lines to the
much narrower confines of the original UN partition plan. Nor did
Stalin's successors in the Kremlin.

The Fifties and Sixties were the age of decolonization. Stalin and his
successors endorsed nearly all anticolonial movements (except, of
course, within their own far-flung Asian and European empire). They
denounced Israel as a lackey of American capitalism but not as a
colonialist power. Many of the newly independent, former colonial
peoples favored close relations with Israel even as they condemned
other settler states like Kenya, South Africa, or Algeria. The far left
in Italy and France was by and large free of the anti-Israel rhetoric
that became familiar after 1967. Enrico Berlinguer, the Italian
Communist leader, said that Israel was a special case. In a just and
rational world, he said, it might have made more "sense" and would have
even been more "just" if Israel had been established, say, in Bavaria,
or in East Prussia, as Lord Moyne, the British war cabinet minister had
suggested, mainly for the sake of argument. Alas, Berlinguer added, we
are not living in a wholly rational world.

The establishment of Israel was widely recognized at the time as
perhaps the inevitable, even legitimate, result of a war that the Jews
had neither started nor provoked; above all it was seen as a legitimate
haven for Holocaust survivors and DPs who, in most cases, refused to go
back to Poland or Germany. Having been rejected in their former
homelands, many of them wanted to go to Israel and only to Israel. The
resettlement of more than 600,000 Palestinian refugees was seen as a
primarily humanitarian task, not as a political strategy. (Some had
been expelled by Israel; most had fled their villages, as villagers in
battle zones often do, and had sought temporary refuge in the Arab
countries.) Israel was expected to assume much of the responsibility
for their future, physically and financially, in the event of peace,
and rightly so; after all, the Palestinians were not responsible for
the crimes of Europe, but in the end they were punished for these
crimes.

The neighboring Arab countries were expected to help and to absorb
Palestinian refugees. Many in the West held them at least partly
responsible for the consequences of a war they had launched in 1948 to
undo a UN resolution. Americans, Europeans�and even the Soviet
Union�urged the Arab countries to make peace with Israel on the basis
of the postwar territorial status quo. In the UN Security Council, the
American delegate, Warren Austin, pounded the table, saying the
American government believed that it was high time for the Jews and the
Arabs to get together and finally resolve their problems in a truly
Christian spirit.

2.
The 1967 war was the great watershed. It interrupted a decade of
gradual d�tente between Israel and Egypt, which had raised hopes that
the conflict between Israel and the Arabs might be resolved, at least
partially. Though the Suez Canal remained closed to Israeli ships, they
could, after 1956, move freely through the Straits of Tiran. Trade with
the Far East and oil from the Iranian oil fields flowed freely to the
southernmost Israeli port of Elath. Israel was at first praised in the
West for scoring a spectacular victory in a war largely provoked by the
bizarre miscalculations of the Egyptian and Syrian rulers, partly also
by a clumsy Soviet diplomat who encouraged Egypt and Syria to threaten
Israel and who soon afterward disappeared, perhaps in the gulag. (I
remember chatting with a German military attach� at a party who pressed
my hand and barely let go of it, saying, "This was just as Field
Marshal Rommel would have done if he had had his way....") We now know
that it was a Pyrrhic victory. The war changed not only Israel's
position in the region, but even more so its self-image. Israel, which,
in Isaiah Berlin's words, had always had "more history than geography,"
now suddenly had both. For the first time, at least in theory, it had
enough territory to exchange for peace.

David Ben-Gurion was the only leading figure in the political elite who
broke the general euphoria by suggesting that Israel withdraw
immediately, if need be unilaterally, from all occupied territories. As
he had in 1948, Ben-Gurion flatly opposed any attempts to permanently
occupy the West Bank. But Ben-Gurion was old and retired and
politically isolated. He had bitterly quarreled with the ruling Labor
Party. Yigal Allon, the same young general who in 1948 had urged him to
complete, as he put it, the "liberation" of the rest of the country,
was now a prominent cabinet minister competing for the premiership with
Moshe Dayan, another former general. Allon, though he spoke vaguely of
the need to allow the Palestinians a state of their own, drew up a plan
of settlements and annexations on the West Bank that would have left
the Palestinians little more than two enclaves in the Samarian and
Judean mountains, surrounded by Israeli military bases and proposed
settlements. They would have no political foothold in Jerusalem. The
so-called Allon Plan grew incrementally over the years as the political
deadlock continued; it embraced more and more territory to be settled
and annexed by Israel.

