The battle for the Middle East narrative
Sydney Morning Herald
Israel has military might and diplomatic influence, but is under pressure on a third front of its conflict with the Palestinians: how the world sees it, writes Paul McGeough.
A single word shrieked from the car radio, as US National Public Radio reported the uncertain fate of the latest round of Middle East peace talks, in light of last Sunday's expiry of what has been billed as a moratorium on Israeli settlement expansion on Palestinian land.
In quoting no less a figure than the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, the reporter did not use the word settlement. Instead she attributed to him the dreaded C-word: colonies.
If ''settlement'' connotes opening up an unclaimed frontier - think fabled Jaffa oranges, the taming of the wilds and something found - then ''colony'' is about dispossession, the planting of foreigners and something lost.
Playing on many levels, the Middle East is the constant treadmill struggle of our time. Right now we see it at its most theatrical - with both sides warily and wearily hauled to a conference table under Washington's chairmanship. At the end of May we saw it at its most violent - when Israeli commandos attacked a civilian humanitarian flotilla in international waters, killing nine and wounding more than 50, before dragging 700 of them into Israeli waters, then to Israel itself, where they were charged with illegally entering Israel. And there was more last month: Hamas gunmen killed four Israeli settlers near Hebron, in the West Bank.
Within the dynamic of this conflict the leadership on all sides, including Washington, has an enduring capacity to fail to surprise us. But there is one element of surprise: the surrender, or loss, of the strategic high ground in one of the multiple levels of the conflict.
Arguably there are three levels of engagement. There are weapons and diplomacy, in which Israel has been ascendant since before 1948. But that third dimension, one that can influence the diplomats, and which is influenced by the resort to weapons, is the contest for control of the narrative. Across the decades Israelis have told the story of their colonial enterprise brilliantly. In contrast, Palestinians have told the story of their dispossession terribly.
With its weapons and diplomatic supremacy, Israel has this conflict stitched up. It has become an exercise in crisis management, not conflict resolution, in which the US, and frequently enough, the Palestinian leadership, are complicit.
The wrong of the occupation has become the status quo. How else do we interpret the take of the Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, on the renewed peace talks, which he shared in the past few days with the United Nations General Assembly. He told the gathering in New York that the peace talks should focus on a long-term intermediate arrangement - "something that could take a few decades".
How else do we interpret the corruption of the Fatah cronies, squandering the meagre resources of their people at the same time as they enjoy their Israel-sanctioned special privileges? How else are we to see the callous indifference of the leadership of the world in its abandonment of the civilian population of Palestine? The rights of East Timorese and Bosnians mattered, but those of Palestinians do not?
Early this year I began to wonder about Israel's lock on the narrative. Were events causing the narrative pendulum, the impact of the story as it was heard beyond the Middle East, to swing to the Palestinians? Even before the debacle of the flotilla, Israeli bungling, as measured by rising diplomatic criticism in the West, had dulled the lustre of its PR effort.
Israeli mythology is built on the likes of its stunning success in the Six Day War, when it defeated the combined Arab armies in a matter of days, and on daring, edge-of-the-seat ventures such as the 1976 raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda, when Israeli forces rescued more than 100 passengers and crew whose Air France airliner had been hijacked.
More recently it has achieved most of its tactical objectives, but seemingly at great strategic or diplomatic cost. Whether it was its assault on Lebanon in 2006 or its invasion of Gaza in 2008, its assassination of a Hamas operative in Dubai in January or its attack on the Gaza flotilla in May, usually stout allies have felt obliged to criticise Israel.
In Gaza it was accused of war crimes in the controversial Goldstone report. In Dubai it incurred the wrath of governments around the world, including Australia, over the abuse of those countries' passports as cover for more than 20 members of the Mossad hit team. And amid waves of international criticism for its attack on the Gaza flotilla, the first of a series of reports - this one by the UN Human Rights Council - found the interception of the flotilla to be unlawful; that some of the deaths likely were "extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions"; that some of the treatment of the hundreds of prisoners probably amounted to torture; and that Israel's treatment of the civilian population of Gaza is a blight on humanity.
A disquieting moment was the appearance in March of General David Petraeus before a US Senate committee, at which he outlined a new line of Washington thought that could amount to a grave crisis for Israel. As the then commander of the US Central Command, Petraeus brought along a considered 12,000-word document in which he framed the Israel-Palestine conflict as a ''root cause of instability'' and an ''obstacle to peace'' that played into the hands of Iran and al-Qaeda.
Ditching a cornerstone of neoconservative dogma, Petraeus charged that perceived US favouritism for Israel fomented anti-American sentiment across the region. ''The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbours present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests,'' he said. ''Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US participation with governments and peoples in [my area of responsibility].''
The general was articulating a Washington view that would have been impossible under George Bush: that is, the security of Israel and an urgent need to resolve the Israel-Palestine crisis are separate core US national interests. It follows that Washington could be rock solid on the former at the same time as it might demand action on the latter.
Behind these headline events, other developments reveal elements of the historic Israel story playing out in the occupied territories.
In the 1960s and '70s it was a rite of passage from many non-Jewish students from around the world to spend time on a kibbutz. Today a good number of the young ''internationals'', as they are called, are to be found in the West Bank, helping Palestinians to replant damaged fruit and olive groves or offering themselves as human shields against harassment by Jewish settlers as Palestinian villagers harvest their crops.
