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January 11, 2008

Bush's Israel Problem – And Ours


by Ira Chernus

No one knows what's in George W. Bush's mind as he heads off for Israel and Palestine. Perhaps he himself doesn't know exactly why he's making the trip. But if he is really going to burnish his legacy by moving both sides closer to peace, as the pundits say, he faces enormous problems on both sides.

Among Palestinians, the Fatah leaders Bush is willing to talk with speak for only a segment of their people. A recent poll showed 39% of Palestinians trusting Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party. Only 16% trust the opposition Hamas Party. But 41% say they do not trust either faction. Even if Abbas concludes some kind of deal with Bush and the Israelis, he may be a leader who looks over his shoulder and sees only a small band of followers.

If such a deal really creates a Palestinian state, more Palestinians may jump to the pro-Fatah side. But the deal is bound to create a rather truncated state with limited independence, as chunks of land around Jerusalem are officially ceded to Israel or the Palestinians are denied a full-scale army and full control of their water supply. Bush supports Israel's insistence that the democratically elected Hamas leaders must be excluded from the government. So, many Palestinians will see any deal as a sell-out and resist. How many, and how they will resist, no one can predict. But it's predictable enough that Palestinian society will end up more fractured and its government less able to govern.

This chaos is probably just what the Israeli government wants. According to many reports, Israeli undercover agents helped found Hamas years ago to undermine the then-nearly-universal Palestinian support for Yasser Arafat. Then the Israelis pumped money (and perhaps arms) to Fatah during its internecine war with Hamas to intensify the inner Palestinian split. To further sow dissension, the Israelis used massive violence to break up the prospect of Fatah-Hamas unity in 2006.

Israeli governments have pursued such divide-and-conquer strategies ever since the state was born. What the Israelis have always feared more than anything else is a unified opponent. And on the Israeli side, fear more than anything else is the obstacle to peace. That is George W. Bush's Israel problem – and ours.

The Politics of Fear

Last month a well-respected rabbi in my community, Tirzah Firestone, wrote a moving public confession. Like most Jews, she "had been raised with the unquestioned narrative about Israel's righteousness." She first began to question when she visited the Occupied Territories. "I encountered the shocking effects of my people's fear," she writes. "Fear has been inculcated into us Jews. It lives in our cells." By now, fear has become "the sovereign power in our lives, and [it] justifies any action."

As a trained psychologist, the rabbi knows that people who build walls around themselves for safety end up reinforcing their fear. "What an incredible metaphor this 'security barrier' [which Israel is building in the West Bank] is for our own lives!" she writes. "The danger of our barriers is a kind of sclerosis of the soul, a deadening of our humanity." The fear comes from a history "full of real trauma and suffering, centuries of expulsions and pogroms, ghettos and methodical extermination."

But even sympathetic critics of Israeli policy usually fail to point out what every Palestinian knows all too well: Jewish fear comes from, and perpetuates, a confusion between past and present. Jews have been far too quick to identify Palestinians with Nazis, to equate isolated bombings in an Israeli bus or café with the methodical killings of the Nazi holocaust. Jews have become victimizers because they have never ceased seeing themselves as victims.

Indeed, the influential Jewish theologian Emil Fackenheim once quoted an Israeli psychologist who said that so many Jews equated all Arabs with Nazis because they have "entered a holocaust psychosis." Fackenheim offered this quote to support his claim that the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and all the violence it entailed, was not merely a moral but a sacred act.

Israel has spent nearly 60 years showing conclusively that Jews not only can fight back but can make themselves invincible in the Middle East. Yet the fact that Israel is militarily secure has not taken away the fear. It just does not sink in to the minds of most Jews, in Israel and elsewhere.

Why not? One intriguing speculation came recently from the always insightful Israeli commentator Uri Avnery. When the U.S. intelligence community announced that Iran was not pursuing a nuclear weapon, Avnery wrote that the news that Israel was not in danger of an annihilating attack fell "like an atom bomb" on that country. The Iranian threat was, he said "our most precious possession."

Beneath the irony he revealed a grim truth: "Jews have become used to anxiety. We have little red warning lights in our heads, which come on at the slightest sign of danger. In such a situation, we feel at home. We know what to do. But when the lights stay off and no danger appears on the horizon, we get the feeling that something suspicious is going on. Something is wrong."

In other words, fear has become a foundation stone of Jewish identity. Indeed, too many Jews define what it means to be Jewish largely in terms of persecution, oppression, and the need to resist anti-Semitic enemies. Without an enemy to fight they would be plunged into an identity crisis.

Fear as Foreign Policy

The Israeli government feeds this fear by insuring that there will always be an enemy. Once it was all Arabs, then all Palestinians, then the PLO. Now it is Hamas. The Israelis have a long history of ignoring Hamas offers for peace, insuring that Hamas will be retained as an angry foe.

