As long as the Arab world views Israel as a temporary aberration to be conquered, Israel will stand fast
By Einat Wilf
To bring a permanent end to the Israeli military occupation of much of the territory acquired during the 1967 Six-Day War, the Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians must cease to view the entire Zionist project itself as a temporary aberration. The grand trade to be made is a permanent end to the Israeli military occupation of most of the West Bank in return for a final Arab and Muslim acceptance of the permanence and legitimacy of an equal Jewish sovereign presence in part of the Land of Israel. Until the Palestinian Arabs are willing to make that trade, argues Einat Wilf, the occupation, although not the settlements, must continue. Until then, Israel has no alternative but to stand fast.
A simple counting of 50 years of military occupation might lead reasonable people to believe that it can no longer be considered temporary. But that fails to take account of an alternative time frame: the Arab and Muslim countdown until the end of Zionism and the State of Israel. That countdown reflects the prevailing Muslim, Arab and Palestinian view that Zionism is a historical aberration that will not – and must not – last. Any Israeli effort to end the military occupation in a manner that would bring it peace and security thus clashes with the Muslim, Arab and Palestinian view that no place for compromise and agreement exists that would grant legitimacy to Zionism and the State of Israel and that would accept its permanence.
Time and the Muslim Arab ‘No’
Zionism was always going to challenge human imagination. The story of an oppressed and persecuted people, living as guests among hostile host nations who found the will to rise-up, liberate themselves, and rebuild a sovereign nation in their ancient homeland, was bound to be viewed as either deeply inspiring or utterly insane. It is unsurprising that to the Muslims and Arabs who occupied the Land since their conquest of it in the seventh century, the story appeared insane. Not only were the Jews claiming to return home after two thousand years to a land in their midst, but the Jews represented a people whom the Muslim Arabs have, over centuries, come to view as their inferiors.
From the Muslim and Arab perspective, the Jews – who while not infidels deserving of death, had failed to accept the final prophecy of Mohammed – were naturally destined towards the dustbin of history. Until that happened, the Jews could live as a tolerated minority of lower status, under the protection of their Muslim superiors. Life could be relatively harmonious if Jews knew and accepted their lower status in the pecking order of the proper Muslim society.
The one thing that Jews were not supposed to do was challenge their place in society. To do so was to undermine the proper order of things and represented an affront to ‘justice’ as conceived in the Arab Muslim world. Initially, it was the imported colonial idea of emancipation that provided the Jews in Arab lands controlled by British and French with the dangerous idea that they were the equals of Arab Muslims. Later, it was Zionism. Either way, the response was violence, massacres, war, ethnic cleansing, and never-ending resistance. The idea of Jews as the equals of Muslim Arabs could not be allowed to stand.
From the Muslim Arab perspective, violent opposition towards challenges to the proper pecking order was both ‘just’ and numerically rational. Not only were the inferior Jews advancing an insane story of returning home after two thousand years, but in the first half of the 20th century they constituted only a few hundred thousand challenging an Arab nation of tens of millions, backed by a Muslim world numbering hundreds of millions. Viewed in this context, the Muslim Arabs ‘no’ to an equal, sovereign, Jewish, presence in their midst was to be expected.
And ‘no’ it was. Throughout the first half of the 20th century the Arab world consistently rejected any plan that would lead to the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state in the sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. It opposed the League of Nations Mandate and fought against Jewish immigration to the land at the most critical time in Jewish history, depriving tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of Jews of their only chance to escape from a Europe that was closing in around them. The only exception to this opposition came from the Hashemites, who viewed Zionism as a force for good in the wake of collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and as allies in building a new post-Ottoman order of sovereign peoples and states, but their position proved consistently too weak to openly break ranks with Arab rejectionism.
The violent Muslim Arab rejection of Jewish sovereignty in their midst reached a pinnacle with the war against partition. Initiated and waged by the Arabs, the war to prevent the nascent State of Israel coming into existence was the most organised and comprehensive attempt (at the time) by the Arab world to restore ‘justice’ and ‘order’ as they conceived it. Even after they subsequently lost the war, they refused to concede defeat and accept the Jewish state. A battle might have been lost, but the war had to go on.
In the negotiations following the war, the Arab negotiation teams not only refused to meet with representatives of the State of Israel, but took great pains to emphasise that the armistice lines separating the newly independent State from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were not to be borders. Borders implied permanence. These were cease-fire lines only, because the war was not over. The message was clear: the Jewish people might have declared independence in the State of Israel, but sooner or later there would be another war that would erase that humiliating eyesore from the Arab region.
In the wake of the Arab defeat, the commitment to restore the proper Arab and Muslim ‘order’ meant a blanket Arab refusal to absorb the Arab refugees from the war, keeping them and generations of their descendants under the temporary status of ‘refugees’ for decades, so that one day they could ‘return’ and bring an end to Zionism. The concept that third and fourth generation Arabs, born in an Arab country, can be classed as temporary ‘refugees’ from another land was completely acceptable, since Israel itself was temporary, and an Arab Palestinian ‘return’ to the days when the State no longer existed was a tangible possibility. (Again, the only exception was Jordan, which was willing to absorb the refugees and end the war by establishing permanent borders, although King Abdullah was assassinated for his position, once again demonstrating to the Hashemites that they could not afford to break rank with Arab orthodoxy.)