Dayan's plans were more ambiguous but, in effect, far more ambitious.
He was the first top-level secular politician whose rhetoric was loaded
with suggestive biblical imagery: "We've returned to Shilo [a house of
worship in the Bronze Age]; we've returned to Anathot [the prophet
Isaiah's birthplace] never to part from them again," etc., etc. Dayan
was the adored victor in a glorious war and, for some years, perhaps
the most famous Jew since Jesus Christ. It was, I think, at his urging
that the war was retrospectively named after the Six Days of Creation.
Right-wing and religious fundamentalists made the most of the victory
and endowed the Six-Day War with a metaphysical, pseudo-messianic aura.
They pushed for the formal annexation immediately of all "liberated
areas." At that time, they were still a relatively small minority.

The race between the two secular ex-generals for the premiership was
more ominous, with fatal consequences to this day. Both Allon and Dayan
were curiously self-centered, as politicians often are, and blind to
the Palestinian presence in the region. They dismissed the aspirations
of over a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as of
limited political importance. They had no intention to offer them
Israeli citizenship. Some 300,000 Palestinians already lived in Israel
proper, increasingly embittered by their status as second-class
citizens. The Jewish population in 1967 was 2.7 million; the combined
Arab population west of the river Jordan was 1.3 million. It was as
though France had decided in 1938 to absorb as many as 20 million
restive, potentially subversive Germans within borders that were
surrounded, as Israel was, by more than a hundred million of their
hostile, heavily armed co-nationals. Today, thirty-five years later,
4.1 million Palestinians live between the river Jordan and the sea (3.1
million in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and 1 million Palestinians
in Israel proper.) Despite heavy Jewish immigration since 1967 there
are still only some 5 million Jews, a ratio of only 1.2 to 1. Higher
Palestinian birthrates are certain to assure an absolute Palestinian
majority within ten or fifteen years.

Cabinet sessions in Israel are always long and verbose affairs but
never as long and frequent as they were in the summer of 1967. The
ministers deliberated on what to do after the great victory. The
crucial session, on the status of the occupied West Bank, began on a
Sunday in mid-June`and lasted, with brief interruptions for food and
sleep, until the following Wednesday. The decision finally made was�not
to decide. In the absence of a decision, Dayan, by now a national
demigod, Allon, and assorted right-wing and religious fundamentalist
militants and squatters were able to successfully establish very
dubious facts on the ground �settlements and so-called heachsujot
(outpost positions) that multiplied over the years through formal and
semi-informal arrangements. Squatters were gradually legalized,
lavishly subsidized, and eventually hailed as national heroes. It was
said of the British Empire that it was born in a fit of
absentmindedness. The Israeli colonial intrusion into the West Bank
came into being under similar shadowy circumstances. Few people took it
seriously at first. Some deluded themselves that it was bound to be
temporary. Those responsible for it pursued it consistently. They
included a few ministers who believed that it might even induce the
Arabs to sue for peace sooner rather than later, before too many
"irrevocable" facts were established on the ground.

