No Mideast plan can ignore Israel’s security needs

JERUSALEM - The problems of the Middle East are clearly horrendous. But by coming here, I have learned something important. And bad. The events of the last 12 years have convinced a significant portion of Israeli public opinion that “there is no one for us to talk to on the other side.” How would you like me to persuade them otherwise? I am here as a guest of the Canada-Israel Committee, in case that affects your judgment about my judgment. We have seen a number of officials and commentators, including some Palestinians, and others whose profession is not public policy. Some were not “hawks” or right-wingers on other issues, let alone ultra-Orthodox, and seemed bitterly disappointed to have been driven to this conclusion. But driven they were.

The background is the upcoming unilateral “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip, the forced removal of all the roughly 8,000 settlers there and the destruction of their farms. It is painful for Israelis for several reasons. Economically, these settlers are very productive farmers. Theologically, withdrawing them seems finally to give an explicit “No” to the question of a Greater Israel, and could lead to violent resistance, to Jews killing Jews. But there is also bitter non-biblical argument that withdrawing now, in this way, is strategically unwise because it rewards the violence of the “Second Intifada.”

Normally this claim would be persuasive, and it is for a sizable minority. But a decisive share of the Israeli centre rejects it because they have come to the bitter conclusion that the Palestinian leadership, and many of its supporters, simply do not react rationally to incentives. Israel is moving unilaterally in Gaza, and in the West Bank (establishing “facts on the ground” by building the security wall and expanding many settlements), because it feels it has no one to talk to.

To the claim that this disengagement will teach the Palestinians that violence works, the reply is that everything seems to teach them that, including disastrous defeats. Many feel as though they are trapped in a zombie movie, facing adversaries who are neither clever nor agile but are insatiably aggressive. The Palestinians deserve far better, and should curse the leaders who led them into this impasse. So should Israelis, as it poses hideous long-term difficulties; the situation of the Palestinians is both grim and unjust. But just because something is bad doesn’t mean it can’t happen, especially in this part of the world.

There is obviously no shortage of people the Israeli government could talk to about what for the sake of convention I will call the Middle East peace process, from smug outsiders to various local players. The problem is that much of the Israeli public thinks the outsiders are fatuously indifferent to their security while those more directly involved are either incapable of keeping their commitments or, worse, insincere in giving them. They can easily get yet more soothing assurances from Palestinian leaders about dealing with the violence in their own time and their own way. But why would they want to?

The crocodile in the vestibule here is the Holocaust. It makes Israelis acutely aware of the insane anti-Semitism that swirls around the Middle East (starting with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the blood libel and Holocaust denial). And they know perfectly well the world didn’t care while the rail cars were rolling to Majdanek and Belzec. So when interlocutors overseas or from the Palestinian Authority say that essentially they still don’t care, it creates an insuperable, senseless obstacle to further discussion. I had the chance to ask some Palestinian negotiators whether they had been to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial, and not one had. (Anwar Sadat went, and paid with his life for making peace.)

I am not Jewish and have, as far as I am aware, no Jewish ancestors. But I have stood in the Hall of Remembrance and wept, for all mankind but also for the Jews in particular, and I know the names of the six main death camps. “Empty rail cars. ... What have you done with the Jews?” If you do not understand that the first condition of a “settlement” is “No Second Holocaust,” you are not someone the Israelis can, or should, talk to.

I knew the Middle East was a hideous mess. But I discovered something new that matters for peace and a decent life for Palestinians. Israelis must be persuaded that there is someone for them to talk to, not just a zombie that lurches relentlessly toward them. Right now many do not think so. And I do not know what to tell them.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson