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Danger Zone

Israel navigates a troubled region.

Newt Gingrich has dumbly stirred a ruckus in saying that the Arabs of Palestine are an “invented people.” It did not increase his chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination: How many Jews actually vote in Republican primaries? (And many Christian Zionists are already for him on altogether non-Zionist grounds.) But it should not have caused such a furor in the first place. After all, it took little time for him to explain that any solution to the near-hundred-year conflict between Jew and Arab would need be a territorial and juridical settlement between the state of Israel and the Palestinian movement, whether it be a true national movement or not.

It is odd that official Palestinians have gone hysterical over Gingrich’s remark. For one of the standing criticisms of Zionism by Arabs of every political tinge is that the Jewish people were not and are not a nation. More: They deny the very historicity of the Jews in Palestine and especially of their presence in Jerusalem (which, of course, renders nil the entire saga of early Christianity). Not until modern times—and largely among the arriviste Jews of nineteenth-century Germany and France—did anyone doubt Jewish peoplehood. In fact, this was what made the Jews so treacherous. Their enemies did not doubt for a moment their cross-country and transcontinental conspiratorial attachments.

Frankly, it is different with the Palestinians. And it is different for many of the peoples said to be represented in the United Nations. Bolivia admits in its official name to being “plurinational.” Many states in Africa, whose maps were callously drawn by the departing imperial powers, include so many different groups that the very notion of nation is elusive. As we see in the daily press, Pakistan is not close to being a nation. Egypt is a true and historic nation. Jordan is a monarchy which has some traits of a nation—but not many. No other Arab country can even make that claim, which is why Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq are so fragile.

PALESTINE’S DISTINCTION is that it never could boast a historic center. Not even Muslim-ruled Jerusalem, which the late Institute for Advanced Study Professor S.D. Goitein characterized as “mostly [living] the life of an out-of-the-way provincial town, delivered to the exactions of rapacious officials and notables, often also to tribulations at the hands of seditious fellahin or nomads.” This does not mean that Palestinians should be deprived of their own state. What it does suggest strongly is that the intensity of self-evident demand is overblown and misplaced. No, it is not obvious that the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs should be out of Jewish reach.

Still, the real issue is not holy sites. It is the security of Israel and the long-term safety of its people. After all, except for a few handfuls of violent Jewish obsessives (and that is what they are, but that is all there are), the lives of Palestinians are not endangered. What certainly should be on the agenda is their right to their own government and whatever freedoms they can win for themselves. Alas, this will not be an easy chore. Representative government and social democracy are not yet norms in the Arab world.

Barack Obama came into office with the cease-fire lines of 1967 as his set piece for diplomacy. But the “’67 lines” actually go back to 1949. A return to these lines would be premised on the notion that history stopped for 62 years. It hasn’t, and, the longer the Palestinians tarry, the more Israeli incursions will be made on what the Palestinians believe is Arab land. History does not stop forever and especially for the stronger party. This is not a sentimental view of how things work. But it is how things work.

Anyway, the conditions on the ground are different from what they have been. The Palestine envisioned by the president is, therefore, no longer tenable or supportable. One reason this is true is that the 1949 armistice agreements were between Israel and Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan (with Iraq included in one of the accords)—recognizing their interest in Palestine—so what is occurring in these countries now is germane for Israel. The truth is that many of these countries are in flames. You cannot isolate the situation in Israel from the fires burning around it.

The fire touched by the greatest mystery is the one in Egypt. And it is also the one that can burn wide and wildest. The structure of the asymmetrical peace between Israel and Egypt is no longer asymmetrical but actually tottering. Cairo’s military, which observed the treaty for decades, is now so weak that it has already surrendered its determination to shape the constitution that it had only last week proclaimed as its own prerogative. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the new Salafist party ultimately gains the upper hand, it is clear that the enlightened Tahrir Square liberals have kindled a flame they cannot control. (If you want to read a tout-va-bien article on developments in Egypt, go to Nicholas Kristof’s “Democracy in the Brotherhood’s Birthplace” in the December 11 New York Times.) The Sinai was already out of the control of the central government long before Hosni Mubarak was arrested, and it is policed against Hamas operatives and Bedouin smugglers by a weak and corrupt gendarmerie.