An ostensibly dovish Labor minister of housing�a declared opponent of
the settlement project who nevertheless very generously subsidized it�
cynically remarked that after the settlements were evacuated, as he was
certain they would be, the United States would compensate Israel at a
rate of one dollar for every lira spent on it in vain. The few who
protested the settlements on political or demographic grounds were
ignored. They were no match for the emerging coalition of religious and
political fundamentalists. The Knesset never voted on the settlement
project. The settlements were at first financed mostly through
nongovernmental agencies, the United Jewish Appeal, the Jewish Agency,
and the National Jewish Fund. The US government went through the
motions of mildly protesting the settlement project. It took none of
the legal and other steps it might have taken to stop the flow of
tax-exempt contributions to the UJA or JNF that financed the
settlements on land confiscated for "security" reasons from its
Palestinian owners. For all practical purposes, the United States
served as a ready partner in the settlement project. The National
Coalition cabinet, which was slapped together hastily on the eve of the
1967 war, remained in power long after. It was presided over at first
by Levi Eshkol, a weak prime minister who died soon after the war and
was succeeded by the hard-line Golda Meir, famous for her smug
maternalism, and for saying, "Who are the Palestinians? I am a
Palestinian." The government informed the United States that Israel was
ready to withdraw from occupied Egyptian and Syrian territory in return
for peace; but it explicitly excluded withdrawal from the West Bank or
Gaza Strip. No evidence has turned up so far that American diplomats
actually sounded out Cairo and Damascus about a deal based on Israeli
withdrawal. An attempt, a few years ago, by The New York Review of
Books to induce the US National Archives to release diplomatic
documents pertinent to these exchanges under the Freedom of Information
Act produced no results. Not a single US cable, report, or verbal
communication turned up to indicate that in the summer of 1967 an
attempt was made by the US to begin a peace process. We can only
speculate on the reasons for US failure to do so. Apart from being
happy, apparently, that Israel had humiliated the Soviet Union's main
clients in the region, the US was in no hurry to end the Arab�Israeli
conflict. The Arab�Israeli War was becoming a proxy conflict between
the superpowers, a testing ground for their hardware. The Suez Canal
remained conveniently blocked. At the height of the Vietnam War, the
US, under Lyndon Johnson, might have had good reasons to keep it closed
as long as possible and force Soviet supply ships to North Vietnam to
take the long route around Africa.

Soon afterward, at a summit meeting in Khartoum, the Arab countries
announced the "Three no's"�no to recognizing, negotiating with, or
making peace with Israel. The ensuing stalemate lasted several years.
An Arab-Israeli writer, with something like Schadenfreude, borrowed an
Oriental image to describe the Israeli dilemma: "Instead of stepping on
the snake that threatened them, they merely swallowed it," he wrote.
"Now they have to live with it, or die with it." A dilemma, by
definition, is a conflict between equally undesirable alternatives. But
was this really the conflict facing Israel? We now know that it wasn't.
Peace was a distinct possibility�with the Palestinians as early as the
summer of 1967, with Jordan and Egypt in 1971 and 1972. Soon after the
1967 war, two senior Israeli intelligence officers�one was David
Kimche, who later served as deputy director of Mossad and director
general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry �interviewed prominent
Palestinian civic and political leaders throughout the West Bank,
including intellectuals, notables, mayors, and religious leaders. He
reported that most of them said they were ready to establish a
demilitarized Palestinian state on the West Bank that would sign a
separate peace with Israel. The PLO at the time was still a fairly
marginal group.

Kimche's report, as far as we know, was shelved by Dayan. It was never
submitted to the cabinet. In the hubris of the first few months
following the war, even a tentative effort to explore this possibility
would likely have been rejected by the cabinet. Dayan believed that as
long as the natives were treated kindly and decently�at first they
were�it would be possible to maintain the status quo on the West Bank
and in Gaza for generations. The Palestinians were still remarkably
docile; they had allowed the West Bank to be conquered in a few hours
without firing a single shot. Dayan�and nearly the entire political and
military establishment�were convinced that not only the Palestinians
but also Egypt and Syria would be unable to present a military threat
for decades. Dayan's opinion of the Arab armies was reflected during a
visit to Vietnam. Asked by General Westmoreland how to win in war,
Dayan is said to have responded: "First of all, you pick the Arabs as
your enemy." He told me a few weeks after the war: "What is it really,
this entire West Bank? It's only a couple of small townships."

We may forget that top political leaders live very different lives from
the rest of us. Their escorts whisk them through red lights and they
often travel about by helicopter. From the cockpit of a helicopter, the
West Bank might indeed look like little more than a handful of
wretchedly small townships. Dayan's mood was reflected in an interview
he gave at the time to the editor of Der Spiegel. Asked how Israel
hoped to achieve peace his answer was: by standing firm as iron,
wherever we are now standing, until the Arabs are ready to give in.

Q: Then it's only King Hussein who is likely to qualify as a partner in
negotiations. But he isn't strong enough to agree to [your] conditions.

Dayan: In this case let them find themselves another king.

Q: But Jordan as a country may not be strong enough to agree to peace
on Dayan's conditions.

Dayan: In this case let them find themselves another country.

Q: Under these circumstances, it is hard to hope for peace soon.
Dayan: That's probably right.

