by Victor Cygielman
Why is Yitzhak Rabin all smiles with King Hussein and all frowns with Yasser Arafat? It has been suggested that this was because the Israeli Prime Minister and the Jordanian King have known each other for decades and have met frequently. A de facto peace between Jordan and Israel has prevailed for many years and only the Kingís fears of becoming an outcast in the Arab world and of risking an internal rebellion have prevented him from entering earlier into peace negotiations with Israel.
In contrast, Arafatís PLO has been Israelís archenemy since its inception in 1964 and over the years Jordan and Israel were actually allies in the struggle against the PLO. Nevertheless, there are far deeper explanations for Rabinís uneasiness with the PLO Chairman. While since 1973, the dispute between Israel and the neighboring Arab countries has become mainly a territorial dispute, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a completely different dimension: it is an existential and not only a territorial dispute.
Here is a case of two peoples who claim the same territory (Eretz Yisrael/Palestine) as their homeland, and the same city (Jerusalem/ AI-Quds) as their capital. When the national existence of one people thus seems to exclude that of the other, the confrontation - ideological, political, military¨then touches the very core of their hearts and souls, encompassing not only the past, but also the present and the future.
The emergence in 1948 of the State of Israel did nothing to help solve the existential conflict. On the contrary, the birth of the state of the Jews was received by Palestinian Arabs as the death knell of their own dreams for nationhood and independence. They lost their country and became a people of refugees. In such a context, what is the use of the ability to determine objectively who was to blame for the Palestinian tragedy: the "Zionist plot," "Western Imperialism," "Arab rejection of the 1947 UN partition proposal" and so on?
When a catastrophe of such magnitude overtakes a people individually and collectively, only subjectivity survives. Hence the often frantic search for extraneous causes for explaining the Palestinian tragedy.
I recall reading an essay by a Palestinian psychiatrist on how the Jews in Eretz Yisrael/Palestine were enacting, or rather reenacting, an ancient theme. The Bible tells us how Abraham sent his concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael into the desert because his wife Sarah wanted to ensure the heritage for their son Yitzhak. According to the above-mentioned psychiatrist, the collective unconscious Oung) of present-day Jews forces them to repeat the archetypal behavior of their ancestors ~y chasing the Palestinian Arabs, descendants of Ishmael, once more into the desert.
The story of Abraham, and not only the episode with Ishmael, plays an important role in shaping the national psyche of each of the two peoples. The Jews feel Eretz Yisrael belongs to them by right because it is so written in the Bible. Did not God the Almighty promise Abraham that this land would belong to his seed? And did Abraham not buy the Tomb of the Patriarchs, an important piece of real estate, for 400 silver shekels?
Most Jews ignore, or are unaware of, the fact that the heroes of the Bible figure prominently in the Koran, though in a somewhat amended version. Jews care only for the Bible, Muslims only for the Koran. Thus for the Arabs, mainly Muslims, Ishmael is Abrahamís first-born son and therefore the rightful heir to the heritage of the Patriarch. Moreover, in their minds Abraham was never a Jew, but a Muslim. Thus we read in the Koran, Sura lll, the Family of Imran, verse 60: "Abraham was neither Jew nor Christian; he was sound in the faith, a Muslim; and not one of those who add gods to God."
One people brandishes the Bible, the other the Koran, to prove their birthright to this country. Invoking religious beliefs in order to sanctify national and/or territorial claims is not exactly conducive to a search for rational compromise solutions.
As regards the invoking of atavistic psychological patterns dating back to Biblical times in order to explain the (mis)conduct of Israelis today, such theories may be fascinating, but they are also dangerous because they introduce an element of fatality into human behavior. In a similar vein, many Israelis still see in the Palestinians as a whole "the enemy" whose hostility toward Israeli Jews is "eternal," "unwavering," "irreversible." How often one hears Israelis repeating that tactics may change but "the aim of the Palestinians was and remains the destruction of the State of Israel."
Is Rabin any different from these Israelis? He is. In a recent speech about the necessity for "separation" as part of a comprehensive solution to the conflict, he almost spelt out the need for the emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But that is not the full picture. Rabin is the son of his people, a product of Israelís experience, of its national consciousness formed by decades of implacable Palestinian hostility, by the total and uncompromising negation of Israelís right to exist in this region.
The reversal in policy by the Palestinians, expressed by the PLO in 1988, ten years after Egypt and Israel made peace, is quite recent. Many Palestinians are still violently opposed to this changeover. Many Israelis, including Rabin, still deeply distrust Yasser Arafat. Rationally, Rabin knows that the PLO leadership has adopted a new policy, one of mutual recognition and peace with Israel. However, psychologically, Rabin has not yet been able to fully accept, to integrate, this new reality.
Behind Israeli Fears
Many Palestinians fail to understand, or claim not to understand, Israeli fears, Is not Israel the strongest military power in the region? Did it not defeat the Arab armies in 1948, 1967 and after an initial drawback in 1973? In this case, why are Rabin and most Israeli leaders so worried about security?
It is because deep in their hearts they know that whatever Israelís military and economic might, this country will always remain a small island in the great Arab sea surrounding it. And islands are sometimes submerged by violent movements of stormy seas.
This fear is now being fanned by the emergence and growth of radical Islamic organizations such as Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the likes of them, which claim that wiping out the State of Israel is the will of Allah. Contrary to most of the Arab states, and the PLO today, these Islamic movements refuse all and any compromise with the Jewish state and strive to replace it with an Islamic republic.
This fundamental attitude, and not just the murderous attacks upon civilians, nourishes Israeli fears.The more so since Islamic authorities, except those in Israel, are reluctant to condemn the ruthless killings carried out by extremists claiming to act in Islamís name.
In view of all this, what can and should be done? There is no simple answer.
The outcome of the struggle for the soul of Arabs and Palestinians - which generally speaking is a struggle between essentially moderate leaders and the fanatical trends among certain Islamic groups - is far from decided. This outcome will also have a great impact on the direction of Israeli political thinking.
Israel, however, is not a passive bystander in this respect. The signing of the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Treaty is a case in point. The Palestinians were altogether ignored at this historic event. Not a word, not a hint that Arafatís PLO had been the first Arab leadership to follow Egyptís example by entering into open, public peace discussions with Israel. Oman and Tunis were represented at the peace-signing ceremony. Even Yitzhak Shamir who, as prime minister, had done his best to undermine Israeli-Jordanian peace efforts, was present; Arafat was not even invited. It was as if Rabin had not yet grasped that in confronting the Hamas offensive, it was in Israelís utmost interest to see the Palestinian Authority under Arafat strengthened. This will be impossible if the Palestinians are not treated fairly, and if painful issues like the freeing of Palestinian prisoners are not approached with courage and generosity.
One thing is sure: the longer the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are drawn out and agreements postponed, the longer will the prevailing strife and instability prevent foreign and local investment in Gaza and the West Bank, thus stifling economic and social development and increasing the influence of Hamas and its like. For it is no secret that radical Islamic movements feed upon the poverty, the discontent and the despair of Palestineís destitute masses.
The negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, therefore, should not only be continued; they should be stepped up. All outstanding issues should be tackled and concluded as soon as humanly possible.
A change of heart, an end to fears and the emergence of mutual trust cannot be conditions for discussing peace. They can only grow gradually out of a state of peace, security and stability which constitute the only hope for the future of Palestinians and Israelis alike.