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Where will Sharon take Israel?

By Edward W. Said

Dawn (Pakistan), February 8, 2001


THE story is told of the celebrated writer, Guy de Maupassant, who shortly after the Eiffel Tower was built in mid-nineteenth century Paris, would go around the city complaining endlessly about how much he disliked the great structure. And yet, he would nevertheless unfailingly go to the Tower's restaurant for lunch every single day. When his attention was drawn to the paradox in his behaviour, Maupassant coolly answered, "I go there because being inside it is the only place in Paris where you don't actually have to look at or even see the Tower."

My general impression is that for most Israelis, their country is invisible. Being in it means a certain blindness or inability to see what it is and what has been happening to it, and just as remarkably, an unwillingness to understand what it has meant for others in the world and specially in the Middle East. By the time these lines will appear in print, the Israeli elections will have taken place and, perhaps, as has been supposed for several weeks now, Ariel Sharon will have become prime minister.

Just as happened in the months before and immediately after Ehud Barak's elections, a great deal of US media attention has been focused on Sharon in attempts to make him seem like a plausible, or at least not so bizarre and outrageous a candidate. I do not think that anyone outside Israel is really convinced, but it is stunningly odd that a majority of Israelis would consider turning to the unregenerate old killer of Palestinians after four months under Ehud Barak of uselessly spilling Palestinian blood and collectively punishing several million Arab residents of the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel proper, without anything having been achieved.

According to the polls, Israelis have opted for a man who will bring them more rather than less violence, which, it must be added at once, makes Israel's own future relations with the Palestinians, the Arab states and the Muslim world even less likely to be peaceful and less free of difficulty. The question is how people could contemplate so obviously counter-productive a choice unless they simply had no idea what the world thought of them to begin with, no idea that such destruction and such cruelty will earn further alienation and dislike, and hence, insecurity.

Flirting with Sharon now is therefore a turning further inwards, a resolute dismissal of the outside world in favour of the old and thoroughly discredited policy of bashing Arabs that has made Israel a more and more isolated and discredited country than it has ever been. Of course, life goes on within it just as it does everywhere else, and in all sorts of ways, it should be obvious that most Israelis are normal people who want to live normal lives, bring up their families, prosper in their work, and carry on without fear of catastrophe or war. Yet, as a people, their collective history has been very much an unwelcome part of modern Arab history and, for Palestinians in particular, an almost unmitigated disaster.

And, so it has gone for over fifty years, life in one community has meant frustration and suffering in the other, measure for measure, tit for tat, inexorably and remorselessly. No Palestinian needs reminding that every Israeli triumph has been a symmetrical Palestinian loss.

Even after 1967, when Israelis and Palestinians were thrown together demographically more than ever before, the distance and difference between the two worlds deepened and widened in spite of the total proximity between them. Military occupation never made for understanding, and so the post-Oslo years provided for little mutuality, except where the relatively small and privileged group of security people and the negotiators were concerned.

Rather than trying to connect the Israeli policy of military occupation with the intifada as cause and effect, many Israelis now seem to want Sharon to "deal with the Arabs," as if "the Arabs" were so many flies or a swarm of annoying bees.What seems never to have occurred even to Israeli peaceniks was that the incredibly slow and tortured pace of Israeli steps in ceding territory here and there, plus the thousands of conditions and the many, many hours that went into negotiating all the unimaginably complicated conditions that Israel attached to every little step it took such as moving some troops from one side of the West Bank to the other, plus the constant building of new settlements, plus the new subdivisions and roads that cut up Gaza and the West Bank more and more, plus the frequent closures, the continued use of torture, the settler violence in places like Hebron, plus the fact that under Barak no territory at all was given up, as if all this which made matters worse, not better, was something that the pro-peace camp in Israel had not absorbed or understood.

Even though it must be said that Palestinians have behaved as all colonized people in history have behaved towards the colonizer: they rebelled in protest. What is so difficult or obscure about that, and why do so evidently well endowed a people as the Israelis resist understanding the most elementary aspects of human behaviour?

But, consider that if one allows for a moment that all those things being done to Palestinians as part of a peace process were supposed to be making things better, - yes, better - then one must have the strangest possible sense of oneself, the weirdest imaginable psychology. What does this inverted sense of cause and effect reveal about the person? What does it suggest to believe that punishment and sadism will actually improve relationships between people?

This is pure punitive sadism: it serves no security or long-range purpose except to make life a hell for all Palestinians who spend most of their time on the roads in the normal course of their lives, enduring endless delays, detours, searches, humiliations, interrogations and, much of the time, failing to reach their destinations just because of Israeli caprice. How can that possibly help anyone, and how can anyone, except someone so hopelessly out of touch with reality believe otherwise?

I can quite easily imagine that Israelis who were in favour of such procedures were, when it came to all other aspects of life, quite like other people. It was only when and where Arabs were concerned that things were believed to be different. Not once, to my knowledge, did an Israeli leader stop and say, for example, 'we have wronged these people, we have driven them out of their homes, we have destroyed their society and dispossessed them, let us at least remember that and try to make things easier for them now'. Never during the long and tortuous negotiating sessions of the peace process was it so much as whispered to the press that an Israeli official had said something magnanimous or had intimated that he felt some twinge of conscience for what had been done in the name of Israel to an entire people.

All we heard was that every inch of land that was discussed was released to Palestinians with thousands of conditions attached, that an already divided Palestine was subdivided three, four, and more times in order to keep it just out of Palestinian reach, and so that Palestinians would have more hurdles to jump over and more years to wait before they could reach anything like a viable state of autonomy. And still hundreds of political prisoners were kept in their cells, and still Israel's Palestinian citizens were kept in their impoverished villages, their sub-standard schools and municipalities, unable to buy or lease land for religious and ethnic reasons just so that Israel could maintain a Jewish majority in lordly style, so that Israeli Jews could bully and oppress another people without having to think about them or even see too much of them.

You don't have to have the gifts either of Aristotle or de Gaulle to realize that Israel's policy of official blindness was never going to bring victory, any more than Sharon's policy in Lebanon was a success, or Barak's "peace" policy was going to bring peace or end the Aqsa intifada. Like de Maupassant in the Eiffel Tower restaurant, an Israel led by a hawkish general is going deeper and deeper into a place from which it can neither escape nor win the battle. Far from really withdrawing into itself, it is making certain on the contrary that it will remain connected to the Arab world in the worst way via its army, settlers, conquerors, and ranting ideologues, while its citizens, its artists, its ordinary people are paralyzed by visions of escape and a clean slate that have no more chance of realization now than they ever did.

Fanciful ideas of Israeli power today as embodied in the people who like Sharon are at best a postponement, and a bloody one at that, of the inevitable realization that apartheid can only work if two peoples accept the notion of separation with inferiority that the strong imposes on the weak. But since that is not the case (and has never happened in history), it will always be unlikely that people will cheerfully accept their enslavement. Why are Israelis en masse fooling themselves into thinking that it will work in so small an area and so historically saturated a geography as Palestine's?

It is difficult to believe that so long as they believe in the miracle of an Israel miraculously separated from its circumstances and environment - a bizarre notion which Sharon's election campaign has encouraged - Israeli Jews resemble members of a cult rather than citizens of a modern secular state. And, in some ways, it is true that Israel's early history as a pioneering new state is that of a utopian cult, sustained by people much of whose energy was in shutting out their surroundings while they lived the fantasy of a heroic and pure enterprise.

Copyright Edward W. Said, 2001

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