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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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