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Middle East peace in the balance

Comment by Martin Woollacott


THE illusion that there can be security without justice, with which Binyamin Netanyahu seduced Israelis in the last election, lies shattered in the streets of Gaza and Ramallah. Netanyahu promised Israelis that they could have security, the physical safety they naturally crave after generations in the firing line, and yet pay no price for it either in land or in changes in the political status of Palestinians.

His mendacity or self-delusion is now clear for all to see. But the failure is not his alone. It is ironic that in the centennial year of Zionism - Theodor Herzl's The Jewish State was published in February 1896 - Zionism in its Likud variant should persist so blindly in the denial to Palestinians of the human and political rights which Jews in Israel have so vigorously demanded for themselves. Where Herzl once saw his imagined Israelis chatting in German in Viennese-style cafés, with grateful Arabs in the background, their sons grapple in combat with Palestinian enemies. What Netanyahu and his government refuse to see, with not a shred of the excuses that can be offered for the early Zionists, is that one state evoked another, and until the Palestinian state is as much a reality as the Jewish one, there can be no guarantee of security. Perhaps not even then, but not until then.

When Netanyahu made it clear, during the campaign and after his victory, that he had not changed his absolutely negative position on Palestinian statehood, he all but pulled out the keystone from the arch of peace. If he does not soon radically change that policy, the arch will fall, with ruinous consequences for the Middle East and all who live there.

This would not be a resumption of the old occupation, or even of the intifada. Neither the practical co-operation which marked the one nor the relative restraint which marked the other are recoverable now. Full-scale fighting between Israeli forces and some or all of Yasser Arafat's armed units, with or without his approval, is entirely possible now, or later, if after some temporary patching up, there is no change of Israeli policy. It would be an unequal war, no doubt, but one terrifying in its results, because, once that kind of blood has been spilt, all the structures and leaders upon which peace could be based would have been swept away.

Netanyahu's churlish refusal to see Arafat, then a hasty meeting, under American pressure, dressed up as a success, the faltering of the day-to-day contacts on which the peace process as a practical matter depended, the failure to move Israeli troops, as promised, out of Hebron, the announcement of new settlements, the closing of Palestinian offices and a youth centre in Jerusalem - these were deliberate signals intended to convey one thing and one thing only: that there would be no state and no Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Only idiots or amateurs could have supposed that this would not lead, and lead pretty swiftly, to a Palestinian explosion. Unfortunately, both are present among Netanyahu's circle of advisers.

His own reponsibility is great. The bankruptcy of the Likud tradition, only incipient under Begin and Shamir and masked by military adventures and diplomatic stonewalling, is now full-blown under Netanyahu. Vladmir Jabotinsky, father of what became the Likud tradition, famously spoke of the "iron wall". This was the idea that after throwing themselves endlessly at the ramparts of Israeli strength, the Arabs would eventually recognise that they were in a position of permanent weakness and would negotiate accordingly.

In a way that has proved correct. The Arabs, including the Palestinians, have negotiated from a position of weakness. But the sting in the tail has been that, in the end, the Palestinians are still there, still angry, and still dangerous.

It was Netanyahu who was the prophet of the "easy" version of the iron wall. He sold a fable to the more gullible among the Israeli people, distressed that, in spite of peace, Israelis were still dying. This was that "security" could be had, with no price to be paid and no dangers to be endured. The settlements could stay and be expanded, the Palestinians could be denied a state. Seeing the Palestinian Authority essentially as nothing more than a defective instrument of Israeli security, he naturally proposed that nothing more be conceded to it, and demanded that it come up to scratch, as if it were a mercenary police force falling down on the job.

What emerged then, at the tail end of the Likud tradition, was a bastard version which held that security could be had without costs or casualties. It did not envisage the full-scale re-occupation of the territories. That would be too expensive in lives and money and there would also be diplomatic costs. But, by some magic, the Palestinians would go along with not getting a state and would take no revenge. What was this magic? The answer is pitiful. It was "peace with security". Having virtually nothing to give to the Palestinians, except some economic crumbs, all that could be promised was to trade off Israeli security for Palestinian security. If you don't hurt us, we won't hurt you, also known as We will hurt you if you hurt us. If wars could be ended like this, there would not be a violent spot on the globe.

What is so mindless about this approach is its asymmetry. Jews of course need land, a state, self-esteem and pride. But Palestinians - they, of course, can make do with physical safety alone.

Israel still has the possibility, even under Netanyahu to take up the Palestinian offer. The Palestinians are ready to make peace on the basis of a minimal restitution of what was taken from them.

Less than half, perhaps less than a third, of the land that was once Palestinian, and the possibility of erecting on this restricted basis a small state. It is symptomatic of the cast of mind of too many Israelis, Labour as well as Likud, that such an offer cannot been seen for what it is - amazing, unprecedented, almost incredible.

Do all Palestinians subscribe to it? Of course not. Do even those who do nevertheless see it as a first step toward other objectives, such as securing a right of return to Israel, or cherish inward hopes that over time demography may change the balance of power in the Holy Land? Of course they do. Yet what is on offer is still astonishing. It is madness for the Israelis to refuse it.



(c) Guardian Media Group plc 1996. All rights reserved.

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