Out of Control

All modern governments need checks on their leaders. Power is an insidious form of narcotic, and the leader who has too much soon comes to abuse it. The situation gets out of control, until and unless some countervailing force steps in.

Israel is a democracy and there are plenty of internal checks on Sharon’s power, but he has consistently outmaneuvered his opponents in recent years. His decision to withdraw from Gaza alienates zealots on the right but gains him support at the center. It has the collateral advantage of neutralizing much of the opposition to his settlements policy that has been growing in Europe and even in the United States. This frees him up to pursue consolidation of the Israeli chokehold on the West Bank. There, the Israeli juggernaut rolls on, virtually unchecked.

Subtle consequences are emerging from Sharon’s success. Israeli right-wingers are emboldened by the absence of any opposition to the government’s settlement policy to act as though they already owned the West Bank, as though history had already vindicated their historic claim. Ugly streaks of arrogance and even racism are beginning to surface. This is the downside of success, containing the seeds of ultimate failure.

Item: Natan Sharansky, the Government of Israel’s Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, has publicly proposed creating a Diaspora Parliament to represent Jews outside Israel, which would function in parallel to the Knesset and participate in national decisions. [ ] He says: “…the Jewish state belongs not only to its citizens but to Jews everywhere…We are one family.” Sharansky sees only one objection to this idea: it would give a lot of people a voice in decisions that primarily concern Israelis, while they themselves might remain unaffected by the consequences. He dismisses this idea as unworthy. He fails to mention a much larger issue: the effect his proposal would have on questions of national citizenship and national loyalty. Apparently it never occurs to him that there are Jews in America, say, who may love and support Israel, but whose prime loyalty is to the United States–and who want to keep it that way. Sharansky’s proposal makes it clear that he believes the primary loyalty of every Jew everywhere belongs to Israel and not to the nation-state whose citizenship that Jew enjoys. Is this a road down which most diaspora Jews wish to proceed? I doubt it.

Sharansky may be a bit of a wild card in the spectrum of Israeli politics, and his proposal is unlikely to be realized. But it reflects an arrogance and insensitivity that is all too evident in the way Sharon’s government has managed Israel’s relations with the rest of the world.

Another item: Leftwing Israeli critic Uri Avnery reports that an authoritative group of rabbis has recently ruled that the Halakha (religious law) authorizes the killing of Palestinian civilians if this can be construed as helping to save Jews. This “fatwa” was signed by the heads of the “Arrangement Yeshivot”, the West Bank settlement rabbis, and by other religious leaders, including one of the two Chief Rabbis (the Sephardic one). If true, this is more than just the mouthings of an aberrant member of Sharon’s government. The Yeshivot are army units composed of religious students, grouped together to allow soldiers to continue their religious studies while doing their military service. These soldiers are part of the military command chain but their primary loyalty rests with their religious instructors. When push comes to shove, in any sort of a confrontation with Palestinian civilians, and there are many these days, Yeshivot soldiers can now shoot first without feeling compunction or guilt, since their religion tells them it’s all right.

I remember that last July, while I was on my visit in the West Bank, I watched a young Israeli soldier in a skull cap, in uniform with flak jacket and automatic gun, watching me, and then going off to pray. I did not like the way he looked at me; there was a fanaticism in his eyes that I have sensed before, in people who are so deeply committed to their own vision of God that they are beyond reason. I was glad at that moment that I was an American, not a Palestinian.

A third item concerns roads and settlements in the West Bank. On my recent visit there, I found that a culturally coherent, economically developed Palestinian society is being systematically and intentionally destroyed by using new settlements and roads to cut it up into little self-contained ghettoes. Ordinary civilians cannot go near the new Israeli settlements and cannot use the network of new roads that connect them. They can’t even cross those new roads except at specified checkpoints, manned by Israeli soldiers (like the one I just mentioned) who may or may not let them pass.

This process of ghettoizing the West Bank is moving forward rapidly but is attracting increasing opposition, especially in Europe. That opposition has reached the point, it appears, where the Sharon government feels it has to do something. Would that response be to turn things around a bit, to alleviate the pressures? To move back in the direction of the solution foreseen in the Oslo agreements, providing for a viable Palestinian entity on the West Bank? And even (horrors!) to consider cutting back on the settlements? Of course not. The arrogance and stubbornness of the regime mandates that to meet the growing international pressure, a few steps be taken, but they should be almost entirely cosmetic, and easily reversible. Then Sharon will present himself as a man of peace, while the process of absorbing the West Bank within an enlarged Jewish Israel will continue.

How is this to be achieved? On September 6 the Manchester Guardian reported that under pressure from the World Bank and others, the Israeli Government was planning a new road system for the Palestinians, that would parallel the existing “sterile” system (ie, where Palestinans were not allowed) and improve local access. The Israeli government, predictably, indicated it expected outside aid to finance this project.

I’ll believe it when I see it. Two points: first, there is no timetable. The announcement bleeds off the pressure in the present, while the realization can be very far into the future. Second, it is impossible to construct a parallel road system that addresses the ghettoizing of the land, without a large number of tunnels and other bypasses that allow Palestinians to cross the “sterile” roads without going through Israeli checkpoints. Perhaps a couple of tunnels will eventually be built and announced with appropriate fanfare, but I do not believe the Israelis are going to reduce their control significantly over the internal mobility of civilians on the West Bank, at least during the foreseeable future.

The point here is that the Sharon government is heading for the absorption of the West Bank and no presently existing force is going to stop it. The juggernaut is rolling, and it is out of the control of the World Bank or the Europeans or anybody else, except perhaps the United States. When pressed, Sharon will engage in a little flimflam, apply a few cosmetic touches to make things seem other than they are. But the basic course will be maintained.

What American leader is going to lean on Israel hard enough to make a difference at this point? Ralph Nader might, or Pat Buchanan, but they are irrelevant. John Kerry appears hopeless on this issue. I shall vote for him, but for other reasons. I reluctantly have to conclude that for the next few years, the outlook is bleak, for the Palestinian people, and for the hopes shared by responsible humans everywhere for peace and justice in the so-called holy land.

Over the longer run, the situation may improve. The intransigeance and arrogance of the Israeli hawks will ultimately do them in. But it will be a long and painful wait, until that happens.

CSCoon 9/17/04

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