Commentary Magazine


Hallucinations of Peace

Despite its notoriously defective electoral system, Israel is a country with an authentic government and a real opposition, a country where the major parties regularly contend to form governments; where the judiciary performs its duties without the slightest hesitation, rendering decisions that regularly overturn government policy and state laws; where the press is free to attack, criticize, and tear down. On television talk shows, guests shout and gesticulate: religious against secular Jews, settlers from Judea and Samaria against spokesmen for Peace Now; army generals against mothers of soldiers at the front; Israeli Arabs against representatives of Likud. A joke making the rounds is that there is not a taxi driver in the country who does not consider himself well-enough informed to take the place of Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres. And it is true that Israelis at all levels of society debate public matters with the thoroughness, vehemence, and knowledgeability of professional politicians.

Israel, in other words, is a vibrant, restless democracy—the only one in its region and, as it happens, the only democracy in the world that is at war. Since the beginning of the “peace process” in September 1993, it has been undergoing a phase of its existence that is at once fascinating and deeply troubling. It is a dramatic phase, laden with implication.

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Not long after that moment in September 1993 when Prime Minister Rabin, his face contracted into impassivity, his body tilted backward, touched the hitherto untouchable hand of his enemy, an Israeli journalist friend of mine made a pilgrimage to the Golan Heights in the company of a friend of his, a Syrian intellectual. In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, my friend had fought in the fierce tank battles on the Golan; almost his entire company had been killed or mutilated. His Syrian companion had also taken part in that war, in that place.

Now there was talk of the Golan being returned to Hafez Assad, the Syrian dictator. But my friend was interested only in peace. “I’ve never communicated so intensely with another human being,” he reported back to me, “as when we walked together through that undergrowth and amid all those stones, remembering our dead companions.”

My friend is not alone: hundreds of writers and intellectuals and just plain Israeli citizens have plunged into contact with any and every newly accessible place in the Arab world, rushing to burst free of the geographic claustrophobia that has gripped the Jewish state since its founding. Israeli Jews of North African or Iraqi or Libyan or Egyptian descent have in particular gone hunting wherever they can for their roots, for the odors and sounds of their childhood. Erasing from mind the bloody history of persecution that was responsible for their being in Israel in the first place, they have proudly positioned themselves to serve as a bridge between Israeli and Arab culture, as self-styled heralds and emissaries of the new and peaceful world aborning. Their fever is shared—to some degree, it was even sparked—by Foreign Minister Peres himself, who in books and articles and speeches has imagined a “New Middle East,” a technological-cultural-economic utopia made up of Israel and the Arab nations and linked by computers, mass media, open markets, books, and the arts.

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For months now, Israeli TV has incessantly mirrored the liberal public’s love affair with the idea of peace: images of Arafat with his kefiya, without his kefiya, sitting at the table with his family, with his wife Suha who speaks French and is dressed by Chanel; Arafat laughing and Arafat suffering and even Arafat asleep with his mouth half-open. These images have all but obliterated the older image of Arafat the mastermind of the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli athletes and other bloody deeds. The earnest effort of consciousness-raising has reached the point where one talk-show host, reflecting on alleged secret attempts over the years to eliminate Arafat in Lebanon or Tunisia, concluded that all along Israel had really wanted to keep him alive, as its eventual partner in peace.

In short, what the liberal Israeli public has done over the past year and a half has been to create for itself a dizzying and self-propelled “discourse” of peace. This discourse is highly iconographic and imagistic: the White House lawn, the Nobel Peace Prize, Peres walking with Arafat hand in hand, Rabin and King Hussein kissing on the cheek. Most bizarrely, it has perpetuated itself almost unchecked against the background of a campaign of Arab terrorism which, since “peace” broke out, has claimed the lives of more Israeli Jews than in any period of the same length in the country’s history, and which has eroded support for the “peace process” itself among many Israeli citizens.

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Those Arabs officially at peace with Israel—Egypt, Jordan, the PLO, some of the countries of North Africa and the Gulf—share a problem: Islamic fundamentalism. But they have shown no sign of repudiating the values of their internal enemy—certainly not where Israel, their erstwhile external enemy, is concerned. Nor, evidently, have they felt any need to rehabilitate the image of Israel within their own societies and cultures.

