Your new book, Roadmap to Nowhere, covers the history of the Israeli occupation of Palestine in the last three years, a period dominated by Ariel Sharon’s leadership. You argue that during this period it became evident that in Israel, decisions are taken by the military, rather than the political echelons. Can you elaborate?
Israeli military and political systems have always been closely intertwined, with generals moving from the army straight to the government, but the army’s political status was further solidified during Sharon’s ascendancy. Senior military officers brief the press (they capture at least half of the news space in the Israeli media), and brief and shape the views of foreign diplomats; they go abroad on diplomatic missions, outline political plans for the government, and express their political views on any occasion.
In contrast to the military stability, the Israeli political system is in a gradual process of crumbling. In a World Bank report of April 2005, Israel is found one of the most corrupt and least efficient in the Western world, second only to Italy in the government corruption index, and lowest in the index of political stability. Sharon personally was associated, together with his sons, with severe bribery charges, that have never reached the court. The new party that Sharon founded, Kadima, and which now heads the government, with Olmert as Sharon’s successor, is a hierarchical agglomeration of individuals with no party institutions or local branches. Its guidelines, published in November 22 2005, enable its leader to bypass all standard democratic processes and appoint the list of the party’s candidates to the parliament without voting or approval of any party body.
The Labor party has not been able to offer an alternative. In the last two Israeli elections, Labor elected dovish candidates for prime ministry–Amram Mitzna in 2003, and Amir Peretz in 2006. Both were initially received with enormous enthusiasm, but were immediately silenced by their party and campaign advisors and by self imposed censorship, aiming to situate themselves “at the center of the political map”. Soon, their program became indistinguishable from that of Sharon. Peretz even declared that on “foreign and security” matters he will do exactly as Sharon (but he will also bring a social change). Thus these candidates helped convince the Israeli voters that Sharon’s way is the right way. In the last years, there has never been a substantial left-wing opposition to the rule of Sharon and the generals, since after the elections, Labor would always join the government, providing the dovish image that the generals need for international show.
With the collapse of the political system, the army remains the body that shapes and executes Israel’s policies. During the recent Israeli attack on Lebanon (not covered in the book), it became common knowledge in Israel that the military is leading the government, with Peretz, now Defense minister, often appearing on tv looking like a puppet operated by the generals surrounding him.
Sharon is widely viewed in Israeli and Western discourse as a leader who has undergone a transformation from a philosophy of eternal war to moderation and concession. This is not quite the picture that emerges from your book.
One of the questions in the book is how it happened that Sharon, the most brutal, cynical, racist and manipulative leader Israel has ever had, ended his political career as a legendary peace hero? The answer, I argue, is that Sharon has never changed. Rather, the birth of the Sharon myth reflects the present omnipotence of the propaganda system in manufacturing consciousness.
During his four years in office, Sharon stalled any chance of negotiations with the Palestinians. In 2003 – the road map period -the Palestinians accepted the plan and declared a cease fire, but while the Western world was celebrating the new era of peace, the Israeli army, under Sharon, intensified its policy of assassinations, maintained the daily harassment of the occupied Palestinians, and eventually declared an all-out-war on Hamas, killing all its first rank of military and political leaders. Later, as the Western world was holding its breath again, in a year and a half of waiting for the planned Gaza pullout, Sharon did everything possible to fail the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected in January 2005. Sharon declared that Abbas is not a suitable partner (because he does not fight terror) and turned down all his offers of renewed negotiations.
The daily reality of the Palestinians in the occupied territories was never as grim as in the period of Sharon. In the West Bank, Sharon started a massive project of ethnic cleansing in the areas bordering with Israel. His wall project robs the land of the Palestinian villages in these areas, imprisons whole towns, and leaves their residents with no means of sustenance. If the project continues, many of the 400.000 Palestinians affected by it will have to leave and seek their livelihood in the outskirts of cities in the center of the West Bank, as happened already in northern West Bank town of Qalqilia. The Israeli settlements were evacuated from the Gaza Strip, but the Strip remains a big prison, completely sealed from the outside world, nearing starvation and terrorized from land, sea and air by the Israeli army.
Sharon’s legacy, as it unfolds in the period covered in this book, is eternal war, not just with the Palestinians, but with what the Israeli army views as their potential network of support, be it Lebanon now, or Iran and Syria tomorrow. At the same time, what Sharon’s legacy has brought to perfection is that war can be always marketed as the tireless pursuit of peace. Sharon proved that Israel can imprison the Palestinians, bombard them from the air, steal their land in the West Bank, stall any chance for peace, and still be hailed by the Western world as the peaceful side in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Did the Road Map plan of 2003, with which your book opens, offer any real prospect for peace?
To answer this question, it is necessary first to refresh our memory regarding what the conflict is about. From Israeli discourse one might get the impression that it is about Israel’s right to exist. On this view, the Palestinians are trying to undermine the mere existence of the state of Israel with the demand to allow their refugees to return, and they are trying to achieve that with terror. It seems that it has been forgotten that in practice this is a simple and classical conflict over Palestinian land and resources (water) that Israel has been occupying since 1967. The Road Map document as well manifests complete absence of any territorial dimension. In the final, third phase, of the plan the occupation should end. But the plan’s document doesn’t put any demands on Israel at this third phase. Most Israelis understand that there is no way to end the occupation and the conflict without the Israeli army leaving the territories and the dismantlement of settlements. But these basic concepts are not even hinted at in the document, which only mentions freezing settlements expansion and dismantling new outposts, already at the first phase of the plan.
