Wednesday 15 April 2009

Israel Arab Conflict (Address to the Academy for Political Development in Zagreb)

Seeking solutions for the Israel-Arab Conflict

Historical Background:

1. The Israel/Palestine conflict we witness today started as an Arab/Jewish confrontation at the beginning of the 20th century, with the rise of nationalism. The Jews were being persecuted in Eastern Europe but found no refuge in the West. They needed a national home and the only place they could claim any historical connection with was the Holy Land, the ancient home of the wandering Jew. Meanwhile, the Arabs were trying to free themselves, first from the yoke of their Muslim brothers, the Ottoman Turks, and then from the colonialist powers. Nationalism was the order of the age everywhere.

2. At the time, there were also the Middle Eastern Jewish Communities who lived, co-existing with other peoples, in Arab countries, sometimes tolerated but often not. As nationalism bubbled up everywhere they attempted to join and identify themselves with their Arab majorities – but they were never accepted. Their story is often overshadowed by the myriads of books written about Europe’s Jews and the establishment of Israel. Yet today, these descendants of Jews from Arab countries make up half of Israel’s population. Their claim to the right to live in peace in Israel is stronger than that of the European Jews, and even more so than that of the Palestinians. Unlike the Palestinians, with the whole of the huge Arab world open to them, Middle Eastern Jews have nowhere else to go but to live in tiny Israel. Think about it in another way. Let us for argument’s sake accept the Arab contention that Palestine, together with Israel, are all part of the Arab Land. It follows therefore that what in fact actually happened was that Eastern Jews have moved from one corner to another within the same Land. They are not invaders, not settlers. They are natives, and their ancestors were natives before the Arab conquest swept the Middle East in the seventh century. They are not the Crusaders that the Arabs today like to call Jews of European origin. To fully understand the present ME conflict it is important to learn about this aspect of it to see that there is not one set of ME refugees but two. And no better way to introduce this aspect of the conflict than to tell my own personal story. I was both witness and victim of the cruel process that made me a refugee in my own land.

3. I was born in Iraq, and was immersed in its culture and shared in its national aspirations. I was an Iraqi Jew growing up together with Iraqi Muslims. But my personal effort to integrate into the social and political fabric of the country, and God knows I did try, was always met with a rebuff by them. To them I was an alien. And by the time Israel was born in 1948, this rebuff became literally persecution. When all the doors were closed in my face, together with so many other Jews of my generation who were denied exit visas, we had to find a way to escape; literally to flee the country by crossing the border on foot. In my case that was via Iran, whose people I will always be indebted to for my safe passage at my desperate time of need.

4. There was no other country but Israel which would give refuge to me and to some 150 000 Jews who followed in 1950/52. These people could trace their ancestry back through 2500 years of continuous life in Iraq – long before the Arab Conquest. I arrived at the absorption centre in Israel in 1949. I found there a mixture of people: all dejected, all helpless. My fellow refugees from Arab countries were desperately trying to rebuild their lives out of nothing in a land of nothing. But it was the sight of the remnants of the Holocaust camps that broke my heart and my spirit. I saw frightened shadows of human beings, dazed, confused and broken, trying to regain their existence as humans. But worst of all, instead of natural hatred, rage and bitterness I found many of them trying to remove the concentration camp numbers on their arms because they felt guilty for being alive and ashamed of not having put up a fight before allowing themselves to be led as sheep to the Gas chambers. It is the combined images of the ethnically cleansed Arab Jews who lost their countries, and the Holocaust remnants of European Jews who lost their dignity, that are engraved in my being and in the mind of every Jew who says: “never again” That is why Israelis feel the need to keep their military power and even their nuclear shield –not because they are on a Samson-like suicidal mission. It is because they are determined to live with the pride and dignity denied to them in other countries throughout the ages. They are determined now that if they must die, they want to die fighting. For the Arabs, if they want to coexist with Israel, they should first remember this.

5. These fears, as reflected in my own personal story, must also be understood against wider Jewish history. Two thousand years of persecution, execution and forced conversion to Christianity and Islam, culminated in Hitler’s Final Solution, a solution which wiped out almost half the world’s Jewish population on the watch of the civilised world.

