Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Israel: "Hamas Is Worse"

An Appalling Standard

In today's Washington Post (see "Hamas's Bloody Hands"), columnist Richard Cohen seems happy to announce that Israel is not "a place where a chance remark can get your legs riddled with lead." Perhaps not, but it is a matter of record that as a protester you could get run over by a bulldozer (see "Israeli bulldozer kills American protester").

Cohen is a sometimes critic of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but that's not good enough. Israel must be held to a higher standard.

Elsewhere in his column he quotes the Hamas charter, which "reads like it could have been written by Hitler." Certainly, it is an ugly document, and the Hamas regime in Gaza is thuggish and undemocratic. But it is unlikely that Hamas could survive in any significant form in a free, democratic Palestine. Hamas will likely maintain power in Gaza success only so long as Israel maintains the siege of Gaza and sustains the armed occupation of Palestinian territory (for more on Hamas see Teddy Greenstein's blog here).

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's current prime minister, says he will refuse to discuss the establishment of an independent Palestinian state until the Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state (see this Al-Jazeera report). This will never happen and Netanyahu knows it. But his stance may actually move the situation along. Though for many Palestinians, the creation of the state of Israel in any form is both the original and continuing Nakhba (catastrophe), it is its existence as a Jewish state that makes movement toward enduring peace more difficult. Focusing attention on that fundamental conflict may make a difficult situation seem even worse, but it will clarify matters.

The modern Jewish presence in Palestine began with 19th century Zionism. which as a practical matter was both a form of Jewish nationalism and a European settler movement in Palestine. It was not inevitable that Zionism would result in the Jewish theocratic state of Israel. That development grew out of a variety of additional factors, including European colonial ambitions, the Holocaust, the Cold War and the American use of surrogates (Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.) to establish dominance over Middle Eastern oil resources. Absent the manipulations of great powers, the area's Jewish settlers would have had to choose real compromise with the established Palestinian population.

Obviously, the history matters. And, as Richard Cohen likely knows, in that history Hamas does not matter much. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza matters much more. It causes enormous Palestinian suffering, sustains armed fundamentalist Islamic resistance and undermines the security of Israel's residents.

In the long run, there will be a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. If that state is to be democratic and a force for peace in the region, Israel will have to undo much of what it has done since 1948, especially the settlements established since 1967. To do this, Jews in Israel will have to come to the conclusion that security based on the use of force and the oppression of Palestinians will never be stable. They will have to take the risk of entrusting their security to increasing cooperation between Israel and the future Palestinian state.

But that will not be the end of an historic march toward peace and prosperity, either. It will just be the step before the next step. That step will come when Israel transforms itself from a Jewish theocratic state into a democratic state in which Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians live as equals. When that happens, the distinction between a democratic Palestine and a democratic Israel will take a different form. Perhaps the two states will disappear altogether into the single state solution that would have been the better part of wisdom many years ago. Somewhere along the way, Hamas will have become a footnote.

Perhaps such a happy ending sounds more like a fairy tale. I certainly do not mean to gloss over all the difficulties that will be involved--the blood and anguish, the further dislocations, the dismantling of settlements, the granting of the right of return and the reparations for historic displacements of populations, the fears and anxieties that accompany the reconciliation of enemies--but I'd sure like to get the process started.

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