Palestine is no longer an “entity” but a state – or, to be precise, a non-member observer state of the United Nations, just like the Holy See. The Palestinian bid received the support of 138 countries (Germany, Britain and 39 others abstained), while only seven, including Palau, Panama and Canada, joined the U.S. and Israel in opposing it, leaving both more isolated than ever.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was furious; he called Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas a liar, and gave permission for 3,000 new homes to be constructed on occupied Palestinian territory. His foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, had already threatened to crush the Palestinian government in the West Bank if the UN vote went ahead.
But Israel has only itself to blame for what happened. Mr. Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, have been more moderate, and more open to serious negotiations with Israel, than any Palestinian leaders before. The Palestinian police have co-operated with the Israelis to contain violence in the West Bank. Improving the economy, rather than violent confrontation, has been the Palestinian Authority’s main concern.
But by continuing to build settlements on Palestinian land, the Israeli government has undermined the authority of Mr. Abbas and his Fatah government almost to the point of impotence. More and more Palestinians, fed up with the futility of what is still called the “peace process,” believe that Fatah’s fierce rival, Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza, has more effective ways to break the current impasse. The failure of Mr. Abbas’s peaceful methods has made the alternative of violence look increasingly attractive.
Hamas also emerged as the moral victor after the latest military clash. Far from intimidating the Palestinians by bombing Gaza and mobilizing troops, the Israelis made Hamas look heroic in its resistance. Once again, Mr. Abbas looked feeble in comparison. This is why he desperately needed his victory at the UN. The diplomatic promotion of Palestine offered him a lifeline.
Did the Israelis really want a resurgence of Islamist violence in Gaza, the potential collapse of peaceful politics in the West Bank, and now the right of a recognized Palestinian state to take Israel to the International Criminal Court for war crimes? If not, why are they so ham-fisted?
It appears that Israel is making the same mistake that others have made in the past. It has been proved repeatedly that military intimidation of civilians does not break their morale and turn them against their own leaders, however terrible the regime. On the contrary, shared hardship usually strengthens the ties between citizens and their rulers. So it was in bombed German cities during the Second World War; so it was in Vietnam; and so it’s turning out to be in Gaza.
But there’s another way of looking at the situation. To call the Israeli government clumsy is to miss the point. Israel has few illusions about Palestinians toppling their own leaders. In fact, a strengthened Hamas may play into the hands of the Israeli hard-liners currently in power. They can point to the violent, anti-Zionist and, yes, anti-Semitic rhetoric of radical Islamists and argue that no deal with the Palestinians is possible. The threat of a large stick is the only language the natives understand.
Keeping the Palestinians divided between Islamist revolutionaries and the more business-minded Fatah suits Israeli purposes admirably. As long as Fatah keeps things more or less under control in the West Bank, and all Hamas can do is periodically lob missiles across the Israeli border or occasionally blow up a bus, Israel can easily live with the status quo. Those Israelis who believe that a two-state solution can’t be achieved feel vindicated; those who simply don’t want two states to co-exist are equally well-served.
From the Israeli government’s perspective, then, the correct strategy is to keep the Palestinian government in the West Bank weak and off balance, without quite bringing it down, and to contain Hamas with periodic displays of military power (while destroying long-range missiles that can do serious damage to Israel).
Israeli policies are not genocidal, as some commentators, not always free from anti-Semitic animus, like to claim. Many Palestinians have been killed under Israeli rule, but their number is not even close to the number of Muslim civilians who are still being tortured, murdered and maimed by Muslim governments every day. Israel, however, is a semi-imperial power, using traditional colonial methods: ruling by proxy, dividing potential rebels, rewarding obeisance and punishing opposition.
Colonial history shows that this type of rule is fragile. Humiliation is not a firm basis for long-term stability. There comes a point when promises of independence no longer convince anyone. Fomenting violent resistance by demoralizing those who might still listen to reason is an invitation to disaster. The chances of a peaceful settlement vanish. Violence is all that is left.
It’s one thing for colonies to blow up on the other side of the world. It’s quite another if the colony is just next door, and the colonial power is surrounded by countries with limited sympathy for a mess that’s largely of its own making.
Ian Buruma is professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and the author of Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.
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