Should we ever use the word ‘peace’ in relation to Israel-Palestine?

7 Jul

With regret the answer seems to be no, or at least, not very often. This is not because Israelis and Palestinians are somehow naturally given to violence, or that they are incapable of tolerance and justice. Instead it is due to deep structural factors that militate against any serious moves towards peace. By peace I mean efforts to work out a long-term accommodation between the peoples, identities, claims and aspirations of the region. I do not mean short-term ceasefires brokered by the Egyptian junta’s military intelligence between Israel and Hamas. Nor do I mean the utterly pointless spasmodic attempts by successive US Secretaries of State to ‘jumpstart’ the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’. That process does not exist. There is more chance of jumpstarting a melon.

The Israeli state is just not designed for peace

So what are these structural factors? First and foremost we must look at the nature of the Israeli state. It is structured and operated in such a way that means that a just accommodation with Palestinians is an irrational goal. This is not an Israel-bashing exercise. Israel is culpable of mass human rights abuses and is a regional bully, but this blog posting wants to look beyond that to examine the structural factors that sustain conflict and make genuine reconciliation a near impossibility. The Israeli state is a war system. It is a national security state with enormous vested interests in the perpetuation of its conflict. It has an existential narrative (“Israel’s very survival is at risk”) that gives it a raison d’etre for a permanent war-footing (whether this existential narrative has basis in fact is a very different matter). It has a $16bn annual defence budget, a political culture that venerates military ‘heroics’, national service, and an enormous number of jobs, mortgages, careers and livelihoods bound up in the security sector. It has a thriving business of selling arms and expertise to other repressive states. The United States pays about a quarter of Israel’s defence budget.

Second, Israel has created facts on the ground that mean that there are few incentives to talk to Palestinians. It has physically withdrawn from its most vulnerable colony: Gaza. It has built its separation wall to more or less eliminate suicide bombings. It controls virtually everything in the Palestinian Authority: arresting elected politicians at will, controlling the budget, and the water and electric supply. It has made sure that the Palestinian Authority has no defensive or offensive capability: the PA’s main role is to police militants. It has fractured remaining Palestinians lands to make a viable Palestinian state virtually impossible. It has immiserated Palestinians: 43 percent of men in Gaza are unemployed. The United States will take Israel’s side every time, and on every issue. Arab states have no love for the Palestinians. Given that Israel holds the upper hand, why should it talk to Palestinians? There is absolutely nothing in it for Israelis.

Third, many Israelis are prosperous. Certainly there have been cost of living protests, and poverty is especially acute among the incoming population, many of whom are Eritreans (Israel awards refugee status only in truly exceptional cases – successful claims for asylum run in single figures per year). With US subvention, preferential access to European markets, a booming hi-tech sector, and safety from Palestinian attack (due to the separation wall and other security measures) most Israelis do not feel seriously threatened – in an existential way – by Palestinians. This is despite the political narrative of an existential threat. So again, why engage with your ‘enemy’ if your enemy is not in a position to harm you, or is not even visible? Polling shows that serious engagement with Palestinians is simply not an issue for the vast majority of Israelis.

Fourth, ‘peace’ has little traction in domestic Israeli politics. There was a sizeable peace movement in the 1990s, but that has fallen away quite dramatically. The real political action is to be found on the right where political leaders seek to exploit the security dilemma and accuse each other of being soft on security and ‘terror’. Demonising Palestinians, Arabs, Iran and ‘haters’ wins votes. Talking up the long, expensive and frustrating road to peace wins few. Right-wing and Jewish fundamentalist constituencies are growing rapidly, and political parties are alive to this.

Fifthly, ‘the international community’ (in other words the United States and its European clients states) gives Israel a clear run. It might occasionally chide it for building a few thousand settler houses or for a particularly gratuitous human rights abuse (unhelpfully caught on camera) but the Israeli state is made from Teflon in terms of international condemnation. There are no good reasons in international law to deny Palestine statehood, yet last year the US and UK mobilized other states to block such a move at the UN. The paucity of arguments against Palestinian statehood was revealing. Hillary Clinton and William Hague looked more vacuous than usual with their justifications for vetoing statehood. ‘Er, the time is not right’ was the height of their rhetorical flourishes. It points to grubby realpolitik being the reason for the use of the veto.

