COMMENT : Can Obama resolve Israel-Palestine? — Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed
Can President Obama defy Evangelical fundamentalism, the notorious Jewish lobby and Israeli hawks and resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict?
Modern Jews, convinced that
the establishment of a Jewish state was the only solution to escape discrimination and persecution at the hands of Christians, founded the Zionist movement. Ultra-orthodox Jews rejected it. They believed that their daily prayer of one day returning to Jerusalem was only a spiritual aspiration. However, other Jewish clerics were in the Zionist movement. The parallel with the Pakistan movement is striking though not identical.
For 2,000 years, Christian fundamentalism’s main victims were Jews, but at least from the 1970s onwards American Christian Evangelicalism began to perceive the Muslims as their main theological enemy. Evangelicalism awaits the second coming of Christ. As soon as Jesus is back on earth and the Jews are re-assembled in Palestine, they will be told to accept him or face the sword. The Israeli leaders take a cynical view: Christ may not be in hurry. Hence, the support of the large Evangelist vote-bank trumps any move of the US government to act fairly in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The US Jewish lobby has money, contacts and enough votes to make a difference. Every four years US presidential candidates outbid each other in swearing their loyalty to Israel in the hope of winning its nod.
The anti-Americanism of the Muslims — crude, rabid and violent, manipulated by al Qaeda, Saudi Arabia and Iran — provides to ordinary Americans abundant evidence that such barbarians nurture suicide bombers, oppress their women, persecute minorities and shoot missiles into Israel, the only democracy and their only true friend in that volatile region.
Historically, within the Zionist movement there were Jews who wanted to live in peace with the Arabs in Palestine. A tiny Jewish minority had survived in Palestine despite expulsion 2,000 years ago. After Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain threw them and the Muslims out of Spain at the end of the 15th century, many found refuge in Muslim North Africa and in the vast Ottoman Empire, including Palestine. Jewish settlements from the 19th century grew slowly, largely through purchase of land from the local people.
However, a racist wing always existed in the Zionist movement. It wanted to drive all Arabs out of Palestine. Lord Balfour was not particularly pro-Jewish; in fact, European anti-Semites wanted to rid their societies of Jews and, therefore, the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine floated by the British in 1917 was an expedient way of achieving such an end. The Jewish Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis created sympathy and guilt in the west. Millions of Jewish survivors arrived in Palestine. Zionists, anti-Semites, and guilty Europeans together became the social base that ensured that Israel would be established in Palestine.
Sharif Hussein of Makkah and his sons, Faisal, Ali and Abdullah, were not averse to it, especially after being expelled from Hejaz and the Syrians and other Arabs rejecting their ambitions to become rulers of the Arab world. The United Nations adopted a two-state formula, which roughly gave 52 percent of historical Palestine to the Jews and 48 percent to the Arabs. While the Zionist leadership, at that time dominated by the left wing, accepted it, the Arab leaders did not. On May 14, 1948, the Zionists declared an independent Israel, driving thousands of Arabs into flight through terrorism. The western nations recognised Israel. Even the Soviet Union did, hoping that the leftwing Zionists would establish a base for socialist politics in the conservative Middle East.
The Arab leaders declared war on Israel, which they lost. Israel came into possession of more land than allocated to it under the UN Partition Plan. A small Palestinian minority survived in Israel. Israel became a Jewish democracy that did not exclude non-Jews but marginalised them effectively. Wars in 1967 and 1973 resulted in more defeats for the Arabs and further expansion of Israeli occupation of Palestine. The subsequent ideas of the two-state solution that emerged were premised on Israel withdrawing to the 1967 and not the 1948 borders laid down in the Partition Plan.
During the Cold War, Arab politics polarised as secular-nationalist elites were attracted to the Soviet Union while conservative Arab rulers allied to the west. Bernard Lewis and several other experts advised the US State Department to patronise political Islam.
The late Anwar Sadat of Egypt dared break the impasse and entered into a peace treaty with Israel but was mercilessly gunned down. Later, the PLO came around to the idea of living in peace with Israel, provided an independent state was accepted and the refugees of 1948 allowed to return to their homes. Even Saudi Arabia began to support such an idea. Israeli leaders were not willing to let Palestinian refugees return, though even rightwing leaders accepted the idea of some sort of Palestinian state. Following the Oslo Accords, a Palestinian National Authority was established on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, illegal settlements on occupied territories continued. Secretly the Israelis had been masterminding a strategy to bolster a fundamentalist challenge to the PLO. Hamas was that challenger. After Yasser Arafat died in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas assumed the leadership.
Now, Iran had been aspiring for a dominant role in the Middle East. Another set of US advisers began to speak of a Shia crescent cutting across Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. With Saddam Hussein removed from the scene, Iranian influence magnified, though out of proportion. Meanwhile, Iran began backing Hamas. Following elections in 2006 in which the people voted in large numbers for Hamas because corruption was rampant amongst the Fatah leaders, the two factions clashed. It culminated in Fatah’s writ shrinking to portions of the West Bank and that of Hamas being limited to the Gaza Strip. Armed by Iran and other rogue elements, Hamas and other groups fired missiles into Israel. The Israeli military responded with crushing force, combining aerial bombing with ground action when necessary. The lives of the Gaza Palestinians were brutalised and the Israelis lived in fear. Palestinian casualties grossly outnumbered those of the Israelis. That has not killed the resistance.
The Arab Spring still holds out a promise of positive change and the Muslim Brotherhood government seems pragmatic. A willingness to recognise Israel exists among the Arabs, provided the Palestinians could exercise their right to a separate, independent, viable state, more or less corresponding to the 1967 borders. The Palestinians must accept that returning to their 1948 homes is out of the question. Perhaps some compensation can be agreed. Can President Obama defy Evangelical fundamentalism, the notorious Jewish lobby and Israeli hawks and resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict? There is no third term to worry about any more.
The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org