A recent conference on “Israel and the changing Middle East”, organised by the Anglo-Israel Association (with a few other sponsors) offered a fascinating insight into the concerns of Zionist Israelis and their views of the historical conflict with Arab Palestinians at this point – with Oslo’s clear failure to produce a resolution while settlement building in the West Bank and extensive incorporation of the territory into the fabric of Israeli politics and society continues apace, and Gaza remains under a state of manufactured separation from its Israeli-Palestinian environs.
The most interesting contribution in this respect came from Asher Susser, an Israeli history professor who has written extensively about Arab politics, most recently with The Rise of Hamas and the Crisis of Secularism in the Arab World (2010). According to Susser, the movement of Arab uprisings since late 2010 was not about democracy vs. autocracy, but rather modernity vs. tradition; it is a problematique with us since 1798 and in it the military represents modernity – think Mohammed Ali, Nasser and “now people say Sisi could be Nasser”, to quote Susser – and the Muslim Brotherhood represent tradition. He went on to cite the infamous UNDP Arab Human Development Reports – conducted by Arab scholars themselves, as he emphasized – to highlight “deficits” in political freedom, education and gender equality, a veritable disaster waiting to happen, indeed which did happen since it was the “cause of this explosion”.
Against a collapse into Islamism, sectarianism and tribalism, the Arab world has lost its models, Susser argued. The West, Russia and Arab nationalism have all failed to live up to their expectations at various points in the decolonization period and now the only regional models of Turkey and Iran, both undesirable. The nation-state system established by Sykes-Picot could itself face final disintegration, with the Western Anbar province of Iraq escaping the Shi’ism of post-invasion Iraq by going to Jordan, though that’s not so bad, he felt, since “maybe the Jordanians will have a better balance with their Palestinian population”. Israelis used to be terrified of Arab power, but now they are haunted by the spectre of Arab weakness – states that do not control their territory, allowing non-state actors to roam free. Once it was clear where to get a deal – Cairo, Amman, Riyadh – now “the address on the other side is not clear”, Susser said.
So what of Israel and the Palestinians? The conventional view in Israel is that now is not the time for big decisions on which the future of Israel could depend, but Susser argued that, on the contrary, now was the time to seize the initiative. If Israel does not come to an agreement with the Palestinians it faces the twin danger of “delegitimization and demographics”. This, of course, leads to the inevitable question of an eventual single-state entity that encompasses current citizens of Israel as well as the Palestinians who live in the West Bank amidst 600,000 settlers, as well as Gaza – a question that an audience member put to him. “I don’t think that’s really workable. Looking at minority/majority issues in the Middle East countries, I wouldn’t advise Israelis to get into a minority situation,” he said.
And yet Susser’s reasoning leads naturally to the conclusion that the different communities of historical Palestine, divided under two political entities that are guided by conflicting narratives that transcend their sphere of operation, are leading towards amalgamation – not mutual destruction or eradication of one by the other, but coexistence under a new political framework. What divides is ideology, and just as ideologies are constructed they can be pulled apart.
The current framework is unworkable, as he adeptly explained. “Arab Israelis say ‘your independence is our catastrophe (nakba)’; that sums it up, you cannot bridge these narratives, not in the present circumstances – where is the line in the sand between Israel and Palestine?” he said. “Both sides genuinely accept the concept of the two-state solution but have irreconcilable visions.” Israel needs a ‘Plan B’, a unilateral withdrawal from 75-80 percent of the West Bank, Susser said. The Palestinian Authority is effectively doing the same in its drive for international recognition. “Instead of obstructing that we should support it; we will have two states and a two-state reality, not ‘solution’,” he said. “We are heading towards one solution and most of the world will accept it for lack of a better solution… We will rid people of this despair that two states isn’t possible; if there’s nowhere to go then we are in very bad shape.”
The despair he refers to is clearly an Israeli despair – or the despair, perhaps, of two political entities, Israel and the PA – and its expression appeared to prompt the convener of the conference, Baroness Ruth Deech (former Principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford), to close on an odd note of admonition. Returning to theme of minority suffering in Syria and Iraq in this sectarian era, she concluded: “It is impossible that there should be a one-state solution… so that’s not on.”
What was really on display here was the traditional discourse of Israel’s place in the region struggling to deal with new, jarring realities. Susser was entertaining in his classic depiction of the dilemmas of peace-making: the Palestinians think Israel means final when it says interim and Israel thinks the Palestinians mean interim when they say final. We all laughed; but these jokes, which Israeli politicians and academics have been making for years before Western audiences, barely covered up the fact that he was representative of a political class clinging to the thinking of the past.
In his depiction, the Arabs were another breed, not demanding the same rights as the rest of the world, but struggling to enter the modern world in the first place. His invocation of Sisi as a potential Nasser sounded like a desperate wish that times not change and that Sisi should be someone to reinforce borders and smash non-state actors. Equally outdated was the notion that if “the Arabs” are differing degrees of seething mass, Israel is an oasis of Westernization, modernity, democracy, rationality, tolerance, openness. Seemed to me another example of the discursive disarray that liberal Zionism finds itself in as the “two-state solution” becomes ever more unworkable and its Arab facilitators fight for survival.