DEAD SEA, JORDAN
While visiting the Berlin Wall in June 1963, two years after its construction, John F. Kennedy quoted from a Robert Frost poem: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." For decades the Berlin Wall stood as the symbol of a divided world, a barrier to dialogue and an indictment of humanity’s incapacity to cohabit in the global village. With great drama President Ronald Reagan called on the Russian president, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” To the jubilation of millions in November 1989, the Wall did come tumbling down.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the 20th century, which historian Eric Hobsbawm described as “the age of extremes” and heralded a new era of globalization, what pundits enthused to call “a borderless world.”
These remarkable developments notwithstanding, while the world per se may not be divided in two as it was during the Cold War, there are still a number of walls dividing and indicting humanity, arguably none more so than the Wall erected by the Israeli Occupation in Palestine. Israel claims the Wall— 70 kilometers long, 8 meters high, corresponding to 10 percent of the length of the Israeli West Bank Barrier— was erected for security purposes following terrorist attacks during the Second Intifada. This is an immensely sensitive subject, virtually taboo. Hence while the world marches on, Palestine and Israel stand still or, worse, take backward steps.
At the 2013 World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa, a meeting was convened of some 300 Israeli and Palestinian business and civic leaders in what’s been termed the Breaking the Impasse initiative. The group issued a call for action, instructing political leaders to achieve in the shortest time possible a two-state solution. Secretary of State John Kerry was present to indicate US support.
The joint leaders of the initiative, Yossi Vardi and Munib R.Masri, captains of industry respectively in Israel and Palestine, granted that while skepticism may be in order, cynicism is not.
Still, they grapple with a long history.
Europe has a deep and long ugly history of anti-Semitism, leading to pogroms and persecutions. Jews lived in insecurity and surrounded by hatred. In reaction in the late 19th century emerged the Zionist movement that sought security for Jews in what it termed Eretz Israel, or Land of Israel. Palestine at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire, home to Christians, Muslims and Jews. As the Ottoman Empire faced defeat and much of its territory was to pass to the so-called Mandates of Britain and France, issued by the League of Nations, the British government gave recognition to the Jewish quest in the “Balfour Declaration” (1917):
“His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
The proposal suggested that the Jews were entitled to a homeland, not a state, and that the rights of Palestinians would not be violated. Of course, the Balfour Declaration could not accomplish the protection of the “rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country,” as the Nazi genocide exterminated Jews across Europe. With the defeat of Hitler and the realization of the horrors perpetrated in Europe, it seemed unthinkable to deny the Jews a state. Palestinians, brutally evicted from their land and homes, were left as distant and powerless proxies to atone for the sins of Europeans.
In the 65 years since the creation of the state of Israel, known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe, there have been, since 1967, persistent encroachments of Palestinian land through settlements and wars, refugees, terrorism, the intifadas and brutal repression, all escalating hatred. Palestinians today live on approximately 17 percent of what was the land of Palestine. The hopes of a settlement raised by the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords were soon doused, and 20 years later Palestinians live with the constant harassments and humiliations of occupation; an offensive wall dividing people and families; and arguably most pernicious the heavy restriction of water allocation to Palestinians in contrast to that amply provided to the Israeli settlements. What’s referred to locally as a “water apartheid policy” is well documented and described in the report “Water for One People Only” compiled by Elisabeth Koek.
Hatred is rising, not diminishing, and future prospects are bleak as the next generations growing up in a new apartheid-like situation will harbor mistrust and animosity. As for the Israelis, as one of my Palestinian interlocutors, a professor at Birzeit University put it: “The jailers are becoming the jailed.” This is a land of great misery, human suffering and unhappiness, even though in their daily lives Palestinians continue to show considerable resilience. On the basis of current trends, a just settlement of peace seems increasingly remote, elusive and perhaps impossible.
Hence the initiative to “break the impasse” and the plea forcefully articulated in Varsi’s speech in front of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s President Simon Peres, US Secretary of State John Kerry and the several hundred WEF participants when he shouted, “ENOUGH!” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not present, not a good omen.
The situation is complicated. These developments are occurring when the Arab world is in turmoil, when there are some 1.5 million refugees streaming into Jordan from Syria. Within the Palestinian community deep divisions between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank persist, and the world in general is experiencing probably the deepest, most rapid transformations ever, causing great dislocations. President Barack Obama’s stated desire to “pivot” to East Asia to meet the China challenge remains thwarted by the conflicts in West Asia.
Peace between Palestinians and Israelis cannot be abandoned. The conditions prevailing are incompatible not only with growing global integration, but with global justice and, indeed, global civilization. At the same time the Israel West Bank Wall symbolizes the barriers to dialogue. The initiative is courageous and enlightened. However, that notwithstanding, so long as the Wall stands and the Israeli settlers not only remain, but continue to stream in, it’s highly unlikely that Palestinians and Israelis will find a basis for serious, purposeful discussions. The plight of the Palestinians is not purely a local issue. Indeed Palestine is a cause that pervades the entire Islamic world. When the expression is used “Islam versus the West,” whether implicitly or explicitly Palestine is at the core. This is not just true of the Arab countries, but all Islamic countries, including distant ones like Indonesia and Bangladesh.
In 2002 and again in 2007, the Arab League proposed and submitted the Arab Peace Initiative. Though Israeli popular opinion seems to favour acceptance of or at least deliberation on the Arab Peace Initiative, it’s been repeatedly rejected by the Israeli government. Most Muslim countries have indicated they would establish or, in some cases, re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel should the proposed Arab Peace Initiative be accepted. This would be a great step forward.
Breaking the Impasse is s a global issue, requiring global attention and engagement, as its outcome will bear considerable influence on what kind of world evolves in the 21st century. Trends must be reversed. To repeat Yossi Vardi: “Enough.”
Rights:Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. Courtesy YaleGlobal Online