It is part of a growing campaign of Palestinian civil disobedience. First in five villages, then in 12 and now in 16, locals have taken to weekly protests against aspects of the Israeli occupation, often with back-up from young internationals and young Israelis who oppose the occupation. Near Bethlehem, Daoud Nassar draws thousands of international visitors to a 40 hectare farm that he runs as a centre of non-violence - despite being choked on all sides by Israeli settlements, the inhabitants of which harass him at the same time as they mire him in a decade-long legal campaign to strip his family of their land. Visitors to the farm are greeted by a great boulder bearing Nasser's message to Israelis: "We refuse to be enemies."
The Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla was particularly instructive for what it revealed of Israel's determination to control the narrative of that particular event.
As its masked commandos came over the side of the boat on which the photographer Kate Geraghty and I were travelling, she was zapped with a Taser and the satellite phone on which I was reporting the attack to the Herald in Sydney was snatched from my hand. All electronic equipment that might capture or transmit images or text were confiscated from all six boats in the flotilla.
One of the earliest stated objectives of sending boats to Gaza came from Michael Shaik, the Australian activist who came up with the idea: it was to reveal the inherent violence of the Israeli occupation.
This issue came up in an email exchange in the weeks after the flotilla raid, between me and Huwaida Arraf, the young Palestinian-American lawyer who heads the Free Gaza Movement. This is what she told me: ''Israel uses so much violence against Palestinians … We are always told that we should be non-violent, but the violence of the occupier is not acknowledged or condemned. [There is a] general mistaken notion that 'non-violent' resistance means passive resistance.
''I don't believe in being passive. I believe in fighting, strategically. Israel is stronger than we are militarily, and so I don't want to engage them in armed conflict. I want to use the strengths that we have, and weaken their sources of power. This means using demonstrations, direct action, civil disobedience, boycotts and encouraging divestment and sanctions to hit at Israel's legitimacy and their ability to rule.
"I strongly believe that unarmed resistance is more threatening to Israel's colonial project than our armed resistance. Unfortunately, Israel has been controlling the narrative and has turned us into terrorists that want to destroy the Jews. Israel uses armed resistance by Palestinians to promote that notion. Each time we fire a rocket, we are feeding the story that Israel wants to tell, and allowing Israel the excuse to further oppress us.''
Despite a shocked reaction to the flotilla raid around the world, there was a surge of support by Israelis for their government. In a poll taken a week after the attack, support reached 78 per cent. But if the Israelis could not see the good sense in leaving the flotilla alone, then Hamas could.
After six years in which there had been just a single suicide-bomb attack but thousands of erratic rockets were fired into Israel, a senior Hamas official acknowledged that there was more to be gained in setting up Israel as a target of international criticism for its own actions than in direct Palestinian attacks.
''When we use violence, we help Israel win international support,'' Aziz Dweik, a Hamas MP in the West Bank was quoted as saying in The Wall Street Journal.
''The Gaza flotilla has done more for Gaza than 10,000 rockets.''
The world had virtually ignored Israel's siege of Gaza, which, as David Shulman put it in The New York Review of Books in June, "is meant to isolate and punish - and in the most optimistic Israeli scenario, to bring down - the Hamas government". But Western capitals could not remain silent after the flotilla. "The status quo we have is inherently unstable," the US President, Barack Obama, said.
Britain's new Prime Minister, David Cameron, was more pointed. Referring to Gaza as a ''prison camp'', he said: "Friends of Israel … should be saying to the Israelis that the blockade actually strengthens Hamas's grip on the economy and on Gaza and it's in their own interests to lift it and to allow these vital supplies to get through."
Israel argued that the flotilla had to be stopped because of the risk of weapons being smuggled into Gaza - just as the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, condemned the settler deaths as ''atrocious murder'', telling reporters: ''Terror will not determine the borders of Israel or the future of settlements.''
But on Gaza, Israel was forced to concede the screamingly obvious: the siege was not working. However, things changed only at the margins. While some additional goods were allowed in, the rate at which trucks could enter Gaza was still significantly less than the estimated 500 a day that entered the strip before the siege.
Backed by Washington, Israel still believes it is entitled to select the Palestinian leadership, to choose its ''partners in peace'', as it calls them in narrative-speak. All sides dress up the US security operation in the occupied territories as a local law-and-order exercise. In the past three years the US State Department has allocated $US392 million ($406 million) to the operation - and it has its hand out for another $US150 million next year.
The 2006 Palestinian election ought to have been celebrated by all sides - a good narrative. A cathartic moment for Palestinians, the poll was a more consistent expression of the will of the people than most others in the region, and deemed to be free and fair by an army of international observers. But because they voted for Hamas, the entire Palestinian population was sin-binned - denied international funding - and half their elected MPs were rounded up and jailed by Israel, which then embarked on the lock-down of Gaza, which has tightened to become today's operation of the strip as the world's biggest - and, as the locals see it, the world's meanest - prison.
Four years after an election that should have been embraced by Washington as the Middle East democracy of its dreams, we now have a once-elected Palestinian President whose term has expired but who remains in office by self-appointment and who appointed as Prime Minister a man whose Third Way party won just 2.4 per cent of the vote in the 2006 elections. The Palestinian Parliament, a rarity in the region, has been neutered. In less than a year three tiers of Palestinian elections have been cancelled, presidential, parliamentary and local councils.
And there's the rub: even if control of the narrative is swinging the way of the Palestinians, it will count for little before - and if - the rupture between Hamas and Fatah is repaired.
This is an edited speech from Paul McGeough, to be delivered tomorrow at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.
|Powered by Sigsiu.NET|