The Magazine

A Baleful Peace Process

For how many decades will we pursue this diplomatic dead end?

Mar 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 26 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Israel’s complicated and challenging supervision of the West Bank hasn’t slowed the engine of individualism, the defining creed of the West, which in Israel as elsewhere keeps seizing new ground from traditional mores, local communities, and the state. It’s not unusual to see Israeli tourism ads aimed at Europe showing off the physical beauty of Israeli men and women, for both heterosexuals and gays. Orthodox Israeli Jews may be having more babies than their secular compatriots, but the thrust of Israeli society is ever more “global.” It may be galling to some to imagine Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, icon of Likud bellicosity, as a promoter of liberal culture, but the capitalist ethic that he helped unleash has made Israeli society much more nonconformist and varied, more like Western Europe and America—and culturally more distant from the Muslim Middle East, which has become more conservative as it has modernized. It has also probably made Israel open to, if not optimistic about, the possibility of peace with Muslim Arabs. 

Fatah’s right to power

Since Israel turned over part of the West Bank to Fatah, the lead group within the Palestinian Liberation Organization, in 1994, Israelis have become understandably more nervous. Until the building of the West Bank barrier, started in 2002, Fatah-orchestrated security, despite tutorials from the Central Intelligence Agency, was an inadequate, lethal mess. The death in 2004 of -Yasser Arafat, the longtime chairman of the PLO and the spirit-ual father of Palestinian nationalism, helped improve the situation considerably since Arafat had personally orchestrated suicide-bombings. (The PLO documents that Israeli forces seized in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 prove the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s guilt.) Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor as the head of the Palestinian Authority, has been much better. Corrupt, authoritarian, old, charisma-free, and ideologically off-balance in confronting the Islamist challenge from Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Abbas is less ideologically and religiously complicated than Arafat, whose identity was deeply entwined with insurgency and violence. 

Since the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, the Israelis and the PLO have divided the West Bank into three zones: Area A, where Abbas and his men have complete control; Area B, where Palestinians are responsible for civil administration and Israelis and Fatah share security duty; and Area C, where Israelis are solely responsible for administration and security. In areas under Fatah’s sway and in the shared zone, the Palestinian Authority has erected a police state of Palestinian design and method. If West Bank Palestinians actively support Hamas, it is Fatah’s or Israel’s security services or both together who will come calling. If liberal secular Palestinians not enamored of Fatah’s endemic corruption and heavy-handed rule protest too loudly and live outside Israel’s zone, it’s Abbas’s men who will do the thumping. The Palestinian police state is financed in part by Israeli tax-transfer payments and in part by American and European aid.

Depending on where they live in the West Bank, Palestinians may regularly encounter Israeli checkpoints that mostly secure the Jordan Valley and protect Israeli settlements surrounding Jerusalem and hugging the 1948 armistice line. Security checkpoints are time-consuming, degrading, and provide endless opportunities for cultural clashes. Many of these Israeli checkpoints went up because Palestinian jihadists were detonating themselves among Israeli civilians. It’s an astonishingly shallow and Western view of Islam to believe that Palestinian suicide bombers incinerated themselves, as well as Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Israelis, because they were upset about the boundary lines proposed in the failed 2000 Camp David negotiations. It’s also an exceedingly naïve view of intra-Palestinian relations to believe that Hamas’s men, who are dedicated to the liberation and Islamicization of all of Palestine (Israel, the West Bank, and quite possibly Jordan, too) will give up their divine mission if Abbas and Fatah can declare East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements theirs. 

In 2000 Arafat, and in 2008 Abbas, refused to make a final deal with Israel. Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were willing to give far more, in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Jordan Valley, than any Israeli government is likely to offer again, but small land swaps and the Palestinian “right of return” reportedly separated the two sides. Most likely, the deal was impossible because the men of Fatah know that it isn’t just the true believers of Hamas who are deeply uncomfortable with renouncing the claim to all of “Palestine.” The right of return for Palestinians has been such a sticking point because it is in essence their claim to Israel.

If implemented in the “just” way envisioned by the Palestinian side, the right of return would immediately convulse Israeli society—which is, of course, the point. Philosophically, the right of return is the Palestinian Trojan horse, the last chance Palestinian Muslims have to break down Israel’s walls. No self-respecting Muslim Palestinian nationalist would dream of putting thousands, let alone hundreds of thousands, of his own people under Israeli dominion unless he thought it was a liberating act. Indeed, many in Fatah would doubtless like to try to fleece the West for as much money as they could get through a cash-per-refugee deal so long as Palestinians abroad didn’t actually move to the West Bank. Many Palestinian “refugees” (using this term after 66 years is problematic) would be totally unacceptable to Fatah for the simple reason that they might be sympathetic to Hamas. And Palestinians abroad would not necessarily want to live on the West Bank, while the status-quo-loving, Hamas-fearing elite of Fatah, who have done well in what President Obama has described as an “unsustainable” situation, certainly do not want hundreds of thousands of disruptive immigrants to invade their little world. For Fatah, there is only one safe place to put Palestinian refugees—inside Israel. 

