Peace with Realism

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The Continuing Arab-Israeli Conflict

In 1978 Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat became the first Arab leader to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Yet the hope that this would bring a new era in Arab-Israeli relations was not to be fulfilled. Since Sadat's assassination in 1981, the peace treaty has existed in name only, and is often referred to as a "cold peace" in which anti-Israel rhetoric is a constant. Likewise, although the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993 created hopes that the Palestinian issue would finally be resolved and attacks on Israel ended, these hopes were dashed by Yasir Arafat's rejection of an offer of statehood at Camp David in 2000.

Commentators say that the one constant in an era of change in the Arab world has been the refusal to accept the existence of a Jewish state. Even though Sadat, and later Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan, signed peace treaties with Israel, they have been either unwilling or unable to prepare their people for the changes that peace would bring. Consequently, Arab attitudes have remained the same toward Israel as before the treaties, and vilification of Israel is the norm in state-run newspapers and public discourse. (It is also the only resentment permitted free expression in Arab dictatorships.) In Egypt, despite the peace treaty, a boycott of Israel remains and the regime discourages travel there. Arabs regard the peace treaties as a surrender made by corrupt leaders for their own purposes, not as something belonging to the people (Ajami, 1997).

The famous Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani wrote extensively of his vision of peace with Israel, characterizing it as a humiliating capitulation that took away everything from the Arab people: "[We signed] the peace of the cowards.... We scrambled to kiss the shoes of the killers.... They stole the walls, the wives, the children, the olives and the oil and the stones of the street.... After this secret romance in Oslo we came out barren.... History has fallen from the hands of the Arabs" (Ajami, 1999, pp. 256-257). This poetry captured the emotions of an Arab public remote from the political powers that attended summits and signed treaties. In the aftermath of Sadat's treaty had been a lingering hope that the agreement would one day collapse; Oslo took away that illusion and seemed to grant Israel domination over the region and the Arabs living in it.

The sentiment that treaty represents capitulation has a larger context within the Muslim tradition of jihad, the armed struggle to advance Muslim domination. At times in Muslim history, truces were permitted; but they were supposed to include payment of some tribute to Muslims as a sign of submission to Muslim rule. Any treaty that did not include such acknowledgement, or did not include a gesture that could be so rationalized, was regarded as an illegal collaboration with the infidel. Moreover, imposing Islam on non-Muslims is not considered imperialism, but a favor that offers others the true path; but imperialism by non-Muslims on Muslims is a sin that leads Muslims astray, and is doubly forbidden in territory once conquered by Muslims. Since Islam regards Jews as a subordinate religious community and not a nation, their history and ties to the land are denied. Thus, the imposition of a Jewish state in Muslim territory is considered a remnant of Western colonialism, a humiliation of Muslim people, and a violation of Muslim law (Lewis, 2003; Ye'Or, 1985); the Oslo treaty was signed only because the Palestinians were in a weakened position after their support of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War (Lewis, 2003). Yasir Arafat, signer of the Oslo treaty committing to a two-state solution, still proclaimed in 2003, "The State of Israel was created by the force of arms, by colonial conspiracy, on the rubble of our homeland Palestine, and our people were uprooted and displaced in their homeland and in exile.... Every Palestinian refugee knows that his identity will be restored to him only upon the return of his homeland" (Kershner, 2003, p. 23).

Palestine has always been the symbol of Arab nationalism thwarted, not only to the Palestinian refugees but to all Arabs uneasy with their relation to Western power. The cultural dream symbolized by Palestine was so powerful that political events could not compete with it:

In exile and loss, Palestine grew and grew. The orange groves in the narrative of the refugee camp dwellers became lands of bliss, shade, and khayr (well-being). The men and women who had taken to the road from Jaffa and Haifa in 1948 had turned these cities into places of splendor where everything was pristine and good and whole.... These memories, and the expectations that came with them, were there stalking the practical peace Arafat had settled for.... The Palestinian political enterprise Arafat put together could never match the grand expectations. (Ajami, 1999, pp. 263-264)

The right of a return to pre-1948 Palestine remained a symbol of honor and justice, and the abandonment of that right a symbol of the loss of a historical legacy. In the words of a Palestinian expatriate, "It is as if the PLO's acceptance of the Oslo Accords in 1993 had canceled a sixty-year history and set of agreed principles which had been the core of the Palestine cause. At one stroke, it apparently became acceptable to settle someone else's country, expel its inhabitants and ensure by all possible means that they never return" (Ajami, 1999, p. 267). Refugee status became the core of Palestinian national identity - as Arafat reiterated in 2003 - and gave them a disproportionate importance among Arab people.