Before the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Dayan's position toward Egypt was
that it was preferable to retain Sharm el Sheik and half the Sinai
peninsula without peace than to have peace with Egypt without retaining
Sharm el Sheik. After the Yom Kippur War, Dayan's position toward Egypt
changed, and he was willing to leave the occupied Sinai. As for the
occupied West Bank, in complete disregard of demographic realities, he
remained an annexationist. Henry Kissinger complained that whenever he
asked the Israelis about their political intentions there, he failed to
receive an answer.

The truth was that despite the "Three No's" of Khartoum, direct
negotiations with Jordan began soon after the Six-Day War, by 1970 with
King Hussein himself. Even while Golda Meir was publicly lamenting, "If
the Arabs would only sit down with us at a table like decent human
beings and talk!," her representatives were secretly meeting the King.
Hussein flew his own helicopter to Tel Aviv and was taken by Dayan on a
tour of the city by night. The King was ready to make peace with Israel
if Israel withdrew from much of the West Bank as well as from East
Jerusalem and if the Muslim and Christian holy places in the Old City
were restored to Jordan. The King was ready to make concessions to
Israel along the narrow coastal plain and at the Western Wall in the
Old City of Jerusalem.

Israel would not hear of it. The expanded municipal area of Jerusalem�
by now it included not only Arab East Jerusalem but a part of the
former West Bank�was declared Israel's capital for "all eternity." In
addition to this Greater Jerusalem area, which was being intensively
settled by Israelis on land confiscated from its Palestinian owners,
Israel insisted on the latest (expanded) version of the Allon Plan. It
called for the annexation of the entire Jordan Valley from the Lake of
Tiberias down to the Dead Sea, the heavily populated area between
Jerusalem and Hebron in the south, and the slopes of the western and
northern mountain range of Samaria in the north. The King indicated
that for such far-reaching concessions the Israelis would have to
negotiate with the PLO. In retrospect, it is tragic that no agreement
could be reached with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank or with
Jordan in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

We are speaking of a time, thirty years ago, before the Palestinians
were radicalized by an increasingly humiliating occupation regime and
by large-scale expropriation of Palestinian land for the exclusive use
of Israeli settlers. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah existed and the PLO
was not recognized internationally. Hamas was, in fact, encouraged by
the Israelis as a counterweight to the PLO, much as the CIA supported
the Islamic extremists in Afghanistan. An autonomous Palestinian
entity, at peace with Israel, would not have removed the PLO from the
scene but it might have considerably weakened its impact.
Alternatively, in a peace settlement with Jordan the Palestinian issue
might have reverted to what it had been before 1967: mainly a Jordanian
problem.

The failure to reach an agreement seems all the more tragic, since at
that time there were still relatively few settlers�fewer than 3,000�and
they would not have been able to veto all concessions, as they do
today. Today there are 200,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip�their number has been allowed to almost double since the Oslo
agreement of 1993. With 200,000 more settlers on former Jordanian
territory in East Jerusalem, the total number has now reached 400,000.
The settlement project continues to grow even now. Imagine the effect
on the peace process in Northern Ireland if the British government
continued moving thousands of Protestants from Scotland into Ulster and
settling them, at government expense, on land confiscated from Irish
Catholics.

The occupation was, by and large, a paying proposition. Until the first
intifada twenty years later its costs were more than covered by taxes
on the Palestinian population as well as by turning the West Bank and
Gaza into a captive market for Israeli-produced goods and services.
Michael Ben Yair, Israel's attorney general in the Rabin government,
recently wrote in Ha'aretz:

The Six-Day War was forced on us; but the war's Seventh day, which
began on June 12, 1967�continues to this day and is the product of our
choice. We enthusiastically chose to become a colonialist society,
ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring
settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, engaging in theft and
finding justifications for all this.

These are harsh words, but it is a characteristic of the tragic folly I
am describing that Ben Yair did not put forward such views in a legal
brief when he was still attorney general, as he could have done nine
years earlier.

