• Text smaller
  • Text bigger

As each new agreement in the Middle East is hailed by western
matchmakers as a breakthrough for peace (and then slowly falls apart),
it may be time to ask who, and what these agreements are for: cui bono,
really?

But first, the present result of Clinton’s efforts: the agreement
which he brokered is, like all the others, gradually disintegrating,
under the pressure of Hezbollah on one side and irrepressible popular
hatred among Palestinians on the other. Why? The answer is highlighted
by another answer to a central question: Can Yassir Arafat deliver on
his promise about security and protect Israelis from the fanatics in his
ranks? On his present track record: No. The most astonishing element of
this is that the west, with its supposedly democratic instinct, neither
anticipated such a fiasco nor understands why it is happening.

In the last analysis even a tyrant cannot function politically
without some sort of backing from his body politic — such as that may
be — usually extorted by fear and force. And Arafat, by any sensible
scrutiny of his rule, is certainly a tyrant. His (rather limited and
furiously opposed) authority among the Palestinians is enforced by
brutality, torture, arbitrary detention, assassination, and massive
corruption. It does not take a political expert to see that when he
disappears — and he himself says this will not be long now — that
authority and the force it gives to any agreement he makes now will
vanish with him.

The Israeli government is perfectly aware of this. And yet Ehud Barak
has played out the ritual dance of “concessions,” “commitments,”
“agreements,” handshakes and the rest of it, and withdrawn from Lebanon
with a perfectly straight face; like the other parties to this mêlée, he
offered up the tribute which vice gives to virtue. But, barring some
agitation from the wilder minority among Jewish settlers, any commitment
made by Barak will hold in Israel — because the Israeli system of
government is democratic.

And yet, even if it survives the present trauma of a unilateral
Palestinian intention to declare a “state,” any handshake brokered by
Washington will hold very little political water in the Arab world. Why?
Paradoxically, in this most undemocratic context, the reason is
democratic: The overwhelming majority of public opinion among Middle
Eastern Arabs, and indeed in the Muslim world, excepting only Turkey, is
rabidly against it. As long as Arafat’s frail authority lasts among the
Palestinians it will mean his police arresting and probably brutalizing
the very people among them who try to act on the most deeply held
conviction of the vast majority: that the state of Israel is an
artificial incursion into their territory, and must and will be removed;
they see it as a cognate to the Medieval Crusader Kingdom which in its
time was removed by Saladin. Israeli concessions or changes of
government will do nothing to water down this fundamental element of the
Arab-Israeli conflict (properly speaking, Muslim-Israeli conflict, since
Iran provides a gigantic tributary to this flood of mortal hatred).
Despite formal “peace treaties” with Israel, the same sentiment prevails
under the seething political surfaces of Jordan and Egypt.

What then? We do nothing? Throw up our hands, look the other way, and
let the blood flow? Not if we admit that the Middle Eastern tangle is
largely a western responsibility. Present borders among most of the Arab
countries were drawn by western powers with force majeur after the First
World War, in the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire. After the Second World
War Israel was effectively created in a similar way by Britain, and –
with American help — sustained in the face of the Arab fury that
ensued. Since then, despite its developed superiority in military
strength, the real guarantee of Israel’s continued existence has, when
push came to shove, been the force of American backing, practical and
diplomatic.

America’s position as the de facto center of gravity in European
international politics has made this support more problematic than it
used to be. A quiet but strong distaste for Israel simmers under the
surface of continental politics. The obstreperous Jewish nation is an
uncomfortable reminder of things that a good many in Germany and France
would like to forget. Having taken no part in the creation of the Jewish
nation — except, so to speak, negatively during the Second World War –
they have little or no commitment to its survival. On the contrary, they
view it with occasional resentment. In some cases this resentment has
extended to a tolerance of technical aid for Arab weapons of mass
destruction. This aid continues and is now supplemented by sub rosa
provision of advanced technology from the chaotic political debris of
the quondam Sovietized East. The United States — or at least its recent
administrations — is happy enough to disagree with the continental
powers on certain points, but Clinton, typically, tries to avoid the
appearance of unconditional opposition to pro-Arab policies.

The development of Palestinian national sentiment, unheard of until
well after the Second World War, has made the Middle Eastern tar baby
even stickier. Palestinian appeals to the west are plausible enough,
asking no more than what the west has done for surrounding Arab
countries and Israel itself: help in founding a nation on territory
which is an age-old homeland. In fact this nation has developed as a
strategic and political gambit to achieve what the Arabs had been unable
to manage by direct military force and terrorism: the weakening of
American support for Israel and a base for eventual extirpation of this
Euro-Jewish incursion into Middle Eastern territory.

This purpose, once openly expressed in the PLO covenant, now
disappeared behind a pro forma revision of that document; but not from
the massive demotic gut feeling which drives Middle Eastern political
life. The apparent assumption of Mr. Clinton and other westerners that
this sentiment can be disarmed and nullified by a forced handshake is
not just naive; it is a grotesque example of believing one’s own lies.
It hangs more on imperatives of domestic American and European politics
than on any political reality in the Middle East.

Israeli governments are now left with the choice of either going it
alone — effectively unthinkable with certain parts of continental
Europe helping the Arabs and Iran — or of courting continued American
support by a willingness to talk and a show of reasonable compromise.
While Clinton plays Romeo to Israel’s Mercutio, effectively keeping a
hand on the Jewish sword arm, Barak knows quite well that any talk of a
“permanent” peace is moonshine. Such a thing has never existed in any
disputed part of the world; to moot it in the Middle East now is simply
risible. The unpleasant truth is that Israel will, behind the
diplomatic façade, still have to fight for survival. If its people
maintain the will for that struggle (and there are signs that this is
weakening), they may, at least for the present, keep their nation alive.

There are those among them already who question whether this is worth
continued pain and bloodshed, and others, especially on the Israeli Left
who, like the German Jews of the 1930s, simply refuse to believe that
those who are determined to destroy them (and are busily developing
weapons of mass destruction) will make a large-scale and serious effort
to do so while the west is looking on. If such people prevail in Israel,
then this particular “Jewish problem” for America and the west will, as
in Germany, have its new version of the Final Solution. But as long as
the Israelis hold their nerve, and the Americans do not back away from
the small nation that they (and the British) helped to create, this
conflict will continue. The principal question will be whether we have
the common sense and the courage to recognize this and take on what it
means for the west, of which Israel has always been a part.


Herb Greer is an American writer residing in Great Britain. He is
a frequent contributor to the Sunday Telegraph.

  • Text smaller
  • Text bigger
Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.