Israel/Palestine,  Uncategorized

We need to have a serious talk about Israel-Palestine

This is a guest post from Matt Hill

One reason I recently started blogging about Israel-Palestine concerned an experience I had when I first started studying the subject. I’d been visiting the region regularly for several years when, in order to impress an Israeli Arab girl I’d fallen for, I started reading obsessively about the conflict. It was then that I had a strange sense that the place I found in the UK press was a different country altogether from the complex, variegated land I considered a second home. Where were the voices of moderation like the Bethlehem cafe owner who spent hours serving me cardamon-scented coffee while praising Jewish culture? Or the young Israeli couple I came across at a Friday protest against East Jerusalem settlements, who then rushed home early to observe Shabbat? Or the young Arab Israeli who defied her family to marry her Jewish boyfriend, flying to Cyprus after his IDF service for a non-religious wedding?

It’s always seemed to me that moderates on both sides have a great deal in common; as, for that matter, do the extremists, from trigger-happy settlers to death-crazed suicide bombers. So why is the debate in the UK media totally adversarial, with partisan commentators resolutely supporting their own ‘side’, and refusing to talk across the Israeli-Palestinian divide? There are, I think, several reasons. The psychology of taking sides means we tend to talk to those who reinforce our views; our remoteness from messy Mideast reality helps us filter out facts that may undermine prejudices; and, of course, the media’s thirst for controversy provides incentives for writers to harden their stance. The result is a stultifying consensus at both ends of the debate. It’s a curious but undeniable fact that British commentators are often more extreme than the ordinary Israelis or Palestinians whose cause they support.

Labelling is part of the problem too. I’ve never believed there’s any contradiction between calling myself both ‘pro-Israel’ and ‘pro-Palestinian’, because I believe each side’s dignity, security and prosperity is ultimately in the other’s self-interest. Since I desire precisely the same things for my Israeli and Palestinian friends, in one sense I’m a total neutral. But in another sense this makes neutrality, for me, difficult to sustain, because it seems obvious that the Palestinians are much further away from achieving these goals.

I can understand why those who call themselves ‘pro-Israel’ label me ‘pro-Palestinian’, but it makes me uncomfortable for a number of reasons. Such terms are often used to dismiss people’s views rather than shed light on them. And since calling yourself ‘pro-Israel’ presupposes an opinion on what’s best for the country, in my opinion there’s a very real sense in which I’m more pro-Israel than, say, Avigdor Lieberman. The Israeli foreign minister and his supporters advocate a bigoted form of Zionism that, I fear, could lead Israel towards catastrophe. My view is that Israel’s best interests would be served by pursuing peace while the conditions are ripe: its closest ally is at the apex of its global power; its PA negotiating partners are unusually moderate; and its nemesis Hamas hasn’t yet acquired the capacity to attack a major city like Tel Aviv. If an Israeli government emerged tomorrow with sincerely peaceful ambitions, I’d be its loudest supporter.

I wish it wasn’t necessary for me to make emphatically clear that I’ve never questioned Israel’s right to exist like any other state. Sympathy for the Palestinians bears no logical relation to the absurd notion that Israel should somehow be abolished, any more than most opponents of the Iraq war advocate the destruction of Britain, or regret over the plight of native Americans leads anyone to call for the dissolution of the USA. Few countries were born without some form of violence, and any that has existed for some time with the free assent of its people has all the rights and duties of an ordinary state. Neither do I see any problem, in theory, with a state manifesting a distinctively Jewish character if the equality of its non-Jewish citizens is guaranteed.

If the label ‘pro-Palestinian’ simply implied a passionate support of Palestinian statehood on fair terms, I’d be proud to use it. But I refuse to associate with self-proclaimed radicals who make excuses for groups like Hamas, which has defiled the Palestinian cause with the blood of innocent civilians. Nor is the ‘respectable’ leadership of the PA without blemish, with its corruption, authoritarianism, human rights abuses and inability to admit mistakes. And I have no qualms about criticising the hierarchical, sexist, and anti-semitic aspects of Arab culture in general – while keeping in mind that ordinary Arab men and women are the main victims of such parochialism.

But if nations had to prove their virtue before gaining statehood, the international community would be a very small club. And despite the brutalising effects of occupation, most Palestinians are surprisingly pragmatic and tolerant. Though Hamas won a wafer-thin plurality at the 2006 Palestinian election, it’s less often noted that a comfortable majority opted for moderate parties. I’ve no doubt that, given the chance, Palestinians would overwhelmingly embrace a fair peace deal – marginalising extremists who prefer their sordid death-cult to democracy. And despite a growing sense of futility since the breakdown of Oslo – which has passed into myth as a result of Palestinian obstinacy – the vast majority of Israelis still yearn for the normalcy only peace can bring. Though there are several substantial issues that will not simply yield to mutual goodwill, I haven’t stopped believing the conflict can be resolved one day. Perhaps because I don’t restrict my sympathy or skepticism to either side, I’m getting used to angering supporters of both Israelis and Palestinians. In the last week alone I’ve been called a ‘revisionist neo-fascist anti-semite’ (for suggesting Israel bore some responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1967) and a ‘self-delusional crypto-Zionist with deeply ingrained anti-Arab bigotry’ (for arguing Zionism can take benign forms). Admittedly these are extreme reactions, but they are indicative of the way in which ambivalence can end up alienating both sides. Racism should never be tolerated, nor trivialised through casual allegations. At the same time, those of us who haven’t been bruised by centuries of persecution must sometimes expand our imagination to understand those who have.

The Socratic notion of debate as a form of cooperative truth-seeking may seem a bit old hat in our supposedly post-Enlightenment age. The internet’s heralded power to bring people together can seem utopian when, more often, it’s used for the like-minded to reinforce each other’s views and for the angry to spew anonymous bile. (The adage about academic politics being so vicious because the stakes are so low could fairly be applied to the online world.) But however naive it may seem, I can’t help believing in the potential of open, honest debate to change minds and sharpen views.

It’s easy to have a reasonable debate with someone whose fundamental views you share. But if those of us who make a hobby of squabbling about the conflict can’t even succeed in having a civilised disagreement, what hope is there that the parties can come to a historic agreement? As Israeli author David Grossman has said, ‘the real enemy is not the Palestinian or the Israeli but the extremist and the fanatic on either side’.

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