Reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books. Copyright 2002NYREV, Inc.

The New York Review of Books

May 9, 2002

"The Road to Nowhere"

By Tony Judt

In 1958, at the height of the Algerian crisis, with Arabs bombing French cafés

in Algiers, Paris tacitly condoning the use of torture by the occupying French

army, and paratroop colonels demanding a free hand to end terror, the French

philosopher Raymond Aron published a small book, L'Algérie et la République.[1]

Cutting through the emotive and historical claims of both sides, Aron explained

in his characteristically cool prose why the French had to quit Algeria. France

lacked both the will and the means either to impose French rule on the Arabs or

to give Arabs an equal place in France. If the French stayed the situation would

only deteriorate and they would inevitably leave at some later date—but under

worse conditions and with a more embittered legacy. The damage that France was

doing to Algerians was surpassed by the harm the Republic was bringing upon

itself. However impossible the choice appeared, it was nonetheless very simple:

France must go.

Many years later Aron was asked why he never engaged the heated questions of the

time: torture, terrorism, the French policy of state-sponsored political

assassination, Arab national claims, and the colonial heritage of the French.

Everyone, he replied, was talking about these things; why add my voice? The point

was no longer to analyze the origins of the tragedy, nor assign blame for it. The

point was to do what had to be done.

In the cacophony of commentary and accusation swirling around the calamity in

the Middle East, Aron's icy clarity is sorely missed. For the solution to the

Israel–Palestine conflict is also in plain sight. Israel exists. The Palestinians

and other Arabs will eventually accept this; many already do. Palestinians can be

neither expunged from "Greater Israel" nor integrated into it: if they were

expelled into Jordan, the latter would explode, with disastrous consequences for

Israel. Palestinians need a real state of their own and they will have one. The

two states will be delineated in accordance with the map drawn up at the Taba

negotiations in January 2001, according to which the 1967 borders will be

modified, but nearly all of the occupied territories will come under Palestinian

rule. The Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are thus foredoomed,

and most of them will be dismantled, as many Israelis privately acknowledge.

There will be no Arab right of return; and it is time to abandon the

anachronistic Jewish one. Jerusalem is already largely divided along ethnic lines

and will, eventually, be the capital of both states. Since these states will have

a common interest in stability and shared security concerns, they will learn in

time to cooperate. Community- based organizations like Hamas, offered the chance

to transform themselves from terrorist networks into political parties, will take

this path. There are numerous precedents.

 

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If this is the future of the region, then why is it proving so tragically hard

to get there? Four years after Aron's essay, De Gaulle extricated his countrymen

from Algeria with relative ease. Following fifty years of vicious repression and

exploitation, white South Africans handed over power to a black majority who

replaced them without violence or revenge. Is the Middle East so different? From

the Palestinian point of view, the colonial analogy fits and foreign precedent

might apply. Israelis, however, insist otherwise.

Most Israelis are still trapped in the story of their own uniqueness. For some,

this lies in the primordial presence of an ancient Jewish state on the territory

of modern Israel. For others it rests in a God-given title to the lands of Judea

and Samaria. Many still invoke the Holocaust and the claim that it authorizes

Jews to make upon the international community. Even those who reject all such

special pleading point to geography in defense of their distinction. We are so

vulnerable, they say, so surrounded by enemies, that we cannot take any risks or

afford a single mistake. The French could withdraw across the Mediterranean;

South Africa is a very large country. We have nowhere to go. Finally, behind

every Israeli refusal to face the inevitability of hard choices stands the

implicit guarantee of the United States.

The problem for the rest of the world is that since 1967 Israel has changed in

ways that render its traditional self-description absurd. It is now a regional

colonial power, by some accounts the world's fourth-largest military

establishment. Israel is a state, with all the trappings and capacities of a

state. By comparison the Palestinians are weak indeed. While the failings of the

Palestinian leadership have been abysmal and the crimes of Palestinian terrorists

extremely bloody, the fact is that Israel has the military and political

initiative. Responsibility for moving beyond the present impasse thus falls

primarily (though as we shall see not exclusively) on Israel.

But Israelis themselves are blind to this. In their own eyes they are still a

small victim-community, defending themselves with restraint and reluctance

against overwhelming odds. Their astonishingly incompetent political leadership

has squandered thirty years since the hubris-inducing victory of June 1967. In

that time Israelis have built illegal compounds in the occupied territories and

grown a carapace of cynicism: toward the Palestinians, whom they regard with

contempt, and toward a United States whose erstwhile benevolent disengagement

they have manipulated shamelessly.

