Middle East in Focus
Sixty-nine years since its founding, the state of Israel continues to labor under the burden of its past and present. Beset by a fractious political system and unable to find the political will to come up with a sustainable solution for its impasse with the Palestinians, Israeli politicians continue to nevertheless extol the strength of the country’s democracy and freedoms. The view from the other side isn’t quite that rosy; Palestinians continue to struggle to come to terms with the Nakba and its consequences, including loss of home and freedom of movement. As yet, there is little to suggest that change is on the way.
In a recent editorial reflecting on the state of Israel’s “foundational values,” the Jerusalem Post editorial staff was keen to underline that 69 years since its independence, Israel remains a strong democracy: “Today, 69 years after Ben-Gurion first publicly read the Declaration of Independence, we are no closer to an agreement on a constitution…. Jews are a contentious group and Ben-Gurion knew this. That’s probably why he opposed attempts to draft a constitution. But the fact that the country lacks a constitution does not detract from the robustness of its democracy. On the 69th anniversary of the state’s establishment we should remain vigilant in protecting our democratic values as stated in the Declaration of Independence, which includes ‘precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets’ and the upholding of ‘the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex.’ Indeed, the Declaration of Independence, which remains relevant to this day, should continue to be the moral foundation for Israel’s vibrant and dynamic society.”
Not all agree with such an upbeat assessment, especially when it comes to the treatment of the Palestinians. For example, writing for the Times of Israel, Judah Ari Gross notes the Israeli government’s decision to not allow any Palestinians to participate in the Israeli-Palestinian memorial service in Tel Aviv: “[T]he first time in the service’s 12 years that Palestinians were barred from attending, including during the height of the Second intifada.... The organizations, along with several Knesset members from left-wing parties, denounced the ban. ‘Our Palestinian partners are trying to instill a message of hope in a society consumed with despair. The State always claims there is no one to talk to, but when there is an opportunity to hear the other side, it blocks its ears,’ the Families Forum said in a statement.... While the absence of the Palestinian participants was a surprise to the organizers, the opposition to the ceremony by members of the Israeli right-wing was not. In the days leading up to the event, the groups’ Facebook pages were bombarded with threatening comments and posts, which prompted organizers to lodge a formal complaint with police.”
Similarly, in a Khaleej Times op-ed, Miriam Berger highlights the plight of the Palestinians who have to deal with the daily reality of Israeli checkpoints: “In much the same way Checkpoint Charlie was an infamous symbol of division between East and West Berlin in the Cold War, Qalandiya Checkpoint has become notorious for Palestinians who need to cross between the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, whether for work, to get to school, hospital, or see relatives. Around 26,000 Palestinians pass through Qalandiya daily, on foot, by car or by bus, Israeli authorities say. While checks are often quick, in other cases there is lengthy questioning or delays as permits and backgrounds are verified. Queues form at the checkpoint from before dawn.... Among the dozens of checkpoints, Qalandiya is the biggest and most notorious, handling around a third of all movements of Palestinians in and out of the West Bank each day.... In apparent recognition of Palestinian frustrations with Qalandiya, the Israeli authorities announced plans this month to spend $11 million upgrading the crossing, especially pedestrian channels, saying the aim was to improve ‘the quality of life’.”
Jordan Times’s Ramzy Baroud is critical of Israel’s attempts to reframe and “suppress” Palestinian demands and narratives surrounding the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, but he is hopeful that a new generation of Palestinian and Israeli activists may begin to challenge such narratives: “Israel has resorted to three main strategies to suppress Palestinian calls for justice and human rights, including the right of return for refugees. One is dedicated to rewriting history; another attempts to distract from present realities altogether and a third aims at reclaiming the Palestinian narrative as essentially an Israeli one…. The Israeli hasbara machine went into motion almost simultaneously with Plan Dalet (Plan D), which saw the military conquest of Palestine and the ethnic cleansing of its inhabitants. But the actual discourse regarding the Nakba (Catastrophe) that befell the Palestinian people in 1947-48 was created in the 1950s and 60s.... Fortunately, the Palestinian voices that have fought against the official Israeli narrative are now joined by a growing number of Jewish voices. It is through a new common narrative that a true understanding of the past can be attained, all with the hope that the peaceful vision for the future can replace the current one, which can only be sustained through military domination, inequality and sheer propaganda.”
Linda Heard suggests, in an op-ed for the Saudi daily Arab News, that such “fresh” eyes and new frames of interaction are also required for pulling the Israeli-Palestinian peace process out of the current death spiral: “Enough international conferences. Enough pretending the U.S. is an impartial broker. Every American-conceived initiative has failed primarily because they have all been angled in Israel’s favor, with no respect for UN resolutions.... Palestinians are today worse off than ever before, without a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. The Palestinian Authority (PA) played by the international community’s rules and received nothing in return.... A region in peace would deprive Netanyahu of pretexts based on security concerns. A PA that represents all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would pre-empt his excuse that Israel has no partner for peace. If Arab states openly reach out, at the very least Netanyahu would be hoisted on his own petard for all the world to see. At best, a new door would emerge to free Palestinians from decades of despair and indignity.”
Norman Bailey, meanwhile, writing in the Israeli business daily Globes, cautions Israelis about getting too complacent about their status in a changing region: “Fear of Iran and mistrust of President Trump have been pushing the Gulf states closer to Israel. By this time it is a commonplace to mention that because of a common fear of Iran, Israel and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, organized in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are improving their relations, particularly in the spheres of defense and security, albeit quietly and with no publicity, so as not to disturb the ‘Arab Street’, which by and large continues to demonize the ‘Zionist Entity’.... Perhaps the unpredictable nature of President Trump will encourage the GCC countries to continue to engage the Israelis. But perhaps not. Oman and Qatar are already in Iran's pocket and the ayatollahs are openly romancing the rest, assuring one and all that they have no intention whatsoever of disturbing Arab interests. It would behoove the Israeli government to proceed warily with its contacts in the understanding that they may not be as positive in future as they have been in the recent past.”