Commentary Magazine


Topic: Arab-Israeli conflict

President Hollande’s Colonialist Solution

During Friday’s press conference with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, France’s President Francois Hollande voiced his support for the United Nations Security Council imposing a solution on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The very notion that warring sides can be forced into peace with one another is of course absurd. Presumably, a deal that had to be imposed from outside would, by its very nature, not have the full or equal endorsement of both sides. But which side might be on the receiving end of such an imposition? Who would need coercing? Well, the clue was standing to the right of the French president.

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During Friday’s press conference with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, France’s President Francois Hollande voiced his support for the United Nations Security Council imposing a solution on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The very notion that warring sides can be forced into peace with one another is of course absurd. Presumably, a deal that had to be imposed from outside would, by its very nature, not have the full or equal endorsement of both sides. But which side might be on the receiving end of such an imposition? Who would need coercing? Well, the clue was standing to the right of the French president.

A beaming Mahmoud Abbas was nodding along to what is after all an endorsement of his very own plan. It is Abbas who is now pushing for a “solution” to be imposed on Israel. But what on earth is a European leader doing getting behind such an idea? Didn’t France get the message that the days when European politicians drew the borders of other people’s countries are over?

Hollande justified his position by arguing that negotiations have dragged on too long. Well, quite. But it is obscene that he should make such a statement alongside Abbas and while endorsing Abbas’s plan. It is, after all, Abbas who has acted as a serial negotiations blocker. Most of the time Abbas simply holds up efforts to even get negotiations started, usually demanding that before he can undergo the horror of sitting down to talk with Israeli officials, he must first be paid a tribute of extortionate concessions by Israel. Once negotiations finally get going, Abbas generally wastes time until the window allotted to negotiating expires, then he demands some more concessions before he will permit the talks to be resumed.

So yes, President Hollande is correct, fruitless talks have gone on too long. And yet, from the fact that he was making this announcement during a press conference with Abbas it seems reasonable to assume that the blame was not being placed at the Palestinian door. It also seems reasonable to assume that since this entire initiative originates with Abbas, the “peace plan” will be somewhat weighted in favor of the Palestinians. The Israelis, much to their cost, have repeatedly shown a readiness to surrender territory whenever they thought there was a chance of peace and security being achieved. If they were being offered a deal that genuinely guaranteed them that, then there would be no need to enlist the UN Security Council resolutions.

Yet Abbas has never found the level playing field of bilateral negotiations to his liking. For many years now he has been championing the notion of the Palestinians forcing an Israeli retreat via international diplomacy. This, of course, would allow him to push Israel back to something close to the 1949 armistice lines—which have no weight in international law as actual borders—without Israel receiving any meaningful guarantees regarding its security. And that really is why an imposed peace is so ludicrous. Even in the event that Abbas marshaled the international community for doing his bidding and imposing an Israeli withdrawal, it is doubtful that there would be any peace. In what way would Hamas, Islamic Jihad, ISIS, Hezbollah, Iran, and the rest of its proxies be beholden to this supposed solution?

If Hollande is proposing to return to the old colonial days when countries like his imposed borders on peoples and nations living overseas, then with what army does he intended to force this peace? He can have as many votes at the UN as he likes, but he would do well to remember that it is the Israeli army that is currently sheltering UN “peace keepers” in the Golan Heights. Presumably France would recommend the sanctions route that is now so beloved by Europe, bludgeoning Israel into choosing between poverty or insecurity.

Then there is also the question of why Hollande has been prepared to go along with this plan at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the last Middle Eastern issue that a world leader ought to be expending time or energy on. Would Hollande, or any European leader, have appeared alongside Netanyahu and voiced their support for imposing a solution on the Palestinians? Of course not. This isn’t about advancing peace or fairness, this is about promoting the Palestinian cause. As a man of the European left this is a cause that Hollande no doubt sympathizes with, but there is more.

During Israel’s war with Hamas this summer, Paris saw Europe’s most violent riots as France’s North African immigrant population vented its fury over what they perceived as French support for the Jewish state. In the course of these riots the mob trapped several hundred Jews in a Paris synagogue. Yet now it is not the plight of the Jews, but rather the cause of their attackers that has been taken up by the French government in what appears to be a blatant, and no doubt ill-fated, act of appeasement.

France’s colonialist past has brought a large Arab-Muslim population to its cities. Yet that last chapter of colonialism is apparently now opening the way to a new chapter of colonialism as Hollande seeks to dictate to the Israelis what their country should look like and where their borders should lie. All with a total disregard for the mounting regional turmoil that would seek to engulf Israel at the first opportunity.

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Real Estate, Jewelry, and the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute

Today’s publication of Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter (Princeton University Press) by Jonathan Marc Gribetz, an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies and Judaic studies at Princeton, marks a minor miracle: it may well be the only book ever published with dust-jacket endorsements by both Ruth R. Wisse (a “brilliant study” and “an indispensable work”) and Rashid Khalidi (“prodigious research”). The publisher calls it a “landmark book,” one that “fundamentally recasts our understanding of the modern Jewish-Arab encounter.”