Nevertheless, the road map plan is substantial and important because of what it determines should happen in its first phase. This phase repeats the cease-fire plan proposed by then CIA head George Tenet, in June 2001. The essence of this phase is that to restore calm, a cease-fire should be declared, to which both sides should have to contribute. The Palestinians should cease all terror and armed activity, and Israel should pull its forces back to the positions they held before the Palestinian uprising, in September 2000. This is a substantial demand of Israel, because in September 2000, there were large areas of the West Bank that were under Palestinian autonomous control. Implementing the demand to restore the conditions that existed then, should mean also lifting the many road blocks and army posts that Israel has placed in these areas since that time.
There is no doubt that fulfilment of this demand would contribute greatly to establishing some calm, and creating, at least, conditions for negotiations. But, as I mentioned, Israel refused to accept even that much, and stalled the road map in the same way that it had stalled the Tenet plan before.
A central event that you cover in the book is the Gaza pullout and the evacuation of the Gaza settlements. But your analysis of what went on behind the scenes of the pullout is quite different than the way it was perceived even in critical circles.
A prevailing view in critical circles is that Sharon decided to evacuate the Gaza settlements because maintaining them was too costly, and he preferred to focus efforts on his central goal of keeping the West Bank and expanding its settlements. There is no doubt that Sharon openly used the disengagement plan to expand and strengthen Israel’s grip of the West Bank. But I argue that there is no evidence that he decided to give Gaza up because keeping it proved too costly.
Of course, the occupation of Gaza has always been costly, and even from the perspective of the most committed Israeli expansionists, Israel does not need this piece of land, one of the most densely populated in the world, and lacking any natural resources. The problem is that one cannot let Gaza free, if one wants to keep the West Bank. A third of the occupied Palestinians live in the Gaza strip. If they are given freedom, they would become the center of Palestinian struggle for liberation, with free access to the Western and Arab world. To control the West Bank, Israel had to stick to Gaza. From this perspective, the previous model of occupation was the optimal choice. The Strip was controlled from the inside by the army, and the settlements provided the support system for the army, and the moral justification for the soldiers’ brutal job of occupation. It makes their presence there a mission of protecting the homeland. Control from the outside may be cheaper, but in the long run, it has no guarantee of success.
Furthermore, since the Oslo years, the settlements were conceived both locally and internationally as a tragic problem that, despite Israel’s good intentions to end the occupation, cannot be solved. This useful myth was broken with the evacuation of the Gaza settlements, which showed how easy it is, in fact, to evacuate settlements, and how big the support is in Israeli society for doing that.
I argue that Sharon did not evacuate the Gaza settlements out of his own will, but rather, that he was forced to do so. Sharon cooked up his disengagement plan as a means to gain time, at the peak of international pressure that followed Israel’s sabotaging of the road map and its construction of the West Bank wall. Even then, there are some indications that he was looking for ways to sneak out of this commitment, as he did with all his commitments before. But this time he was forced to actually carry it out by the Bush administration. Though it was kept fully behind the scenes, the pressure was quite massive, including military sanctions. The official pretext for the sanctions was Israel’s arm sale to China, but in previous occasions, the crisis was over as soon as Israel agreed to cancel the deal. This time, the sanctions were unprecedented, and lasted until the signing of the crossing agreement in November 2005.
But currently there is no sign of any U.S. pressure on Israel?
Yes, U.S. pressure ended right with the evacuation of the settlements, and Israel was given a free hand to violate all the agreements signed ceremonially in November 2005, under the supervision of Condoleezza Rice. Since then, the U.S. has given full backing to Israel, as it turned the Gaza strip into an open-air prison, and began to starve and bombard the besieged Palestinians. We should note that at no stage, did Sharon take a commitment to actually give up the full Israeli control of the Gaza strip. From its outset, the disengagement plan, as published in Israeli media in April 16, 2004 determined that Israel would maintain full military control of the strip from the outside, as before the pullout.
From the U.S. perspective, its goal was achieved with the evacuation of the settlements. As long as international calm is maintained, Palestinian suffering plays no role in US calculations. To maintain the Iraq occupation, while preparing its next steps in the “war on terror”, It was important for the U.S. to appease the world’s sentiment that something should be done to end the Israeli occupation. This goal was achieved for the time being. The Western world, or at least its leaders and media, were euphoric with the new turn in the Middle East. The dominant world-view in the Western media is still that Israel has done its part, and now it is the Palestinians’ turn to show their peaceful intentions. With the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, this view has even strengthened. Israel’s eternal claim that it has no partner for peace is now having a renewed impact. Those who have accepted for years Israel’s claim that Arafat was not a partner, and then that Abbas was not, are certainly willing to hear also that Hamas is not.