Israel poses no lasting threat to Syria or to the Hizbollah in Lebanon, the

military wing of Hamas or any other extremist organization. On the contrary,

these have long thrived on its predictable reaction to their attacks. But the

present government of Israel has come close to destroying the Palestinian

Authority. After the events of the last month Palestinian politicians foolish

enough to take Israelis at their word will be castigated as quislings, and

dispatched accordingly. The state of Israel has largely deprived itself of

credible Palestinian interlocutors.

This is the distinctive achievement of Ariel Sharon, Israel's dark Id. Notorious

among soldiers for his strategic incompetence—his tactical success with bold tank

advances was never matched by any grasp of the bigger picture—Sharon has proven

as bad as so many of us feared. He has repeated (or in the case of the expulsion

of Arafat, tried to repeat) all the mistakes of his 1982 occupation of Lebanon,

down to the very rhetoric. Sharon's obsession with Yasser Arafat brings to mind

Victor Hugo's Inspector Javert, his life and career insanely given over to the

destruction of Jean Valjean at the price of all measure and reason, including his

own (the literary comparison flatters Sharon and Arafat alike).

Meanwhile he has single-handedly raised Arafat's international stature to its

highest point in years. If he ever gets rid of Arafat, and the bombers keep

coming, as they will, what will Sharon do then? And what will he do when young

Arabs from Israel itself, inflamed by Israel's treatment of their cousins in

occupied Jenin and Ramallah, volunteer for suicide missions? Will he send the

tanks into the Galilee? Put up electric fences around the Arab districts of

Haifa?

 

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Sharon and the Israeli political establishment—not to mention the country's

liberal intelligentsia who, Pilate-like, have washed their hands of

responsibility—are chiefly to blame for the present crisis, but they are not

alone. Precisely because the Israelis assume that they have a blank check from

Washington, the US is willy-nilly a party to this mess. All serious efforts in

the past thirty years to find peace in the Middle East, from Henry Kissinger to

Bill Clinton, have begun with American urging and intervention. Why, then, did

the Bush administration step aside for so long, provoking international ire and

jeopardizing its future influence?

Why did the American president continue to confine himself in late March and

early April to the disingenuous suggestion that "Arafat should do more" to rein

in suicide bombers, while the leader of the Palestinian Authority sat imprisoned

in three rooms, a single cell phone at his disposal? Why, during the buildup to

the present crisis, did a man of the sophistication and intelligence of Colin

Powell docilely accept Sharon's cynical demand for an arbitrary period of

"absolute calm" (saving sporadic Israeli assassinations) before any political

discussions could begin? Why has the US stood by while, as The New York Times put

it on April 9, "more than 200 Palestinians have been killed and more than 1,500

wounded since Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships rolled into the West Bank on

March 29"? Why, in short, has the US voluntarily attached itself to a leash

marked "terrorism" with which Sharon can jerk it to and fro at will?

The answer, sadly, is September 11. Until then, even Bush was mindful of the

need to warn Israelis against "targeted assassinations," as he did last August.

But since September 11 the very words "terrorism" and "terrorist" have silenced

rational foreign policy debate. Ariel Sharon had only to declare Yasser Arafat

the head "of a terrorist network" for Washington to fall sheepishly in line

behind any military action he takes. We are mesmerized by the new rhetoric of

this "war on terror": any politician who can convincingly label his domestic or

foreign critics as "terrorists" is guaranteed at least the ear of the American

government, and usually something more.

"Terrorist" risks becoming the mantra of our time, like "Communist,"

"capitalist," "bourgeois," and others before it. Like them, it closes off all

further discussion. The word has its own history: Hitler and Stalin typically

described their opponents as "terrorists." Terrorists really exist, of course,

just as there are real bourgeois and genuine Communists; terror against civilians

is the weapon of choice of the weak. But the problem is that "terrorist," like

"rogue state," is a protean rhetorical device which can boomerang: Jewish

terrorists were among the founders of the state of Israel and it may not be long

before the United Nations passes a resolution defining Israel as a rogue state.

The first stage of any solution in the Middle East, then, is for the United

States to abandon its self-defeating rhetorical obsession with a war on

terrorism, which has put US foreign policy into Ariel Sharon's back pocket, and

start behaving like the great power it is. Instead of being blackmailed into

silence by the Israeli prime minister, Washington must require of him and any

Palestinian representatives who have survived his attentions that they begin

talking. Two years ago, even one year ago, it might have been reasonable to

demand of the Palestinian Authority that all bombings halt before such talks

begin. But thanks to Ariel Sharon, no Palestinian open to negotiations is in a

position to meet such a demand. So it must be talks and a peace agreement with or

without bombings.

