Dispatches: From Tel Aviv to Ramallah

14 May 2011

While the recent upheavals in the Arab world have received wide press coverage, the strategic implications of these developments for Israel have been left noticeably ambiguous by domestic sources and international media alike. According to the spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are “huge clouds of uncertainty” as to where the region is headed. Scepticism seems to prevail with regards to any genuine democratisation of the Middle East. Cambridge graduate and Member of Knesset (MK) Einat Wilf, of the centre-left Independence Party, expressed fears that the emergence of democracy in Arab states could culminate in authoritarian Islamist take-overs with “one man, one vote, one time”. For this self-professed “hawkish leftist and feminist politician”, democracy in the Middle East is unlikely while “corrupt and authoritarian societies” remain. Such reasoning, stemming from the ideological framework of the “clash of civilizations”, would be heard time and again throughout our journey.

Dr. Oded Eran, a former chief Israeli peace negotiator and current director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), noted that despite repeated attempts by Arab leaders to blame the popular revolts on “a Zionist agenda and a Jewish conspiracy”, the uprisings had nothing to do with Israel. “From beginning to end, it was socio-economic and political concerns which drove the popular agenda”, he said. Even in Egypt, where the 1979 peace treaty with Israel is unpopular, the protesters in Tahrir Square never raised the issue of relations with Israel. This is seen by many in the Israeli security and diplomatic establishment as a very positive – and unforeseen – political development, suggesting a thaw in relations between Israel and its neighbours in the long term.

We noted that both senior Israeli and Palestinian officials are aware of the concessions needed in order to reach peace yet no party possesses the political will or confidence to make the first step. For Dr. Oded Eran, the reason for this is clear: “politicians don’t like to commit suicide!” In Israel, the current right-wing government of Prime Minister Netanyahu is not ready to sacrifice its coalition, which depends on small, yet influential, settler political parties. The Palestinians, for their part, are politically divided between Hamas, which tightly controls the Gaza Strip and a West Bank-based Fatah leading the Palestinian Authority. Despite the current stalemate of negotiations, there exists a technical cooperation between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. Representatives from the EU Police Mission in the Palestinian Territories revealed that Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on hard security was quite satisfying for both sides.

Ambassador Grappo, who represents “The Quartet” (UN, EU, Russia and the United States) emphasised the crucial importance of resolving contradictory emotional narratives as the only hope for progress. “Each side needs to acknowledge the other side’s suffering”, he said. Slogans such as “free Palestine” or “end the apartheid” flourish on the Palestinian side while Yasser Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah has become a shrine symbolising “resistance to the occupation”. On the other hand, visits paid to the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, and to Herod’s Masada Fortress act as constant reminders that Israel’s narrative is tied to claims of a “historical presence in the Holy Land” as well as to fears of future persecution against the Jewish people. The city of Hebron, located in the heart of the West Bank, yet partitioned by the presence of Israeli settlers and soldiers, is one of the most obvious and violent clashing points between these two competing narratives.

The Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, often heralded as a “Palestinian Ben Gurion”, is seen as a competent and trustworthy leader by the Israeli security and diplomatic establishment. Receiving the Cambridge group in Ramallah, Salam Fayyad argued that his building of security, economic and political institutions has made significant progress in preparing Palestine for statehood in the near future. He also stated his willingness to compromise with the Israelis on crucial issues such as Jerusalem, the Right of Return and land swaps. A meeting in Jerusalem with Mark Regev, the spokesman for Prime Minister Netanyahu, was an opportunity to learn that Israel, too, was willing to make concessions in order to reach “an historic compromise.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict therefore boils down to one crucial feature: an historic lack of trust between the two sides. Ambassador Grappo agreed: “senior Israeli and Palestinian officials cooperate on a daily basis on technical matters, some are even good friends, but when it comes to the peace process and political issues, they simply don’t trust each other”.

At first glance, Israel appears to be a homogeneous country. Our study-trip unveiled the complexity of Israeli society and the depth of divisions within it. Politically, it is a country divided between secular and religious movements as well as between advocates of continued settlement and those willing to compromise. Religiously and ethnically, Israeli society is split between the Jews of Eastern Europe (the Ashkenazi) and those of North Africa and the Middle East (the Sephardi), not to mention the prominent secular population. Israel is also a country in which over 20% of the population is of Arab origin, both Christian and Muslim.

These Arab Israelis face social and political pressure from Israel’s recent political shift towards the right. A recent law approved a loyalty oath compelling all Israelis to swear allegiance to Israel as “a Jewish state”. This new law was severely criticized by representatives of the Abraham Fund, an NGO dedicated to improving the lives of the Arab population inside Israel. In their opinion, despite formally possessing the same civic and political rights as any other citizen of Israel, the Arab Israelis are nonetheless victims of informal “institutionalized discrimination”. According to them, “80% of the overall Israeli population thinks it’s incompatible to be both ‘Palestinian’ and ‘Israeli'”. For Sara Miller, editor-in-chief at the centre-left Israeli daily Haaretz, Arab Israelis are perceived as a “fifth column”, reluctant to integrate and seen as responsible for acts of violence inside Israel.

At Israel’s Supreme Court, Justice Yoram Danziger told us that the 300,000 Arab residents of occupied East Jerusalem do not have the right to vote for the Knesset. In a time of democratic revolutions, the status of the Arab Israelis and residents of East Jerusalem has become one of the most important issues for Israeli democracy and its international legitimacy.

Political scientists have coined the term “Masada complex” to describe the Israeli perception that their country is isolated and constantly under threat. Today, new Israeli soldiers climb to the Masada Fortress and swear that, “Masada shall not fall again”. Recently, the target of this complex has become the “Iranian threat.” We were constantly reminded that the Iranian activism on Israeli’s borders, through “proxies” such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, threatens the very existence of the State of Israel. Rafi Zinger, at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), reminded the audience that the use of military force is an option if Iran becomes a threshold nuclear weapons state. “A nuclear Iran,” he said, “would profoundly alter the balance of power in the region. Force should therefore always been considered as a credible tool for effective action.” Mark Regev agreed that “the border keeps quiet because Israel carries a sword”.

In the opinion of Haim Koren, head of Middle Eastern Affairs at the MFA, the “Iranian issue” must be solved before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be effectively dealt with. Although Ambassador Grappo insisted that the “Iranian issue” and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should be dealt with separately, he recognised that “the Iranians are not playing a useful role in the peace process”. Interestingly, this was a view shared on the Palestinian side. The Prime Minister of Palestine admitted that he was “resentful” of Iranian efforts to “destabilise the security situation” in the Palestinian Territories and the former Palestinian Foreign Minister, Nabil Shaath, also regretted Iran’s “non-constructive role” in such matters.

Raphaal Lefevre

Image: Lim En