Hello, it’s good to be back. At least I think it is. Ask me again in a week or two. Meanwhile, thanks for scores of kindly get-well cards. I’d challenge anybody not to feel better after letters as generous as some readers sent me. I’d much enjoy quoting a few, but my editors may think it’s too self-indulgent.
While I was on my health (read: sickness) holiday for a few months, the world has been up to its old trick of changing much without changing at all. The French critic Alphonse Kerr’s hoary bon mot, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” is turning out to be the most accurate observation of human affairs.
The Israeli election last week surprised many, but none as much as Western devotees of the centre-left Zionist Union Party. They persuaded themselves that, although the contest might go to the wire, in the end the voters would bless the left’s Isaac Herzog. Instead, it went the other way and it wasn’t even close. Centre-right Likud leader Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s last-minute feint to the right settled the matter. It was a brilliant move. Usually right-wingers, when they think they’re behind, try to outflank their opponents on the left. Not this time. During the last days of the election campaign Netanyahu declared that he would stop playing the charade of the “two-state solution.”
Good for Bibi, said a lot of voters. The process was a sham, from Madrid (1991) to Annapolis (2007) and beyond. Not because two states may not be the best, perhaps the only, solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but because the Arab/Muslim side was never serious about it. The Palestinians could have had their state all along if their aim had been coexistence with the Jewish state and not its elimination. They could have had a Palestinian state before a Jewish state ever came into being, by accepting the Peel Commission’s recommendations for partition in 1936. But Israel’s opponents had zero interest in the peace process except as a ruse and a propaganda tool. For them peace would mean Israel’s achievement of its war-aim: Existence. That was something with which the Arab/Muslim world could not come to terms.
All this is hardly news. “Few things can be stated with certainty about the Middle East, but there’s little doubt that if the peace process had been in good health — indeed, if it hadn’t been on the critical list — Netanyahu wouldn’t have been elected prime minister in the first place.” I had occasion to write these lines 18 years ago, not long after another Israeli election that ended in Netanyahu’s victory.
The 1996 election between Netanyahu’s Likud and Labor’s Shimon Peres should have been a shoo-in for Peres. Israel’s voters went to the polls after a smirking Jewish fanatic named Yigal Amir had assassinated Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The former commander-in-chief had started implementing the 1993 Oslo Accords, halting Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the land Israeli troops under his command had secured for the Jewish state during the 1967 Six Day War. Implementing Oslo cost Rabin his life, without doing anything for peace and Israel’s security. Terrorist bus bombings and rocket attacks continued after 1993 as if Oslo had never happened.If no buses had been blown up in Tel Aviv and no rockets had been fired on Israeli settlements after Oslo, Peres would almost certainly have won the 1996 election. It was the Arab terrorists who campaigned most effectively for Netanyahu (just as the Israeli lunatic who assassinated Rabin campaigned most effectively for Peres). In the end, it was the Arab terrorists who waged the better campaign.
When the U.S.-inspired negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis that we call “the peace process” first began in Madrid 24 years ago, I commented that if Israel never existed there would still be conflict and mayhem in the Middle East. The region is troubled because its political and social culture is mired somewhere in 1000 AD.
As I filed my last piece before my medical holiday last year, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham was just making its entrance on the world stage. Most publications hadn’t yet settled on whether to call it ISIS or ISIL. Today, after only six months, it’s the most prominent, bold and brutal of the warring factions in the region. All the same, it’s nothing new. The latest item in the cultural furnishing of the Levant doesn’t change the decor. Pundits who initially wondered what the Arab Spring would bring when it started in Tunisia did not have to wonder for long. The Arab Spring brought ISIS. It brought civil war to Syria and Iraq, with over 200,000 casualties. It brought Egypt to the brink of a medieval-style theocracy, before reverting to a mere military dictatorship. By now it has started to make us feel nostalgic for Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Most recently it devastated Yemen and produced 23 dead European tourists as it returned to square one in Tunisia where it started less than five years ago.The Arab and Muslim world is guided by ideas and emotions, religious as well as secular, that never got past the Middle Ages. They aren’t the Arab/Muslim world’s only ideas and emotions, of course, but they are the guiding ones. For Israel to trade land for peace in such a climate is, if anything, detrimental to peace. Expecting Palestinians to stop attacking Israel by distributing land to them is like expecting sharks to stop attacking swimmers by pouring blood into the water.
The question was never whether Israel would give land for peace, but whether it could get peace for land. The answer is possibly yes, one day, but not yet. Israelis want peace because they know they can’t get a better deal, but the Arab/Muslim world still thinks it can. Netanyahu says the time to negotiate is when Israel’s opponents realize that peace is the best deal available to all. I agree — and, it seems, so do most Israelis.