People will believe anything, if the climate for propagation of that belief is favourable. For example, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which first appeared in Russia in 1903 and purports to outline a Jewish plan for world domination, is actually a hodge-podge of earlier political satire that was regurgitated by antisemitic groups in imperial Russia to justify pogroms against the Jews. The Protocols are now regarded in the West as some kind of hoax, except perhaps by extreme right-wing groups, yet copies of this document are widely available in Arab cities throughout the Middle East, where it is understood to be genuine by most ordinary people.
My source for this statement is an old school friend who has worked in many parts of the region. He also informed me recently that these same ordinary people , fed as they are by virulently anti-Israeli media and whipped up by demagogues like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, attribute the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to Mossad. It is easy to laugh at the credulity of such people and to think that this proposition is so ridiculous as to be unworthy of serious consideration. However, if you were to look at this situation from the point of view of someone who is consistently given only one side of an extremely complex story, who has in any case a long-standing prejudice against Jews in general and the state of Israel in particular, you would probably feel that such an idea is not merely possible; it is also credible. And, whatever the story, you would have no way of discerning whether what you were reading, watching or listening to was the unembellished truth or a fabrication, or a mixture of the two.
Although news media can be routinely disbelieved, as they were, frequently, in the former Eastern bloc, communications technology has moved on since then, and the Soviet era now seems like a bygone age. It should no longer be possible to manipulate or suppress specific items of news in such a systematic way. However, there are times when no manipulation is required, merely the subtle juxtaposition of otherwise unrelated pieces of information. For example, it will not have escaped the notice of Palestinians that Israel gained considerably from the al-Qaeda attacks on the USA, which enabled it to prosecute a militaristic agenda in the occupied territories and southern Lebanon under the guise of participating in the so-called ‘War on Terror’, although it should be said in mitigation that this period coincided with an extended wave of suicide bombings in Israel.
However, Israel has always acted in what it perceives to be its own interests, regardless of international opinion. This history of unilateral action starts with the activities of Irgun prior to the formal declaration of the state of Israel, which included the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 and the Deir Yassin (a Palestinian village that had signed a non-aggression pact with its Jewish neighbours) massacre in 1948. The ideology of this terrorist organization, that only active retaliation will deter the Arabs and that only armed force can ensure a Jewish state, continues to inform the foreign policy of Israel’s Likud Party, which has been in power for most of the past three decades, to this day. And one of the men responsible for the hotel bombing, Menachem Begin, later became Israeli prime minister and a Nobel peace laureate.
If anyone doubts how the various armed Jewish groups active in Palestine between the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of the state of Israel are viewed today, consider the case of the assassination of Lord Moynes, British resident minister of state, in Cairo in 1944. This murder was carried out by two members of Lehi, an Irgun splinter group known to the British as the Stern Gang, who were duly tried and executed in 1945. However, in an exchange involving prisoners captured in Sinai and Gaza during the Yom Kippur War, their bodies were returned to Israel, where they were given state funerals with full military honours, in 1975.
In fact, the history of Israel includes a range of events that support the contention that the country cares not for international opinion or the niceties of international law if it regards a contemplated action as either its ‘right’ or in its own interests. From the abduction of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in 1960 to the rescue of hostages in Entebbe in 1976, from the bombing of the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 to the kidnapping of Mordechai Vanunu in Italy in 1986, Israel has shown little regard for the sovereignty of other nations while fiercely defending its own sovereignty. Of course, any reasonable person will feel that the first three, at least, of these actions were fully justified.
It is an unfortunate facet of the Israel/Palestine dilemma that Arab hostility towards Israel is so deeply entrenched; it has not gone away simply because both Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel. It is far more likely that military restraint by Arab states is a direct result of the expected response from Israel, which can be crudely summed up as “bloody my nose and I’ll tear your fucking legs off!” As a military strategy this obviously works extremely well, but it cannot be the basis for a permanent peace settlement.
Given this background, an obvious question presents itself: is peace possible? It is clear that the Palestinians are negotiating from a position of extreme weakness, so it is likely that they will accept almost anything. The question is therefore what concessions Israel is prepared to make. On current evidence, the answer is very little. It is, for example, totally unprepared to talk to Hamas, given its often stated policy of not talking to terrorists. But this begs an important question: what, precisely, is a terrorist?
For example, Margaret Thatcher notoriously branded Nelson Mandela a ‘terrorist’, yet Mandela’s personal qualities were crucial in enabling a peaceful end to apartheid, although it should be admitted that he remains a hate figure, even today, among the Afrikaner community. This blinkered mindset also drove Thatcher’s policy of not allowing terrorists ‘the oxygen of publicity’, which was clearly a failure: subsequent events in Northern Ireland confirm this view. The so-called ‘peace process’ there became possible only because Thatcher’s successors were prepared to talk to Sinn Féin, widely regarded as the political arm of the Provisional IRA and a proscribed organization during Thatcher’s time as prime minister. And although the Northern Ireland peace process is obviously flawed, because dissident republicans continue to commit atrocities, this is on a slowly diminishing scale as these groups become increasingly marginalized.
So is there a lesson here for Israel? The firing of rockets by Islamist militants from Gaza is unacceptable by any reasonable yardstick, but this does not justify the continuing military reprisals against the entire Gaza Strip, which are heavy-handed and indiscriminate: the full-scale invasion in January 2009 killed a disproportionate number of innocent civilians, including children—casualties that could easily have been avoided had the Israeli army not been so trigger-happy in its operations.
