In a recent LSE lecture, the academic Ahron Bregman pronounced three conditions for the achievement of peace in Israel and Palestine. The first was that there would need to be immense outside pressure put upon Israel by foreign governments and civil society organisations. The second was for the Palestinians to rise up in unified, but peaceful, protest – a third intifada. The third was that it would be necessary for a right wing government to be in power in Israel.
After the breakdown of peace talks and the swift upsurge into violence recently, many will return to the argument that the peace process is dead. It is a dangerous notion, as I have argued elsewhere. Israel has clearly been very concerned about prospects of Palestinian unity and has been working hard to try to undermine it.
This is partly behind the declaration of war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The repeated episodes of mass violence inflicted on the Strip in the past nine years indicate that Israel will meet any resistance to its continuing occupation with enormous force. It indicates that the options for the Palestinians are few and bleak. Nevertheless, the issue of how to achieve peace is not one that will simply disappear. To move beyond the fractious stalemate punctuated by such outbreaks, towards a genuine peace process will not be easy, but this should not be a distraction from delineating the means to achieving it.
The first two of Bregman’s requirements are vital to this end. The most important task for those in Israel seeking true peace however, is to engineer the total reversal of the third. That is: to work towards the defeat of the right in Israeli politics. Bregman’s faith in the right to deliver peace is based on the historical precedent of the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt, delivered by the hard-right government of Menachem Begin. Today’s right however, is a fundamentally different animal. Whereas the first Begin government still existed in a political culture shaped by decades of Labour rule, the culture enjoyed by the right nowadays is one that has been fundamentally and inexorably shaped by their own ideals. Driven primarily by the leadership of Ariel Sharon, a hardline, nationalist and unilateralist tone has come to dominate the mainstream of Israeli politics.
Ariel Sharon had long been a key influence on Israeli politics, but it was after his march to the Haram-al-Sharif complex in 2000 and subsequently to the Israeli premiership, that he began to shape history according to his own stark vision. As his violent response to the second intifada grew in the early 2000’s, the Israeli peace camp effectively dissolved as a meaningful political force, aided greatly by Labour leader Ehud Barak’s proclamation that there was ‘no partner for peace’. Sharon’s plan to shift Israeli policy to one of unilateralism therefore proceeded without real opposition. During his years in power, all efforts reflected this; home demolitions, settlement expansion, assassinations, barrier construction, withdrawal from Gaza and more, all were designed to ensure the warrior’s conception of total victory for Israel. The flip side of such a victory, of course, is the total defeat and subjugation of the Palestinians.
This was, as Israeli scholar Baruch Kimmerling states lucidly, the defining goal of Sharon’s career. Such ‘politicide’ would involve the ‘dissolution of the Palestinians as a legitimate social, political and economic entity’. Sharon’s legacy still dominates in the years since his lapse into coma and subsequent death. Applications of what Sharon adviser Dov Weisglass once described as ‘formaldehyde’ to the peace process have continued and repression only escalated.
The other key pillar of the Israeli right has been equally effective in pursuing their own agenda. In their important book Lords of the Land, Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar demonstrate how the drive to control and develop the Occupied territories (particularly the West Bank) was brought about by successive governments who often outdid one another in collusion with the powerful, fanatical and highly organised settler movement. This movement has at its core the fanatical commitment to extend Jewish dwellings all over ‘Eretz Yisrael’ – the land of Israel.
So successful has it been in establishing ‘facts on the ground’ and penetrating the Israeli corridors of power that it is widely believed that major Jewish settlement blocs are now irreversible and hence non-negotiable with the Palestinians. Even hard-line splinter groups such as the ‘Hilltop Youth’, who operate outside the bounds of Israeli law, still enjoy a great deal of protection and encouragement for their activities from the halls of power. The symbol of the movement’s power is the rise of ‘Jewish Home’ leader Naftali Bennett, a former Yesha Council (the largest settlement advocacy group) head, who seeks to unite the Israeli people, from ‘Hilltop Youth’ to the secular suburban population, behind the idea that there will never be a Palestinian state.
The entrenchment of ‘Sharonism’ and mainstreaming of settler politics has ensured a fundamental rightward shift in Israeli politics, where peace is never a serious consideration and the occupation is only to be consolidated. Any act of Palestinian resistance is met with massive, disproportionate force. In the current low-level assaults on Gaza, there are virtually no voices of opposition in the Knesset. Protests from the international community are met with cries of anti-Semitism or accusations of attempting to ‘de-legitimise’ the Israeli state.
Furthermore, the separation of the two peoples has meant that it is very easy, in the words of Gideon Levy to ‘incite and inflame the two peoples against one another, to spread fears and to instil new hatreds on top of those that already exist’. In such a climate, the empathy and reason needed for compromise with the Palestinians has no breathing space. The atmosphere is fundamentally different to that which existed in the 1970s when Menachem Begin signed a peace agreement with Egypt. Today, it is the right’s hold on Israeli politics that has become the over-arching obstacle to peace.
As the party that holds nearly all the cards, Israel has the power to shape peace or continuance of the occupation as it sees fit. Until the dominance of the right is broken or diminished, we cannot expect progress towards justice. Who in Israel will heed the call?