People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Vol. XXX

No. 15

April 09, 2006


S M Menon

IN a memoir of turbulence and conflict observed from close quarters, Mohammad Hasnain Heikal, the Egyptian statesman and journalist, records a peace mission that Romania’s foreign minister undertook to Egypt in 1968. Gamal Abdel Nasser was Egyptian president, and despite the catastrophic losses suffered in Israel’s war of aggression in 1967, he retained the popular legitimacy to make a peace deal work. But he had just one simple question to put through the man who had embarked upon a mediatory mission: could Israel place before him – and the world community – a map that displayed the final boundaries of the Zionist state, as it saw them?  

Heikal records that the Romanian peace effort collapsed in no time, unable to support the burden of this rather simple question. In 1969, much the same poser was put before the Ethiopian monarch Haile Selassie, who was the next reckless soul to step into the fray, seeking to mediate a peace between the Arab nations and Israel. The emperor’s ambitions were rudely rebuffed by Israel’s disinclination to address the question of its frontiers. (Mohammad Heikal, The Road to Ramadan, Collins, London, 1975, pp 60-1)  

Viewed in this perspective, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s avowed intent to define Israel’s boundaries by 2010, must rank as a decision of world historic significance. Olmert went into the recent general elections in Israel as the proxy leader of the Kadima party, whose founder Ariel Sharon remains comatose after a cerebral haemorrhage suffered early January. Like Sharon, Olmert was an ardent believer in a Greater Israel stretching from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean. And like his mentor, he believed that this presumed Jewish birthright could be fulfilled by the mass transfer of the inconveniently placed Arab population of Palestine. In the late 1980s, when the first Palestinian intifada was barely incipient, Olmert had pronounced that the Arab “demographic threat represents a danger to all our forms of life”. In January 1990, he had suggested in an interview, that “ninety-nine percent of Israelis are saying in the secret of their hearts”, that “if it was possible to pulverise (Israel’s Arabs) out of here, (sic) it would be preferable”. (Nur Masalha, A Land without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians, 1949-96, Faber and Faber, London, 1997)  

Uniquely among all nations, Israel has come through over half a century of its history with infinitely expandable borders. At the same time, it has been insistent on retaining its character as a Jewish state, with a distinctly inferior charter of rights – in practice if not in word – for those of other faiths. Founded in an act of ethnic cleansing, Israel cannot be true to its identity or live up to the professions of its historic destiny, unless it continues the process to its logical conclusions. In some form or the other, a belief that the demographic inconvenience of the Palestinians needs to be dispelled, has been a feature of Israeli politics across the spectrum, except for a slender minority which believes that Israel can still reinvent itself as a bi-national state. Israel’s history of ethnic cleansing and its inherent potentialities to repeat this crime against humanity far into the future, were reaffirmed in February 2001 when Ariel Sharon – by far the most ferocious practitioner and advocate of the art – was elected prime minister.  

Informed, if moderate, comment in the West then held that Israel had by electing a certified war criminal as prime minister, forfeited all rights to world sympathy—something known much before to those with greater clarity of thought. But the US evidently was marching to a different beat. And after the September 11 attacks on US territory, any atrocity that Sharon could conceive in his fevered paranoia was acceptable, so long as he invoked the mantra of “terrorism” to justify it.  


Perhaps what is most striking about the recent general elections in Israel is the thoroughly indecisive outcome. Kadima which was expected to be a big winner, cashing in on the halo of martyrdom that Sharon has acquired, emerged the single largest party, but well short of a majority in the Knesset. The big loser of course was the Likud, which was till recently the party that both Sharon and Olmert belonged to. Lacking a clear strategic blueprint for Israel’s future, other than the generalised position in Israeli politics that the Palestinians should be crushed in every manner imaginable, Likud has plunged to a pathetic 10 seats in the 120 member Knesset. Though unilateral disengagement from the Arab population is the consensus position across the spectrum, the ideologues and opportunists of the Likud – best represented by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu – have withheld consent. This is not because they consider Greater Israel an achievable objective, but merely because they would like to keep the chauvinist dream alive as a stick to beat Sharon with.  