Even more questionable has been the deliberate policy of assassinating men whom Israel has branded ‘terrorist leaders’. The murder of Hamas leader Muhammad al-Mabhouh in Dubai in February is merely the latest in a long line of such actions. There can be no doubt that this was a thoroughly unpleasant individual; and the official Israeli line, that there is no evidence its agents were involved, may well be correct; nevertheless, these are weasel words, the kind of dissembling that the country routinely indulges in when quizzed about whether or not it possesses nuclear weapons. However, whether Mossad was or was not responsible is irrelevant when set alongside the approving reaction to the killing by Israeli politicians such as opposition leader Tzipi Livni. It should be noted that no judicial process is ever involved in these kinds of operations, yet even the most despicable terrorist or child murderer should be accorded the forensic niceties of an open trial, with guilt or innocence established by the age-old process of examining and weighing up the evidence.
And then there is the problem of Israeli settlements on land that the country has occupied illegally since 1967 and that the Palestinians hope will become the basis of an independent Palestine. This is a critical issue; there are currently 400,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and more than a quarter of a million in East Jerusalem, although the majority of new building in the former is to the west of Israel’s ‘separation barrier’, probably because there is an expectation that settlements east of the barrier may one day be abandoned as part of any peace agreement. However, mention of Jewish settlements west of the barrier glosses over the obvious fact that in erecting its security wall, Israel has effectively annexed land that is, or should be, part of a future Palestinian state.
The other problem with all these settlements is the belief among orthodox Jews that this territory forms part of the ancient biblical kingdom of Judaea, which disappeared from the historical record, and the Bible, with the first successful invasion of the so-called promised land since that by the Israelites, by the Assyrians in 600 BC. And while the obliteration of Judaea may be the basis of the legend of the lost tribes of Israel, it is no basis on which to found geopolitical territorial claims in the twenty-first century AD. Were it otherwise, one could formulate a reasonable case for the return of al-Andalus (Spain) to Morocco on the grounds that it was occupied by Islam for almost eight centuries before the final acts of the reconquista in the fifteenth century. And Islamic peoples had occupied Palestine prior to the twentieth century for as long as the Jews prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70.
However, while the continuing blockade of the Gaza Strip and regular military and police actions against Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank—the routine demolition of Palestinian homes being particularly egregious—are indefensible, a case can be made for Israel to retain control of the Golan Heights, at least for the foreseeable future. It should be remembered that Syria used this strategic location to bombard northern Israel in the early stages of the 1967 war, and given that there is no peace treaty between Israel and Syria, relinquishing this area would at present be a serious mistake.
If Syria were the only danger to the state of Israel, then some rapprochement between the two countries really ought to be possible. Unfortunately, there is a much more serious and implacable enemy: Hizballah, the ‘Party of God’. It could be argued that Israel made a rod for its own back with regard to this organization, which was formed originally by Iranian Revolutionary Guards as part of Iran’s policy of exporting its Islamic revolution and was a direct response to Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982. The rationale behind this invasion was the destruction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was then active in Lebanon, although, in retrospect, at least part of the motivation appears to have been Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s personal animosity towards PLO leader Yasser Arafat, an animosity that Israel continued until the latter’s death in 2004 despite Arafat’s abandonment of violence and recognition of Israel’s right to exist in peace in 1993.
The mistake that Israel continues to make with regard to militant organizations is to think that they are all the same. This is seen in the ultimate excuse for the 1982 invasion—the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London. This attack was not carried out by the PLO, which had been observing a negotiated ceasefire for some time prior to the invasion, but by an organization that was opposed to the PLO and headed by the notorious terrorist Abu Nidal. Although Israel inflicted huge losses on its adversaries in the ensuing war and will have thought itself successful, the irony is that it only succeeded in replacing a militant organization that was pursuing legitimate goals through illegitimate means with one whose ultimate goal is the destruction of the state of Israel. And one whose fighters proved a match for the Israeli Defence Forces in the brief war of 2006. A rematch is likely sooner rather than later.
This points to the single most dangerous factor in the entire Middle East stand-off: given its relatively overt sponsorship of Hizballah, the likelihood that it is, despite protestations, attempting to develop nuclear weapons, and its leadership by a man who shows all the symptoms of being clinically insane but is probably a shrewd and devious operator, Iran cannot be ignored. Certainly, no one in Israel is making that mistake. On the contrary, the worry is that Israel, given its previous record in such matters, will decide to take unilateral action. There are already calls by some in government and the military for pre-emptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. There are echoes here of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, in which some American military leaders, perhaps afraid to be thought weak, urged on President Kennedy the most dangerous course of action: ‘surgical’ strikes on the missile sites. Similar action by Israel would also be the most dangerous option. The consequences are impossible to predict but are likely to be catastrophic for Israel, the region and, quite possibly, the world.
Meanwhile, the question that it is impossible to avoid asking is this: when will the Israeli government realize that, despite being enshrined in scripture, the doctrine of an eye for an eye does not work? That terrorism cannot be defeated by force of arms alone? That cruelty begets cruelty? Retaliation, especially if it is over the top, may provide a small measure of satisfaction in the short term, but like a tube of Pringle’s potato chips the taste does not linger. The flavour of these potato chips is engineered to disappear in the mouth almost instantly, which encourages the consumer to eat the next chip, and the next chip, until the tube is empty and the promise has remained unfulfilled. It is like this too with retaliation: heavier and heavier reprisals for atrocities committed against your side never provide the degree of satisfaction that had been anticipated. The desire to seek revenge is ultimately self-defeating; revenge, despite the popular saying to the contrary, is sour.