This Arab rejectionist position also manifested itself in the vicious expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Jewish communities – almost all predating Islam and the Arab conquests of the region – from the Arab world. Jews – who were internalising the idea that they could win wars over Arabs and establish sovereign states where they had no masters – could no longer be trusted to stay in Arab lands and ‘know their place’.
The establishment and growth of the State of Israel did little to undermine the idea that Jewish sovereignty, in what the Arabs and Muslims viewed as land that was exclusively their own, was a temporary aberration. Across the Arab and Muslim world Israel was subjected to economic and diplomatic boycotts and campaigns of terrorism designed to hasten its end. In Arab mythology, Israel was the second crusader state, and its fate was to be the same as its predecessor. It would last for a few short decades and then a new Salah-ad-Din saviour would restore the land to Islam and the Arabs would drive out the foreign crusaders from whence they came. All the Arabs had to do was to resist and be patient. Compromise and accept the permanence of Israel was not an option.
After 1967: the Arab refusal to say ‘yes’
The humiliating defeat of five Arab armies in 1967, and the loss of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula in a short span of six days did nothing to change the basic Arab mythology of the temporary nature of Israel. While the western world was establishing the formula of ‘land for peace’, the Arab world clarified its rejection of it. What appeared to make sense to much of the West – that land acquired by Israel in the Six-Day War was a valuable asset that could be traded for the long-desired peace with the Arab world – made no sense to those who still considered the State of Israel temporary.
Even when the ‘land for peace’ formula was employed, as in the peace agreement with Egypt and Jordan, subsequent decades demonstrated that these were closer to ‘we will no longer attack one another agreements,’ rather than peace. The Arab world remained unable to treat the Jewish state as a genuine legitimate presence in its midst.
Most notably, on two separate occasions – in 2000 and 2008 – the Arab Palestinians refused to say ‘yes’ to Israeli proposals that would have ended the military occupation of the West Bank. These proposals demonstrated that the choice Israel made after the 1967 Six-Day War – to govern most of the territories of the West Bank and Gaza in the form of a military occupation (which is a legitimate form of governance of territories acquired in war which the victorious side does not intend to annex and keep) – reflected a perspective that these territories were assets to trade, rather than a homeland to annex. Although this view was not shared by all Israelis – especially the Messianic settler movement, for whom the acquisition of what they termed Judea and Samaria represented the completion of God’s promise to his people – ‘official Israel,’ and the majority of Israelis, did not take actions to annex the territories (except around Jerusalem) and make Israel’s presence there permanent. Moreover, with the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, ‘official Israel’ demonstrated that even when it built settlements, these were reversible, especially if withdrawal from territories would bring greater security to Israel within the pre-1967 lines.
For most Israelis, the repeated Palestinian failures to say ‘yes’ to clear and distinct opportunities to end the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and to build a peaceful state for themselves in territories evacuated by Israel, reinforced the view that more than the Arab Palestinians wanted a state for themselves, they wanted to deny a state to the Jewish people. Seventy years after the British Foreign Secretary told Parliament on the eve of partition that ‘for the Jews, the essential point of principle is the creation of a sovereign Jewish state’, while ‘for the Arabs, the essential point of principle is to resist to the last the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in any part of the land’, it seems the Arab Palestinians still see no reason to compromise with a project they view as ‘unjust’ and temporary. After all, if the crusader state lasted 88 years (including Jerusalem), then in 2017 – when Israel will mark 69 years – all the Arab Palestinians have to do is wait a mere 19 more years until the second crusader state will disappear.
Given the Arab understanding of Zionism as a temporary historical aberration whose life span is a mere few decades, it made sense for the Palestinians to repeatedly choose to suffer the daily humiliations of living under a military occupation rather than to accept the far greater humiliation of permanent Jewish sovereignty on land they considered exclusively their own. In refusing to end the military occupation by making a permanent peace with Israel, the Arab Palestinians were making a conscious choice that was based on their understanding of Arab history and Islamic ‘justice’. As Arabs and Muslims, the Palestinians were not hapless victims, but rather masters of a historical narrative, at the end of which their resistance and patience would be rewarded with victory, in the form of Zionism’s disappearance. While they might suffer in the interim period, the choice they made was for what they perceived as the far greater good – defeating Zionism and driving away the sovereign Jewish presence from their land.
How to end the occupation: stand fast, stand longer
How can a temporary 50-year military occupation of most of the West Bank by Israel come to an end, if the Muslim, Arab and Palestinian view of history is that 50 years of Israeli occupation matters significantly less than the countdown of the remaining 19 years on the crusader clock? It is necessary to demonstrate to the Muslim-Arab world that their view of history is wrong, and that rather than constituting a second crusader state, Israel is the sovereign state of an indigenous people who have come home. This can only be achieved through Jewish power and persistence over time. And given the vast numerical imbalance between Jews and Arabs, it can only be achieved if those who truly seek peace support the Jewish people in sending the message to the Arab world that the Jewish people are here to stay.
The essence of the conflict between Zionism and the Muslim Arab world is a battle over time, a race of mutual exhaustion. The question that will determine how the conflict is ultimately resolved revolves around who will give up first: will the Zionists give up on their project in the face of unrelenting violent resistance, or will the Muslim Arabs give up on their project of erasing the sovereign Jewish presence in their midst, and finally come to accept it as a part of their history, rather than an affront to it?
Only time will tell.