The settlers now are the strongest political lobby in Israel. In recent
years they have been supported by lavish subsidies, grants of land,
low-rent housing, government jobs, tax benefits, and social services
more generous than any in Israel proper. The settlements are now a kind
of suburbia of Israel proper: most settlers commute daily to their jobs
in Jerusalem and the greater Tel Aviv area. With few exceptions, the
settlements have not made Israel more "secure" as was sometimes
claimed; they have made Israel less secure. They have greatly extended
the country's lines of defense. They impose a crushing burden of
protecting widely dispersed settlements deep inside densely populated
Palestinian territories, where ever larger numbers of Palestinians are
increasingly infuriated by the inevitable controls, curfews, and
violence, as well as by humiliation imposed on them by insensitive or
undisciplined recruits and army reservists.

Two examples: an entire armored regiment has been tied down for years
to protect a small colony of nationalist, religious fanatics in
downtown Hebron, a deeply fundamentalist Muslim city. They believe that
the Kingdom of God is near and�at first against government
orders�squatted illegally in a couple of abandoned, half-ruined houses.

In the Gaza Strip some of the well-established, prospering settlements
are only a few hundred meters away from the vast refugee camps,
populated by third- and fourth-generation Palestinian refugees. In five
minutes a visitor might feel as if he were passing from Southern
California to Bangladesh�through barbed-wire entanglements, past
watchtowers, searchlights, machine-gun positions, and fortified
roadblocks: a bizarre and chilling sight.

The Palestinians are infuriated as well by seeing their olive groves
uprooted or burned down by settlers while their water faucets go dry
and their ancestral land reserves and scarce water resources are taken
over for the use of settlers who luxuriate nearby in their swimming
pools and consume five times as much water as the average Palestinian.
The settlements themselves occupy less than 20 percent of the West
Bank, but through a network of so-called regional councils they control
planning and environmental policy for approximately 40 percent of the
West Bank, according to figures recently published by B'tzelem, the
Israeli human rights organization.

It is not difficult to imagine what the settlers' lobby means in a
country with notoriously narrow parliamentary majorities. Though 70
percent of Israeli voters say in the polls that they support abandoning
some of the settlements, 400,000 settlers and their right-wing and
Orthodox supporters within Israel proper now control at least half the
national vote. They pose a constant threat of civil war if their
interests are not fully respected. At their core is a group of
fanatical nationalists and religious fundamentalists who believe they
know exactly what God and Abraham said to each other in the Bronze Age.

The settlers are no longer outsiders or squatters as they once were. A
great many became settlers for purely pragmatic reasons�cheaper housing
in what they hoped would be more pleasant surroundings within easy
commuting distance to Israel. For almost twenty-five years the settlers
have been praised by every Israeli government as patriots, good
citizens, good Zionists. At least in the West Bank, the settlement
project long ago became a cornerstone of Zionist and Israeli national
identity. By now there is a second generation of settlers who see no
difference between themselves and other Israelis who live in Tel Aviv
or Tiberias. Since the outbreak of the most recent intifada and the
emergence of reckless suicide bombers, moreover, they are not merely
defending an idea; as they see it, they are defending "home."

As a result, on both sides now, the extremists are dominant: in Israel
and Palestine they veto all progress toward peace. Disasters follow one
after another daily and the end is not in sight. Hamas seems to have
usurped the Palestinian national movement while hard-line religious
groups seem to be usurping the Jewish national cause. The situation
seems all the more tragic, since thirty years after Hussein's first
peace proposals in 1970, a similar peace scheme was tentatively
endorsed by the Barak government. At Camp David, one of the
worst-prepared peace conferences in history, Clinton, not Barak
himself, conveyed to the Palestinians several "bases for negotiation"
calling for a Palestinian state in which Israelis would continue to
occupy roughly 9 percent of the West Bank; as Robert Malley and Hussein
Agha wrote in these pages, Arafat was "unable to say yes to the
American ideas or present a cogent or specific counterproposal of [his]
own."

After more secret meetings between Israeli and Palestinian diplomats
during the autumn, Clinton, on December 23, 2000, conveyed to Arafat
what he called the "parameters" of an improved scheme, which the
Israeli cabinet accepted[2] ; Arafat's reply to Clinton was delayed ten
days, and when it finally arrived it expressed both interest in the new
proposals and reservations about them. The negotiators (but not the
principals) met again at Taba in Egypt between January 21 and 27 in
2001 and issued a statement saying, "The two sides have never been
closer to reaching an agreement and it is thus our shared belief that
the remaining gaps could be bridged...." It was too late: Clinton had
left office, and the Israeli elections were impending. Like every other
observer, Arafat was aware that Barak would lose.

