The Sharon government is widely regarded, even by Israel’s friends, as a negative force in the current politics of the Middle East. Its brutal repression of the Palestinians, its intransigence over engaging in the peace process and its defiance of world opinion on such matters as settlement expansion and the separation wall has alarmed everyone concerned with this issue. Seldom before has Israel provoked such criticism from friend and foe alike, and there is a feeling that a different Israeli leadership, drawn perhaps from the Labour party and the Zionist left, would restore the previous status quo. Such a new leadership could be expected to re-start the peace process and offer the Palestinians something more satisfactory and all this would lead to peace and stability.
This widely held view ignores the real problem. As a Zionist, Ariel Sharon is as faithful and committed a servant as the Jewish state could ever have hoped for. He has merely followed the tenets of Zionism to their logical conclusion. It is not he who should be castigated but the ideology he and the state of Israel espouses. For those who have forgotten or never understood what Zionism was all about, a spate of recently published pieces will make salutary reading.
The most remarkable of these is an interview with the Israeli historian, Benny Morris, that appeared in the Israeli daily Haaretz on January 4th 2004, followed by a second article by Morris in the January 14th edition of the London Guardian newspaper. In these he explains with breathtaking candour what the Zionist project entailed.
Few Zionist outside the ranks of the extreme right have been prepared to be so brutally honest and Benny Morris claims to be on the political left. More significantly, it was he who first exposed the true circumstances of Israel’s creation. Using Israel State archive documents for his groundbreaking book on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem published in 1987, he was hailed as a courageous ‘revisionist historian’. His work suggested to many that, having learned the facts of the case, he was bound to be sympathetic to the Palestinians. In the last few years, however, he has been expressing ever more hardline views, as if he regretted the pioneering research that helped expose the savage reality of Israel’s establishment. This shift seems to have culminated in his most recent utterances about the nature of Zionism. Unpalatable as these are, we must thank him for saying so bluntly what all Zionists, however ‘liberal’, at bottom really think but do not say.
Right from Israel’s inception Western states have been prepared to swallow this ideology, since they were not its direct target. But for Arabs, it was different. There was a time when they understood Zionism to be the basic cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict. From the 1920s onwards, the Palestinians, being the ones most targeted, feared that Zionism would take over their country. They tried to fight it but failed and the Zionist project took hold. As this happened, the other Arabs joined the fight and it was commonplace to hear Israelis being called simply, ‘the Zionists’ and Israel, ‘the Zionist entity’. People wrote tracts, articles and books about Zionism and it seemed a black and white issue.
But after the 1967 war, a new ambiguity appeared. Resolution 242, accepted by the Arab states, introduced the idea that the basis of the conflict was the Israeli occupation of post-1967 territory, without reference to what had gone before. This set the pattern for all subsequent Arab-Israeli peace proposals which aimed to bring about Israeli withdrawal from these territories in exchange for Arab recognition. The first successful application of this principle was the 1979 Camp David Agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1979, trading Israeli withdrawal from Egyptian territory occupied in 1967 for a peace treaty. By the time of the 1991 Madrid peace conference, the (post-1967) land-for-peace formula was firmly established. Madrid involved the Arab front-line states only, but in the March 2002 Saudi peace proposal, the offer had been upgraded to one of Israeli withdrawal from all the 1967 territories in exchange for normalisation of relations with the whole Arab world.
Meanwhile, the Arab stance towards Israel as an illegitimate body forcibly implanted into the region whose ideology, Zionism, inevitably meant aggression and expansion to the detriment of the Arab world, quietly slipped out of view. Now, it was only Israel’s post-1967 occupation that was the problem and, once rectified, Israeli integration into the region could proceed. The Palestinians had a clearer view of Zionism. In 1969, the PLO propounded a vision of a democratic state replacing Israel that would give equal rights to all its citizens, Muslims, Christians and Jews. This was a direct challenge to the idea of an exclusive Jewish state, but more importantly a refusal to acquiesce in the Zionist theft of 1948 Palestine.
However, the huge power imbalance between the parties forced the PLO to modify its stance and by 1974, a decision was taken to accept much less. The two-state solution was born and in 1988, the PLO formally recognised Israel in its 1948 borders. By 1993, the PLO had signed up to the Oslo Agreement that finally legitimised Zionism. The terms of the agreement excluded any discussion of 1948 Israel and confined themselves to the dispute over the 1967 territories. And by accepting these terms, the PLO signalled its acceptance of the original Zionist claim to Palestine. This process has found its apotheosis in the recent Geneva Accords, which require the Palestinians to recognise Israel as ‘the state of the Jews’. No greater turnabout in history could be imagined.
Accompanying this evolution of attitudes has been a sort of Arab flirtation with Zionism. Following the Israel-Egypt treaty, a number of Arab-Israeli projects and initiatives came into being. These were mirrored in the West during the 1980s, where various Arab-Jewish ‘dialogue groups’ sprang up and the breaking of traditional taboos became enticing. Exchanges between Arab and Israeli scholars and academics became popular and after the Oslo Agreement numerous Israeli-Palestinians joint projects were initiated.
