Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pulling back to the wall. Israel's next withdrawal?

In the early twentieth century, when France and Britain took over the Middle East, there were two types of Imperialism.  One was slash-and-burn imperialism which strove to take what could be taken from the region and disregarded "native" rights.  The other was a paternalistic imperialism which strove to help the natives and prepare them for independence. Ultimately both were part of the same phenomena, they both considered Europeans had a right to determine and control local affairs, just one did it in a nice way and the other did not.

There were similar trends in US controlled Iraq.  There were those who worked to extract as much oil as possible and get fat contracts for US companies and those that saw their mission as establishing Iraqi democracy and getting out of Iraq as soon as possible.

A similar situation exists now over Israeli control of the West-Bank.  There are the settler, slash-and-burn tacticians who want to take as much territory as they can and the paternalistic Israelis who argue that a Palestinian state is not viable and therefore the Palestinians should be integrated into Israel.  Ultimately both sides are arguing for the same end-result: continued Israeli control of the West-Bank without a withdrawal.

Both sides have an eventual objective  of a single state.  One wants a single state with Arabs and the others want it without. I might add that Hamas are also single state advocates, wanting a single state without Jews.  There is of course no possibility of attaining these ends without violence and the end result is highly unpredictable.  Given a choice between a joint state and a Jewish-only state most Israelis will elect to end the Arab presence so advocating a single joint state is more likely to create a Jewish only state.  On the other hand the only free elections ever held in the Palestinian territories resulted in a Hamas landslide, so clearly that is what most Palestinians want.

The best - and most viable - solution is an Israeli pull-back to the wall ("separation barrier"). That means uprooting all the settlements outside the wall and giving the Palestinians complete autonomy everywhere else. It is also a significant step towards a two state solution.  for years the international community has called on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank to some degree and the Camp David accords require that Israel grant the Palestinians autonomy.

All options are fraught with risks for the Israelis, but withdrawing to the wall has a lot of advantages. It leaves Israel in accord with the UN Security Council's requirements, the settlements outside the wall are a bone in the Palestinian's throat, and indefensible by Israel in the long term.  They require an extensive military presence that comes at the cost of preparations for the next war and creates internal divisions between left and right. The barrier has been built as an international border, it contains border crossings and is defensible.

The Palestinians have never actually made a choice between peace and war: they have only made a choice between war and occupation and that is not a genuinely free choice. They can only make a genuine choice for peace if the occupation (or most of it) ends first. By retaining territory Israel keeps a bargaining chip for a negotiated agreement - and all the key religious areas - but not enough territory to prevent the Palestinians from exercising a free decision over whether to sue for peace.

While a single state solution is unattainable without violence, a withdrawal under Israel's terms leaves Israel in the driving seat of the peace process at minimal social cost within Israel and significantly improves the situation of the Palestinians as the Middle East enters its new phase.

Just to reiterate, Israel withdrew from Sinai by 1979, from Southern Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Why Israel is (almost) an Arab state

The modern Middle-East was largely created by the French and the British, who occupied most of it in the First World War and then drew the maps according to how they understood the local politics. The two communities which had contributed to their war effort were the Jews and the Arabs, and they were represented at the Treaty of Versaille, where the newly formed League of Nations rubber stamped the boundaries the British and French had agreed.

Major groups like the Kurds had no representation, had yet to develop a nationalist movement and were not players.

In the years that followed, a notion developed that the Middle East was an Arab area and anyone who spoke Arabic was deemed to be an Arab.  This generally worked well for Christians and Moslems but the status of Jews was unclear for a variety of reasons.

One well worn argument says that Jews aren't Arabs because they lived in the Middle East (outside Arabia) before the Arabs conquered it. But that just raises more problems, because most Christian communities also predate the Arabs but are still regarded as Arab. The Arabs of Arabia also predate the Arab conquest and if that is the case, can Arabic speakers outside Arabia really be regarded as Arabs, or are they just subjugated people who adopted the Arabic language? To put it differently, if Indians and Nigerians speak English, does that make them English?

In practice most of the Arab world's Jews left for Israel (for a variety of reasons) and don't consider themselves Arabs, so the issue is a marginal one. Self-identification is a key factor in national identity. If you think you're an Arab and you speak Arabic then you are. If you think you're an Israeli and don't want to be an Arab then you are not, but self-identification is also flexible and people's minds can change.

Altogether, some 35% of Israeli Jews originate from Arabic speaking countries and therefore, are as entitled to call themselves Arabs, as any Arab-American such as say, Edward Said. Their culture is Jewish but also Arab and common features can be discerned if you choose to make that comparison.

An additional 18% of Israelis are Palestinian-Arabs (and generally self-identify as such) and so if we add the two together than more than 50% of the population of Israel is Arab.

By way of contrast, the other European created regional state, Iraq, is 75% Arab, Algeria is about 75% Arab (although it is debatable how Arab the Berber population is), Egypt is 85-90% Arab (Coptic Christians, like Jews, are not defined as Arabs) and Syria is 90% Arab.

Finally there is an inter-marriage issue: about 1 in 4 Israeli marriages is between Jews of European origin and Jews of Middle-Eastern origins, and given time all Israelis will be descended from both ethnic groups.

Recreating ancient kingdoms: Arab Nationalism vs Zionism.

Although Zionism and Arab Nationalism are at loggerheads over Palestine (or perhaps Southern Syria), the two have a certain amount in common...