Sunday, 11 March 2012

Ominous Portents

There has been an ominous rumour around. The old Bedouin wise men around here don’t like what they see. Though the weather has now warmed up and dried out, we had record rainfall this winter. The last time it rained as much as this was in 1967, the year of the Six Day War and the occupation of the West Bank. They take this winter’s rain as a sign that something new could be afoot, and they’re not happy. They anticipate a new conflict and, the trouble is, there are several potential conflicts around.

It could be Israel’s threatened war with Iran. It could be Gaza. It could be a further flare-up of the Arab revolutions, with complications affecting Palestine. It could be a third intifada in Palestine’s West Bank. Or it could be something entirely unforeseeable. This region is like a tinderbox at present, with a lack of progress in many major issues, giving rise to a simmering frustration: anything could happen. Palestinians would prefer it not to be like this – they’ve had enough of hard times.

In 2006, when the Israelis were bombing hell out of south Lebanon, I had one of my ‘downloads’ – a burst of insight which sometimes can be prophetic. I saw that there could be five flashpoints before a fundamental change comes to Israel and Palestine, and the 2006 Lebanon war against Hezbollah was the first.

The second was the bombing of Gaza in early 2009. In both cases, the Israelis tried and failed to get rid of their adversaries Hezbollah and Hamas, and in failing to win and, they therefore in effect lost – Israel, to justify its actions, must win decisively since, if it doesn’t it loses, while Palestinians and Lebanese Shi’as customarily lose anyway, so loss is no change and anything less than loss is a gain.

The third was the Freedom Flotilla of 2010 – they stopped the Flotilla but lost in terms of global PR and moral victory, far overreacting to the issue. Israel lost its sole local ally, Turkey. The fourth conflict is whatever is coming. Then there will be a fifth, if my ‘download’ is correct. What happens then? The game changes, fundamentally.

Recently I was talking about this with Sheikh Mohammed Ibrahim Sobeh, a Bedouin chief and ‘people’s cleric’. He’s an interesting man. He spent four years studying in Britain in the early 1980s and, being near-fluent in English, he’s fascinated with idioms. We were talking about the Israelis and the fact they always impose such a high and violent price on Palestinians. I told him that I don’t believe anyone will beat the Israelis – instead the Israelis will shoot themselves in the foot, ruining their own interests and committing a kind of national suicide or self-disablement. This idiom fascinated and rang true for him. If Israel goes too far, its credit having already virtually run out, it risks blowing its feet right off. The world will have had enough and Israel will have rendered itself powerless.

Israel shot its own feet in Lebanon, Gaza and with the Freedom Flotilla. Sure, it seriously hurt the recipients of their wrath but, in each case, it lost friends, weakened its own confidence, discouraged its soldiers, exposed its weaknesses, increased Jewish emigration and scuppered its own case. It undermined the narrative it has incanted for decades, which says that they are the suffering ones, everyone is trying to attack them and therefore they are justified in defending themselves no matter what it costs them or others.

But this defence is actually massive attack, using collective punishment of civilians in the incorrect belief that this will turn them against their leaders. This punishing approach is ultimately counterproductive. Such aggression has had the opposite effect, creating a new generation of potential enemies – children who, when they grow up, will not forget the loss of their homes and family members in an overwhelming Israeli onslaught. The Israeli narrative is turning toxic to itself, exposing the country as an aggressor using disproportionate destruction to achieve questionable ends. It also erodes Israel’s internal social cohesion and economic interests.

Israel cannot go it alone. It relies on outside support yet it is ungrateful, failing to respect its remaining friends and accomplices – mainly America, yet also relying heavily on the acquiescence of Europe and the Arab world. It receives billions in aid and military support every year, without which its economy and defence will dwindle. There’s something else too.

Israel has for long relied on generating national unity by having threatening foes but, the trouble is, it’s losing its foes as well as its friends. National solidarity is thus surreptitiously crumbling. This growing internal dissonance takes the form of what Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, recently called a ‘battle for the soul of Israel’ between two increasingly dissonant elements in Israeli society. The problem for Israel is that it is dependent on fighting, and if enemies provide no cause for conflict, the conflict turns inward.

The secular, liberal, business-friendly, internationalist Israelis of Tel Aviv and Haifa, Israel’s main income-generators, are at odds with the growing group of religious-nationalist orthodox settlers and ultra-orthodox Haredim. The Haredim are the more extremist observant Jews dressed in the funny 18th Century clothes. The former are larger in number yet less militant, more self-questioning but the latter are growing and building up for a fight, dead certain of their cause, already provoking incidents not only against Palestinians but also against Israeli people, the army and the state.

