An Israel of the mind

My latest New Matilda column is about the recent Israeli elections and the issues of Jewish identity:

Do the results of Israel’s recent election really point to significant changes in the Jewish state?

According to most regional analysts, the results of Israel’s recent election signal a profound shift to the right. But a deeper reading reveals a more pedestrian reality.

Although Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu has become the third most popular party in the Knesset — their racist views on Arabs threaten to split the state apart and even Zionists worry the Moldovan immigrant will threaten America’s relationship with the Jewish state — I agree with the Swiss-based Israeli journalist Shraga Elam, who wrote last week:

“The bottom line is that the new Israeli government can be expected more or less to continue the line of the old one, ie of letting the so-called two-state option stay open while acting against it and slowly escalating measures against the Palestinians.”

We are set for more white noise about negotiations, a peace process and a “moderate” versus “extremist” Palestinian leadership. The man who is likely to be prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, talks tough about bombing Iran and not withdrawing from occupied Palestinian land, but he may face a considerable hurdle in the person of US President Barack Obama, who, unlike his predecessor George W Bush, may not accept an intransigent Israeli leadership.

I’ve long argued that Obama’s interest or chances of creating real change between Israel and Palestine is negligible at best — talk of “change” convinces only those who are satisfied with beautifully crafted rhetoric. But the new American Middle East envoy George Mitchell may choose to get tough on the ever-expanding settlement project and threaten to withhold billions of dollars of guaranteed loans if the Jewish state even dares to expand colonies under the guise of “natural growth”. Mitchell’s 2001 report on settlements signalled an unwillingness to accept any expanded colonies.

Such important — if modest — pressure, would be welcome but ignores the elephant in the room, namely the key role of Hamas and its integral position in the Palestinian national struggle, a reality ignored by all major Israeli political parties. These points are elaborated in journalist Paul McGeough’s forthcoming book on Hamas, Kill Khalid.

The recent Gaza war remains an unresolved sore. Leading American newspapers like the Los Angeles Times are investigating the possibility of Israeli war crimes. An Israeli Defence Forces source told Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz on the weekend that, “it’s clear to us that in a small portion of the combat sectors immeasurable damage was caused, and that is very difficult to justify from a legal perspective, particularly if such justifications are called for in legal proceedings with international organisations”. In other words, Israel’s disproportionate use of force was a war crime.

Frustratingly for the pro-war lobby, Hamas remains in power in Gaza and through Egypt has negotiated a short-term truce with the Jewish state which is yet to go into effect. A Guardian journalist reported last week that the smuggling tunnels from Egypt into Gaza, allegedly destroyed by Israel’s bombardment, remain largely intact and are daily transporting essential goods.

Simply put, the war achieved none of its stated aims and decimated an already suffering people. An aid convoy, led by maverick politician George Galloway, left from London for Gaza on the weekend to make this very point.

In such grim times, it takes a brave (or foolish?) publication to declare the possibility of peace in the region. The Economist did just that last week, claiming that liberal Jews in America might pressure Obama to pursue less militant policies towards the Palestinians. Perhaps, but thus far more dovish groups have wielded little political power — although J Street, an alternative to the hardline lobby AIPAC, generated heat in January for daring to challenge Israel’s war against Gaza. J Street remains a conventional believer in a two-state solution and there is no evidence to date that it has the ability to shape American foreign policy.

Such wishful thinking aside, the largely hidden relationship between Israel and Washington warrants closer attention. A recent Jerusalem Post interview with Bush administration deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams — conducted by his sister-in-law, incidentally — destroys any illusions that the US is a disinterested third party. When asked why Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, Abrams is blunt: it was a deliberate ploy to distract the world from the Geneva Accord peace initiative, which would have established a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank.

He explains:

“I’ve also heard the ‘poison pill’ theory, according to which Sharon did not believe that, given this opportunity to rule Gaza, the Palestinians would prove to be able to have a democracy that would show all Israelis that if Israel then pulled out of the West Bank, they’d be getting a peaceful, friendly, democratic neighbour. This theory goes that Sharon thought the Palestinians would blow it, and that this was a way of showing the world that a two-state solution had to be delayed until such time as the Palestinians could govern themselves properly. If that was his theory, it seems to have worked.”

Abrams conveniently ignores his central role in funding and supporting an attempted coup against Hamas in 2007 after the Islamist party beat the American proxy Fatah in free and fair 2006 elections.

In this toxic environment, it is often very difficult to conduct a rational public debate about the issues. I encountered a rare exception a few days ago during the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Many American Jews live in Bali and some of them approached me to explain their shame over Washington’s uncritical support of Israel’s occupation after I spoke about the vexed questions of Israel/Palestine and Jewish identity.

After a number of questions about the Jewish state’s chances of longevity, the reality of the West Bank colonies and the demographics that show Palestinians outnumbering Jews in Palestine and Israel within 10 years, I was struck by the desire in the audience of Indonesians and expatriates for rational and respectful discussion. A number of people informed me that they felt frustrated with the lack of honesty in the Western media towards this issue. What can we do as Jews, I was asked.

Indonesia maintains no official relations with Israel and a number of prominent Muslim clerics during the recent Gaza war called for recruits to fight the Israelis in Palestine. I was constantly told that the vast majority of Indonesians don’t regard Israel as one of their key concerns, but that it would be very hard to find any prominent locals willing to stand up and defend Israeli behaviour. This is mirrored in every Muslim nation on earth.

The response of one woman in the audience struck me particularly. She was in Palestine during Israel’s birth in 1948 and chastised me for not “talking about the history of the Jewish state and its tiny position in the region”. She couldn’t understand why I was picking on the “one democracy” in the Middle East and didn’t focus more on the autocracies surrounding it.

This friendly but patronising lady spoke of an Israel that doesn’t exist; an Israel in her mind. She acknowledged the difficulties of the conflict and damned the post-1967 occupation as “the country’s biggest mistake”, but refused to see that it was the very corrupting nature of the colonies that was contributing to Israel’s downfall.

For her, and so many Jews I meet, their romanticised notions of the Jewish state are removed from realities on the ground. Israel is a concept, a noble idea that must survive above all. This last point is a belief that will not be swayed by facts or reason. Israel’s election merely confirmed this trend. Until Diaspora Jews loudly raise their voices and condemn actions committed in their name, the Jewish state’s relationship with its neighbours will remain toxic.