Likud’s loss is the gain of a party of a more plainly stated racist agenda – Yisrael Beitenu led by the immigrant from Moldova, Avigdor Lieberman. Landing in Israeli territory in 1978 aged 20, gaining the benefits of citizenship in the Jewish state from the moment he touched down, Lieberman’s political career has been built on formulating various devices to deprive the Palestinians of all rights, and all sense of belonging. As a practical fascist rather than a doctrinaire one, he has recognised that the best option is for the Zionist state to grab as much territory as it can without stirring the conscience of the world, and then to wall off this territory as the exclusive preserve of Jews, where Arabs of whatever faith would be regarded as aliens and enemies. Lieberman is a racist whose attitude towards the Palestinians differs only in emphasis from that of Rehavam Ze’evi, who was appointed without a hint of irony as Minister of Tourism by Sharon in 2001. Unlike other ministers of tourism, Ze’evi’s core competences and his basic interests lay not so much in the hospitality sphere, as in expelling Palestinians from their homeland. His assassination in 2001 remains an unsolved mystery, though it was an event that provided Sharon with ample moral fervour in his mission of crushing the Palestinian resistance.  


What is most telling about the electoral outcome is the full spectrum dominance by parties that do not recognise the Palestinians’ right to live in their homeland. Israel’s elaborate charade of making peace in 1993 served to calm at least some of the fury of the first intifada. But the second intifada was a different matter altogether since all pretences of an Israeli commitment to peace had evaporated by then. The uprising was a consequence of a collusive arrangement between Ariel Sharon, who was honest enough to oppose the peace process, and Ehud Barak, the prime minister who in the self-serving fiction concocted by the US, made the Palestinians an offer of unprecedented generosity, only to be spurned. With an indifferent world looking elsewhere, Israel met the uprising of the Palestinians with its patented racist techniques of home demolition, population transfer, targeted assassinations and economic siege. Even with the infinite indulgence it could count on from western governments and in particular the US, it was a process that could not be sustained for long. After laying waste to the Palestinian homeland and all their aspirations for sovereignty, the time has evidently come now to wall them off, to banish them for all time from Israeli lives and thoughts  

Unilateral disengagement, rather than a negotiated peace, became the political consensus in Israel because it could find no Palestinian partner willing to accept the insulting and grossly unjust peace terms it had to offer. As with much else, this Israeli program became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) for all the years it strove for a peace, could not quite accept the unequal bargain that Israel was intent on forcing, it was ostracised, its leader Yasser Arafat imprisoned in all but name and reduced in the last years of his life, to a pathetic shadow of the inspiring fighter he once was. Because the PLO would not as a body, accept the job of policing the occupation, it was starved of funds – even of tax revenues collected from the Palestinian people – as Israel shifted its patronage to individuals and factions that were more amenable to its demands. And because the PLO in the process lost political legitimacy, popular allegiance in the Palestinian territories rapidly shifted to its extremist rival Hamas, which has made little secret of the contempt in which it held the supposed “peace process”. The landslide Hamas victory in the January general elections to the Palestinian parliament, was in this sense, entirely foretold.  


In a perverse kind of way, this has served Israel’s interests even better. It is now seemingly more justified in arguing that the Palestinians are undeserving of a negotiated peace, since they cannot empower a credible interlocutory for Israel to engage with. Shunned by the US and Israel in his last years, Arafat nonetheless had the satisfaction – more symbolic than substantive – of being regarded as the authoritative Palestinian leader by other world governments, including the European Union. Hamas today finds itself cast into the cold by virtually every government. Even those who believe in its legitimacy as a representative of the Palestinians, think it necessary to first apologise for its extremism.  