Quite the contrary: in Egypt, Israel is a country about which no mainstream journalist seems capable of writing without resorting to anti-Semitism. It is a country that Egyptians do not even put on their maps of the Middle East; that President Hosni Mubarak refuses to visit; and that Egyptian intellectuals regularly vilify. If, in Israeli public schools, the Ministry of Education has seen to it that a substantial peace curriculum is in place, starting in the primary grades, in Egyptian schools what is taught about Israel is, precisely, nothing.

As for the situation in Gaza, the schools there are run entirely by religious extremists. Despite the fact that the greatest threat to Arafat’s life comes from the Islamic Jihad, no one dares openly cross those whom a high-ranking Palestinian police official has called “boys ready to give their lives for the honor of their people.” Arafat himself, between embraces with Shimon Peres, is fond of reassuring his Palestinian audiences that Jihad is part and parcel of the history and the future prospects of their common struggle.

Even more moderate Muslims, like the mufti of Saudi Arabia, who have tried on occasion to reconcile Islam with the idea of peace with Israel, are repeatedly forced to qualify and backtrack. Peace with Jews (and Christians) is permissible in Islam, they are reminded, but only when the non-Islamic party takes a subordinate position. Israel, however, in addition to having committed the unpardonable sin of Jewish political power, is also the bearer of enemy—that is, Western—values. And so even those elements of the Arab and Islamic world that have not kept aloof from the “peace process” tend to regard peace with Israel not as a good in itself but as a necessary evil—one that might yet be affected by future shifts in power, including those to be brought about by the workings of Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, it is only by thinking in such categories that Muslims can remain true, as it were, to themselves.

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This is not the only salient point of difference between the way “peace” is regarded in the Arab world and the way it is experienced by Israelis in their democratic euphoria. As a byproduct of the lust for peace, something even more alarming is now occurring in the Jewish state.

Freed, as they now think, from the yoke of war, from the problem of national life and death, leftist Israeli intellectuals have embarked on a ferociously self-critical revision of the entire structure of the nation’s founding myths: from the behavior of Palestinian Jewry during the Holocaust to the conduct of the 1948 War of Independence to the actions and beliefs of the great humanist warriors like David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir who led the state in its infancy and childhood.

Thus, Israeli television viewers were recently treated to a mini-series debunking Hannah Szenes, the twenty-year-old girl from Jewish Palestine who in 1944 parachuted behind Nazi lines to try and save a few Jewish lives and was caught and executed by the Germans. Ben-Gurion has been portrayed as a cynic, utterly detached during the war years from the fate of his fellow Jews dying in European concentration camps. Other Zionist leaders, in the pre- and post-1948 period alike, have been assailed by a new crop of biographers and historians as blind, weak-minded egotists, or as callous politicians who chose to forgo every opportunity for peace with the Arabs and thereby condemned successive generations of Israelis to needless war and death.

In the yearning for peace, for a normal human existence, homo democraticus in Israel has thus begun to turn on himself. Young Israelis in particular tend to imagine their future in much more individualistic terms than was the case even a few years ago. The army has been hit with an unusually heavy wave of draft resisters, and the lack of motivation among those who serve is notable. If peace has come, why should I be the last to die?, is the not unreasonable question a soldier on guard patrol might put to himself before being overpowered by an attack of Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad. In the absence of a deeply internalized rationale—such as was provided in the past by Zionist ideology—why, indeed?

One can, of course, hardly blame Israelis for deciding that peace is now at hand, or that it has already arrived. Not only have they been fighting, and fighting, and fighting, for over 50 years now, but in that fight they have frequently found themselves patronized and condemned by the democratic West. Today more than ever, many Europeans and Americans find it difficult to accept that Israel’s situation remains precarious and vulnerable—or that, not least when it comes to the struggle against Islamic extremism, its prospects remain tied to the prospects of liberal democracy itself. No wonder that many Israelis, weary to the bone, and highly sensitized to Western liberal opinion, are as eager as anyone to believe that the war is over.

Israel today suggests a terrible paradox of democracy—namely, that only an active state of war may be capable of inspiring in free citizens the self-sacrificing values necessary to defend and preserve a system designed above all for peace. On the ability of this tiny and long-suffering country to resolve that paradox may depend not only its own future, but a good part of the West’s as well.

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