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.
On the Israeli side, rage has answered rage — only in the Israelis‘ case, rage has come heavily armed. Having pursued a peace so generous that it imperiled his hold on office, Barak responded to the stone-throwing by ordering his soldiers to shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. The official Israeli response has been brutal and indiscriminate, and it is clear that in a number of instances, troops acting under the color of authority have beaten and killed Palestinians either out of anger or just for the hell of it.
Most troubling of all has been the civilian violence, Arab against Jew, Jew against Arab, within the state of Israel. Communities that have for decades lived side by side and shopped in the same stores have savagely turned on each other. Israeli Arabs have set fire to Jewish towns; Jews have burned Arab villages. In the middle of Tel Aviv, an almost entirely Jewish city, 500 Jews surrounded an Arab restaurant and torched it. The violence has been worst in Galilee, home to 800,000 of Israel’s 1 million Arab citizens. In Nazareth, Arab youths stoned an upscale shopping center in the Jewish part of town; Jews responded by marching on the Arab sector by night in a stone-throwing fury. The Arabs called the (Israeli) municipal police force, which responded, eyewitnesses say, by shooting dead two of the Arabs. The specter of ”Lebanonization“ — the transformation of Israel into a site of block-by-block tribal warfare — looms over the land.
Israeli Jews seem genuinely dumbfounded at the smoldering rage that their Arab neighbors have displayed. They shouldn‘t be. Israel is a land of soft apartheid. Arabs can vote and move about, but they have great difficulty buying land outside the Pale of their settlements; they go to separate and unequal schools; their professionals must settle for second-class jobs; their streets and villages are not maintained by the public authorities. (Barak, who received nearly every Arab vote in the last election, promised to direct public funds into Arab communities, but in his preoccupation with getting a peace accord, he has ignored these commitments as he has those he made to Russian Jews — indeed, almost all of his domestic promises.)
At the forefront of Israeli Arab discontent, not surprisingly, are the educated young. Last year, Arab students at Haifa University, where they constitute 20 percent of the student body, demonstrated for equal rights. Like black college students in 1960, they have limited opportunities and freedoms — but can’t understand why they don‘t have more.
The challenge before Israeli Jews is to clarify the meaning of Zionism. As an ideology that asserts that Jews need a homeland — a belief that the experience of the Holocaust considerably reinforced — Zionism requires a state in which Jews are in the majority. Tragically, it has also come to stand for a state in which Arabs are second-class citizens, and so long as that persists, Jews — doves included — have no grounds for feeling betrayed if the dominant emotion among Israeli Arabs turns out to be fury.
For the moment, the worst may be passing. Barak has condemned the violence from Israeli Jews and commanded the police forces to protect Israeli Arabs who are under attack. Both he and Arafat seem to be ordering their forces to stand down. But as my friend Jo-Ann Mort, who sits on the board of Americans for Peace Now, points out, the last two weeks have made clear that there is no longer the possibility of stasis between Israel and Palestine. The center has not held, and the sole remaining alternatives are war or peace.
Harold Meyerson’s analysis of the presidential debate appears on our Web site (www.laweekly.com).