Acting with unseemly alacrity, the EU has frozen all financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority and made any resumption conditional on Hamas recognising Israel and giving up its resistance to occupation. That it does not think it necessary to impose a reciprocal set of conditions on Israel, which denies the existence of the Palestinian people and continues its destructive rampage through the occupied territories, is an index of the huge double standard that the Palestinian people have to cope with.

Shortly after the Palestinian general elections, Israel suspended yet again the transfer of tax revenues collected in the territories to the Palestinian authority. It was an act of gross and flagrant illegality, which has passed with little comment, leave alone censure, in the world community. With the Gaza strip – transformed after Israel’s withdrawal into the world’s largest unsupervised prison – being sealed off in retribution, essential supplies in the area are running perilously low. The UN coordinator recently warned that the Gaza strip faces an imminent humanitarian catastrophe—one that will make everything seen over the last decade of global strife seem trivial in comparison. And yet, Israel is not held to account.  

The fortitude and resistance of the Palestinian people, though inadequate to remedy for the cowardice of the world community, remains limitless. A significant victory has been won, though at great human cost, in forcing Israel to abandon dreams of a Jewish homeland stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. And evidence is now mounting of a social crisis within Israel that could soon lay waste to its pretensions as an egalitarian realm of opportunity for the world’s Jews.  


After the racist Yisrael Beitenu, the political formation that made the most dramatic gains in the recent Israeli elections was a little heard of entity called the Pensioners’ Party. The Pensioners drew unexpected support from the burgeoning resistance to the right-wing policies that have led to a massive widening of economic disparities in Israel. Coupled with this is the emergence of Amir Peretz, a Jew of Moroccan descent, as the leader of the Israeli Labour Party, a traditional bastion of the country’s East European elite. Peretz is a traditional union leader who has little time for the messianic visions that have driven earlier leaders. In focusing on livelihood issues of concern to the working people of Israel, he has at various times, questioned the vast expenditures incurred in building illegal settlements and the security apparatus that goes with them, when basic social services are falling into neglect.  

Israel’s principal benefactor, the US, also faces an immense crisis of international legitimacy, its presumptive political and economic leadership of the world now reduced to ruins. The quagmire in Iraq is sapping its internal political solidarity and increasingly being seen as a military adventure undertaken at the behest of Israel. As John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, professors of political science at Chicago and Harvard Universities, put it in a recent working paper which has stirred up a firestorm of controversy: “Pressure from Israel and the (Israel) Lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was critical. Some Americans believe that this was a war for oil, but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim. Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure”.   

Just as much as Palestine, Iraq’s recent elections have rudely punctured the American-Zionist fantasy that the only reason for Arab hostility to western values and principles, was the democracy deficit in the region. The despots who ruled these countries – so the self-serving myth propagated by western ideologues had it – were well served by fomenting a sense of antipathy to the west. But given a platform to articulate their true aspirations and the freedom to express their interests, the Arab people would be eager and ardent in their embrace of the west.  

The situation in Iraq has gone so far askew of initial calculations, that the New York Times in a recent editorial, described Bush as “Iran’s best friend”. The sole consequence of the US invasion of Iraq, launched on flimsy and fabricated evidence, had been in transforming that country into a satellite of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Far from being transformed into an enclave of western ideas and enlightenment, Iraq had become a significant obstacle to the US design for West Asia.   

Democracy evidently, is good only as long as it serves the narrow strategic interests of the US and its rogue satellite state in the region. Shortly after Hamas was voted to power in Palestine, Israel’s defence minister Shaul Mofaz announced that the probable nominee for prime ministership of Palestine was a prime target for assassination. And while not quite so brazen in flaunting its thuggish intent in Iraq, the US has been exerting itself to roll back the outcome of the January general elections, which conferred a near majority on a coalition dominated by Islamic clerics aligned with Iran. Increasingly, the US invasion of Iraq is being seen as the sequel to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, a logical necessity forced upon it by a satellite state that was floundering in the face of the resistance of an occupied people. And increasingly it is evident, the battle to evict the invaders from Iraq will run concurrently with the struggle for the liberation of Palestine.  

(April 5, 2006)