We can only speculate on his reasons for not clearly accepting at least
the basic outlines of an agreement. He may have thought he might obtain
better terms under the incoming Bush administration. Or he may have
despaired of ever restoring the West Bank and Gaza to Palestinian rule
by diplomatic means. According to Robert Malley, who was present at the
Camp David negotiations, the Palestinian negotiators were divided and
competed with one another. Arafat apparently lost control over some of
his own internal factions. He may have hoped at this moment that just
as Hezbollah terror had succeeded in driving Israel out of southern
Lebanon, so Israel could be forced by continuing violence to abandon
Gaza and the West Bank. Arafat's strategy at this stage, or perhaps
even before, could even have been to hold out for a kind of Greater
Palestine�just as powerful Israelis had long been planning a Greater
Israel from the sea to the river Jordan. Sharon has long said he has
been in favor of a Palestinian state east of the river, i.e., in what
is now Jordan.

I don't pretend to know what makes Arafat tick. He and his henchmen
certainly underestimated, grossly so, Israel's power, resilience,
resolve, and international support. Arafat may, or may not, have
decided already in 1993 to exploit the Oslo agreement in order to first
consolidate a power base on the West Bank and then try to enlarge it
later on to include a Greater Palestine, taking over all or parts of
Israel proper. This is what the hard-liners in Israel claim and they
may be right. Or they may be wrong: the Palestinians invested $3
billion in new tourist facilities on the West Bank during the past
seven years; they may not have done so if the plan had always been to
wage an all-out struggle. Such an investment would make sense for the
Palestinian state that Arafat has often said he wants and Sharon is
determined to prevent.

I interviewed Arafat in his Tunis headquarters in 1993 while the secret
Oslo talks were still going on. He never hinted even vaguely that he
knew of the talks, though one of his aides did. Arafat complained at
great length about Rabin. At one point I asked him: "What do you want
Rabin to do?" He said: "He is not a De Gaulle. Let him be at least a De
Klerk." To Israeli ears, this sounded ominous. Under De Gaulle, the
entire French population quit Algeria. Under De Klerk, the whites were
allowed to remain in a Greater South Africa controlled by the black
majority. Arafat refused to clarify this remark. It may have been mere
rhetoric. Out of Arafat's hearing, one of his assistants later said
sarcastically: "Well, the old man is no De Gaulle either."

The right wing in Israel may be correct in claiming, as they now do,
that no workable compromise is possible with the Palestinians, but if
they are right, there is all the more reason to regret the
strategically senseless extension of Israel's defense lines to embrace
a multitude of vulnerable, widely dispersed, often isolated Israeli
settlements deep in heavily populated Palestinian territory. Instead of
minimizing friction, they increased it. Almost 200 settlements on the
West Bank and in the Gaza Strip and more than 200,000 settlers in East
Jerusalem are potentially explosive irritants that can undo any
possible historic compromise. How much easier would it now have been,
if Israel were poised more or less along the 1967 line (from which,
after all, it defeated three Arab countries in six days).

Instead Sharon's government is now trying, mostly for domestic
political reasons, to build high walls along this line and innumerable
other high walls around each settlement and each Palestinian town.
Every other day it dispatches tanks and combat helicopters to patrol
the roads leading to each settlement. It nevertheless suffers heavy
casualties, calls up the reserves, and deploys huge forces in Jerusalem
to prevent suicide bombers from making their way into Jewish
neighborhoods. In too many cases, these extensive security measures
fail �inevitably perhaps, since in Jerusalem Palestinian and Israeli
residential and business quarters are intermixed, suicide bombers seem
to get through the tightest controls, and retaliating strikes don't
discourage them.

In Israel and in Palestine, the center has collapsed. The much talked
about "two-state solution" may no longer be practicable since on both
sides all confidence is gone. The extremists of Greater Israel and the
extremists of Greater Palestine mutually veto all progress. I use the
terms "Greater Israel" and "Greater Palestine" with deliberate
bitterness. We know the evil wrought by similar "Great" projects
elsewhere: "Greater Serbia," "Greater Bulgaria," "Greater Ustashi
Croatia," and "Greater Greece."