Palestinian activists want to make their cause a Middle Eastern imperative. The Iraqi-American intellectual Kanan Makiya took a real hit to his reputation among Arab and Western leftists when he argued that Arab intellectuals had done an enormous disservice to Arabs by highlighting the Palestinian cause above democracy and human rights within Arab states. Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-American scholar, has accumulated many sins in the eyes of the Middle Eastern cognoscenti, but among the most annoying has been his sensitivity to issues beyond the Israeli-Palestinian clash that created “the Arab predicament.” Because of their profound affection for the Jewish state, well-wishers of Israel also tend to make Israel the center of the Middle East—a position that the state simply does not deserve. 

The Muslim Middle East

Take any of the major movements in modern Islamic history, and Israel’s role in their formation has been minor. Arab militarism started long before 1948, with the Westernization of the Middle East in the 19th century. The Ottoman Empire, which dominated the Near East and much of North Africa before the rise of European power, naturally put a heavy focus on the creation of a Westernized professional military class once it became obvious that hitherto fearsome Ottoman armies could be sliced-and-diced by more mobile, smaller European forces using artillery with increasing precision and speed. Egypt’s Muhammad Ali Pasha (who reigned 1805-1848) and his descendants set the stage for the militarized Arabism that came with the triumph of the “Free Officers” in 1952. In Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Algeria, and the always-intellectually-vivacious Lebanon, “Arabist” ideas percolating since the 1890s gained a following in the tumult following World War I. Arabism, like its less Westernized relative, the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood, developed because of the perceived rot of Islamic societies. The creation of Israel and the military triumph of Jewish armed forces in 1948 were simply further proof of the decay and corruption of Muslim lands and their rulers. Israel’s devastating defeat of Arab armies in 1967 accelerated the collapse of Arabism as a motivating ideal, and strengthened the Islamist critique of Muslim weakness. But Israeli power didn’t cause the rise or fall of Arabism; it had nothing to do with the flowering of Islamic fundamentalism. 

The most extreme forms of Islamic militancy—al Qaeda on the Sunni side and the Iranian revolution on the Shiite—treat Israel as a subset of a much larger Western threat, led by the United States. Israel has taken center stage for militant groups face-to-face with the Jewish state—Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But that is the exception, not the rule. Many commentators view Hamas as a byproduct of the Israeli-Palestinian collision. A peace deal with Fatah would thus blunt, if not kill Hamas, since a partial Palestine with the Temple Mount flying the Palestinian flag would cripple the Islamist cause. 

But Islamism has grown among Palestinians, as it has among Arabs everywhere, because Muslims have failed to compete militarily, economically, and culturally with the West. The brutality, cultural obsequiousness, and corruption of the ruling Westernized Palestinian elite has also helped. Hamas’s total rejection of Israel has deep Muslim roots; this is also true, oddly enough, of the secular Arab nationalist and pan-Arabist rejection of the Jewish state. Israel defies the Koranic narrative, according to which the great Jewish prophets are actually Muslims before the coming of the final prophet, Muhammad. Israel’s foundational narratives—the Hebrew Bible and the Diaspora, the historical mainspring of the Jewish claim to modern Israel—are nonsensical and repellent to believing Muslims. In the same way that secularized Muslims have been unable to outflank decisively the fundamentalists on social issues, especially those relating to family law where stipulations are clear in the Koran, secular Muslims have been unable to ignore the religious narrative about the Jews. For most, even the most secular, religious sensibilities are operating in the background. Europe and America, where secular political elites rule, have always shied away from religion in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since it makes an already complicated situation intractable. 

The explosive growth of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world is obviously connected to Israel, its victorious wars over Muslim armies, and the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio. But even here, one needs to be cautious in assessing the catalyst and proffering cures. Classical Muslim bias against Jews is rooted in the communal struggles on full display in the Koran. The prophet Muhammad, who drew deeply from both Jewish and Christian sources to create his narrative, depicts Jews as being learned but treacherous. His characterization undoubtedly reflects frustration with the Jews of Medina who failed to accept his prophecy, even though he’d rooted Islam firmly in Judeo-Christian history. Islam’s staunch monotheism and, later in its development, the omnipresent Holy Law have more in common with Judaism than Christianity, where the Trinity and Mary and the emphasis on theology over law create a different, more anthropomorphic, more feminine spirituality. 