6. Today, it is worrying Israelis and Jews alike that what happened in Germany under the Nazis in the early 1930s is being re-enacted in a startlingly similar way in Europe. Every aspect of life in Israel, its people, its institutions, its places of learning, even its acclaimed courts of justice, are being demonized. Recently, this demonizing has been organized and reinforced by concerted bans and boycotts here in Europe in protest they say against the occupation of Palestinian lands, which in fact the majority of the people of Israel would be happy to hand back. All this sends shivers down the spines of Jews everywhere, reminding them of the anti-Semitic demonizing propaganda of the 1930s in Germany, which was the precursor of, and prepared the ground for the Holocaust. As Condoleezza Rice stated recently: Anti-Semitism is not just a historical fact but a current event.

7. The Arab World has played and continues to play its active part, too, in the Jewish tragedy. During World War 2 they made Jewish life in their midst a living hell. By the early 1950’s, when the safe haven of Israel opened, some 900,000 Jews were ethnically cleansed to Israel from Arab countries leaving most Arab countries what the Nazis called Judenrein, lands without Jews. Therefore what the Nazis failed to do the Arab countries accomplished and perpetuated. And the world accepts that as normal.

8. In contrast, today, 20 per cent of Israeli citizens are Arabs who enjoy full rights. They sit in parliament and can find their way, as indeed they have done, to sit in the various national institutions – even in the cabinet and in the Supreme Court. Nobody denies their right to be where they are, having lived in Israel even before the creation of Israel. But in Iraq, there is not one single Jew now living there.

9. Iraqi Jews were part of the tide of 900,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Their plight and fate are forgotten because Israel did not leave them in camps to rot and did not ask the UN to set up agencies to perpetuate their misery and status as refugees. With help from Jews worldwide, these Jewish refugees with their bare hands gave themselves dignity, security and a future in stark contrast to the way rich, very rich, Arabs treated the then 700,000 Palestinian Refugees and disgracefully continue to treat their descendents since. Consequently, today only the Palestinian Refugees are remembered.

10. This, however, is not to gloss over the events of the 1948 War when the Arab Armies attacked the Jews in Palestine. Here no excuse or justification should wipe out or absolve either side of the wrongdoings, whether these were committed by State armies or by individual political leaders and local commanders. We need to deal not only with the memories but also with the outcome of that war. Irrespective of which side was to blame, the Arab countries which attacked, or the nascent State of Israel which needed to defend itself. It is the outcome that matters. Unless a just practical solution is found for the Palestinian refugees in the same way the Jews dealt with their own Jewish refugees, the Middle East will have no peace. But this will not happen until – in the words of Prince Hassan of Jordan – both sides begin to internalise the disaster and the suffering that befell each of them as a result of that war.

11. The Arabs, and recently even the historians of the conflict, name what happened to the Palestinians in the 1948 War “The Naqba”: in Arabic, the Disaster. But they conveniently ignore the Arab Jews’ corresponding Naqba. The reason for this is that while the Palestinian Naqba was a consequence of a war, the Arab Jews’ Naqba had much deeper historical roots. It was the culmination of the Judenrein process which threw the Arab Jews out of Arab countries, a process that is still reflected right now in Arab attitudes and prevents any compromise or solution of the Arab/Israeli conflict that has been festering since the creation of Israel.

The Islamist Version of Judenrhein:

12. Judenrhein is land pure and clean of Jews. This is a dream that Hitler designed for Europe, but the Arabs fulfilled it in their countries. This is the Arab side of the Holocaust, the real tragic “NAQBAH” of the Jews who lived for centuries in Arab countries. Today every nation in Europe tries to apologise for this policy. Not so the Arabs. They are proud of their achievement, which they declare day and night as a matter of religious piety.

13. Unfortunately for the Arabs, as was so unfortunate for the fanatical Germans this is not helping the Arabs themselves. In fact it is at the heart of their problems, pulling them back to the dark ages. Islamic learning and tolerance brought the Enlightenment into Christian Europe, but recently it seems – sadly – to be receding from their own nations.

14. The solution to the Arab and especially the Palestinian plight in their relationship with Israel could have been resolved long time ago, if only their leaders had grasped the immorality of the concept of Judenrhein, and even more so if the West stopped accepting it as the norm in Arab countries. This acquiescence fostered its encouragement, with disastrous effects for the Arabs themselves.

