I’ve been organising our community Purim party for many years now and that means that from early January until Purim itself, our house gradually fills up with more and more painted scenery and enormous papier mache figures, sequins on every surface and glitter in the food. The excitement of the building preparations for the festival is, however, tempered with the apprehension of experience. Who can forget those awful post Oslo years when so many Purim celebrations were blighted by vicious terror attacks?
In 1996 over sixty people died in the eight days preceding Purim. I’d just finished constructing an enormous multi-coloured circus tent in our communal dining room when the news came over the radio of the bombing at the Dizengoff Centre in Tel Aviv in which 13 people were killed. The day before, 19 had died in a bus bombing in Jerusalem and the week before that one person had died in a bombing in Ashkelon, one in an attack in the French Hill area of the capital and 26 people had been killed in another bus bombing on the same line in Jerusalem.
In proportional terms, that would have been the equivalent to over 600 people murdered by terrorists in one week in Britain. On an American scale, it would have meant over 3,000 dead. Between the signing of the Declaration of Principles in September 1993 and the start of the second Intifada in September 2000, two hundred and sixty-nine people were killed in Israel by Palestinian terrorists. For Britain, that’s the equivalent of almost three thousand people and for Americans, over 13,500. Would either British or American governments have continued to engage in peace talks with an enemy which was taking such a toll on their civilian populations? Would their voters, their media or their politicians have allowed them to do so?
Then of course came the second Intifada which made the previous seven years look almost calm by comparison. But despite all that, Israelis did not stop taking enormous gambles in the hope of achieving peace.
In the summer of 2005 Israeli society underwent another kind of danger: a self-imposed schism as a result of the government decision to disengage from the Gaza Strip. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Israel knowingly and willingly risked internal civil conflict in the hope of making progress in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. The blue – orange divide split Israeli society at all levels; from the government right down to individual families. Old friends stopped speaking to each other. On one occasion my partner stopped his car in the middle of a journey and ejected a neighbour to whom he could not listen any longer. Soldiers wept as they carried out orders, regardless of whether they agreed with or were opposed to them. An entire nation sat glued to the television as traumatic scenes of the evacuations were broadcast.
In the end, and despite the fact that some of the wounds opened up that summer have yet to heal, the disengagement was a triumph for Israeli democracy. It showed the Israeli people that despite the typically loud and volatile arguments, despite the adherence to belief and ideology, despite the rhetoric on both sides, the residents of Gush Katif not only understood that Israeli democracy must trump their own viewpoint, but that they were prepared to make unbelievably painful sacrifices in order to ensure that was so. To me at least, the evacuees from Gush Katif represent the true strengths of Israeli democracy as well as the high price Israel is prepared to pay both financially and emotionally for just the chance of peace.
But what it is vital to appreciate is that the evacuation from the Gaza Strip, like Oslo before it, was known by all from the outset to be a gamble and that the stakes were yet more civilian lives. Its success in achieving its aims depended not upon Israel alone, but on the willingness of terrorist elements to abandon nihilistic violence in favour of the more mundane everyday tasks of state building. Some commentators within Israel at the time pointed out this fact to the public, but the general belief was that we were prepared to take the risk in the hope and belief that logic and common sense would prevail on the other side. Many if not most of us also believed that the world would now understand us and that our actions of self-defence against terrorism would now meet with comprehension, if not support.
So I’m afraid that some recent statements by foreign luminaries have got my blood well and truly on the boil. Last week President Barak Obama apparently called on Jewish community leaders “to speak to their friends and colleagues in Israel and to “search your souls” over Israel’s seriousness about making peace.”
At the same time, over 2,000 people attended the J Street conference, the overwhelming impression of which is that it cultivates a belief that Israelis need to be treated like petulant children who are too immature to understand where their best interests lie. And those are the sensible ones; not the frankly delusional types who appear to be taking over the J Street agenda and rendering anything that organisation has to say tainted.
And then the week before there was David Cameron, trotting around the still smouldering Middle East and yet apparently incapable of letting go of his ‘comfort blanket’ according to which “settlements are an obstacle to peace”. Back home, Cameron continued in his methodology of double-bind communication by yet again declaring to a Jewish audience that his belief in Israel is “indestructible”. Will the real David Cameron please stand up? Is he the Ankara ‘Gaza is a prison camp’ Cameron or the CST dinner ‘I will be an advocate for Israel’ one? As an Israeli and a Brit, I personally haven’t a clue what this chameleon really thinks or what he is likely to do next. The question is, has he?
