December 29, 2003

Is There Hope? –
Where to Look for It
by Ran HaCohen


There can be little doubt that something has changed in Israel's public discourse in the past two or three of months. Israel's rejectionism – the ideology of the Army, turned into a state dogma when, PM Barak, the Trojan horse, destroyed the Israeli peace camp from within, and then consolidated by Sharon – has been showing serious cracks.

We first had the 27 refusing Israeli air force pilots, "opposed to carrying out illegal and immoral attacks of the type carried out by Israel in the territories"; new waves of refusing soldiers are following. We had former speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg (Labor), who, in an article that attracted a lot of attention especially outside Israel, described it as a "nation [that] rests on a scaffolding of corruption, and on foundations of oppression and injustice." We had the influential interview with four former Secret Service heads, warning that Sharon is leading Israel to "a point where it will not be a democracy or a home for the Jewish people" and criticizing the settlements, the Apartheid Wall, the assassination policy, the daily humiliation and harassment of the Palestinians, and the demagogic abuse of "preventing terrorism" as "an excuse for doing nothing" to end the occupation. We had Staff Sergeant (res.) Liran Ron-Forer's book describing how he had "become an animal" while serving at a checkpoint in the occupied territories. We even had the Israeli army admitting that it had intentionally lied to the media about operational details of an attack in Gaza that ended in a bloodbath. And we had senior mainstream analyst Yoel Marcus of Ha'aretz calling on PM Sharon to resign (18.11).

On top of all that, the two most important political developments are the overwhelmingly successful media launching of the so-called Geneva Accord, as well as senior Likud politician Ehud Olmert's call for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal form most of the occupied territories, including dismantling settlements, which gained significant support even within the Likud. The recent long-awaited speech of PM Sharon, threatening with "moving" (not removing!) some settlements while strengthening other if and when the Road Map "fails," can be seen as his response to these challenges, which seem to show that the Israeli public is not as keen on "letting the Army win" as the junta was hoping.

Pneumonia, not SARS

As for the Geneva Accord, much too much energy has been wasted on debating words and paragraphs of the unbinding paper, which never claimed to be much more than a refutation of Barak's pernicious claim that "Israel has no partner for peace" (translated into proactively eliminating any such partner, that is, into "Israel is no partner for peace").

It is easy to find faults in the Geneva text; I for my part can go a long way with it, though a line like "The Israeli Air Force shall be entitled to use the Palestinian sovereign airspace for training purposes" is utterly outrageous. But debating the details is missing the whole point. Geneva enthusiasts – who are generally simply Oslo enthusiasts, a decade older but seldom wiser – tend to present the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if it were SARS: a terrible illness, to which the cure has not yet been found; All we have to do is find the right medicine, take the pill and be healthy.

This is a grave mistake. The Middle-East conflict is not SARS; it's more like pneumonia. Its cure has been known for decades. Except by official Israel, with its vested interest in keeping the status quo, much too many peace plans have been solemnly launched – Clinton's Peace Plan, the Nusseiba-Ayalon Plan, the Saudi Peace Initiative, Bush’s Road Map, now the Geneva Accords, and several more. The differences between them are like those between different brand-names of penicillin. They all include clear, practical measures that Israel has to take in order to make peace: Dismantle the settlements, withdraw its soldiers and civilians from the occupied territories, let create a viable Palestinian state, and find a creative solution for the Palestinian refugees' right of return. In the short range, these are the necessary and sufficient conditions for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. "Inventing" them is reinventing the wheel.

The problem is that the patient – in this case, Israel – refuses to take the pills. Developing new medicines when the patient doesn't even consider taking the old ones may be a wise propaganda step – which is why the Geneva Accord is quite important after all – but it is far from sufficient to bring about peace.

