Creating people's geographies
Israel’s long-term future lies in connecting with its Arab neighbours, not a western superpower thousands of miles away
Guardian Monday August 14, 2006
This has been a war that did not happen by accident. The kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah was merely the pretext, long since forgotten in the absurdly disproportionate response by the Israelis, and the death and destruction that their country has wrought on Lebanon. Israel has, throughout its short existence, lived by the sword, safe in the knowledge that its military power, as an honorary western nation, is far superior to that of its enemies. Israel has managed to justify this behaviour, in the eyes of the world (or at least the west), by two means: first, the insistence that its very survival always hangs by a thin thread; and second, the remorse felt by the west over the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust.
Based on previous expectations, this was another war that the Israelis should have won. It was of their choosing, long in the planning and preparation; and from the outset they enjoyed the open support of the US. How wrong the Israelis have turned out to be. This is not a war they have won: indeed, as they have fallen so far short of their objective – the effective destruction of Hizbullah as a military force – it might well turn out to be a war that the Israelis have, in effect, lost. They surely expected that Hizbullah’s resistance would crumble within a matter of days, but a month later Hizbullah appears to be as strong as ever, inflicting heavy casualties on the massive Israeli assault launched after the UN security council vote, its ability to fire rockets at Israeli cities little, if at all, impaired. Just as the US found that superiority in conventional arms was of little use in Iraq when confronted with urban and guerrilla resistance, rooted in the overwhelming opposition of the people, so Israel has discovered the same in Lebanon.
The ceasefire that is due to come into force today represents a serious setback for both Israel and the US. Its terms represent a significant retreat on what was previously proposed. One should not be deluded by the Israeli offensive launched after the ceasefire agreement had been adopted: it was a last desperate attempt to gain advantage before hostilities are obliged to cease, an attempt to snatch some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat. It is, in short, not a show of strength but a display of weakness. More importantly, the failure of the Israeli action against Hizbullah raises deeper questions about the means by which Israel has sought to govern relations with its neighbours, just as the failure of American policy in Iraq has brought into question the underlying precepts of neoconservative strategy. The common denominator has been a dependence upon, and belief in, the efficacy of military power above all else. Is it too much to hope that, at least in the longer run, Israel’s failure in Lebanon will force a rethink among Israelis on the best means to secure their future?
Israel, though geographically part of the Middle East, has never regarded itself as part of the region, politically, culturally or ethnically. It identifies itself with the west. And the west reciprocates. How else can one explain the intimate relationship that Israel enjoys with the US, or the fact that Israel competes in the Eurovision song contest and European football competitions? It is regarded as an honorary member of the west in the same way that Australia still is, or apartheid South Africa used to be. And the reason is not simply geopolitical, but cultural and ethnic.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the creation of the state of Israel, the reality today is that it is – by the manner of its creation, self-image and attitude towards its neighbours, and how it is regarded by the west – a western transplant sustained by an American life-support machine. Under such circumstances, the very idea that peace in the Middle East is in any meaningful sense possible is illusory. Israel has been the primary means by which the US has exercised its hegemony over the region. It has, using the classic imperial device of divide and rule, vested its means of control over the Middle East – as Amy Chua argues in her book World on Fire – in a small but privileged ethnic minority state, namely Israel. Whatever the recent rhetoric about democracy, such a mode of control means that western hegemony in the region has been primarily exercised by force. The Arab world has been rendered embittered, divided, resentful and politically frozen, in a manner that should surprise nobody. It is understandable that terrorism has become such a fixture in Arab politics: it is the weapon of the impotent, the disenfranchised and the unorganised in the face of profound grievance.
An enduring peace in the Middle East requires two things: first, that the Arab states accept Israel’s right to exist; and second, that Israel must come to see itself as an integral part of the region. The latter requires the kind of transformation in Israeli – and western – attitudes that is not even conceived of, let alone discussed. Israelis typically regard themselves as superior to their neighbours, and the root cause of this mentality lies in their sense of racial superiority. Indeed it is impossible to explain Israel’s attitude towards the west on the one hand and its Arab neighbours on the other without understanding its racial character and motivation. Israelis aspire to be treated on a par with westerners – that is, of course, white westerners; by the same token they have contempt for Arabs, including those who are citizens of Israel, whom they look down on as less civilised than themselves. Israel behaves in the manner of a settler colony whose people do not believe they are of the region but who none the less think they have every right to be there.
There is a deep irony here. Israel was created as a result of one of the worst racial atrocities in modern history. It was in part the sense of guilt and sympathy that persuaded the west that it must help the Jews create their own state. From the outset, two factors were always likely to haunt the project: first, it involved the annexation of land that was Arab; and second, it implied the foundation of an ethnic state, with all the exclusivist and racist attitudes that this potentially involved.
Let us hope that the failure of the war in Lebanon might begin the process of persuading the Israeli people that their long-term future lies in viewing their Arab neighbours as equals and seeking to live with them in peace, rather than viewing themselves as an appendage of the most powerful country in the world situated thousands of miles to its west.
· Martin Jacques is a visiting research fellow at the Asia Research Centre, London School of Economics [email protected]