What I discovered as a Middle East correspondent

Independent journalist Donald MacIntyre has written a reflection on his eight years reporting Israel/Palestine:

As the world concentrates on the Israeli Prime Minister’s new “red line” for an Iran strike, Jewish settlement in the West Bank accelerates apace. Settler leader Dani Dayan offered, in a recent New York Times article, a panglossian picture of the West Bank in which “security – the ultimate precondition for everything – prevails”. Reading this, I remembered meeting, in 2009, Khalil Nawaja, a 61-year-old shepherd in the south Hebron hills, just after the police had closed the file – without charges – on the attack by four masked club-swinging young settlers that had severely injured him and his wife (and which had been caught on video). Speaking of life in Israeli-controlled Area C, the 60 per cent of West Bank territory where the military’s task is to protect the settlers and the Palestinian Authority’s writ does not run, he said, accurately: “I am in the front line. If I leave tomorrow, I will lose the land.” This was one – routine – settler attack of the sort EU diplomats warned earlier this year were now increasing at a frightening pace. It depends what you mean by “security”.

When Mitt Romney says… he sees no hope for an Israeli-Palestinian resolution, he is really endorsing the Dayan view. And the right’s triumphalism is matched by the left’s defeatism.

Embedded in the Israeli DNA is a perception that Ariel Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza led only to Hamas rocket fire into Israel, thus underlining the dangers of withdrawals elsewhere. But not only did Israel maintain tight control of Gaza’s borders, air space and territorial waters; the withdrawal could hardly have been executed to less reconciliatory effect. Israel’s refusal to co-ordinate it with the newly elected moderate President Mahmoud Abbas was what helped Hamas to claim, in its victorious 2006 election campaign, that it had driven Israel from Gaza by force. And yet the Gaza withdrawal is a powerful precedent. The growing view is that settlement – wholly illegal under international law as it is – is too entrenched to be reversible without an Israeli civil war.

Is it? The one point of light in a bleak political scene are the young, but struggle-hardened, Israeli activists in an important new think-tank, Molad, trying to revive the moribund Israeli left, challenging the assumption that a two-state solution is unachievable. They argue that if Israel were to compensate settlers for transferring to Israel proper, while cutting off the utilities to the settlements by a certain date, it’s likely that a large majority would go without grace or resistance, leaving a hard core to be moved by force, as a minority were from Gaza.

Europe is inhibited by its historic guilt over the Holocaust. But this is fatally to misunderstand the proposition it should be making. Which is that Israel’s long-term security and permanent legitimacy is ultimately guaranteed not by tanks and F16s but by internationally recognised borders, an agreement with the Palestinians and the accommodation with its neighbours offered by the Saudi-led Arab peace initiative. As Ehud Olmert, a defector from the right, recognised five years ago, the alternative is an apartheid state in which a “South African-style struggle for equal voting rights” by the Palestinians would eventually prevail with the result that the Jewish state would be “finished”. Or put another way, the greatest existential threat to Israel, Iran notwithstanding, may yet prove to be Israel itself.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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