Of course, Gaza is its own non-sovereign sovereignty. From there come the only slightly irregular routine of rockets into southern Israel and then the inevitable retaliatory Israeli strikes, at which point Baroness Catherine Ashton gets perturbed and demands a cessation of fire. Hamas does not pretend to be seeking peace. But no one takes it at its word. This explains the long and tiresome years of Quartet diplomacy during which the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) has not been challenged for its supine yet unsuccessful seduction of Hamas and its comrades. Indeed, Hamas makes no bones about its intentions toward Israel. It surely is preparing for another war with the Jewish state. Its long-term goal is, after all, the extinction of Israel. This is an impossible aim. So it will settle for forcing the Jewish state again into the dock of U.N. justice, which is no justice at all.

In its relentlessly ineffective diplomacy, the Obama administration seems not to have noticed that, despite the bloody ways of Hamas, the Ramallah P.A. is intent on uniting with its brothers in Gaza. Even Salam Fayyad, the decent and talented prime minister in the West Bank, has announced that he will resign if that would facilitate the union of the two Palestinian juntas. Hamas has said there will be no union if Fayyad stays.

Israel’s northern borders have been in peril since the Lebanon war, more in peril now than before, because Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the fighting, also became the cover for Hezbollah to rearm. It is the pivotal force in the Beirut government, which means that, for the first time in history, the multi-sectarian and multiethnic country is being run by Shia. Of course, its fate is tied to what happens in Syria and with Iran. If the Assad dynasty falls, and with it Alawite rule, it will be succeeded by Sunni Muslim dominion. Thus, there will be in both Cairo and Damascus hegemony of the Brotherhood—or worse. This would surely thwart the Iranians. On the other hand, it might provoke them to accelerate their nuclear aspirations, which, as of now, we have curbed barely one whit. And not for want of capacity but for want of determination. This strategic jumble is an expression of Obama’s solipsistic take on diplomacy. He knows everything; he can convince anyone and everyone.

He has not grasped the essence of the diplomatic knot that is the question of Palestine, which is also the question of Israeli security. Israelis are correct to fear an uncontrolled Palestinian order that sits on top of their historic patrimony, abuts their living rooms, and openly threatens their strategic defenses. This is a conundrum that Israel has to confront. And it must confront the fact that it will always be vulnerable to siege. Leon Panetta’s impetuous demand that Israel rush to “the damned table” was also reckless. Israel has been willing to get to the damned table for years. Right now, it is the P.A. that refuses to sit with the Jews—as the Arabs have historically, since 1917, refused to sit with the Jews—until they have made major concessions in advance.

THERE IS CURRENTLY a lot of nonsense going around about Israel imperiling its own liberal society. Hillary Clinton, for instance, recently lectured Israelis on the quality of their democracy. There is a certain crude malice to these attacks. I have written recently in TNR Online about a certain orthodox and non-orthodox neo-fascism that has little tolerance for democratic process, and it is not the first time I’ve done that. But Clinton, who has courted the Assad regime (yes, the Assad regime!) as if it were a civilized government, has forfeited her standing to condemn Israel on egalitarian and constitutional grounds—on any grounds.

At about the same season, both the United States and Israel experienced some social turmoil. In the United States, it was around the president’s generally progressive economic policies and his equivocating and enigmatic campaign on their behalf. For all his talk, many Americans can’t really tell what he believes—and that is not their fault. At the tail end of this perplexity emerged Occupy Wall Street, a failed cause before it even started, made up of some sweet people and also some hard-line ideologues (many of whom have, let me say this clearly, an anti-Semitic bent). Nothing has happened except wild market fluctuations, in some large measure due to the congressional Republicans. In Israel, a small citizen movement created the successful “cottage cheese revolution,” which burgeoned into a large and overwhelmingly peaceful undertaking. It gained widespread attention starting with a July 14 protest on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, 222 years to the day after the storming of the Bastille in Paris, two contradictory symbols.

How did Israeli democracy respond? Within three months of the report by the appointed Committee on Socio-Economic Change, the Knesset approved an increase of taxes on the high-income bracket from 44 percent to 48 percent. Taxpayers with incomes of one million New Israeli Shekels, about $270,000, will pay an additional surtax. Parents will receive new credits for each child under three. The tax on dividends, capital gains, and land appreciation rises from 20 percent to 25 percent. The rates for major shareholders will go from 25 percent to 30 percent. These are “progressive” tax rates, and they were progressive even before the increases. By the way, the Israeli economy has done quite well. It was recently applauded by the business oriented Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It turns out that Israel’s democracy, so disappointing to Hillary Clinton, is thriving. 

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New RepublicThis article appeared in the December 29, 2011, issue of the magazine.