15. If, as recently as at the time of the evacuation of Gaza by Prime Minister Sharon, the Palestinians had stood up and said: we claim back Gaza as land belonging to the State of Palestine, restoring the status quo ante before the 6-day War, but we have no problem with the Jewish settlements there staying as part of Palestinian Gaza, with Israelis living the way they live today in Germany, England and the USA…. If the Palestinians had done this, today Gaza would have been the new Hong Kong of the Middle East, with Israel as its hinterland and market and source of finance. Unfortunately, they missed this chance, because the Judenrein that shaped their attitude towards Jews got the better of them. It continues to be the obstacle in the way of practical and mutually beneficial solutions.

16. Such a chance to act sensibly is still open and could prove to be the way forward today for the Palestinians with regard to the future State of Palestine. The ball is also in the court of the Syrians to start a process which will bring real peace and prosperity to the region. Bashar Al-Assad, the Syrian leader, who clamours for the Golan, should take the initiative and suggest that the Jews in the Golan Heights could stay – after the withdrawal of Israel – as citizens of Syria or as Israelis-in-residence in a Syrian Golan – subject, just like other citizens in Syria, to Syrian law. This is exactly the same way that foreigners live in England, France or Germany today. It is then that Israeli resistance to withdrawal on security grounds will melt away, and a great and prosperous Golan can offer itself to millions of tourists from all over the world, who will enjoy the fusion of Arab and Jewish culture reminiscent of the glorious days of Cordoba and Toledo.

The Way Forward:

17. Unfortunately the Arab countries surrounding Israel are facing acute internal problems of social strife, political bankruptcy and overwhelming population explosion. The Palestinians have been left to themselves, and they are revelling in their infighting and delusions, making it impossible to reach any accommodation with Israel. They have become a plaything in the hands of Arab countries who are fighting each other for supremacy; they are also a proxy in the Islamic tug-of-war between the Shiaa of Iran and the Sunni of Saudi Arabia and Bin Laden. New Nassers and new Arafats are popping up everywhere without the Arabs asking themselves what good their old heroes did for them and what purpose the new ones serve. With this hopeless situation prevailing, it was right and practical for Israel to build the controversial Security Wall and it was wise to act unilaterally to give both sides time to find a solution for co-existence. Although they acted late, Sharon and Olmert proved to be foresighted both in building the Security Wall and in evacuating Gaza.

18. Amidst this confusion, Arabs can only accept co-existence once it dawns on them that Israel is there to stay, not because of its army, not because of its history, not because of the Holocaust, but because the 6 million Jews in Israel (more than half of whom are descendents anyway of ethnically cleansed Arab Jewish Refugees) have nowhere else to go. They have no choice but to stand up and fight even if it is a war of mutual destruction with their enemies. Only this realization will convince the Arabs to seek mutually acceptable solutions.

19. On our side, the Israeli side, our social fissures and political instabilities are creating hesitancy and lack of resolve which are sabotaging the implementation of our only available policy: i.e securing ourselves unilaterally and quickly within defendable borders. These new borders have to be defended militarily and, even more importantly, they have to be acceptable in due course internationally through negotiation. We cannot solve these problems without introducing real changes in our political structures. Social divisions are impeding the process of fusing together our Jewish communities and integrating our Arab minorities. These, together with the political instability of governments, stand in the way both of our negotiations with the Arabs and the implementation of our only available policy of securing ourselves unilaterally. The new electoral system I have proposed: TR -- Total Representation – is key to the urgent changes needed to overcome these difficulties. At its core is the direct accountability of Parliament to ordinary citizens, making it easy for a broadly representative parliament and a stable government to evolve, and empowering them to make brave decisions for peace.

Conclusions and Solutions:

20. Unlike Christian or Muslim countries, Israel cannot be treated in isolation from the Jewish people worldwide. After what happened in Europe and in the Arab countries, Jews everywhere believe that the defeat of Israel would mean annihilation. Israel is all the Jewish People’s refuge of last resort.

21. Lasting Peace is not a matter of goodwill. It lasts only if it is based on the absence of potential future conflicts on the ground. In the aftermath of the recent tragic and unnecessary Gaza War, we Israelis, have to ask ourselves fundamental questions. These questions need to be daring, deep and all-encompassing. There is no doubt that for one century now our Arab neighbours have not accepted us. In turn we, on our side ceased long ago to try to understand them. A mental curtain has descended between the Arabs and us, and that includes our own Arab citizens. In fact we seem to live parallel lives – so much so that we have become accustomed to a view of each other only through telescopic gun-barrels.