The Israelis, of course, will ask how they can speak to men who have condoned

suicide bombings of Israeli civilians. Palestinians will retort that they have

nothing to say to those who claim to want a permanent peace but have built thirty

new colonial settlements in the past year alone. Both sides have good grounds for

mistrust. But there is no alternative; they must both be made to talk.[2] And

then they will have to start forgetting.

 

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There is much to forget. Palestinians remember the mass expulsions of 1948, land

expropriations, economic exploitation, the colonization of the West Bank,

political assassinations, and a hundred petty daily humiliations. Israelis

remember the war of 1948, the Arab refusal to recognize their state before 1967

and since, reiterated threats to drive the Jews into the sea, and the terrifying,

random civilian massacres of the past year.

But Middle Eastern memories are neither unique nor even distinctive in their

scale. For two decades the Irish Republican Army regularly shot to death

Protestant civilians on their doorsteps, in front of their children. Protestant

gunmen responded in kind. The violence continues, though much reduced. This has

not stopped moderate Protestants from talking publicly to their Sinn Fein

counterparts; Gerry Adams and Martin McGinnis are now accepted as legitimate

political leaders. Elsewhere, less than six years after the 1944 massacre at the

village of Oradour, where the SS burned alive seven hundred French men, women,

and children, France and Germany came together to form the core of a new European

project.

In the final convulsions of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Poles and

Ukrainians were killed or expelled from their respective territories by

neighboring Ukrainians and Poles, in a frenzy of intercommunal violence unmatched

by anything ever seen in the Middle East; at their present rate it would take

Jews and Arabs many decades to reach comparable death tolls. Yet today Poles and

Ukrainians, for all their tragic memories, live not only at peace but in growing

collaboration and cooperation along a tranquil border.

It can be done. In the Middle East today each side dwells within hermetically

sealed memories and national narratives in which the other side's pain is

invisible and inaudible. But so did the Algerians and the French, the French and

the Germans, the Ukrainians and the Poles, and, especially, Protestants and

Catholics in Ulster. There is no magic moment when the walls come down, but the

sequence of events is clear: first comes the political solution, typically

imposed from outside and above, often when mutual resentment is at its peak. Only

then can the forgetting begin.

The present moment, with Ariel Sharon about to set in motion a long cycle of

death and decay across the region, may be the eleventh hour, as the American

president has belatedly acknowledged. It surely is for Israel. Long before the

Arabs get their land and their state, Israel will have decayed from within. The

fear of seeming to show solidarity with Sharon, which already inhibits many from

visiting Israel, will rapidly extend to the international community at large,

making of Israel a pariah state. Bad as he is for the Palestinians, they will

survive Sharon. The prospects for Israel are less sure. For the rest of the world

the Middle East crisis represents an enhanced risk of international war, and a

likely guarantee that America's war on terror, however described, will fail.[3]

Well-meaning observers of the contemporary Middle East sometimes place their

faith in the enlightened self-interest of the warring parties. Palestinians, they

suggest, would be so much better off accepting Israeli hegemony in return for

material prosperity and personal security that sooner or later they will surely

abandon their demands for full independence. To the extent that there is a

strategic calculation behind Sharon's tanks, this is it: sufficiently cowed, the

Arabs will see how much they have to lose by fighting and agree to a peaceful

life on Israel's terms.

This is perhaps the most dangerous of all colonial illusions. There is little

doubt that most Algerian Arabs would have been better off under French rule than

under the repressive indigenous regimes that replaced it. The same is true for

the citizens of many of the postcolonial states once ruled from London. But the

measure of the well-lived life is not readily taken by calculations of income,

longevity, or even safety. As Aron observed, "It is a denial of the experience of

our century to suppose that men will sacrifice their passions for their

interests." That is why, in their treatment of their Arab subjects, the Israelis

are on the road to nowhere. There is no alternative to peace negotiations and a

final settlement. And if not now, when?

—April 11, 2002

Notes

[1] Paris: Plon, 1958. See also his La Tragédie algérienne (Paris: Plon, 1957).

[2] One real impediment is that Ariel Sharon is on record as opposing any final

peace settlement remotely acceptable to anyone outside Israel. He cannot

negotiate in good faith. The Israelis need to find someone who can.

[3] American commentators and officials are quick to deny any link between

anti-Americanism and the Israel– Palestine conflict. But to just about everyone

else in the world the relationship is grimly obvious.

 

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Letters

July 18, 2002: Shlomo Avineri, 'The Road to Nowhere': An Exchange

 

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More by Tony Judt:

America, the War, and Israel: An Exchange (Jan 17, 2002)

'The War on Terror' (Dec 20, 2001)

On 'The Plague' (Nov 29, 2001)

America and the War (Nov 15, 2001)

Romania: Bottom of the Heap (Nov 01, 2001)

'Twas a Famous Victory (Jul 19, 2001)