When reading about all the above events, the overwhelming feeling I – as a long-time resident of the Middle East – have is one of condescending paternalism or even ‘soft’ colonialism. But there is also an element of lazy superficiality involved. There is no doubt that it is considerably easier for Obama, Cameron and the J Street ‘peace movement’ to pressure Israel than it is for them to even name, let alone solve, the real problems which prevent a peaceful solution to the dispute between the Palestinians and Israel which is, after all, just one symptom of the problems in the wider region.
Cameron needs to be called out for the fact that whilst in Qatar he did not publicly condemn that regime’s financing of the Hamas theocracy which has seriously eroded human rights in the territory under its control. Rather than congratulating himself on the UK’s populist support for the recent proposed UN Security Council draft resolution on the subject of settlements, the British PM would contribute more to regional stability in the Middle East were he to initiate a full and comprehensive investigation into why the UNSC has not implemented its own resolutions (1559 and 1701) on the subject of the disarming of the Hizbollah militia.
Obama owes the Israeli people an explanation as to why he returned an ambassador to Damascus while that human rights abusing regime stockpiles chemical warheads. He might also ask the Palestinian Authority leaders if they are serious about peace, although one suspects that their refusal to come to the negotiating table throughout almost the entire 10 months of the recent building freeze may already have given him a clue as to the answer to that one.
J Street’s rapidly nose-diving credibility as an organisation which claims to be ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ would be enhanced could it find the energy to address subjects such as continuing Palestinian terror and the daily incitement against Israel and Jews by official Palestinian Authority bodies with even half as much verve as that with which it lambasts the Israeli government almost every day of the week.
The appallingly one-dimensional view of the Middle East which allows leaders of the calibre of Obama and Cameron to spout such downright incredible platitudes as those above becomes even more worrying when one considers the recent spate of frankly delusional remarks by assorted functionaries and journalists suggesting that the current widespread unrest in the Middle East provides an appropriate juncture at which to opt for one all-out last-ditch effort to bully Israel into some sort of diplomatic corner.
One would think that the fact that the oldest of Israeli-Arab peace treaties suddenly hangs in the balance, subject to the as yet unknown whims of an as yet unelected government, would make people think twice about the long-term efficacy of peace agreements signed with regimes led by unelected personalities rather than nations with a strong democratic base in which the will of the people transcends that of a particular temporary figure-head.
But then again, one would also think that an American president would refrain from displaying the arrogant presumptuousness of suggesting that a nation which has seen thousands of its men, women and children murdered or uprooted from their homes in the long search for peace should be asking themselves if they are serious about that search.
One would also think that both the British Prime Minister and any remaining sane elements within J Street would be reluctant to back a proposed UNSC resolution which was designed to tar all ‘settlements’ with the same brush of illegality. As any realist (including the Palestinians) knows, the large settlement blocks will remain in Israel under any future agreement. The outlying, unofficial ones will be dismantled with the wholehearted support of the majority of Israelis and to brand neighbourhoods of Israel’s capital from which Jews were ethnically cleansed in 1948 by an invading Arab army as ‘illegal settlements’ contributes nothing to finding a viable Modus Vivendi.
In fact, both the countries which voted in favour of that draft resolution and those such as J Street who urged the US not to veto it conveniently ignore the glaring fact that the resolution was proposed by Lebanon: a country in the grip of a foreign-backed Islamist militia which considers any Jew in any part of Israel to be a ‘settler’ and his home a ‘settlement’. Obviously, there are many who have yet to acknowledge that such attitudes are far more of an obstacle to peace than even the most controversial of Israeli building projects.
So yes, Israelis are very committed to peace, Mr. Obama, but they are also committed to living.
And no, Mr. Cameron and the attendees of the J Street conference, we do not need to be bullied, pushed or cajoled by those who appear to consider themselves to be our moral superiors. This is because not only do we remember Purim in Shushan two and a half thousand years back, but we also remember Purim in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem fifteen years ago and on too many occasions before and since. And because of that, we have an understanding of the real issues which have so far prevented peace from coming to this region.
That same understanding is glaringly and dangerously absent in most Western capitals and until the leaders of nations and advocacy groups can actually name the issues upon which that understanding is based they will, of course, remain unable to even begin to solve them. Until then, we may expect them to remain in their double standard default mode of ‘pressure upon Israel’