Since the end of 2005, the Bush administration has seemed determined to move its planned “Iranian campaign” into high gear, so Israel’s stocks have been rising again. In its concerted campaign to prevent international recognition of the new Hamas administration, and to impose tough sanctions on the Palestinians, Israel has been exploiting the Islamophobic atmosphere that resurfaced in the US. Israeli security officials flooded the West with reports on the dangers of Hamas’ future ties with Iran and Syria, painting a disturbing picture of a global fundamentalist Islamic threat. The conditions were ripe for such propaganda. On February 3, the Pentagon released its 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), where it lays out its vision for what it describes as a long war: “Currently, Iraq and Afghanistan are crucial battlegrounds, but the struggle extends far beyond their borders. With its allies and partners, the United States must be prepared to wage this war in many locations simultaneously and for some years to come”.
With the drums of the long war banging, Israel’s line on Hamas has been well received. The US administration urged European and Arab countries to freeze direct aid to the Palestinian Authority,and on February 15, the U.S. congress started moves in the same direction. Israeli security officials had been involved for quite some time before in urging the U.S. Administration to increase its operations in Iran, including covert acts of regime change – efforts that were yielding their fruits in 2006. As was disclosed by Seymour Hersh and others, during Israel’s recent war on Lebanon, the U.S. administration has viewed this as preparation, and a “test” for the option of an attack on Iran.
What has been the role of the Pro-Israel lobby in shaping U.S. policies?
Interestingly, in 2005, during the whole period of U.S. heavy pressure on Israel, AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and other lobby groups were completely silent. As I detail in the book, this compliance was helped by the investigation, and later the indictment of two AIPAC officials – its policy director, Steven Rosen, and Iran specialist Keith Weissman. It transpired that the powerful Pro-Israel lobby could be silenced easily, if the White House so desired. This confirms what Chomsky and others have been arguing for years – that the Pro-Israel lobbies are powerful only as long as their pressure is in line with U.S. policies.
But the renewed wave of Islamophobia has also bolstered AIPAC’s newfound self-confidence. Its annual policy conference in March 2006 was held in an atmosphere of neocon celebration, with star appearance of several of the most hard-line administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton. The Jewish newspaper Forward noted at the time that AIPAC “appears to be out of step with the American Jewish community on Iraq. 70% of American Jews oppose the Iraq war, according to a poll commission by the American Jewish Committee at the end of 2005.” But regardless of the opinions of the Jewish community they are supposed to represent, the leaders of the Pro-Israel lobby “are optimistic that, paradoxically, the drop in Bush’s approval ratings in American public opinion will force him to adopt the hard line advocated by AIPAC and Israel”.
Despite the grim events described in the book, the overall feeling that comes through is that of hope. Why?
I argue that the reason that the U.S. exerted even limited pressure on Israel, for the first time in recent history, was because at that moment in history it was no longer possible to ignore world discontent over its policy of blind support of Israel. This shows that persistent struggle can have an effect, and can lead governments to act. Such struggle begins with the Palestinian people, who have withstood years of brutal oppression, and who, through their spirit of zumud -sticking to their land- and daily endurance, organizing and resistance, have managed to keep the Palestinian cause alive, something that not all oppressed nations have managed to do. It continues with international struggle–solidarity movements that send their people to the occupied territories and stand in vigils at home, professors signing boycott petitions, subjecting themselves to daily harassment, a few courageous journalists that insist on covering the truth, against the pressure of acquiescent media and pro-Israel lobbies. Often this struggle for justice seems futile. Nevertheless, it has penetrated global consciousness. It is this collective consciousness that eventually forced the U.S. to pressure Israel into some, albeit limited, concessions. The Palestinian cause can be silenced for a while, as is happening now, but it will resurface.
You note that since 2003, a new form of struggle has been formed along the route of the West Bank wall?
Largely unreported, there is a growing non-violent popular struggle aimed at stopping, or at least slowing down, Israel’s massive work of destruction that, once completed, will disconnect 400,000 Palestinians from their land and means of sustenance. In the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, 730,000 Palestinians were driven out of their villages. But rather than waiting for the history books to tell the story of the second Palestinian Nakba, the Palestinians along the wall are struggling to save their land. Armed only with the marvelous spirit of people who have held to their land one generation after the other, they stand in front of one of the most brutal military machines of the world. An amazing development of the last three years is that Israelis have joined the Palestinian struggle. For the first time in the history of the occupation, we are witnessing joint Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
For almost two years now, the center of struggle has been the village Bil’in, in the center of the West Bank, whose lands are being transferred to the Israeli settlement of upper Modi’in. Every Friday there is a central demonstration that gathers the whole village as well as Israelis and internationals. The army has used brutal force to try to stop the protest, but the demonstrations continue. Along with Israel of the army and the settlers, a new Israel-Palestine is forming along the route of the wall. In the last chapter of the book I survey in detail the development of this joint struggle–the history of the people, which emerged along the history of the powerful.
Tanya Reinhart is a Professor of Linguistics at Tel Aviv University and the author of Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 and The Roadmap to Nowhere. She can be reached through her website: http://www.tau.ac.il/~reinhart