Deflating Middle East Extremism
August 10, 2006
Joel Beinin is a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University and former president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. His most recent book is Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press 2001).
President Bush and many other supporters of the current Israeli assault on Lebanon and its reoccupation of the Gaza Strip justify these military actions on the grounds that Hamas and Hezbollah do not recognize Israel’s right to exist. Negotiating with “terrorists” is impossible, they claim, because Hamas and Hezbollah exist only to destroy Israel.
The 1988 founding covenant of Hamas proclaims, “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” Hezbollah’s 1985 program states, “The Zionist entity is aggressive from its inception, and built on lands wrested from their owners, at the expense of the rights of the Muslim people. Therefore our struggle will end only when this entity is obliterated.”
Such bombastic language is politically counterproductive and morally unacceptable, but it needn’t prohibit negotiations.
The call to destroy Israel has been bandied about in the Arab world since 1948 and in Iran since 1979. Yet since the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War no Arab country or combination of Arab countries has been capable of accomplishing this objective. The popularity of such rhetorical excess—far beyond actual capacities—has many causes. Arabs feel humiliated due to their inability to put the grievances of the Palestinian refugees on the global agenda and their repeated military defeats. They are frustrated that the Arab states with the economic resources to pressure the United States and confront Israel are instead subservient to the United States. They resent Israel’s role as a militant outpost of the United States and its refusal to integrate into its predominantly Arab-Muslim regional environment.
In recent years, popular outrage against authoritarian regimes and economic inequities in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and elsewhere has been linked to those regimes’ support for a peace with Israel that does not secure the national and human rights of the Palestinian people and to the support they receive from the United States. It is not coincidental that the same groups in Egypt who have demonstrated repeatedly in favor of democratization since December 2004 have also rallied in support of the Lebanese and Palestinian people in the current conflicts.
The call to destroy Israel is an expression of the many political ills of Arab societies. But unless Iran acquires nuclear weapons, none of Israel’s enemies pose an existential threat to Israel. Furthermore, there are indications that despite their inflammatory rhetoric, this is not on the agenda of Hamas or Hezbollah.
Since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 Hezbollah has focused on organizing itself as a parliamentary political party and social movement while maintaining an extensive network of social services. Hezbollah fighters have sporadically attacked northern Israel with rockets as part of their campaign to compel Israel to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms, which Lebanon and Syria—though not the U.N.—say is Lebanese territory. Under Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon such attacks were dealt with as minor problems requiring a limited response, in part because they recognized the inability of military force to stop the rockets. In contrast, current Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz’s have little military experience. Their agreement to the army’s request to deploy overwhelming force has demonstrated yet again the futility of such a response.
As for Hamas, in May 2006 a document was drafted by leading Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails representing all the political factions, including Hamas. It speaks of “the right to establish [a Palestinian] state with Jerusalem as its capital on all territories occupied in 1967 and to secure the right of return for the refugees…” This language is not acceptable to many Israelis. But it is far from calling for Israel’s destruction.
There have already been discussions about pragmatic accommodation on the most sticky of these issues. In the January 2001 Taba talks Palestinian and Israeli representatives argued over whether the number of Palestinian refugees who might return to Israel inside its pre-1967 borders should be 50,000 or 100,000. This number of Palestinian returnees would have few practical consequences for Israel.
In an article in the April 27, 2006 New York Review of Books the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Henry Siegman, cataloged pragmatic and moderate statements by Hamas leaders, including representatives newly elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Siegman argued that these statements established an opening for negotiations. If Hamas followed through and showed willingness to reach agreements with Israel, this would represent real progress towards Palestinian-Israeli peace. If they did not, then Israel and the global community would have a clear justification for isolating Hamas.
The United States and Israel did not follow this advice. Instead they subjected the population of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to massive privations for months. Israel resumed targeted assassinations and their easily-anticipated civilian loss of life. This strengthened the hands of the hardliners, ultimately leading to the capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit on June 25 by a coalition of Palestinian militants. The political leadership of Hamas inside Palestine repudiated this operation. Nonetheless, Israel launched a massive retaliation, including the arrest of many elected Hamas legislators. This escalation provided the pretext for Hezbollah to intervene by capturing two Israeli soldiers on July 12.
Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories may be too shattered to return to the status quo ante . But there will be no progress towards peace and security in the region without acknowledging that Hamas and Hezbollah are democratically elected political parties representing real social forces. One-sided demands by the Bush administration that they recognize “Israel’s right to exist” without a corresponding willingness to recognize their legitimacy will be perceived as hypocritical and further diminish the already low level of U.S. credibility in the Middle East.
Israel’s repeated attempts to bomb the Palestinian and Lebanese people into submission have repeatedly shown that there is no military solution to Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors. Only a political settlement with a modicum of justice will provide peace and security.