Arabs must soften their hard line stance if there is to be any realistic solution to the Middle East crisis, writes Allan Massie
It’s hard to believe now – hard, I daresay, for young people to credit and hard for us who are older to remember – but at the time of the Six Days War in 1967 public opinion in Britain was overwhelmingly in favour of Israel. The Israelis were defending their freedom and the right of their state to exist, and we were mostly delighted to see “gallant little Israel” win such a swift and comprehensive victory.
Now the wheel has turned. There are still of course foreign policy hawks here who are pro-Israel, and many more of them in the USA, in Congress, the Pentagon and think-tanks, but public opinion has swung round, and even though we are now distrustful of trends in the Muslim world, the Palestinians are seen as victims, oppressed by the Israeli army and security forces. Meanwhile Israel, still confident of American support, defies UN Resolutions, assassinates those whom it perceives as enemies, and in the last few days has once gain launched bombing raids on Syria, ostensibly – and perhaps genuinely – to prevent missiles from being passed on to Hezbollah.
Before 1967 Israel was strategically in a very weak position. It was a tiny state. You could cross it at its narrowest point in less than an hour.
Victory in war has consequences, not all of which are favourable, some storing up trouble for the future.
The outcome of the Six Days War strengthened Israeli’s strategic position, but weakened its political and moral one. The endangered nation, admired as the only democracy in the Middle East, was now an Occupying Power, holding the Palestinians in subjection. What was Israel to do? Withdrawing from the West Bank and the Golan Heights would have returned it to a position of strategic weakness, surrounded by States which still refused to recognize its right to exist. So it held on to them.
Gradually it did more than hold on. In the face of Palestinian hostility, manifest in the two infitadas (1987-2003 and 2000-5) and acts of terrorism, it tightened its grip. It pursued a policy of colonisation. Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were built and then expanded. The process continues, in defiance of UN resolutions and widespread international condemnation. Only this week prime minister Netanyahu has given his approval to still more settlement-building. And to protect Israel from terrorism, a wall was built between Israel proper and the West Bank. Security checks were established throughout the Occupied Territory.
Meanwhile, there was international pressure for the creation of a Palestinian state. The issue was complicated, and for Israel made more alarming, by what followed its withdrawal from Gaza ten years ago, an initiative undertaken by its hard-line prime minister Ariel Sharon. This did nothing to ease Israel’s security. On the contrary, elections in Gaza in a victory for Hamas, regarded by Israel, with reason, as a political party which denies Israel’s right to exist and also as a terrorist organisation.
Hamas is certainly less amenable, to put it mildly, than the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, which exercises a degree of self-government in the West Bank territories. The PA, though regarded by the UN as the government of an embryonic Palestinian State, remains shackled by the Israeli Occupation, its freedom of action severely limited.
Israel remains officially committed to what is called the Two-State Solution, but only if it can be assured that this will not impinge on its own security and freedom of action. Meanwhile, the Occupation is so onerous and restrictive that the Palestinians remain a subject people. Right-wing Israeli parties have indeed abandoned any commitment to this solution and claim the whole Biblical Land of Israel as their rightful territory. This would mean the permanent subjection of the Palestinians, or preferably the expulsion of many of them.
Mr Netanyahu stops short of this. He knows that even the Americans, conscious of the importance to them of allies in the Arab world, can’t countenance it. But his latest plan demonstrates very clearly just what sort of future he envisages for the Palestinians. Israel, he says, must continue to regard the Jordan as its frontier, and he proposes to build a defensive wall there, just as soon as the similar wall on the Sinai frontier has been completed. Any autonomous, or semi-autonomous, Palestinian state would therefore be hemmed in by the Israeli military; it would be a state with no control over its own frontiers. Meanwhile the continued building of settlements deepens the Israeli penetration of Palestinian land, often controlling the supply of water to Palestinian towns, villages and farmers. The outlook is grim.
For Israel the problem remains what it has been since 1967. Every extension and intensification of the Occupation strengthens Israel‘s security but makes a resolution of the Palestinian problem more difficult, while damaging Israel’s reputation and losing friends.
Back in 1986 the Irish politician, journalist and historian Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote a book, The Siege, in which he defended Israel’s Occupation of the conquered territories. He compared Israel to two other “embattled tribes”, white South Africans, still operating the policy of apartheid in self-defence, as he saw it, and the Northern Irish Protestants. These two tribes have since accepted reality and come to terms with those whom they then saw as enemies. Some day, surely, Israel must do the same.
This however requires action or concessions from the other side too, as happened in South Africa and Northern Ireland. Only when the Arabs recognise and genuinely accept Israel’s right to exist can the Occupation be relaxed, even brought to an end, and a Palestinian state exist peacefully side by side with Israel. But that day seems a long way off; meanwhile Netanyahu and his successors will continue to play hard-ball – and make the life of the Palestinians miserable.