Too many Israelis don’t want a settlement with the Palestinians.
Ten years ago, when prime minister Ehud Barak negotiated face to face with Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton, the media hailed an agreement as nearly done, and then tore into Arafat for scuppering it. But the fact is that Barak could not have won his parliament’s support for his concessions, and raised the bar so high on Arafat that he must have known he would not make the final leap.
The latest U-turn on accepting negotiations by the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, could well be more of the same: just a ploy to quieten Washington. But aren’t the Israelis shooting themselves in the foot?
It’s one of two self-defeating strategies they seem committed to. As Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert spelt out so clearly, an unwillingness to compromise, combined with the high rate of Arab population growth inside Israel and in Palestine, means that it is inevitable that the Jews will be outnumbered in the land they control. The Jews will never give the Palestinian west bank the vote, Palestine will be a Bantustan, and Israel will become a precarious apartheid state. It will, like South Africa, eventually be undermined from within—even if it takes decades.
The second big mistake the Israelis have made is their long game with the militant Islamist political movement, Hamas, now de facto rulers of the Gaza strip.
In the late 1960s, Israel began its policy of building up Islamist strength in Palestine in a gravely misguided effort to undermine the secular Palestinian leadership. In 1973 the Israeli domestic intelligence agency helped the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a man named Ahmed Yassin, to lay the foundations for the creation of Hamas. Not everyone in Israel was happy with this, but the far right pushed it forward: Menachim Begin, prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and defence secretary Ariel Sharon all wanted to hold on to the west bank for eternity. Yassin’s organisation bothered little about Israel and spent most of its energy fighting the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), as the Israelis wanted it to.
But when Hamas was formally established in 1987, it changed direction and supported the first intifada against Israel. Yet whenever the PLO and the left-wing Israeli Labour party moved towards an accord, Hamas upped its anti-PLO stance. It would violently disrupt the talks, pleasing the Israeli right. As time went on, Hamas lost no opportunity to attack Israel, but the right was not too displeased: in 1996 a panicking Israel voted in the right-wing Likud party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu in his first stint as prime minister.
After they lost power in 1999, Likud leaders learnt how to go on playing the fear card. In September 2000, Netanyahu’s successor Ariel Sharon went on a provocative walkabout at the Haram al-Sharif holy site, one of Islam’s most sacred places. The result was the second intifada, scaring Israelis and precipitating Sharon’s election as prime minister, ending all chance of a deal with the Palestinians. Hamas cadres were at the heart of the second intifada.
In power, Sharon continued his ultra-provocative policies. A year later, when the PLO secured a pledge to halt its terrorist activity from Hamas, Sharon ordered the assassination of a top Hamas leader. And in 2004 Israel assassinated Yassin himself.
Today, as the PLO tries to negotiate a peace deal with America’s backing, Hamas continues to fight Israel tooth and nail from its redoubt in the Gaza strip, although its use of rockets that so terrified Israelis last year has subsided for the present.
Israel has created a Frankenstein. The right in Israel don’t want peace, but the left cannot pursue it as long as Hamas is on the warpath.
The right may not believe they have shot themselves in the foot, but one thing is clear: by the twin policies of building up Hamas and ignoring the population dynamics of Palestine, they have probably shot their country—and its people—right in the back.