Finally, the region is a mess and is incapable of putting pressure on Israel. Lebanon is regularly bashed by Israel in punitive raids and wars. It is sinking under Syrian refugees and its own confessional tensions. The squalid monarchy in Jordan is compliant. Syria is engaged in cannibalism. Egypt is back to Mubarak regime, only this time with a different Mubarak. Turkey is, perhaps, the only state in the region that can influence Israel – through sheer force of its dynamic economy but it is otherwise occupied, not least with the rise of Kurdistan.
All of these factors coalesce to mean that Israel has no incentive for peace. This applies internally and internationally. It would be irrational for an electorally-minded Israeli political leader to engage in a genuine peace process that would involve serious concessions of land and rights to Palestinians.

And the Palestinians

Of course, Palestinians are not entirely without power and agency. It has to be said that this power and agency is hugely constrained by Israel and its backers. But where they do use it, they either use it poorly or are up against such insurmountable barriers that it is few opportunities for success. A great example of Palestinians using their few cards poorly is in the representatives they put forward for the western media. The Israelis are masters of this: American accented, calm individuals with very European or American sounding names. They appear extraordinarily reasonable as they justify the unjustifiable. Just last week a reasonable sounding Israeli Defence Force spokesman described the massing of Israeli forces on the border with Gaza as an act of ‘de-escalation’. It was pure Orwellian doublespeak but said in the bed-side manner of a seasoned medical practitioner. Contrast this with Palestinian spokespeople who are usually enraged (justifiably so) and often with poor English. They were probably appointed to the media presentation gig because they are someone’s cousin. Palestinians can complain that they have poor access to education and the outside world, but they have had generations to get wise to the importance of cosying up to the western media. This is only an example, but it is telling of how poor they are at
playing ‘the game’.

So what is to be done?

Firstly, let us not further degrade this word ‘peace’ by using it in such an unpropitious context. Let us not use it in relation to temporary ceasefires and sham ‘peace processes’ that will not address fundamental issues. So let’s use this ‘peace’ word very carefully.

Secondly, we can continue to highlight the systemic nature of the conflict and how it is embedded in the political and cultural systems of the Israeli state. Many other actors are implicated in this system, including much of the ‘peacebuilding’ industry. So we need to look beyond ‘peace initiatives’ and responses to the latest crisis and instead focus on the structures and systems that allow war and repression to triumph over peace and genuine relations between equal peoples.

Third, the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) response is wholly legitimate. It provides a useful contrast to the violence, repression and exclusion that are the staple of Israel’s apartheid strategy. Indeed, Israel’s response to Palestinian activism is officially termed ‘sanctions’ so there can be no argument from Israel that sanctions are somehow ‘unfair’. There are arguments that sport, culture and academia must be exempt from BDS, but they don’t seem to have a basis in logic.

Fourth, there are signs that Israel’s apartheid is becoming internationally unacceptable just as happened with South Africa’s apartheid. Condemnations of Israel are beginning to come from sources (parts of the US media) that previously looked the other way. This can only be good and might lead to interesting places – such as the timidity of Israeli security personnel travelling abroad lest they are subject to human rights cases. Community punishments, detention without trial, house demolitions and many other indignities are justifiable in Israel, but increasingly less so abroad.

And a few concluding words

We must not be naïve enough to think ‘Palestinians good, Israelis bad’. The world is much more complex than that, and we cannot look across the Arab world and see it as a repository of calm and tolerance. But it is legitimate to ask: where does power lie? Power, ultimately, lies in Israel and its powerful patrons and it is towards these sources that the bulk of condemnation must be directed.

The basic point is that we must be very careful when using the word ‘peace’. It might seem defeatist to rule out using the word peace in relation to Israel-Palestine. After all, peace relies on imaginative, optimism and creativity. Situations can and do change for the better. In the grim days of the late 1980s, no one contemplated that the Cold War would end – and end quite abruptly. While political leaders and the military-industrial complex might not be in favour of peace, there are courageous individuals who show tolerance and non-violence in their every days lives. So yes we can use this word peace, but guardedly, and certainly not in relation to initiatives taken by politicians – at the moment.


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