22. The only thing that will work is maximum defensible real, physical separation of the two states of Israel and Palestine on the ground. The recent wars of Lebanon and Gaza and all the ensuing killing and destruction make separation more urgent and necessary – indeed mandatory. Gaza is at the core of the problem. It needs to be developed economically along the lines of Singapore or Hong Kong; it has to become a viable entity supporting its population. Some of its refugees have to be given means and opportunities and encouraged to resettle in the West Bank and in Arab Countries, including the sparsely-populated, labour-hungry Gulf. Its border to Sinai and Egypt has to be opened for free trade and interaction with the world beyond. Otherwise Gaza will remain a pressure cooker waiting to explode.

23. But Gaza also needs to cease being a potential threat to Israel. A situation has to be avoided where it can become the western arm of a future Palestinian pincer that together with Hebron on the eastern border of southern Israel will fuel future rising tension, leading to a conflagration that can have only one result: either Israel or Palestine will have to be divided into two halves, thus stoking up more violence. The solution here will have to be for Gaza to become an independent state. Europe has many examples of such small states that sprang into being out of realpolitik necessity. Today, the Palestinian President Abu Mazen’s West Bank is already separated from Hamas’s Gaza. Why not keep them that way for the sake of peace both for Israelis and Palestinians? Thus, four states will arise out of the old Palestine: Israel, Jordan, Palestine and the republic of Gaza. The result will be the final end and the last nail in the coffin of the ill-conceived British Mandate. These four states can join together in an economic Common Market that will bring stability, peace and prosperity to all their inhabitants.

24. How would the Egyptians react to the establishment of a separate state in Gaza? I believe they will welcome this solution which in effect would solve their own problem which is even more thorny and complex than that of Israel. Terrorist Gaza as it is today is a threat to Egypt through illegal infiltration. Hamas members find internal allies and homes amongst the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The border with Sinai is porous and out of control because both sides of it are united in their hatred of Israel. All this will change once it becomes the border between two Arab sovereign states controlled by passports and visas the same way that Egypt today protects its border with Libya and the Sudan. Egypt can facilitate the filtering of refugees to other Arab countries from the State of Gaza where the latter’s government becomes responsible for taking back undesirable elements. The inhabitants of the State of Gaza will be more interested in their livelihood and sooner or later will themselves throw out Hamas. In the new situation Israel can legitimately in the eyes of the world defend vigorously and effectively its border against a hostile state which will be responsible for its actions. Israel and Egypt will then have identical common interest instead of the present ambivalent attitude towards the Gazans and towards each other.

25. Jerusalem has to be divided into: Jerusalem Capital of Israel; and Al-Quds Capital of Palestine - Twin Cities with a clear SEPARATION between the two. Without this no peace will survive. Arab inhabitants in Jerusalem (those who were annexed after the-6 Day War) should revert to Palestine citizenship but can live as residents in Jerusalem if their residence falls within Israeli Jerusalem. Likewise, Jews who choose to stay in Al-Quds can retain their Israeli citizenship but continue to live as residents in Palestine subject to its laws after a period of protection by Israel.

26. Similar status should apply (after a period of protection by the Israeli army) to all Israelis who choose to stay in the new Palestine. This includes the Jewish enclave in Hebron. The same arrangement should be accorded to the cluster of Jewish settlements which fall on the borders of Palestine, in accordance with the spirit of the exchange of letters between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon of 14th April 2004. If the enclave of this cluster of settlements on the western border of new Palestine is allowed to remain within the sovereignty of Palestine then no need remains to the tortuous business of exchange of territories. Otherwise such exchange needs to be carried out by negotiations.

27. It is not our business to interfere and certainly not to decide for the Palestinians which government or leaders are best for them. The Palestinian President, Abu Mazen, is not in control. Hamas has to be brought directly into any negotiation for an enduring settlement. If either or both do not accept these or similar proposals, Israel should unilaterally implement them on its side of the new borders the way Prime Minister Sharon implemented the evacuation of Gaza, UNILATERALLY.

Aharon Nathan, Zagreb, 21st April 2009