My fear for this region is an armed conflict between these two groupings. This national schism has been ignored and permitted to grow over the years and it is going critical. Israelis tend not to know when to stop: their strategy is to push until the other side yields, with little restraint or thought for wider consequences. Orthodox settlers are arming themselves, infiltrating the army and increasingly counting it their holy duty to oppose the state of Israel, which they regard as an abomination, prophetically incorrect. Some even envision starting a ‘true Israel’ in the settlements of the West Bank (what they call Judaea and Samaria).

Then there’s the potential war with Iran. Israel has run out of local enemies so it has to find them further afield. Militarily they can achieve only limited results in Iran, but the political and wider implications of a war could be a final straw for Israel – more politically than militarily – and it’s a high-risk strategy. It could be a setback or death-knell for the Ayatollahs’ regime in Iran but, even more important, it would bring an enormous crisis to the wider world.

It concerns oil: Iran’s only major, effective weapon is to obstruct the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz – 40% of the world’s oil. The outcomes, even if only short-lived, could be nightmarish for the precarious world economy and particularly for the vulnerable West. It could set off an avalanche of complex consequences that the world is not in a position to ride out, regarding energy-supplies, international trade, money-markets, currencies and geopolitics. But for Israel, blaming Iran yet actually acting as the aggressor, and itself being an illegal nuclear power, this could be a move too far. Even Israeli supporters would strain and balk at this one: Israel could prove too costly for the world, too costly even for the Americans – a liability worth ditching. Israel could blow its own feet right off.

Many people will of course disagree, and disagreement is the default pattern around anything to do with Israel. We shall see. But if this war does happen it won’t be an easy ride. As Alaa Din pointed out a few days ago: “The Israelians always say we Palestinians use human shields, but we will be the human shields for the Israelians this time – we stand in the way and there is nothing we can do”.

Then we come to the Palestinians themselves. The vast majority want no more conflict – they always lose anyway. Over the last sixty years, every time an Israeli dies in conflict, 10-20 Palestinians die – that’s the way the odds are stacked. Ishmael told me on Friday that, down in Yatta, south of Hebron, the Israelis had invaded the place, seeking to re-arrest a Palestinian released in the recent Hamas-negotiated prisoner release, and the people of Yatta had mobilised to protect him. One 17 year old Palestinian was shot in the head by the soldiers – and the poor chap was only walking past, uninvolved in the protests. Meanwhile, on Friday morning at 3am, Israeli soldiers invaded Deheisheh camp in Bethlehem (illegally), seeking to re-arrest another released prisoner – he escaped, but the people of Deheisheh were out on the streets, and it nearly came to blows.

Then there is Gaza. The Israelis are bombing Gaza yet again. More deaths, more grief. There’s something they just don’t get: the militants of Gaza are a small minority who would lose influence if the Israelis just lightened up their blockade on Gaza and allowed its 1.5 million residents to get a better life. While Gazans are throttled, isolated and bombed, naturally there will be a body of opinion there either supporting or acquiescing to the rocket-firing militants – after all, if you were an embattled people with almost no support and few ways of returning fire, would you lie down and let your enemies oppress and bomb you? The Israelis themselves certainly wouldn’t do that. So the answer is to ramp down the conflict, let ordinary life settle in and, perhaps with a few mistakes and setbacks, the matter would settle down, and the million or so Israelis affected by rocket attacks would live in safety.

This stuff is becoming more and more common. West Bank settlers are attacking Palestinians, waving guns, invading Palestinian territory and desecrating Muslim holy places – often protected by troops. Soldiers are causing trouble too. Houses are getting demolished regularly. Palestinians are dying or getting injured. It’s almost as if the Israelis are trying to kill off the now-dominant Palestinian non-violence movement by provoking aggression. In Jerusalem all sorts of problems are happening – every few days, something erupts. It is generating frustration amongst some Palestinians and fear amongst others. Young people see a bleak future. The international community does little – it’s too busy with other things, and its hands are dirty too.

Whether it’s in Jerusalem, connected with the settlements or in Gaza, the event that lights the fire could be close. An Israeli attack on Iran could set off incidents closer to home. New developments in the Arab revolutions could do it. The portents are not good. What’s most ominous though is this: while in the short term Palestinians could suffer, in the longterm, Israel is far more at risk. Its future is at stake, and it is Israelis themselves who are undermining their own country’s best longterm interests.

I’m reminded of the words of British Baroness Jenny Tonge, who spoke perhaps prophetically: “Israel is not going to be there forever in its present form. One day, USA will get sick of giving £70bn a year to Israel to support what I call America's aircraft carrier in the Middle East – that is Israel. One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough. Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown”. She got into trouble for that, but she might well be right.

Israel has done a lot of sowing and, today, it has a dangerous sense of hubris, a confidence which is empty and unwise. I support the continued existence of Israel, but an Israel that is friendly and constructive in its relationships, withdrawn to its own pre-1967 territory to give the Palestinians space, secure and at peace within itself, and aligning with international agreements, resolutions and legal judgements. It is heading in the opposite direction, and a day or reckoning could be with us soon.