Thursday, July 12, 2012

Invoking the past serves only to poison the present

When it comes to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, it's funny how some leaders remain alive even in death, while peace talks between representatives of the two peoples are all but dead.

Israel's one-time prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, died on June 30, at the age of 96. His consistent intransigence when it came to making concessions to the Palestinians earned him hearty praise from the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel's government today reflects much more the views of Mr Shamir than it does, let's say, those of Yitzhak Rabin, who defeated Mr Shamir in 1992.

One of Mr Shamir's phrases was "the sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs". He meant that Arabs would never change with regard to Israel, which would always have the sea at its back. Mr Netanyahu picked up on that comment, noting that, despite the criticism directed against Mr Shamir for his disdainful determinism, "today there are of course many more people who understand that this man saw and understood basic and genuine things".

If Mr Shamir's ideas have taken on new life in Mr Netanyahu, last week another ghost came back to haunt us. An Al Jazeera investigation revealed that Swiss specialists had discovered elevated levels of polonium 210 in the belongings of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, possibly suggesting that he was poisoned. The Swiss noted that the findings were inconclusive and that Mr Arafat's remains would have to be analysed to reach more definite conclusions.

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has given approval for the remains to be exhumed, after Mr Arafat's wife Suha demanded it. It was Mrs Arafat who passed on her husband's clothing and other items to Al Jazeera.

Many Palestinians loathe Mrs Arafat for her alleged corruption. She may be trying to salvage her reputation by being instrumental in proving that her husband was assassinated.

Israelis and Palestinians disagree over Mr Arafat's death, which was never properly explained. Few Palestinians believe he died of natural causes. As one official, Saeb Erekat, told Time magazine, "In my heart, I have always said that President Arafat was assassinated, was killed," he said. "Do I have evidence? I don't … This is why we should do everything humanly possible to get to the truth."

Israelis have strenuously denied killing Mr Arafat. Some go further. For Barry Rubin, a US-born Israeli academic, the murder charge fits into a broader line of thinking directed against Jews, one with chilling consequences: "This is a blood libel, an alleged crime that then leads to the view that Jews are absolutely evil and should be wiped out. In short, it is a rationale for genocide," he wrote.

Mr Rubin's extrapolation seems excessive. However, Mr Erekat's desire to get to the truth requires clearer justification. Why should Palestinians, who face far more urgent challenges, reopen this door on their past? Whether or not Mr Arafat was poisoned is irrelevant; he's not coming back to life; Palestinians expect the worst of the Israelis regardless of whether they were behind Mr Arafat's elimination; and, even assuming he was done in, Palestinian officials would still need to prove that the Israelis were responsible, not someone else.

And here the contrast between the use of Mr Shamir's legacy and that of Mr Arafat could not be more flagrant: Mr Netanyahu is employing the late prime minister as a medium through which to justify his obstinacy now and in the future; while the Palestinians are allowing themselves to be sidetracked by an exploration firmly anchored in the past, one that will only further polarise opinion and render more difficult a negotiated Palestinian effort to regain occupied land.

No doubt Mr Abbas knows this, and was not particularly keen to reopen Mr Arafat's tomb. However, once the opportunistic Mrs Arafat saw an opening and insisted on digging up her husband's remains, it was difficult for the Palestinian president to disagree.

If one thing can be said of the stalemated Palestinian-Israeli peace track, it's that the dead continue to have too great a say over what happens today.

That was always the case, of course, for a conflict allegedly rooted in centuries of history. But present generations have lustily manipulated the past, disinterring the dead when convenient to advance their political agendas.

This is not to fall back on the cliché that we could all get along if only we would try. Mr Netanyahu will resurrect any and all corpses to maintain Israeli control over most of the West Bank and Jerusalem. There are those in the Palestinian ranks who will defile the remains of Yasser Arafat, and anyone else, to gain marginal leverage over Israel (not to mention pursuing their personal interests). Because the dead cannot speak, it's always advantageous to speak in their names.

But the Palestinians will get nowhere by trying to elucidate whether Mr Arafat was killed; just as Mr Netanyahu will not resolve Israel's dilemmas when it comes to the Palestinians by remembering favourably a sinister man without an ounce of sympathy for a people he helped dispossess. When in power, Mr Shamir and Mr Arafat proved that they did not have all the answers. Putting aside blame for a moment, both men in the end failed to defend the best interests of their peoples, something they invariably claimed to be doing.

Palestinians and Israelis are nowhere near peace these days thanks principally to their inability to break free from a past, usually a reinvented past, stifling their outlook on the future. That doesn't imply that there has to be moral equivalence when considering the two parties. But whether victims or victimisers, the living would do best to allow the dead to lie in peace, and to leave us in peace.

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