It's still about Zionism
Unless Israel abandons its biblical myths it is impossible to reach a lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli struggle, writes Hassan Nafaa*
During Israel's recent war on Gaza, controversy started over whether Arab countries should withdraw the "peace initiative" endorsed in the Beirut summit in 2002 or keep it on the table intact. Perhaps by now the Arabs have realised that it doesn't matter either way. Since it was launched seven years or so ago, successive Israeli governments have dealt with the Arab initiative with arrogance bordering on contempt. So does anyone really expect the Netanyahu-Lieberman government, one of the most fanatical in Israel's history, to take this initiative seriously?
I am convinced that no Israeli government, now or in the foreseeable future, is prepared to reach a solution of the Middle East conflict on the basis of the Arab initiative. This is because Israel's ruling elites, across the political spectrum, are convinced that the balance of power in the region is in their favour and will remain so for a long period of time. They believe that Israel is getting stronger while the Arabs are growing weaker and divided. Also, there is no sign that international public opinion is putting any pressure on Israel to accept the initiative. And there is no sign that major powers are willing to press for a deal based on that initiative. To complicate things further, Israel is a country suffering from a leadership vacuum. There are no leaders, current or potential, on Israel's political scene that can lead the country out of its current tribulations, or offer a strategic vision that may save Israel from itself and from a terrible future.
Does this mean that Obama will bow down to everything Netanyahu wants? Does this mean that the current US administration will keep on doing what previous administrations have done; namely, make threatening noises and then capitulating to Israel's every whim? The answer is perhaps yes. But what would be even more damaging is if Israel, under US pressure, feigns interest in the initiative and then proceeds in its slow and calculated manner to sabotage it every step of the way.
The Arab world has to send a clear message to Israel and all its international allies. The Arabs should make it clear that their initiative is not subject to negotiation. It is a set piece that should be either accepted or turned down -- no interpretation, no reservations, and no conditions. Under no circumstances should the Arabs agree to amend the initiative or even offer explanations as to its articles. Also, any negotiations inspired by the initiative should take place in a collective framework; namely, through international conferences linking all tracks of the peace talks together. The aim should be to produce a binding agreement involving simultaneous measures and specific steps. Every effort should be made to ensure that the pace of implementation is suitable and that the measures taken are not contradictory.
It may seem stubbornness, but this is the only possible way ahead. The Arab world may seem weak and fractured at present, but we cannot, even in moments of weakness and division, agree to a settlement that doesn't meet the minimum of our legitimate interests. Excessive eagerness to find a solution can be dangerous, for it may lead to capitulation. And capitulation is not the way for a lasting agreement. Capitulation would simply move the conflict to other arenas and turn it from an Arab-Israeli conflict to an Arab-Arab conflict, or even an Arab-Islamic conflict.
The Arab world should look beyond its immediate circumstances. At this critical moment in their history, the Arabs should act with caution and patience. Let's look beyond the surface. Appearances may suggest that Israel is powerful beyond all measure, confident beyond all boundaries. But this is not true. The Zionist project is waning at last. Zionist ideals are hurtling out of orbit. And if it presses on with its current policies, Israel will proceed towards defeat and collapse.
Israel's invincibility is a thing of the past. Back in the 1973 War, the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal, overran the Bar-Lev Line and shattered Israel's myth of superiority. More recently, Israel failed to smash Hizbullah during the punitive war it waged on Lebanon in summer 2006. And it failed to crush Hamas, or even force it out of power, after a devastating war on Gaza in winter 2008-09. What this military record suggests is that regular Arab armies can, if backed by strong political will, defeat Israel. And even if Arab armies shy from confronting Israel for any reason, people's resistance can prevent the Israeli army from ending the conflict on its own terms.
On a more theoretical note, the structural basis for the Zionist project is unsound, forged history. The forgery has been exposed by Arab writers (Kamal Salibi, Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri, Fadel Al-Rabiei) as well as Israel's neo-historians. Israel's writers from the post- Zionist school want Israel to discard conventional Zionist ideals, including the uniqueness of Jewish nationality, the purity of the Israeli people, and the need to grab land. They want Israel to stop relying on religion and make secular citizenry a criterion for belonging to the state. Although there is a strong opposition to this new breed of historians, they have succeeded in one thing. In Israel, it is no longer a taboo to demand a rethinking of Zionist ideology.
The researcher Thomas Thompson says that today's Israel has no relation with historical Israel. The Israel that we know today has been invented through biblical writings. But modern excavations show that the old Israel sprouted from the local population living in the bronze Kanaanite Age. Archaeologists couldn't find any material evidence backing the story of the Old Testament about the Exodus. To date, there is no proof that the Israelis were ever lost in Sinai. The Iraqi researcher Fadel Al-Rabiei, who studies pre-Islamic Arab history, goes one step farther. He believes that the Jerusalem of lore was not even in Palestine, but in Yemen, and argues that Mount Zion was in Negran in Yemen.
Time was that the Israeli media machine depicted Israel as a tiny state fighting against a sea of enemies, an oasis of democracy in a despotic region, and a law- abiding state in the middle of chaos. This myth evaporated in the 1967 war when Israel showed its true face as a bellicose and expansionist state. Israel's reputation further dipped when it built the "separation wall", an act that no racist county matched in history. In its recent war on Gaza, Israel shelled schools, universities, ambulances, and even UN relief agencies in full view of the world. Consequently, millions across the world now see Israel as a vile threat to world peace and security.
Finally, a major shift took place in the US public opinion. Slowly but surely a new current is emerging in US politics, one that refuses to see Israel as a state above law. In a bold move, the new US administration has just asked Israel to join the Nuclear Non- proliferation Treaty. A new reality is dawning, and Israel will have to get used to it.
To sum up, Israel is in a crisis and it cannot emerge from it unless it abandons its biblical vision and adopts a pragmatic political vision. The Israelis must find a realistic way to coexist with their neighbours and live a normal life within the region they have aspired to dominate. Israel's current position on the issues of Jerusalem, settlements, borders, and the Jewish nature of the state is based on religious myths -- the very myths on which the Zionist project is built. But you cannot make political deals on the basis of religious visions. Compromises need to be made. And these compromises have to take into account a few facts. One important fact is that six million Palestinians have been expelled from their homes and given no chance for self-determination. Unless Israel abandons its biblical myths it is impossible to reach a lasting political agreement.
Some Israelis maintain that Israel should become purely Jewish. The Arabs can counter that with a daring proposal. They may suggest the creation of a "spiritual centre for the Jews"; let's say on a small piece of land near Jerusalem. At which point, historical Palestine may be declared a neutral and disarmed country, one that serves as a model for religious coexistence.
* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.