Al-Ahram Weekly – 8 February 2001
Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s victory in the election for prime minister has provoked much gnashing of teeth among Israel’s left-wing peace campaigners. As their standard-bearer, Ehud Barak, slipped ever further in the polls, his reputation sullied by months of fruitless negotiations with Yasser Arafat, the future they painted was doom-laden. If anyone is certain to sink the peace process, they wail, it is the right-wing general who masterminded Israel’s most inglorious military achievement, the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which led to the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatila.
And yet if Sharon succeeds in chasing the peace movement off to the margins of Israeli politics, it will be no bad thing. Nowadays, the ursine general poses little threat to the cause of peace himself. The more rallies he and his allies in the settlements stage — and the more they argue that not an inch of sovereignty can be conceded in Jerusalem — the more certain it is that international opinion will prevail against them. Israel’s doves, on the other hand, especially Barak’s foremost apologist, Amos Oz, continue to impress the international community with claims that they have only the best interests of the Palestinians at heart. And this despite the fact that since last summer’s Camp David negotiations their moral bankruptcy has become all too apparent, particularly over the most difficult of the final settlement problems: the right of return.
On this issue, the voices of Sharon and Barak — and of the religious settlers and the secular peace camp– are as one. It could have been the Likud leader, rather than Oz, a founder of Peace Now, who wrote in the Guardian this month that the right of return for Palestinians should be rejected because it would mean “eradicating Israel.” For Oz, justice should take a back seat to an unprincipled game of numbers: the Jewish state, by definition, can only exist if there is a majority of Jews, ergo Palestinians must be made to renounce their rights for the good of the Jewish state. And with this warped logic, Israel’s peacemakers wash their hands of the fate of the 3.7 million refugees, many of whom languish in the slum conditions of camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank more than 50 years after their expulsion from their homes in Israel.
Oz’s vehement opposition to the right of return throws considerable light on the reasons why he and the peace camp have so favoured the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Contrary to perceptions in the West, it has almost nothing to do with giving their neighbours the power of self-determination; rather, it has been about establishing an enfeebled fiefdom as a bulwark against the flood of refugees threatening, in Oz’s view, to swamp Israel. His vision precludes a future in which Jews and Palestinians could ever share a commitment to the same villages, schools, workplaces and leisure centres. Instead, it insists on a territorial segregation that will create a political and economic ghetto next to Israel. The Palestinians deserve a homeland, Oz argues, but only one forever subservient to the Jewish state. This, he believes improbably, will end ethnic hatred and foster regional stability.
If this seems a harsh assessment of Oz and the peace movement, consider not their ignoble attitude towards the refugees but their record in relation to some of their fellow citizens — the Palestinians who refused to leave in 1948. These one million Arabs, often overlooked by the West in the equation of peace, have been high in the thoughts of the Israeli left during this election. In 1999, they won the election for Barak by backing him almost to a man and woman. This time their leaders have called for a blanket boycott of the poll in the full knowledge that this will let in Sharon, a man they regard as a war criminal. The Israeli Arabs know only too well how the left betrays its partners in peace. They have suffered five decades of discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives. Their parties have been denied participation in every governing coalition, including Barak’s, they are excluded from senior posts of the civil service, their local councils are denied funds, abuses of their rights are ignored by the courts. And yet the silence of the peace movement, and of Oz himself, on these issues has been deafening.
Take, for example, the state’s confiscation of almost all Arab-owned land inside Israel. Rather than use the land to integrate Jewish and Arab communities, the state has passed it on to surrogate bodies, such as the Jewish National Fund and the Lands Administration, to be held in trust for world Jewry. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the diaspora have settled these areas in what the state calls a programme of “Judaising” Arab territory. The policy has ensured Israel’s Arabs remain a segregated, dependent minority. Denied the right to buy or sell land in more than 90 per cent of Israel, Arabs have seen their communities turned into overcrowded, backward “townships,” hidden from the sight of Jews. The peace camp knows well of this system of Apartheid and the abuse of Arab rights. One family, the Kaadans, have been fighting a six-year legal battle against the refusal of the Jewish town of Katzir in the Galilee to let them buy a home there. Last year, when the story caught the attention of the international media, the courts were reluctantly obliged to uphold the Kaadans’ case. But 10 months on, the family is still excluded from Katzir and waiting for the ruling to be enforced. The left, meanwhile, has done nothing to support the family or highlight its continuing plight.
During the Intifada, too, the peace campaigners have buried their heads in the sand. In early October, Israeli Arabs took to the streets of their towns and villages to protest against the army’s killing of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Within days, 13 Israeli Arabs had been shot dead by police, and many more injured, even though in most cases the protests posed little threat to public order. In the most notorious incident, in Nazareth, two Arab youths were killed by police when they came out to defend their city from attack by a mob of Jews. Faced with the Arab boycott, Barak eventually agreed to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the actions of the northern police force, which under its commander Arik Ron is well-known for its heavy-handed treatment of Arabs. The peace camp, however, responded to these events by angrily denouncing the Arab population as traitors and severing all ties.
What makes Oz so silent about the mistreatment of his fellow Arab citizens is also what makes him so vociferous in his opposition to the right of return. For, in his view, if the return of refugees means the instant suicide of the Jewish state, the presence of the Israeli Arabs means its slow asphyxiation. The Arab population is growing at three times the rate of the Jewish one. In fact, Arabs might already be a majority in Israel had not Jewish numbers been hugely swollen by decades of immigration from the diaspora. But with no obvious new sources of immigration, that is about to change. Population forecasters expect Israeli Arabs to outnumber Jews in less than 40 years. The “demographic time bomb,” as Israelis call it, is ticking loudly. That it needs to be defused is as much the view of the left as of Sharon. Which is why Barak’s peace initiatives — extolled by Oz as the most “far-reaching” and generous imaginable — included for a time a plan to transfer Arab areas inside Israel into the new Palestinian state, in a territorial exchange for West Bank settlements. Israeli Arabs were not consulted on this plan and, when they found out, vigorously opposed it: whatever their views about being second-class citizens, they know life in a Palestine corruptly run by Arafat would be an even more miserable fate. Without their agreement, Barak was forced to drop the proposal, presumably aware that a forcible population transfer might look a little too much like ethnic cleansing.
Five decades of Apartheid inside Israel have failed to make its Arabs quiescent. Their political leaders are angrier than ever, now challenging Israel’s democratic credentials by demanding equal rights and proper representation in government. In this struggle they have yet to find an ally in the peace movement. Unable to understand that the Jewish state is doomed to extinction, either sooner or later, Oz and the left soldier on with outdated Zionist attitudes that can only prolong the hatred and the bloodshed. Peace cannot be realised when Arabs are told they can only have rights if they always submit, quietly and gladly, to the needs of Jews and the Jewish state. And stability cannot emerge when Israel goes unchallenged in a creed which dictates that the lives and welfare of Arabs — be they Israeli citizens or Palestinians — are of less value than those of Jews. Will Israel’s left continue insisting that the only people expected to show courage in this peace of the brave be 3.7 million Palestinians?