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Today’s publication of Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter (Princeton University Press) by Jonathan Marc Gribetz, an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies and Judaic studies at Princeton, marks a minor miracle: it may well be the only book ever published with dust-jacket endorsements by both Ruth R. Wisse (a “brilliant study” and “an indispensable work”) and Rashid Khalidi (“prodigious research”). The publisher calls it a “landmark book,” one that “fundamentally recasts our understanding of the modern Jewish-Arab encounter.”

This post is not intended as a review, but rather a reflection on one of Professor Gribetz’s central insights. To call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a “dispute over real estate,” he writes, is like calling a fight over a family inheritance a “dispute over jewelry and china”: in both cases, the description misses the crux of the matter. In his book, Professor Gribetz demonstrates that, from the beginning, the Jewish-Arab conflict was a “struggle over history and identity”–played out over land, but involving fundamental issues that have always transcended the apparent subject of the dispute.

In the early years, there were frequent expressions of commonality between Jews and Arabs, epitomized by the 1919 agreement between Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist Organization, and Faisal Hussein, the leader of the Arabs. The agreement cited “the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and the Jewish people” and declared Arab support for the 1917 Balfour Declaration and Jewish support for an Arab state adjacent to Palestine. Faisal thereafter wrote to Felix Frankfurter (then also a Zionist leader) that “we Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement,” and “will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.” That obviously did not last long.

Professor Gribetz ends his book by noting that while relations between Jews and Arabs worsened after 1919, his study itself shows that perceptions between peoples are not immutable; so it “stands to reason that they can improve as well.” He does not address what might lead to such an improvement, but perhaps we can determine what will be necessary by viewing his central insight in light of the peace proposals in the decades following the period he covers.

The 1919 Weizmann-Faisal agreement was never implemented, but in 1921 Great Britain divided Palestine and gave half to Transjordan. In later years, there were numerous two-state solutions proposed for the remaining half of Palestine, all of which ended exactly as did the 1919 pact:

(1) In 1937, the Jews accepted the two-state solution proposed by the British Peel Commission; the Arabs rejected it;

(2) In 1947, the Jews accepted the UN’s two-state solution; the Arabs rejected it;

(3) In 1967, Israel wanted to trade land for recognition and peace; the Arabs issued their three adamant “no’s”;

(4) In 1978, Israel agreed to Palestinian autonomy as part of the peace agreement with Egypt; the Palestinians rejected it;

(5) In July 2000, at Camp David, Israel offered the Palestinians a state; they walked away;

(6) In December 2000, Israel formally accepted the Clinton Parameters for a two-state solution; in January 2001, the Palestinians rejected them;

(7) In 2005, Israel removed every soldier, settler, and settlement from Gaza and turned the entire territory over to the Palestinian Authority; so far there have been three rocket wars on Israel from the land Israel gave the Palestinians to build a state;

(8) In 2008, the Israeli prime minister begged the Palestinian president to accept a two-state solution in which the Palestinians would get land equal to 100 percent (after swaps) of the West Bank and Gaza; the Palestinians walked away again;

(9) In 2009, the new Israeli prime minister formally endorsed a Palestinian state, implemented an unprecedented settlement construction freeze, and met a stone wall.

Nearly 100 years after the first two-state solution was endorsed by the Zionists, the current Palestinian president repeatedly states he will “never” recognize a Jewish state; refuses to endorse “two states for two peoples” as the goal of the peace process; and will not give a Bir Zeit speech to match the Israeli prime minister’s 2009 Bar-Ilan address that endorsed a Palestinian state. He demands more of the remaining jewelry and china, while maintaining a “right to recover” the rest and repeatedly “reconciling” with those dedicated to killing the other side of the family.

The problem in that scenario is not the jewelry and china. Those who read Professor Gribetz’s book will likewise learn that the real estate was not the heart of the initial Jewish-Arab encounter. Middle East peace will not arrive simply by drawing a line on a map, because the crux of this dispute has never been the real estate.

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Natural Gas and Israel’s Future

For decades, one of the standard jokes of the Jewish world was how it was that Moses had led the Children of Israel to what seemed to be one of the few spots in the Middle East without oil. Indeed, part of the narrative of modern Israel’s first 65 years has been its struggle to maintain its existence in the face of a siege financed by an Arab world awash in oil revenue. Its survival was a testimony to the fact that oil money is no match for Jewish brains and courage. But the story of the next 65 years of Israeli history is not likely to be the same kind of David and Goliath tale. As the opening of the Tamar natural gas reservoir in the Mediterranean off of Haifa indicates, the era of Israelis being victimized by an energy industry controlled solely by their enemies is over.

The flow of gas from the Tamar field didn’t get the attention devoted to Palestinian terrorism and slanted stories about Israeli measures of self-defense, but it may well turn out to be a turning point in the country’s history. The high-tech revolution that has galvanized the country’s economy had already made it the quintessential Start-Up Nation, as Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book termed it. The drive toward energy independence and eventually toward the status of energy exporter will only accentuate Israel’s economic strength that will make the country not only richer but also more secure.

