Sunday, 11 January 2009

Comparing Israel’s occupation with Iraq

The New Centrist points to a piece by John Bolton arguing for the return of the West Bank and Gaza to Jordan and Egypt. My primary problem with Bolton’s proposal is that the countries he’s suggesting take over the occupied territories are not democratic. I don’t believe that long-term security would be enhanced by this. Al Qaeda’s roots lie in part in the prisons of Egypt.

Were Egypt to be persuaded to take over control of Gaza, there is no reason to suppose they would be in a position to eliminate Hamas, particularly as they have already been ineffective in preventing Hamas smuggling arms through Egyptian territory. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where Hamas launch attacks from an Egyptian-controlled Gaza, and Egypt is faced with violently suppressing Hamas and thereby igniting radical Islamist forces in Egypt proper, or doing nothing, which would lead to Israeli strikes on Egyptian-controlled territory with a similar result. The dangers of an undemocratic Egypt thereby becoming increasingly vulnerable to Islamist revolution seem pretty obvious to me.

(Update Jan 11th, a New York Times analysis on why Egypt doesn’t want responsibility for Gaza.)

The contrast which strikes me this New Year is between Israel’s occupation and Iraq, in one case unresolved after over forty years, in the other a complete handover of sovereignty to a democratic government within five years of invasion. Obviously there are massive differences, but perhaps making the comparison and looking at the differences in detail might be helpful.

Any description of Iraq as a success is pushing uphill against the popular perception of the war as a disaster, but comparing it to Israel’s occupation makes it seem a miraculous achievement, given a vastly larger territory, a much larger, more diverse, and more divided population, and a much more bloody and less cohesive insurgency.

The major difference between Israel in the occupied territories and the US in Iraq is that the US has no emotional attachment to Iraq, and no popular desire for a long-term presence, rather all the political pressure has been for withdrawal at the earliest opportunity. This has led to greater clarity on the need for the most economically effective strategic approach than in the Israeli case.

Under Sharon, Israeli strategic thinking evolved to the point of recognising that indefinite occupation was not sustainable, but the failed attempt to withdraw from Gaza has shown that just retreating behind a wall won’t work either. For Israel to achieve long term security it needs the successful establishment of stable democracies in the surrounding territory. (I see the failed withdrawal from Gaza as a rebuttal to those who argued for premature withdrawal from Iraq, or for the old cut-price solution of an “acceptable dictator” in Afghanistan.)

A strong policy of building democracy over the period of occupation could have disempowered the terrorist threat, and by now have led to an independent Palestinian state in the spirit of Resolution 181. It might even have enabled Jews to live on the West Bank and in Gaza without the need for military protection. On the face of it this may sound foolish, but considering what has been achieved in Iraq in under five years one would think that so much more could have been achieved in the occupied territories in over forty years had the right policies been in place.

The failure to establish stable democratic institutions over such a long period of occupation is a massive strategic failure by Israel, a failure not lessened by the mirrored failure by the Palestinian population to establish a non-violent democratic resistance to the occupation, despite the available precedents. (The main problem with non-violence is that it is a massively difficult and dangerous, even fatal, course to take against murderous totalitarian states, but its effectiveness against oppressive policies by democracies had been demonstrated in both India and the US prior to the 1967 war, and it was therefore a proven option available to resist occupation by a democracy such as Israel.)

I still don’t see that the need for an in-depth policy of encouraging democracy has been fully understood by Israel’s leaders, for example in the approach taken during the last war in Lebanon. Leaving such efforts to the care of the US and the EU is short-sighted and not in Israel’s national interest. Such an aim needs to be integrated into all aspects of Israeli policy towards the occupied territories and towards established neighboring states. This needs to be more complex than the simplistic language of carrots and sticks. It requires a strategy of enlightened self-interst, of mutual benefit not just for the leaderships on all sides, but for the populations.

Update 25 January: Follow up post here.


TNC said...

Thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

Even taking into consideration that you regard the American invasion of Iraq as a success and therefore have an understanding for the words 'success' and 'failure' I am unfamiliar with I still don't know how you can talk in terms of Israel's 'failure' in its occupation of Palestine. Was it ever meant to be a success? It has certainly never been a declared intention of Israel to establish a democratic neighbour. Perhaps there was a moment in the early nineties when the Politicians had the upper-hand over the military and a way out seemed to be some kind democratic-lite, moth-eaten statelet for the Palestinians in permanent economic and political obeisance to Israeli power. Maybe something could have grown from that but a viable Palestinian state has never been something Israel (as expressed through its actions) has ever wanted.
You speak of Israel's emotional attachment to the territories - if only their sentimentality could have extended to the people who lived there. I get the impression that your idea of a successful occupation would depend upon the occupiers having some sense of responsibility towards the people it had invaded. This is indeed acknowledged in international law.
The truly criminal aspect of the Israeli occupation has been its refusal to take responsibility for the people it has occupied. At best the government has merely ignored the welfare and civil well being of Palestinians and at worst brutally exploited their power over them. Even at it's most benevolent during the early days of the peace process the Israeli approach was to exploit the weakness of the Palestinian leadership as much as possible. Israeli calculations have always been based on a very simple equation; Palestinian weakness = Israeli strength. This has also been accompanied by a political (or even psychological) climate that experiences compromise as weakness.
At the most fundamental level the very existence of Palestine - in any form other than a memory - is a sign of failure to Israel. This goes all the way back to partition which was experienced as a painful compromise (& sign of weakness?) of the Zionist claim to all of Palestine. Of course there are now many Israelis who support a "two state solution" and long for complete withdrawal from the remains of Palestine but for the majority this idea resonates too strongly with the original humiliating compromise at the inception of the state. The settlers are the manifest symptom of this original wound.
For my own part I regard the settlers as more honest in their intentions and up to a point I agree with their aims for a 'greater' complete Israel. This should have happened in 67 - Israel should have claimed the territories as their own. Where I and the settlers radically part company is in what should become of the Palestinians. As an alternative to genocide or ethnic cleansing I would suggest that they are offered Israeli citizenship and those who accepted would become Palestinian citizens of a democratic, secular state called Israel. Now that would be what I would call a success.
Oh & nice to see one of my pictures on your blog.

kellie said...

Hi Gordon,

On success in Iraq,it should be taken as a given that in any war success has to be viewed as partial and relative, as every war is the result of failure, and there is no such thing as a perfect uncorrupted war.

I'm describing Iraq as a success relative to Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. That occupation was meant to boost Israeli security, and in those terms I regard it as a failure. I'm not arguing that Israel has been trying and failing to build a Palestinian democracy for forty years, but that the failure to adopt that as a clear policy is central to their failure to gain security.

My idea of a successful occupation is one of enlightened self-interest rather than sentimentality towards any particular group. I'm trying to make an amoral argument for moral action, for moral action not because it is moral but because it is beneficial.

I'm not in favour of attempting to use guilt to persuade - it just encourages more finger-pointing in response. There have been decades of that with little to show for it.

Hope you don't mind the picture being up there - I like it a lot!

Anand said...

Well, it looks like Iraq will be successful, but we don't know that yet.

The failure of Israel to facilitate education and private sector business development in the occupied territories since 1967 is stunning.