Israel Through the Looking Glass

At the top of the invitation list for any think-tank event on the Middle East these days is that huge great big elephant that likes to sit in the room as everyone think-tanks away. And so it was the other night at the Foreign Policy Centre: “How to Deliver Equality for Israel’s Arab Minorities!” The elephant was the Second Intifada and there was no bitterness from the Israeli speaker and there was no culpability from the Palestinian. Everyone happily agreed that there was no elephant in the room. Even the elephant nodded agreement to that.
The FPC likes to do events with an angle, so this one concerned itself with Israeli Arabs, i.e. Arabic citizens of Israel rather than the occupants of the West Bank and Gaza. Mr. Shmuel Ben-Tovim, an economist of the Israeli Embassy represented the Israelis, while Ms Aida Touma-Sliman of the campaign Women Against Violence represented the Palestinians. He was very cerebral, while she came right to the point and said, “We’re treated like shit!”
I was only 19 when I was on Kibbutz Yagur, near Haifa. I knew nothing of politics, but discovered some when I was sent along to a seminar about the conflict. The Israeli speaker was very cerebral and the Palestinian man came right to the point and said, “We’re treated like shit!” That was 1986. So here I am in the year 2009 and I can’t help feeling a sense of déjà vu. I’ve spent the last twenty years hearing Jews be cerebral and Palestinians be pissed off. The only difference between then and now is that then, the Arabs had jobs, and now, they don’t.
What strikes me is how much physical change has happened in the passing years, as compared to the absence of change in the dialogue. In 1986 the whole of Israel was in a building boom, with Palestinians pouring concrete into shuttering from one end of the country to the other. They had jobs and the Israelis were happy to employ them. But always when people from abroad asked about the conflict, the Israelis would be cerebral and the Palestinians would come right to the point: “We’re treated like shit!” Meanwhile the demon of Palestinian violence bubbled away in the background with the stabbings and bombings not being so frequent as to make Israel any more dangerous than New York of the time, but making the Israelis feel unsafe in their own country; making them regret opening the borders in 1967.
Incrementally, over the years, Palestinian rights were removed from them as Israeli frustration gave way to impatience, and antagonism to hate, and eventually hate gave way to simply ignoring the fact that the Palestinians even exist. Today, the lives of Palestinians are a hell behind concrete walls, while Israel has become the silicon valley of the eastern hemisphere. High tech jobs are denied to the Palestinians on security grounds. Asian builders were brought in during the Second Intifada and have been continuing to come in since. When Palestinians bid for a contract alongside the Asians, the contract is awarded to the foreigners, but the Israelis are telling the truth when they insist that the process was transparent; we can see exactly what’s going on. The Israelis no longer wish to share their economy with the people who suicide bombed them. Arguments of human rights were arguments of the left and the Labor Party barely exists anymore. In the land of the co-operative Kibbutzim, where a nation was built through the passionate belief in the state, there is no longer such as thing as a left-wing movement.
Yet against such a dramatic change in circumstances between these two communities the complete absence of change in the way they speak about each other is striking. To this day, the Israelis are cerebral while the Palestinians come straight to the point: “We’re treated like shit!” Nothing appears to have changed in this regard. I find this to be weird.
Imagine a play by Kafka where two protagonists, in their youth, have their feet cast in unbreakable concrete forcing them to spend the rest of their lives together. The play opens with them having an argument over something or other, then the play jumps forward by forty or fifty years and these two are now old men. The whole world has changed around them but they are still having exactly the same argument, and it hasn’t progressed at all. It is exactly as it was when the play opened and they were teenagers. It’s a haunting and nightmarish idea; perhaps more Alice in Wonderland than Kafka, but it is the situation that exists between these two communities. Dramatic change has happened in the circumstances between these two communities, but zero change has happened in the attitude and dialogue between each other. Very strange.
However, there was one exchange that struck me as insightful, when Mr. Ben-Tovim said that Palestinians get less resources of the Israeli state because they don’t understand the culture of how to apply for it; they don’t know how to speak to westerners to win them over. This caused great offence to Ms Touma-Sliman who then dominated the proceedings for a period to inform the room that, “We are treated like shit!” Mr Ben-Tovim replied that Palestinian parliamentarians in the Knesset call for the destruction of Israel. Ms Touma-Sliman responded by telling us that, “We’re treated like shit!” Was Mr Ben-Tovim trying to tell us that things could change in Israel if the Palestinians simply changed the record? If he was then it’s not the direction that everyone else is going in to pursue a peace deal.
Imagine yourself trying to speak to those two men with their feet cast in concrete. You and I know that the conflict is massively self-destructive, surely it just needs someone to come in from the outside and bang some heads together? Surely this is just an argument about land, so it can be solved if we just mark out who owns what? However, you also know that these two grey-haired old men with their feet cast in concrete have been having the same argument since their youth, without that argument progressing. Is there anything that you could possibly do to change that? And if there’s nothing you can do to change that, then is it the case that the heart of this conflict is not to do with land but to do with dialogue and the lack of any change in the dialogue over the years? If that is the case, then it’s not the direction that everyone else is going in to pursue a peace deal.

One Response to Israel Through the Looking Glass

  1. udtlearner says:

    Mise well admit thine hate to Israel!

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