The flow of gas and the possibility of the country also being able to develop shale oil deposits are to be celebrated as signs that Israel is, as President Obama put it last month, “not going anywhere.” But no one should be under the impression that a strong economy or even a gas export business will end the conflict with the Muslim and Arab worlds. As much as Israel’s isolation has been exacerbated by the power of Arab oil, economics does not explain the level of animus directed at it in Europe or elsewhere. A hundred Tamar fields cannot make anti-Semitism disappear.

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For decades, one of the standard jokes of the Jewish world was how it was that Moses had led the Children of Israel to what seemed to be one of the few spots in the Middle East without oil. Indeed, part of the narrative of modern Israel’s first 65 years has been its struggle to maintain its existence in the face of a siege financed by an Arab world awash in oil revenue. Its survival was a testimony to the fact that oil money is no match for Jewish brains and courage. But the story of the next 65 years of Israeli history is not likely to be the same kind of David and Goliath tale. As the opening of the Tamar natural gas reservoir in the Mediterranean off of Haifa indicates, the era of Israelis being victimized by an energy industry controlled solely by their enemies is over.

The flow of gas from the Tamar field didn’t get the attention devoted to Palestinian terrorism and slanted stories about Israeli measures of self-defense, but it may well turn out to be a turning point in the country’s history. The high-tech revolution that has galvanized the country’s economy had already made it the quintessential Start-Up Nation, as Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book termed it. The drive toward energy independence and eventually toward the status of energy exporter will only accentuate Israel’s economic strength that will make the country not only richer but also more secure.

The flow of gas and the possibility of the country also being able to develop shale oil deposits are to be celebrated as signs that Israel is, as President Obama put it last month, “not going anywhere.” But no one should be under the impression that a strong economy or even a gas export business will end the conflict with the Muslim and Arab worlds. As much as Israel’s isolation has been exacerbated by the power of Arab oil, economics does not explain the level of animus directed at it in Europe or elsewhere. A hundred Tamar fields cannot make anti-Semitism disappear.

The opening up of the Tamar field alone will supply 50 to 80 percent of Israel’s natural gas fields in the next decade. But another field, called Leviathan off the country’s northern coast, is far larger. When it is exploited, it will not just lessen Israel’s dependence on energy imports but will turn the country into an exporter. That will dramatically increase its leverage in dealing with a Europe that is in thrall to Russian, Arab and Iranian oil and gas exporters. An economically strong Israel is one that is not so easily isolated. The rise in the value of the shekel in relation to the dollar this week is not due entirely to Tamar and must be credited to low interest rates and the wise fiscal policies of the Netanyahu government. But it is yet another sign that the country that was once a basket case dependent on foreign aid from America and world Jewry in order keep its finances afloat irrespective of defense needs is on its way to becoming a major economic power.

But not even energy exports in a world desperate for more fossil fuel power will be enough to silence the slurs against Israel being an apartheid power or an oppressor.

Since even before Israel’s birth there have always been those Zionists who believed economics explained everything about the Middle East conflict. Prior to World War II, the predominant Labor Zionist movement believed the economic interests of an exploitive Arab ruling class was the only thing fueling attacks on the Jewish presence in Palestine. They thought that once the effendis were rendered obsolete by economic progress and/or socialism, the conflict would simply go away.

They were wrong. Economics may explain a lot, but resentment of the Jewish return to the land is explained by religion and nationalist ideology, not the dialectic taught by the students of Karl Marx. Even in the “flat earth” world of Thomas Friedman’s imagination in which economic development will transform the region, hatred for Jews and Israel still are the animating forces behind the effort to end Israel’s existence. Radical Islam and Palestinian Arab nationalism still refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or how many concessions it makes. And that is a force that is strong enough to resist the rational impulse to end the conflict no matter how rich Israel or the Arab world get.

Nor will it change the attitudes of European elites and intellectuals who wrongly see Zionism as a vestigial remnant of the age of imperialism, something they view as the post-modern equivalent of Christianity’s doctrine of original sin.

The sorry truth is that the main factors driving attacks on Israel are a function of anti-Semitism, not economics. As Ruth Wisse rightly pointed out, Jew hatred was the most successful ideology of the 20th century as it was the tool of fascists, Nazis and Communists. That won’t change in the 21st century as Islamists continue their war on the West and the little Satan of Israel with anti-Semitism remaining as a major theme of their worldview.

This doesn’t diminish the importance of Tamar. Nor does it mean that Israel’s economic development is not one more reason to believe attempts to isolate it or even destroy it will all fail. But it does bring into focus the fact that if it is to resist those efforts it must not assume that its economic brilliance will make it any more popular than its scientific advances or the beauty of its beaches or its people.

Those who hold onto the myth that branding Israel will make it loved are still wrong. Rich or poor, what Israel needs to do is to assert the justice of its cause and to continue to push back against the idea that it hasn’t the right to defend itself against those who would end its existence. Only on the day when its neighbors as well as the rest of the international community accept, as President Obama did last month, that the Jews have returned to their ancient homeland never to leave it again, will we be able to say the conflict is truly over. 

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