Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bankruptcy of the bypass diplomacy

About a century ago the Zionist movement - established in order to settle in an ancestral land and establish a Jewish state - met with increasing resistance from the inhabitants, who also regarded  it as their ancestral country. Already then it occurred to the Zionist leaders that it might be possible to overcome this resistance by creating bypasses and finding allies across the region who would counter-balance and cancel the local Arab resistance in Mandatory Palestine.

The first to be assigned such was the Hashemite Dynasty, which during the First World War led the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule, and who later became Emirs of Transjordan, still later the Kings of Jordan.

Already in 1921 Chaim Weizmann - the future President of Israel – met with the Emir Feisal, founder of the dynasty, and got from him a statement rather sympathetic towards Zionism and its goals. The only problem was the Arab Palestinians, in whose country Zionism strove to establish the Jewish State, had not really authorized the Emir Feisal, nor his descendants, to make concessions on their behalf. And for decades the unofficial alliance with the Hashemites continued, and even when they found themselves at war in 1948 the secret contacts continued, and after the war the new State of Israel tacitly encouraged the Kingdom of Jordan to annex what is known since then as "The West Bank" and wipe the name of "Palestine" off the map. But it turned out that the Palestinians have not disappeared, were just swept under the carpet, emerging into the spotlight after another war in 1967. And after more struggles and intifadas "The Jordanian Option" (once Shimon Peres' favorite) was once and for all removed from the agenda.

But in the meantime there continued a feverish creative effort to find tortuous new diplomatic detours. In the fifties it was David Ben Gurion, Founding Father and first Prime Minister of Israel, who came up with what seemed a brilliant idea - "The Alliance of the Periphery", designed to bypass the entire Arab World and form a strategic alliance with the non-Arabs Muslim countries of the region, i.e. Iran to the east and Turkey to the north.

Indeed, for decades this covenant thrived. The Shah of Iran was a close and loyal ally to Israel, which among other things helped him to lay the groundwork for an ambitious nuclear research program in his country. And also the Shabak, Israel's security service, helped greatly in  establishing and building up the Shah's own Security Service, which became notorious under the name Savak (the similarity of names is perhaps not entirely coincidental). But it so happened that in 1979 the Shah fell and in Iran emerged a new regime, many of whose leaders were graduates of the torture chambers of the Savak, which did not increase their sympathy for the State of Israel.  (It also did not deter  them from establishing torture chambers of their own, but that's another issue...). And thus, Israel's close ally Iran became its bitter enemy – far more bitter, in fact, than countries which had never been Israel's allies.

Israel's strategic alliance with Turkey lasted longer, until quite recently – extensive military contacts, and flourishing bilateral trade, and tourism packages highly popular with less than affluent Israelis. But then came the dramatic chain of events of the past three years. There was the hearty visit of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Ankara in December 2008, when he requested the help of Prime Minister Erdogan to mediate between Israel and Syria and neglected to mention that within three days he was about to embark upon massive bombings in Gaza in which over a thousand and three hundred Palestinians would be killed, and it happened that Erdogan took this rather personally. And then the incident of the Turkish Ambassador being made to sit on a low chair, the unique contribution of Foreign Minister Lieberman and his deputy Danny Ayalon to Israeli relations with Turkey. And then of course the Israeli naval blockade on Gaza and the flotilla which was trying to break this blockade and the Israeli Naval Commandos who encountered resistance on board  the "Marmara" and overcame this resistance within minutes and then went further to the extent of confirming the kill of Turkish citizens by means of bullets shot point blank at their head.  And then many months of secret and public discussions and attempts to reach a compromise formula and the absolute refusal of the Government of Israel to utter the word "apology" and the scrupulous preservation of Israeli National Honor. And ultimately Israel remained with its National Honor intact and with a a strategic ally irrevocably lost, and now it is not longer a complete fantasy to envisage a naval battle in Gazan waters between the Israeli Navy gunboats and the Turkish warships which might escort the next Gaza-bound flotilla.