Now they've done it again. In the last few weeks Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and others have proposed a long-term truce. Although certain forces in the Israeli government are urging that truce talks begin, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has publicly vetoed the idea in no uncertain terms. And Israel has stepped up its attack in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Fear has prevailed again in the dominant Israeli view, as Avnery sums it up: "If the Palestinians are strong, it is dangerous to make peace with them. If they are weak, there is no need to make peace with them. Either way, they must be broken." And if (as is likely) they will not be broken, Israel gets to have two strong factions continuing to tear Palestinian society apart. For fear-driven Israelis, it's a win-win situation.

This fear helps to explain not only the many Israeli policies that are violent and outrageous ("Those Arabs understand only one thing: Force") but the few that are now in the direction of peace. In a recent interview, Olmert shocked his nation by saying publicly that Israelis must take seriously the prospect of dividing Jerusalem. But he quickly explained that it has nothing to do with wanting better relations with the emerging Palestinian state. On the contrary, Olmert views his primary responsibility as prime minister as "ensuring a separation from the Palestinians."

Israelis have become obsessed with the fear that, if the occupied territories are not somehow jettisoned, Palestinians will some day outnumber Jews. The idea of letting them have the right to vote, and thus rule over Jews, is too terrifying to accept. But how can Jews "live eternally in a confused reality where 50% of the population or more are residents but not equal citizens who have the right to vote like us?" Olmert asked. "My job as prime minister, more than anything else, is to ensure that doesn't happen."

Olmert's talk of flexibility on Jerusalem may look courageous. He knows that an undivided Jerusalem has become the prime symbol of the Jewish people taking an intractable stand against their enemies. What Rabbi Firestone, or any good psychologist, could tell him is that people who feel compelled to prove their inflexibility (like people who wall themselves in) only root themselves deeper in their anxiety.

Olmert also knows that Israeli leaders who do not create an appearance of intransigence that caters to the fears of their public will soon be voted out of office. So at the same time that he shocked Israelis by hinting about dividing Jerusalem, he shocked Palestinians by insisting that the huge settlement of Ma'alei Adumim, built in the West Bank, must remain part of Jewish Jerusalem. And his government further outraged Palestinians when it announced that it would build 1,000 new units in the settlement Har Homa, which Israel plans to keep as part of its Jerusalem (even though Israel's attorney general says it's illegal). When Condoleezza Rice said, "This doesn't help to build confidence," it was quite an understatement.

Olmert knows one more thing: Right-wing politicians recently forced through a law that says fully two-thirds of the Israeli parliament must approve any changes in the boundaries of Jerusalem. So he can safely sound conciliatory, knowing that the concession he hints at will probably never come to pass.

Negotiating a Two-State Solution

The limited independence the Israelis will probably offer now might have been widely welcomed in Palestine and paved the way to real peace – if the Israelis had offered it back in 2000 when Bill Clinton tried to broker a final peace. But just as the talks came near to the point of agreement, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak backed out. He was overtaken by fear – not of the Palestinians, but of his political opponents on the right, who were busy scaring Israelis into seeing an independent Palestine as Nazi Germany reborn.

Seven years of war and occupation have passed since then, terribly lean years for the Palestinian people. Fewer of them are now willing to accept a two-state solution at all. The movement for a single, secular, binational state – the ultimate terror for most Israeli Jews – has now taken deep roots and gained widespread support among Palestinians and their supporters.

A two-state solution might still win over the Palestinian public, if it requires Israel to remove all but a few of the settlements, gives Palestine full control over all of the West Bank and Gaza including all of Arab Jerusalem, and offers real independence, including a genuine army and full control over water. And it would have to be ruled by the government the people elected, including the full complement of elected Hamas officials.

But the fears of Israeli Jews are powerful enough to insure that no Israeli government that agrees to such a deal can survive. That is Bush's Israel problem.

Why is it also our problem? Listen to Karen Hughes, Bush's close friend and former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. After two years trying to understand how to improve America's image in the Muslim world, Hughes found that "the Iraq war was usually the second issue that Muslims and Arabs raised with her, after the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Hughes said she advised Bush and Rice two years ago that U.S. help in ending the six-decade old fight over Israel would probably do more than anything else to improve the U.S. standing worldwide."

Restoring U.S. Reputation

If indeed anger in the Muslim world poses a threat to our national security, nothing will make us more secure than helping to bring peace between Israel and Palestine. That will require a just peace, creating a genuinely independent, genuinely viable Palestinian state. And that, in turn, will require Jews overcoming their fears.

The good news is that there have always been Jews, in Israel and around the world, who have escaped the grip of fear. Here in the United States many are joining the proliferating Jewish peace groups. Though these groups are still small, their numbers are growing rapidly, and their impact can be great. As they grow, their voice will reach the several million Jews who do not really believe the fear-driven alarms sounded by right-wing Jewish institutional leaders. The fear that grips those several million is the fear of speaking their conscience, despite the harsh criticism they may endure.

The more Jews speak out now for a just peace, the more they will make their view a legitimate option in the mainstream Jewish community. That is the key to breaking through the widespread fear-induced silence. And that, in turn, is the key to taking genuine steps toward peace for Israel and Palestine and greater security for the United States.

Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.

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Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and author of Monsters To Destroy.

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