Since 1967, Israel has never given up its claim on the occupied Palestinian territories; Israel has not dismantled a single settlement built there, and has never ceased to take Palestinian lands by an ever more sophisticate arsenal of dispossession: the "by-pass roads," the "checkpoints," the relentless harassment of the Palestinian population, and, at present, the project that epitomizes the policy of dispossession: the Apartheid Wall.


Therefore, any assessment of where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is heading to should consider the following points:

  1. There is nothing new about Israel's public discourse opposing the Occupation: Most Israelis have opposed the settlements policy all along, as all polls repeatedly show.
  2. All Israel's governments have learnt to live with some opposition to the Occupation, and even use it in order to boost the Occupation. A peace rally in Tel-Aviv is an excellent way to divert media attention from new houses for settlers by nice pictures of "We Want Peace."
  3. There is a huge discrepancy between what Israel is ready to say (for peace) and what it is actually doing (against peace). This discrepancy reaches its peak with Labor in power (Likud is more honest about its colonialist objectives), but there is no reason why Sharon would not adopt the policy of speaking against the Occupation while doing his best to entrench it.
  4. Playing for time is a central Israeli policy; Sharon is a founding father of it. Yes, says Israel: we will end the Occupation, we will dismantle the "unauthorized" "outposts" and even some settlements – but not now. Not before "terrorism" stops for 7 days, or 3 months, or 5 years. Not before the Palestinians stop defying us. Not without negotiations, and not before a final status agreement is reached. Not before Arafat is gone, and not before the Road Map fails. Not before the elections in the US, and not before those in Israel, and not before the occupied Palestinians become a true Western democracy. We will end the Occupation, sure – just give us a few more years to boost it first.
  5. One has to be either extremely naïve or an outright hypocrite to overestimate the shift in Israel's public discourse. Since 1967, Israel has "missed" each and every opportunity to end the Occupation (most notably in the Oslo years, which witnesses a 100% increase in the number of settlers). The Occupation is not run by journalists, neither is it decided in elections: It is deeply anchored in the ideology and in the political and financial interests of the Army, which in fact runs the country; it is backed by major parts of the leading elites, and by the entire State apparatus on all levels, from the Health and Education to Construction and Agriculture ministries. The Israeli parliament, where settlers are highly over-represented, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Oslo Reloaded?

Therefore, to estimate whether Israel is steering away from its traditional rejectionism just when it is backed as never before by the Bush administration, do not listen to the PM or to his self-proclaimed interpreters. Look at the occupied territories themselves instead. There, no sign of an improvement can be traced. Military incursions with massive killing and wounding of Palestinians, huge "collateral damage" and ceaseless destruction of houses are the Palestinians' daily bread, almost uncovered by the media.

We all heard of the 4 innocent Israelis killed on Thursday (25.12) near Tel-Aviv by a suicide bomber, the first such successful operation since early October. But who noticed the 4 innocent Palestinians killed alongside with a Jihad activist assassinated in Gaza the same Thursday? Or the 8 Palestinians killed in Rafah on Tuesday? Or the 5-year-old Palestinian child – yes, Mohammad Al-Arej was five years old – and the 16-year-old Palestinian boy, both killed near Nablus on Sunday? Or the 10 Palestinians killed and 31 homes destroyed by Israeli forces the week before?

The greatest danger right now is to fall into a new Oslo trap: to concentrate on speeches and accords, on diplomatic meetings and photo opportunities, and to ignore the facts on the ground – the daily dehumanization of Palestinians, the accelerated erection of the Apartheid Wall, and the systematic destruction of Palestinian life. As long as this Israeli policy does not change, there is no room for optimism. Ten years after the Oslo fraud, it is high time to remember that speeches and texts can be forgotten tomorrow, but facts on the ground are there to stay.

– Ran HaCohen

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Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in Computer Science, an M.A. in Comparative Literature and is currently working on his PhD thesis. He teaches in the Tel-Aviv University's Department of Comparative Literature. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. Mr. HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter from Israel" appears occasionally at

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