The Inexorable Advance towards a Greater Israel
This past year has dealt a heavy blow -- perhaps even a terminal one -- to the project, long supported by the international community, of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of two states. When the United States itself proved unable to halt Israel’s relentless land grab, it seemed that nothing and nobody could rein in Israel’s iron-willed ambition to expand its borders towards a “Greater Israel.”
What will the immediate future bring? In the continued absence of firm international intervention, the likeliest scenario is that Israel will seek to consolidate its hold over 40 percent of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, either by settlement expansion or outright annexation. The main centres of Arab population, such as Nablus, Jericho and Ramallah, would be fenced off, although Israel might allow them corridors to Jordan. This first stage of the project would, of course, be portrayed by Israel as a painful concession.
If Israel managed to get away with it, the next stage could be a good deal more radical, and could possibly involve the expulsion of large numbers of Palestinians, probably under the cover of war as occurred in 1948 and 1967, so as to complete the creation of a Greater Israel between the sea and the river.
After the experience of the past two years, no one should have the slightest doubt that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition is utterly determined to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Bantustans, for a while perhaps, but a Palestinian state, never! Netanyahu is known to be profoundly influenced by his father, the historian Benzion Natanyahu, now 101 years old, who was once the secretary of Ze’ev Jabotinsky – “the father of Revisionist Zionism” -- and who remains a life-long passionate believer in a Greater Israel. He petitioned against the UN Partition Plan for Palestine of 29 November 1947 because he, and others like him, wanted the whole of Palestine for the Jews. That remains his dream.
Whether Israel seizes the whole of the West Bank or only 40 per cent of it, the immediate victim will be the Kingdom of Jordan, which is likely to be swamped with displaced Palestinians. Ariel Sharon, a passionate advocate of Jewish settlement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, used to say that “Jordan is Palestine.” Desperately concerned about its future -- and with good reason -- Jordan recently tried to revive the moribund process by hosting a meeting in Amman of Israel and Palestinians representatives, in the presence of the ineffectual Quartet. Predictably, the outcome seems to have been wholly without substance.
The biggest shock to the so-called peace process this past year was President Barack Obama’s collapse in the face of Netanyahu’s obduracy. Since Obama had raised hopes of a new, more balanced American policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict his defeat was all the more painful. When Israel refused to budge, he simply walked away, showing no hint of steel, not even of that “tough love” towards Israel which many observers of the conflict -- including liberal American Jews -- had hoped to see. Obama’s failure merely underlined the abysmal record of America’s monopoly of the peace process over the past several decades, which has simply provided cover for Israel’s expansion.
The massive aid -- financial, military and political -- which the United States lavishes on Israel appears to have given it not the slightest leverage over Israeli policies. The influence has been all the other way. It is Israel that has managed to shape Washington’s Middle East policy, rather than the other way round. Rarely in history has there been such a flagrant example of the tail wagging the dog.
The Arabs are in no condition to check Israel’s expansion. The Arab Spring has weakened them. Their leaders, whether revolutionary or not, are struggling to cope with the fall- out from the popular uprisings. There is little time or energy to spare for the Palestine cause. The Palestinians themselves, whether under occupation or under siege, remain stubbornly divided. Amazingly, Fatah and Hamas are still squabbling and seem unable to put up a united front, although their country is disappearing before their eyes.
Little wonder that hard- line Israelis feel that Greater Israel is within their grasp. One more big push, they seem to think, and it will be theirs. This seems to be true of the ultra-Orthodox, who are more than ever concerned to put their fundamentalist stamp on Israeli society, and whose members are making deep inroads in the officer ranks of the IDF. It is true, too, of religious nationalists and their constituency of violent and fanatical settlers, and it is, of course, also true of hard-line politicians like Netanyahu himself, who seem to believe that weakening and subverting their neighbours -- and harnessing American power to their hegemonic cause, principally at present against Iran -- will enable Israel to continue to dominate the entire region militarily for the foreseeable future. Peace, territorial concessions and peaceful co-existence are simply not part of their mindset.
Leaders like Netanyahu have been responsible for overseeing very significant changes in Israeli society, including an alarming rise in intolerance, racism and brutality. Even Israel’s so-called liberal middle classes who camped out in tents in their thousands this past year to highlight their economic grievances, seem to show little interest in the hate Israel is piling up by its continued oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians.
The Arab-Israeli conflict -- with the Palestine problem at its core -- has been the cause of wars, massacres and countless other violent incidents throughout the 20th century. It now threatens to contaminate this century as well. Israel’s pitiless onslaught on Gaza in 2008-9 may turn out to have been but a precursor of even grimmer things to come.
In a speech at the London School of Economics last October, Dr Tony Klug, a leading British expert on the Middle East, described the growth of Israel’s settler population from fewer than 5,000 in the early 1970s to more than 500,000 today as “one of the longest state-suicide notes in history.” “Israel,” he declared, “now faces a stark choice: freeze all further settlement growth in preparation for swift and focused negotiations based on the pre-June boundaries with equitable land swaps, or prepare for permanent conflict and indefinite pariah status.”
Is regime change possible in Israel? A miracle cannot be excluded. But there is as yet no sign of the great popular awakening which such an outcome would require. Is it not time for the international community to put together a package of sanctions and incentives, which might induce Israel to change course? The aim must surely be, not only to save Israel from self-destruction, but to spare the Middle East the ordeal of what could be the most terrible war in its modern history. Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2012 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global