In a May 20, 2021 opinion piece for the Washington Post, the American political commentator Fareed Zakaria writes that Israel has risen to become a superpower in the Middle East.
It’s a ‘first world’ country in a region full of ‘third world’ states. It has one of the strongest economies in the world and a powerful army. It has robust ties with some of the world’s most developed countries. What’s more, its diplomatic relations with Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt, and its trade relations with Turkey, have continued to mushroom. And only recently, oil-rich Arab monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have made substantial moves to establish ties with Israel.
According to Zakaria, all this proves that Israel has developed itself as a strong, secure country. Therefore, it does not have any economic or military reason left to continue oppressing the Palestinians trying to eke out a living in a highly impoverished setting and in an environment of fear in the so-called Palestinian Territories.
Despite these areas having a supposedly autonomous Palestinian government, their fate is in the hands of the Israeli state. Also, whereas Israel has managed to neutralise the firepower of Palestinian militant groups, there is now more turmoil between secular Palestinian nationalist outfits, such as the PLO and Islamist groups such as Hamas, than there is between them and Israel.
There is thus, he writes, no existentialist compulsion left to justify Israel’s repression of Palestinians, and its refusal to genuinely negotiate a two-state solution that can actually resolve the now 73-year-old dispute. In the increasing absence of any military and economic compulsion to keep the Palestinians under its yoke, Israel really does not have much to show any more on the diplomatic front as reasons for its continual oppression of a battered and bruised people.
Israel no longer faces an existential crisis. But it faces amoral opportunism from its leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Can US President Biden recognise this and preserve his own claims to be an upholder of human rights?
In his article, Zakaria wonders on what grounds then can powerful influencers, such as the US, negotiate a settlement between Israel and Palestine, if Israel now has very few understandable reasons to continue behaving in a brutish manner. Therefore, Zakaria now sees the dispute outside political, economic and military rationales. He writes that today it is simply a moral issue and should be treated as such.
Israel’s existentialist narrative, based on Israel being constantly threatened by forces that want it to stop existing, is not sounding very convincing anymore. One evidence of this is the manner in which the word ‘anti-Semitic’ has been applied by it even against its Jewish critics, who just can’t locate any justifications anymore for a powerful country to continue bombing a desperate people.
Indeed, the aforementioned narrative did make sense when seven Arab countries attacked the then fledgling Jewish nation-state in 1948. Even though Israeli forces routed the opposition, the threat to the country did not diminish. Nor did the fact that Israel was not fully committed to treat its Arab population as equals and allow the creation of a separate Palestinian state as mandated by the UN.
In 1967, four Arab countries again attacked Israel, only to be vanquished by Israeli forces. In 1973, another Arab-Israel war erupted. The Arab countries settled for a ceasefire. One of the most radical anti-Israel Arab states, Egypt, agreed to recognise Israel as a sovereign country and establish diplomatic ties with it. Later, in 1994, the PLO that had been in the forefront of fighting an armed insurgency against Israel, too negotiated a peace deal that handed the Palestinians the West Bank and Gaza.
Yet, there was no peace. Hamas, an Islamist outfit that was ironically fostered by Israel as a counterweight to PLO, refused to recognise the 1994 agreement. As the PLO abandoned armed militancy, this tactic was adopted by Hamas.
In a March 19, 2018 essay for the Brookings Institution, Daniel L. Byman writes that Israel sees Hamas as ‘a necessary evil’ because Hamas alone can keep a chaotic and impoverished region such as Gaza from imploding. Byman adds that the PLO, which has been governing the West Bank since 1996, has no appetite to run Gaza. The PLO was ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007.
If this is the case, then what compelled the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to order the Israeli forces to drop bombs on Gaza and slaughter over 250 Palestinians? As Zakaria correctly points out, the threat from Hamas has been completely contained. Recently, Hamas hasn’t been able to conduct bombings in Israel. And, as the world saw, Israel’s air defense system, the ‘Iron Dome’, was able to completely destroy hundreds of rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza.
Netanyahu says Israel retaliated because of the rockets fired by Hamas. But even before the first Hamas rocket was fired, the Netanyahu regime seemed committed to completely bulldoze whatever little progress had been made towards a negotiated peace from 1994 onwards. Especially undercut were the moves that former US President Barack Obama was making before things were derailed by the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
Like Trump in the US, who tried to whip up violence and a conspiratorial narrative of victimhood within the US as he headed for a defeat in the 2020 elections, Netanyahu provoked the impulsive nature of the ‘necessary evil’ Hamas to ward off his own ousting as prime minister. The provocation was the land-grabbing by Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and Israeli actions at the Al-Aqsa mosque.
According to the American political theorist Micheline Ishay, Netanyahu’s popularity was at its lowest before the recent attacks and he was also being investigated on charges of corruption. He enjoys immunity from indictment only as long as he remains PM. But Ishay now believes that the recent ‘conflict’ with the Palestinians has decreased public resentment against Netanyahu. So, is this man raining bombs and killing unarmed people, including children, just so he can continue being PM and thus maintain immunity from corruption charges? It is possible.
With the existentialist threat to Israel now almost completely neutralised, this PM needed to revive the memory of this fading threat, only to protect himself from being ousted.
Zakaria is right. This is now entirely a moral issue. And I would add that Israel is clearly on the wrong side of it. Israel’s largest donor, partner and supporter, the US — now headed by a non-populist President Joe Biden — must deal with it as a moral issue, which needs to be dealt through a diplomacy of ethics.
Biden must not allow Netanyahu’s relentless amorality to disfigure his (Biden’s) reputation as the man who claimed he was committed to put human rights at the heart of the US’s post-Trump dealings with other countries.
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 30th, 2021