This traditional Muslim bias against Jews, which occasionally led to persecution but rarely to pogroms, in the 1930s began to mix with modern European anti-Semitism, which gives the original Christian gravamen against the Jews (their rejection of Jesus) an ever-nastier twist, becoming, via Christendom’s inquisitional period, a sin of blood as much as creed. European anti-Semitism’s nastiest versions, in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union (Jews as nefarious, irretrievably clannish, devilishly clever, capitalist oppressors), gained traction in the Middle East as Zionism gained ground and Israel gained strength. Israel’s existence was for many Muslims proof of a global Jewish conspiracy. It’s possible that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian clash could break the growth of virulent anti-Semitism in the Middle East, which is now mainstream. But it’s increasingly doubtful unless the larger intra-Muslim tugs-of-war, between secularism and the faith, and between authenticity and modernity, are resolved. 

Let Palestinians vote

America has always wanted to cheat in the peace -process: to import into the Middle East the mores and preferences dominant in the West since World War II, minus one rather important principle: democracy. The Israelis would trade post-1967 land for peace. Given enough land, the Israelis and Palestinians would get along. How the Palestinians ruled themselves was irrelevant to this scheme. It’s not a coincidence that the peace process has again risen in America’s agenda as dictatorship has reasserted itself in the region. With the fall of the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and the rise of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military junta, which has sent Hamas in Gaza into a deep funk, the Obama administration can more easily advance a top-down approach to West Bank Palestinian politics and the peace process. That Abbas has been ruling for over five years without an electoral mandate doesn’t matter. The peace process transcends the question of democracy and civil rights. And Abbas is, as President Obama confidently tells us, a man of exceptional gifts in the Middle East since he is “sincere about his willingness to recognize Israel and its right to exist, to recognize Israel’s legitimate security needs, to shun violence, to resolve these issues in a diplomatic fashion.” 

And Israelis are likely to play along since they, like Abbas and his Fatah lieutenants, are content with the status quo and scared to death of change. President Obama is right that the Israelis should take risks for peace: They should insist that the Palestinian Authority be ruled democratically. But Israelis, understandably, are subject to the authoritarian temptation since free elections in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, and Egypt could bring Islamists to power. Westernized authoritarian rulers, after their unsuccessful wars against Israel, have signed treaties with the Jewish state. But as the tumult of the Great Arab Revolt showed, the Arab authoritarian states are built on shifting sands. The emergence of democracy was erratic and ugly in the West; it’s proven tumultuous in the Middle East. But if the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic cancer is to be stopped among Muslims, it will only be because faithful Muslims have come to terms with Zion in their midst. 

New elections in Gaza and the West Bank might reveal that Hamas has lost its sway; they might reveal that Fatah has gained ground in Gaza, thanks to Hamas’s Islamist tyranny, but lost ground on the West Bank; they might reveal that the Palestinian people have grown less enamored of both parties; or that the Palestinians, overwhelmingly Muslim, have no desire whatsoever to renounce their “right of return” or accept land swaps. Democracy could kill the peace process. 

If so, so be it. There won’t be lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians—the kind of peace where Israeli forces are withdrawn from the West Bank, Shin Bet no longer unilaterally undertakes night raids, and the barrier comes down—until peace is a democratic mandate, born of a civil society that demands its own rights before demanding rights from Israelis. That time is probably far off—though we may be only in the early stages of the Great Arab Revolt, and time moves quickly in a revolutionary age. An American-led effort to use the West’s financial weight to improve and democratize Palestinian governance would be arduous but not hopeless; certainly no more arduous and frustrating than the egregiously misnamed peace process has been for 40 years. American determination to improve Palestinian governance and civil liberties, which will surely infuriate Israelis who’ve grown comfortable with the Fatah police state and settlements that make no security sense, could most likely derail any divestment movement in the European Union. The EU isn’t a hopeless political theater for Israel, especially not with American diplomatic muscle behind it.

It’s still too soon to know whether Barack Obama and John Kerry will do as much harm in the Holy Land as Bill Clinton and his peace-processing minions did (Yasser Arafat deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the second intifada, but the naïve, Clinton-propelled Camp David talks get partial credit for the blood later spilled). Odds are another blood bath isn’t in the making since Abbas and his spoils system might be the first victims. For Arafat, chaos was always an opportunity. By comparison, Abbas and company are downright timid. Yet Washington still might help plunge Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza into violence. When this round of peace-processing fails, as it will, the United States will not look wiser or more powerful. And that, in the Middle East, is never a good thing.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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