By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Like a film running inexplicably backward, first slowly, then faster and faster until everything‘s a blur, the Middle East we thought we knew has reverted abruptly to its hate-filled past, to an ethnocentrism stunning in its savagery. The sudden turnabout has all but obliterated the work of a generation: the negotiations, the interim accords, the tenuous sense of security -- ultimately, whatever sense of civilization keeps a person from torching his neighbor’s home. Now our best guide to the Middle East is Yeats, poet laureate of tribal rage, of blood-dimmed tides, of centers that cannot hold. On the West Bank, after all, a rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem isn‘t entirely metaphoric.
Only in this case, it’s rough beasts -- Muslim and Jewish, Palestinian and Israeli. The struggle for land within the confines of Israel and Palestine may be a zero-sum game, but there‘s blame enough for everyone.
The blame begins, of course, with Ariel Sharon, whose entire career has been devoted to proving that a Jew can be as fascistic as the next guy. What’s particularly infuriating is that Sharon visited the Temple Mount, home to mosques that Muslims consider holy, to bolster his hold on the leadership of the right-wing Likud Party, which hold had begun to slip away earlier that week with the announcement that the more popular Bibi Netanyahu had been cleared of criminal charges and was eligible again to assume public office.
Then again, Sharon was able to incite a war only because the peace process had ground to a halt -- with Yasir Arafat applying the brakes. Ehud Barak had been willing to give up more to achieve peace than any Israeli anticipated, and yet Arafat declined to take the deal. Barak offered support for a Palestinian state comprising all of Gaza and 91 percent of the West Bank, and to give over control of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. It was a brave proposal; Barak was likely tendering far more than most Israelis were prepared to give up. Moreover, after Arafat and Barak had reached an impasse as to who should hold sovereignty over the hill, abutting the Wailing Wall, on which the mosques are located (which, alas, is also the site of the Jewish temple of Roman times), Bill Clinton came forward with a proposal that at least might have been a basis for resuming negotiations. The parties, he proposed, would declare the entire site -- Wall, mosques and all -- to be the literal, statutory Kingdom of God, with administrative control of the Wall entrusted to Israel, and of the mosques to Palestine. By the grace of He Through Whom All Things Are Possible, state would thus be separated from state, and church from church.
Clearly, unless the Israelis had suddenly decided to pack it up and go back to Poland, this was as good it would get for the Palestinians. But Arafat demurred. Through all the years of negotiations, he had not prepared the Palestinian people for the prospect of compromise -- nor had Mubarak prepared the Egyptians, nor the House of Saud their subjects. (”We had fed the heart on fantasies,“ Yeats wrote. ”The heart‘s grown brutal on the fare.“) Barak had been willing to move out in front of Israeli public opinion and attempt to alter it. Arafat has never attempted to challenge Palestinian public opinion in the slightest.
The eruptions in the West Bank and Gaza that followed Sharon’s swaggering visit were both spontaneous and sanctioned by Arafat. Only this Tuesday did the chairman order Marwan Barghouti, the head of Fatah‘s paramilitary forces in the West Bank, to stop the violence -- and it largely abated. As I write, Arafat has still not publicly called for an end to the violence, though Barak has forcefully condemned Jewish rioting. Like all Arab leaders, Arafat is to some degree fearful of ”the street“ -- of the outbursts, increasingly influenced by militant Islamicists, of people who have nowhere else to turn. (Arab states have a ”street“ precisely because none of them has a functioning democracy.)
Just as Arafat undermined Barak by rejecting an agreement, the Palestinian violence of the past two weeks, from both civilians and the Palestinian forces, has undercut, depressed and astounded Israel’s sizable and influential peace movement. The failure of Palestinian leaders and intellectuals to condemn their people‘s violence has been upsetting, but just as galling have been the assertions from the same leaders and intellectuals that Israeli peace activists are still only Zionists, that no meaningful differences distinguish a Barak administration from that of a Netanyahu. ”What is so demoralizing to the Israeli peace movement,“ says one veteran activist, ”is that the violence and its justifications call into question whether there is really a peace partner on the Palestinian side.“
Then again, some Israeli doves may have entertained a false sense of security that since peace seemed to be drawing nigh, actual conditions were getting better. On the West Bank and in Gaza, they clearly weren’t; the average Palestinian‘s income has actually declined since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993. Money intended for the Palestinian people was siphoned off by Arafat’s apparatchiks; major investment, not to mention autonomy, awaits the final settlement, and that settlement keeps being deferred -- albeit, most recently, by Arafat himself.