To make matters worse, Israel became economically successful in the 1990's just at the time that Arab oil revenues declined. Israel's offer of statehood thus appeared to the Palestinians to offer only dependence and inferiority. Most were gratified that liberal Shimon Peres lost the Israeli election in 1996 to conservative Benjamin Netanyahu after a series of terror attacks in Israel - it let them off the hook and returned them to the adversarial relationship they were more comfortable with. Poet Nizar Qabbani wrote of the blessing that Netanyahu had brought the Arabs by reminding them of their "identity and nationality" (Ajami, 1999, p. 279). It also appealed to Arabs in general as a way to return to a nationalism overshadowed by the West.

It is not surprising that terror groups would thrive in such an atmosphere of unresolved grievance. Arab leaders have long nurtured Palestinian terrorism as a way of continuing the fight against Israel after traditional military means failed (Lewis, 2003). After Oslo, Palestinian Arabs, brought up on a sense of victimization by Jews and vilification of Jewish power, felt abandoned by their corrupt and illegitimate leaders for their own secret political deals. Violence became even more justified as the only effective means to accomplish their goals in the face of Israeli power. Anger leads to nihilism and makes up for a lost identity: "There would have been Arab unity, and there would have been home, and houses with gardens and cities of grace, had it not been for America, the distant power, which had tempted and then betrayed a whole culture, and had it not been for the garrison Israeli state that the distant power nurtured" (Ajami, 1999, p. 301). The past could not be reclaimed, but the longing for it, and the refusal to accept the present, was the one thing that Arabs could still hold onto.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is beyond the scope of this paper, but it has become a driving force in the constant terrorism and suicide bombings in Israel and elsewhere against "Jews and Crusaders." There is a popular myth in the Arab world that the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States were the work of the Israeli Mossad in order to discredit Muslims (Lewis, 2003). Suicide attacks against Israel are justified both by practical reasons (Israel has military superiority) and on religious grounds ("martyrdom operations" are a legitimate response to infidel occupation of Muslim land). Though religious support for suicide terrorism is not unanimous, it is the prevailing view, and often based on the traditional Qur'anic passages regarding dhimmi peoples as entitled to protection only when they accepted their subordination to Muslims:

Other critics of the edicts issued by [Sheikhs] Tantawi and Sabil [condemning terrorism against civilians as contrary to Islamic law] based themselves on the status of Jews and Christians in Islam, considered "people of the covenant" - ahl adh-dhimma, or dhimmis. There are clear guidelines in the Qur'an and Sunna for Muslim relations with Jews and Christians, providing for the protection of their lives and property. But as one commentator argued, "preserving the life of the dhimmis is conditional on their living under Muslim rule in a Muslim state. This does not apply to the dhimmis mentioned by the imam [of Mecca], since they are living in their own state that has usurped the rights of Muslims and occupied their lands." Jews and Christians are protected under Islam, but only when they live under Muslim rule; outside the boundaries of Islamic rule, they are no longer protected. According to this chain of reasoning, it is permissible to kill Jews in Israel who live in their own state, especially as its territory has been usurped from Muslims. (Malka, 2003)

The murder of Israeli civilians is further justified by statements that all Israelis are military occupiers, therefore there are no innocent civilians, so anyone who kills them is a "martyr" (Malka, 2003). There is precedent for this in the Islamic law of jihad, as stated on Damascus Radio in 1971: "The laws of Holy War (Jihad) of Islam say that to fight the enemy it is permitted to lay siege on his camps and civilian dwellings.... It is also permitted to cut off the enemy's water supply, even if there are women and children" (Ye'Or, 1985, p. 114). When Palestinians condemn suicide attacks, it is rarely on moral grounds, but rather on whether the attacks are strategically effective (Malka, 2003). (go back)(continue)

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
Peace with Realism