The Language of Violence A Seed of Destruction in the Middle East
Israel is currently ignoring criticism from the West as it continues to pursue its settlement policies in the Palestinian Territories. It is also unlikely to reverse course anytime soon. Prospects for a two-state solution are getting dimmer.
Political parties in democracies have a strong tendency to resort to senseless or even harmful projects in order to buy themselves a majority of votes. This is particularly true in countries like Germany that are home to coalition governments, where the larger party is often forced to make painful compromises in order to hold delicate governments together and pacify voters who back junior coalition members. In return, the larger party receives the votes it needs to achieve a parliamentary majority. These concessions can be painful, but they are part of Western democracy -- even that practiced by Chancellor Angela Merkel's government.
Of course, the situation is no different in Israel, the Middle East's only functioning democracy. The country's Orthodox minority is granted privileges for which the liberal majority population has little understanding, and the same is true of the nationalist-religious settler movement that seeks to turn the West Bank back into Jewish-influenced territory, 2,500 years after the end of the first Jewish state. The majority of Israelis would relinquish most of these settlements immediately if doing so would bring peace with the Palestinians. Yet for 40 years no Israeli administration, not even the more left-wing ones, has managed to hold onto power without making concessions to the parties that represent the settlers and the Orthodox.
All democracies must live with the bad decisions they make, but in the Middle East those decisions have far more dramatic consequences than they do in the peaceful conditions of Western Europe. The fact that the steady advance of settlement construction disregards the rights of Palestinians is something deplored in Israel by only a few intellectuals. Yet a glance at a map of Jerusalem makes it clear that as the city grows, it expands primarily into the Palestinian east. Jerusalem residents looking for low-priced housing find it in the areas that were originally Arab. And because material advantage is more important to most Israelis than consideration for the rights of others -- and this is really no different than with people from any other nationality -- many are indeed moving onto Palestinian land.
In any case, it would be naïve to imagine a Jewish family would choose not to move into East Jerusalem simply because doing so would violate Palestinians' rights. Conflicts in Western Europe may generally be dealt with through compromise, but in the Middle East the power of fact is the only one that counts. If one side has the necessary capital for building houses and streets, as well as the government's military backing, then that side will build. Israel's Arab neighbors are less surprised by this than Europeans are. They have experienced many such disappointments before and expect no different from Israel. This fatalism is so pervasive, in fact, that many Palestinians actually become construction workers, for lack of any other available jobs, helping to build the Israeli settlements.
So why is it that strength is the only power that matters here? The relationship between these two peoples is certainly not one of tolerance or of recognizing one another's interests, but rather a truly racist one. Since the foundation of the State of Israel 64 years ago, its Arab neighbors have wished the country and all its inhabitants would go to hell. The Palestinian National Authority's half-hearted peace offerings under the leadership of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, as well as Israel's fragile peace accords with Egypt and Jordan, have never managed to change this fundamental situation. Economically and culturally successful Israel, meanwhile, with very few exceptions, views its Palestinian neighbors, many of whom live under miserable conditions, as second-class citizens.
The Muslim world only accepts Israel's existence at all when the country presents itself in a powerful way. When Israel retreats, as it did in the cases of southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, its neighbors interpret that as a sign of weakness. When Israel withdrew settlers from Gaza in 2005, the response was a massive increase in the number of rocket attacks on Israel. Following the logic of the Middle East, Jerusalem's reaction in turn had to be a violent one. Violence is the only language with which both sides are currently able to communicate.
The construction of a wall between Israel and the West Bank is another such violent act. To curb terrorist attacks and protect Jewish settlements, Israel is building a monstrously high barrier up to 8 meters (26 feet) high, with numerous checkpoints along its length. The fact that constructing this wall requires appropriating Palestinian territory is simply taken in stride. Why, many Israelis argue, should we respect the rights of people who deny our right to exist? The paramount imperative here is not the law, but rather one's own security -- this too is a maxim of Israeli politics, one which conflicts with the European mentality of justice and consensus.
