Thursday, July 5, 2012

In death, Yitzhak Shamir is triumphant

Yitzhak Shamir was the kind of person whom you didn’t remember was alive until learning that he was dead. The strange thing about many of the comments that followed the demise last week of Israel’s onetime prime minister was that he was portrayed as a relic – someone out of touch with the political temper in Israel today. For author Gershom Gorenberg, Shamir “began and ended his career as an extremist who damaged the cause of Jewish independence to which he was dedicated.” Commentator Chemi Shalev wrote that Shamir had been modest and moderate as a person, but “nonetheless a fanatic [sic] devotee of his vision of the Jewish people and the Greater Land of Israel. The end, in his eyes, always justified the means.”

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, affirmed that Shamir had been right when he once declared that “the sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs.” The statement was interpreted as meaning that Arabs would never reconcile themselves with Israel’s existence, and would always seek to throw the Jews into the sea. For Netanyahu, despite the criticism directed at Shamir for his remark, “today there are of course many more people who understand that this man saw and understood basic and genuine things.”

Far from embodying an Israeli past defined by intransigence on the Palestinian question, Shamir has seen himself reincarnated in those such as Netanyahu. The current prime minister may be a slicker knock-off of his cynical, disdainful predecessor; he will mouth words on Palestinian statehood that Shamir would never have uttered; but the results are really little different. Israel still controls millions of Palestinian lives, a wide swathe of the West Bank, access to the Gaza Strip, and it is further consolidating this unviable state of affairs.

At the same time, Palestinians are caught in a situation similar to the one that Israel sought to impose on them through the Camp David Accords of 1978. One of the two agreements signed between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a “Framework of Peace in the Middle East.” It outlined a five-year transitional period, at the end of which Palestinians would gain full autonomy and self-government. Egypt viewed full autonomy as statehood. Begin envisaged it, as best, as a form of administrative self-government while Israel expanded settlement building.

The current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, would be hard-pressed to identify how present circumstances are qualitatively different than what Begin, and with him Shamir, imagined over three decades ago. Palestinians administrate themselves in entities that are, effectively, under Israeli control; settlement construction goes on; and the Israeli prime minister continues to manipulate the card of eternal Palestinian hostility to the Jews, when his policies have closed off all horizons of amelioration for Palestinians, hardening that hostility.

More broadly, the cataleptic status of the so-called peace process is a testament to the stubbornness and bullheadedness of the heirs of Yitzhak Shamir, for whom all substantial Israeli concessions were seen as intolerable. His inflexible successors have brought the lumbering machine of open-ended negotiations to a halt. We are where for years we knew we would be: absolutely nowhere. There is much blame to distribute on the Palestinian side, but it was always Israel that retained the initiative on a final deal, because it held the land, the military whip hand, and the greater favor of the United States.

Netanyahu and his ideological pairs are confident for the future. The prime minister managed to neutralize the U.S. administration during the past four years. Barack Obama once said he would make Middle East peace a priority, and held it against George W. Bush that he had not. Now, the president has gotten the measure of that cheerless enterprise, and if one thing preoccupies him when it comes to Israel, it is to avert an Israeli attack on Iran. The Palestinians are out of the picture, and no one in Washington has a desire to embark again on what is regarded as the fool’s errand of Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Nor will things be different if Obama is re-elected; and even less so if Mitt Romney becomes president. The Israeli-Palestinian track is in permanent deep-freeze, and one fears that it will only regain life when a new crisis emerges. Indeed, what prospects do the Israelis seriously imagine that they have? The Palestinians won’t disappear – in fact their numbers, and resentment, will only grow. One day they will get over their debilitating disagreements and could opt for more a drastic solution to their desolate condition.

We can thank earlier Israeli leaders like Shamir for distilling the underlying contempt for Palestinians that seems to have influenced poor Israeli decision-making in the past 40 years. It’s the same contempt that many Israeli politicians had for Arab societies that seemed to accept the stranglehold of authoritarian leaders (leaders with whom the Israelis were otherwise content to deal). That passivity has evaporated in the past 18 months, as Arabs have sought emancipation. Are the Palestinians different? Surely not.

There are perhaps many Israelis who would accept a fair peace settlement with the Palestinians. There may even be Israeli politicians who would agree, although most tend to espouse such an agenda when they’re out of office, after having done virtually nothing to advance it while in office. But the reality is that Israel is no closer to finalizing peace with the Palestinians than it was when Shamir was prime minister. Netanyahu may have altered the optics somewhat, but the aims haven’t changed, nor the deadlock.

So Shamir can rest calmly in his grave. He was always a man better at saying no than yes. Despite a brief moment of hope during the mid-1990s, Israel’s political class in recent years has mostly followed his example. Shamir is no lost echo from a bygone time; he is Israel’s present, and an ominous portent of the country’s future.

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