Israel is now likely to remain in physical control of millions of
restive Palestinians. We don't know for how long. It is possible that
the long-sought "solution" will be delayed by another generation,
perhaps more than one. For what does Ariel Sharon mean when he says he
aims at dismantling what he calls the "infrastructure" of terror? The
true "infrastructure" is not in some odd garage or workshop where belts
loaded with explosives and steel nails are prepared and homemade mortar
missiles are built. The true infrastructure is more dangerous: it
consists both of the growing willingness of enraged young men and women
to blow themselves up and the religious and political culture in
twenty-one Arab countries that praises the suicide bombers as martyrs.
This "infrastructure" is diffuse. It may not have a center. The most
powerful air force can't defeat it. In Afghanistan the Americans
defeated the Taliban but not al-Qaeda, which continues to exist.

The race between Netanyahu and Sharon for the leadership of Likud is
pushing both men further to the right. Sharon says he will not
dismantle a single settlement. For both men, this may or may not be a
bargaining position. But for their political survival, both men depend
on right-wing and religious extremists. By effectively consuming the
one thing Israel had to offer the Palestinians in return for
peace�Palestinian land�the extended settlement project, I fear, may yet
prove Israel's undoing. It may lead to two equally awful alternatives:
wholesale ethnic cleansing or permanent violence, terror, suicide
bombers, possibly all-out war.

3.
Perhaps Israel's greatest tragedy has been the deterioration over the
years of the quality of Israeli leadership. A flawed electoral system
had a lot to do with this, since it discourages clear majorities.
Recent attempts to tinker with the constitution have increased
political instability. In less than a decade, one prime minister was
assassinated by a right-wing fanatic and three prime ministers have
been unable to serve out their terms. Government continues to depend on
forming unwieldy coalitions that give undue leverage to religious and
other splinter and pressure groups. The perennial instability has
encouraged waste, xenophobia, and demagoguery. The moral bankruptcy of
the Labor Party made inevitable the ascendancy of Likud and its
religious, nationalist, and semifascist allies.

It remains to be seen if in the few weeks left until the Israeli
election, Amram Mitzna, the new Labor leader, will succeed in reversing
this trend. It seems unlikely. By promising to renew peace talks
unconditionally with the Palestinians and to withdraw from Gaza and
from some of the more remote West Bank settlements, Mitzna has at least
offered voters a clearer alternative to Sharon than has been the case
so far. He faces the enormous task of reeducating a terrorized
electorate driven by recent events to support harsh measures against
Palestinians. He must also try to rebuild a discredited party shattered
by shameless opportunism and infighting among special interest groups.

It could be argued that the missed peace opportunities would have saved
a lot of needless bloodshed and it could, of course, also be argued
that such a "peace" might have proved to be illusory, a short-lived
cease-fire with an adversary resolved to remove an intrusion, as the
Crusader state was wiped out after a series of cease-fires and
armistices. The jihad, according to this line of thought, would go on
and on. I am not saying that it won't; but the peace treaties with
Egypt and Jordan, which have survived many a tough moment, seem to
suggest that the wider Arab�Israeli conflict can only end if Israelis
and Palestinians arrive at a compromise.

The nature and details of such a compromise have been known for years:
the partition of a country over which the two national independence
movements have clashed for almost a century now. The bazaar diplomacy
of the past ten years has clearly been counterproductive. The so-called
"incremental" Oslo peace process was abused by both sides; by
relegating the most difficult problems to the very last stage it
encouraged both sides to cheat. When force did not work, there was a
tendency to believe in using more force, which led, as we are seeing,
only to another dead end. The search for secure borders�even when it
did not involve the domination of one people by another�was carried too
far. No border is ever deemed absolutely secure before it seems
absolutely insecure to the other side and so makes the next war
inevitable.

The vast settlement project after 1967, aside from being grossly
unjust, has been self-defeating and politically ruinous. "We've fed the
heart on fantasies,/the heart's grown brutal on the fare," as William
B. Yeats put it almost a century ago in a similar dead-end situation in
Ireland. The settlement project has not provided more security but
less. It may yet, I tremble at the thought, lead to results far more
terrible than those we are now witnessing.

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