And meanwhile Egypt, and the wild crowds bursting into the Israeli embassy despite Egyptian security forces shooting dead three of their number. One should again go back - back to the days of euphoria in November 1977 and the courageous Egyptian President who abruptly landed in Israel and spoke in the Knesset and opened a horizon of hope and peace and sought to break and shatter the psychological walls separating the two peoples. And it must be mentioned that it was never the purpose or intent of Anwar a-Sadat to sign a separate peace treaty with Israel and leave the Palestinians to their fate. But certainly that was the precise intention of Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, and he did achieve it, above and beyond all expectations. The peace agreement between Israel and Egypt has become a part of reality, and in order to strengthen it was taken the decision that Egypt would receive annually two billion dollars from the U.S. taxpayer, with the generous assistance of the influential Israeli lobby on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, the negotiations conducted with regard to the Palestinians moved not a single inch, and dozens of new settlements mushroomed throughout the Occupied territories, and the IDF invaded Lebanon and bombed and killed thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians, and Israel's allies carried out the massacre in Sabra and Shatila, and then came the time of the intifada and the daily killing of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And throughout all this the peace with Egypt remained steady, and the Egyptian Army remained camped on the other side of the Suez Canal and the IDF could safely transfer forces to other fronts. But the spirit of peace between Israel and Egypt was murdered with every IDF bullet  and bomb, with every house built in a settlement, and the psychological walls which Sadat had sought to break down rose up again, higher than ever. And the bitterness and hatred accumulated, and already for many years Israel-Egypt peace was considered a Cold Peace, cold as ice, and some called it a Cold War. All that was needed was a revolution to topple the dictatorial regime in Egypt in order to blow the lid off the bubbling pot. And another diplomatic bypass road designed to avoid dealing with the Palestinians seems to have come to its end.

Only once in its history did the State of Israel seriously try to stop circumventing the real problem, to come face to face with the Palestinians – its closest neighbors, co-inhabitants of the land where the founders of Zionism chose to create the state of the Jews. In September 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met with Yasser Arafat, Head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and they shook hands and signed an agreement under which the State of Palestine should have come into being by May 1999. And as one of the results, the long-established relations between the State of Israel and the Jordanian Hashemites could come out of the closet and become an official peace treaty, and the possibility was opened of peace with the entire Arab and Muslim world, an official peace initiative adopted by the Arab League - not a peace leaving the Palestinians behind, but the fitting and rational complementary to a peace between Israel and Palestine.

What would have happened if the assassin's three bullets had not been  fired behind the Tel Aviv Town Hall on November 4, 1995? Had Yitzhak Rabin remained alive, and remained Prime Minister for another term, would he have completed what he started? That we will never know for sure. In history as it actually happened, Rabin was assassinated, and management of what was still called "the peace process" fell into the hands of Binyamin Netanyahu, and the devastation left by Netanyahu was completed by Ehud Barak proposing "generous offers" which were not that generous, and the bloody wilderness through which Israel was led by Sharon and Olmert and Netanyahu again.

So, on this day, the tenth of September of 2011, the State of Israel is at the brink of a moment of truth which had been avoided for years and decades: the bankruptcy of bypass diplomacy, the end of the  Turkish bypass as well as the Egyptian one - and in ten days, facing at the UN the Palestinians' firm demand for an independent state based on the 1967 borders, a demand which for Palestinians is the very bare minimum as it effectively entails accepting the finality of what they lost in 1948.

Apparently, this is the last possibility for Israel to gain recognition and acceptance as a legitimate part of the region in which the Zionist founders chose to establish it. As it now seems, the Government of Israel is about to reject that possibility furiously and out of hand, to respond with physical violence on the ground and diplomatic violence at the UN. A complete reliance on the largest and only remaining detour, Capitol Hill and the rule of AIPAC in American politics. The State of Israel would live by the sword, holding to the mantle of a sinking empire - wagering its entire future on the willingness and ability of the United States to maintain a pariah, isolated enclave in the heart of the turbulent Middle East.

Will the Palestinians be able to influence the international diplomatic arena by conducting a determined mass struggle in the Occupied Territories, without being drawn into the kind of violence which would take away the sympathy of the world? Would the International Community be able to force the State of Israel to turn to a sane path, even without the participation of the US? Would the United States be able to shake off the stranglehold of the Government of Israeli on its internal politics? Could the young people of Israel, who in the past two months waged such an  impressive and encouraging struggle in the past two months, turn their energies also to an issue which so far they have carefully avoided? I wish I could see a convincing reason to end this article on an optimistic note.