Contacts between several Arab states and Israel were made, either officially or in secret. Even previously hardline anti-Israel states like Libya and Syria have started to make overtures towards Israel, (though admittedly with mixed motives). The majority of these initiatives have involved ‘liberal’ Zionists, not the small minority of radical but marginalised anti-Zionist Jews. It is as if the old antipathy towards Zionism as the root cause of the Palestinian tragedy and the turmoil in the Middle East had been forgotten. Like Marxist terminology in the West today, the anti-Zionist rhetoric so prevalent amongst Arabs in the past, is passé and many believe that Zionists are people you really can do business with.
At this point, Benny Morris’s revelations are like a slap in the face. He reminds us that Israel was set up by expulsion, rape and massacre. His recent researches, cited in the new edition of his book, The Birth of the Palestine refugee problem revisited, provide the authentic evidence. The Jewish state could not have come into being without ethnic cleansing and, he asserts, more may be necessary in future to ensure its survival. Force was always essential to the imposition and maintenance of Israel, he explains; native hostility to the project was inevitable from the start and it had to be countered by overwhelming strength. The Palestinians will always pose a threat and they must therefore be controlled and "caged in". He recognises that the Jewish state project is an impossible idea and that, logically, it should never have succeeded. Nevertheless, it was worthwhile because it was a moral project justified, despite the damage it caused, by the overriding need for a solution to Jewish suffering. The Arabs in any case have a tribal culture, he says, "with no moral inhibitions" and "they understand only force". Muslims are no better. "There’s a deep problem in Islamin which human life doesn’t have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy openness, and creativity are alien."
These utterances capture the essence of Zionism: that a Jewish state could never have been established without force, coercion and ethnic cleansing; that its survival depended on superior power to crush all opposition; that it was fired by a conviction of its moral rightness which accorded Jews a special place over others; and because of this, viewed everything as instrumental to its goal. Morris regrets the Palestinians suffering entailed in Israel’s creation, but sees it as a necessary evil in pursuit of the greater good. "The right of refugees to return to their homes seems natural and just", he says. "But this ‘right of return’ needs to be weighed against the right to life and well-being of the five million Jews who currently live in Israel."
Thus he eloquently shows why Zionism is a dangerous idea: at its root is a conviction of moral righteousness that justifies almost any act deemed necessary to preserve the Jewish state. If that means nuclear weapons, massive military force, alliances with unsavoury regimes, theft and manipulation of other people’s resources, aggression and occupation, the crushing of Palestinian and all other forms of resistance to its survival, however inhuman – then so be it. The truth is of course that the problem for Zionism was always how to keep Palestine without the Palestinians. And hence today’s Israeli anxieties about the so-called Palestinian ‘demographic threat’. As the impasse of ending the intifada, despite draconian suppression, persists, there is a near panic over ‘demographic spill over’ diluting Israel’s ‘Jewish character’. Limor Livnat, Israel’s education minister, put this eloquently in a radio interview. "We’re involved here," she said, "in a struggle for the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the JewsIsraelis not a state of all its citizens" The Palestinian prime Minster’s recent (tactical) proposal of a binational state has only increased the panic. Opinion polls show that 57 per cent of Israelis support transferring the Arabs (Haaretz, 31.12.03) and government ministers like Avigdor Liebrman advocate this idea quite openly.
It is against this background that the monstrous barrier wall being erected in the West Bank can be understood. Hence also Ariel Sharon’s offer last December of a ‘unilateral’ withdrawal from 40 percent of the West Bank, reversing the classical Likud position on keeping all of the land. A January opinion poll showed that 60 per cent of Israelis supported this. In similar vein, his hardline deputy Ehud Olmert, has proposed a partition of the land, including Jerusalem, into two states "because of demography" But that problem exists inside Israel too which is currently 20 per cent Arab and increasing. It is estimated that by 2010, there will be an Arab majority in the area of Israel/Palestine. How will the Zionists stem the tide and keep the state Jewish?
If Zionism is to remain, there are few choices. As Morris says, only by building an ‘iron wall’, by eternal vigilance and superior force to overcome ‘the barbarians who want to take our lives’. The two-state solution is only a stopgap because he thinks the Palestinians will not be satisfied and sooner or later, they will destroy the Jewish state. Ariel Sharon has done no more than follow these ideals to the letter. His style may be more blatant, but at its basis it is no different to all the other Zionists that have ruled the Jewish state.
The Zionist idea has lost none of its force today; it is deeply implanted in the hearts of most Jews, whether Israelis or not. No one should be under any illusion that it is a spent force, no matter what the currently fashionable discourse about ‘post-Zionism’ or ‘cultural Zionism’ may be. No region on earth should have been required to give this ideology houseroom, let alone the backward and ill-equipped Arab world. Nevertheless, we owe a debt of gratitude to Benny Morris for disabusing us of such notions. But a project that is morally one-sided and can only survive through force and xenophobia has no long-term future. The fact that it has got this far is remarkable but that holds out no guarantee of survival. As he himself says, "Destruction could be the end of this process."
GHADA KARMI is a Palestinian writer and academic living in London. Her latest book is a memoir, "In Search of Fatima" (Verso). She is Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.