Last week the American Studies Association approved a boycott of Israeli Institutions. Behind the imposing name stands a marginal group of post-colonialist ideologues who best fit the description of Earth in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide: mostly harmless. Their understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, holds powerful sway in European diplomatic services, the Foreign Office and the BBC (indeed during the last bout of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, Al-Jazeera made a better first than Auntie of presenting balanced coverage).
They argue that Israel’s existence is a best a colossal historical mistake, which should not be undone, but for which it must atone; a sore from which the world’s problems are alleged to come; that “shitty little country” (a French diplomat), imposer of prison camps (David Cameron), and that the only language it understands is force.
They conclude that Israel’s settlement movement, as it steals Palestinian land, infiltrates Israel’s bureaucracy, and turns a blind eye to beatings and intimidation its more extreme members mete out to Palestinians, represents the entire country, and that economic pressure and isolation are needed to bring Israel to its senses. Now it’s true that Israel’s settlers — the world’s most successful Occupy! movement — are an obstacle to peace; that each family that moves across the green line makes it a little harder than it already is to delineate borders; and they continue to provoke Palestinians by their very presence.
But its success is a symptom of the conflict as much as a cause of its continuation. As Danny Dayan, who used to run the settler’s council, argued to me this summer: ‘We and the Palestinians both want the same land. We fought for it three times on their terms, and they lost’ every time. Anachronistic? Perhaps, more like something a Prussian colonel might say in defence of the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, and as likely to cut as much ice with the Palestinians as it did with the French.
But it was the last of those three wars, the Second Intifada, that destroyed many Israelis’ hope in swapping ‘land for peace’ and made them receptive to the settlers’ arguments that the only thing ‘the Arabs’ understand is force. Last week’s bus bomb in Tel Aviv (not, thankfully, successful; and not a suicide bombing) was a reminder of that earlier war, and that in this conflict, as in any insurgency, it is control of the hearts and minds of the people, not of territory that decide the outcome.
The Fatah administration in the West Bank has been doing this well. Mahmoud Abbas understands that a serious outbreak of terrorism would ruin his chances of negotiating a Palestinian State, and security cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian authorities remained strong, even after Abbas’s dismissal of Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad.
The negotiations are currently stalled over an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, after an agreement is concluded, which John Kerry has accepted as necessary. Naturally the Palestinians would do not want Israeli troops there. But Israel still doesn’t trust Palestinian security institutions, nor is it certain they will remain stable. These ‘security guarantees’ are like the ports Britain maintained in Ireland after the 1921 treaty establishing the Free State was signed. Eamon de Valera considered them (among other things) an affront to Irish independence. Michael Collins surely thought them an affront too, but accepted them in the expectation that they could be dealt with later.
The Palestinian de Valera, Yasser Arafat, is nine years dead. Unlike Collins, Abbas need not fear that a deal would be the equivalent of signing is own ‘actual death warrant.’ Hamas will surely try to scupper any agreement, but they are at their weakest point in years. Though an agreement will not end the conflict — Israelis and Palestinians will have plenty to bicker about, from the use of airspace to the distribution of water, and, crucially, extremists on both sides will have to be faced down — there seems at least to be a chance that it will soon be carried on through more peaceful means.