And the settlers feature prominently in the security concept adhered to by Yisrael Beiteinu, the smaller coalition partner in Benjamin Netanyahu's government, a nationalist party that was headed by Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman until his resignation last Friday following his indictment on charges of fraud. A cordon of settlements around Jerusalem is meant to provide the seat of the Israeli government with the desired protection from possible attacks by Palestinian terrorists. The recent decision to build a new settlement -- as yet unnamed and known only as E1 -- serves this goal, closing the gap in the ring of settlements and at the same time considerably restricting Palestinians' freedom of movement in East Jerusalem, by essentially dividing the West Bank into northern and southern parts.
Unmoved By Protests
The Israeli government has shown itself to be completely unmoved by the protests of the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France and Spain. By quickly implementing this new settlement construction, Israel intends to create a situation that will be difficult to undo. Theoretically speaking, the coalition parties have always avowed their willingness to give up a portion of the settlements if the Palestinians would guarantee Israel's security in a peace treaty, but practically speaking, any hope of dismantling the large blocks of settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah is unrealistic. What Israeli administration will ever have the capability to relocate hundreds of thousands of settlers back into Israeli territory? As compensation the Israeli government would only offer the Palestinians areas along the border with the West Bank that have so far belonged to Israel.
What, ultimately, is the source of each side's uncompromising insistence on its own security? One principle cause, of course, is the Holocaust, a traumatic experience the Jews share with no other people in the world. But decades spent in a perpetual state of war with its Arab neighbors, the suicide attacks and rockets, the threats of annihilation from Tehran -- all of this has radicalized Israeli society. One only has to imagine what influence such a hostile environment would have on a Western European country to see that here in Europe, too, militarization would be the inevitable result.
Earlier this month, during a visit to Gaza that was tolerated by the Israeli authorities, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal once again promised to "liberate Palestine," declaring "God willing, we shall liberate Palestine together, inch by inch. Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem, then Haifa and Jaffa." Mashaal's threats are more than just rhetoric. Hamas belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, the same movement that has taken control of Egypt's government and is now energetically working to dismantle the very democratic system that brought it to power. Given these circumstances, Israel's skeptical view of the Arab Spring is very understandable.
A Seed of Destruction
At the moment, the Palestinians are still too deeply divided to put up stiff resistance against Israel in this fight over land. But the radical Palestinian leaders' politics also follow the same logic as that of the settlers, only in the reverse: They're not insisting on a return to the borders sanctioned by the United Nations in 1948 -- no, they would rather disband Israel entirely, replacing it with a Palestinian state. No school textbook used in the Gaza Strip or in the West Bank shows Israel's borders.
Putting absolute primacy on one's own security, though, carries a seed of destruction within it. Using drones to strike down out of the blue and kill Hamas' military leaders in the Gaza Strip may indeed impress the enemy, by speaking a language the enemy understands, but at the same time it perpetuates the same hatred that puts Israel's population in danger every day. And perforating the West Bank with further new settlements to the point that a Palestinian state is no longer conceivable there -- that act serves to push off the oft-evoked two-state solution to an unattainably distant future.
Even those Palestinian intellectuals open to compromise -- for example Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem -- are coming to doubt the feasibility of the two-state solution. Israel's settlements have so thoroughly carved up Palestinian territory, they say, that peace will likely only be possible in a single state shared by Jews and Arabs alike. This vision, though, also carries with it a certain degree of threat: If Israel doesn't start making concessions to the Palestinians, their population growth will see to it that Jews would soon be in the minority in such a state.
But Netanyahu's government isn't thinking about the future. It only thinks about maintaining a status quo that, at least for many Israelis, is still a bearable one. The Israeli government cooperates with the Palestinian police in Ramallah, but without seeking to establish real peace. It contains Hamas within the Gaza Strip, but never manages to actually disarm its deadly enemy. And it continues to build settlements in the West Bank, in order to secure the settlers' votes. Israel is playing for time -- and that's a dangerous game.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein