By Dr Harry Hagopian, Middle East North Africa (MENA) Consultant
The latest opinion piece from our consultant on the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, Dr Harry Hagopian, on the power struggles and alarming volatility of the MENA region. Originally published on Dr Hagopian’s website epektasis.net.
I grew up in this dense (and at times tense) city, went to primary school there, acquainted myself with the four quarters of the Old City, rode my bicycle in its alleyways or suburbs, and forged some lasting friendships that have withstood the eroding space of time. And much later in my adult life, I was lured back to this city with a conviction that Israelis and Palestinians can explore common ground and even find a common platform with a set of irenic and just principles that address the core issues of their shared conflict.
I suppose this is what led me to become quite proactive – and dare I add hopeful – during the now defunct and much maligned Oslo chapter of negotiations in the 1990’s. I was headhunted by the Middle East Council of Churches to act as second-track negotiator in the oft-stuttering dialogue between two warring peoples with dissimilar narratives. But my real benchmark on Jerusalem consisted largely of the thirteen traditional churches that at times were even better at doing politics and talking to Caesar than they were at comforting souls or communing with the Almighty.
So I had my fair share of this city: I am keenly aware of its captivating beauty just as I am acutely sensitive to its shrieking ugliness. In one sense, it is a city like any other with ordinary men and women carrying on with their daily lives. But it is also a city that is immersed – far too much in my opinion – in both religion and politics. I suppose its history has a way of casting an almost magical spell on many visitors by captivating their imagination or fuelling their dreams. After all, it is not everywhere that people can – if they so choose – rise on a transcendental plateau and almost metaphysically touch the untouchable – hence what is at times even referred to as the Jerusalem syndrome.
But Jerusalem is in much pain again these days: mind you, it has been so for many decades, with quiescent years that often mask the violent agony that gurgles constantly in its underbelly. It is an agony that imposes itself upon those Palestinians and Israelis who have been struggling over this parcel of land for well over six decades. And what happens in this ‘golden city’ – as the prophet Zechariah described it in the pages of the Old Testament – also ripples throughout the rest of the landmass that we now call Israel, Palestine, the Holy Land, Eretz Yisrael, Falasteen, the bi-national or two-state solutions or even the biblical land of the prophets.
Since the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring (it is said that the American journal Foreign Policy coined the term first) some four years ago, I have repeated ad nauseum that the Arab uprisings cannot checkmate the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the broader Arab and Muslim political imagination but rather frame it in a more dramatic relief. Indeed, here we are again, watching a soulful city within an overall small parcel of land no bigger than the size of Wales being racked by an amalgam of uncertainty, insecurity, frustration, disappointment, discrimination, separation, violence, mayhem and murder. Only in the past few days, for instance, a mosque was set ablaze in Mughayer near Ramallah and a synagogue was firebombed in Shfaram, an Arab community in the Galilee in northern Israel. And these are merely the latest tit-for-tat episodes. This latest chapter of violence started on 12 June 2014 with the cold-blooded murder of three Israeli teenagers Naftali Fraenkel (from Nof Ayalon) Gilad Shaer (from Talmon), and Eyal Yifrah (from Elad) who were kidnapped in Gush Etzion in the West Bank. Subsequently, a Palestinian youth from Shuafat in north Jerusalem, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was immolated by Israeli suspects who were arrested thereafter. Not much later, vandals torched a mosque in the West Bank town of Arqaba, near Nablus, and the deaths of Israelis and Palestinians alike continues with frightening randomness.
But let me not get ahead of myself and add a note of caution here. I do not think that we are anywhere near a third Palestinian Intifada. Rather, these are spontaneous outbursts by youths who have no leadership or plans to back them, although they might well be aided and abetted by militant, nationalist or religious elements. They are, in the political lexicology of the moment, undergoing a ‘quiet Intifada’ which sounds a political oxymoron of sorts to me.
So what do I think of this latest spurt of violence in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and even Tel Aviv or elsewhere?
Again, my answer has remained tediously consistent over the years and it is quite simple. Label me uninformed, biased, naïve or merely ignorant, but this latest violence is in my opinion due largely to the hypoxic stalemate and lack of any forward momentum in the process for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
There, I have said it again! So is it any wonder that this black hole has sucked any remaining good will off the negotiating table and polarised both sides? Yet, instead of showing leadership, the Israeli prime minister has evinced a sneering disregard for any genuine intent to resolve this conflict. Not only that, but the political cul de sac is further exacerbated by the rhetoric of cabinet members such as Naftali Bennett (HaBayit HaYehudi) or Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) let alone by an irresponsible rise of rightwing demagoguery from politicians, settlers and activists (the likes of Moshe Feiglin, Tzipi Hotovely or Shuli Moalem-Refaeli) who visited the Temple Mount and urged Jews be allowed to pray there despite heightened tensions over its status. For me, this is reminiscent of the late Ariel Sharon’s walkabout that led to the second Intifada and it encroaches further upon Palestinian rights just as it catalyses the colonisation of occupied Palestinian territories. Therefore, is this resurgence in violence such a big surprise when we think of Arab neighbourhoods in Jerusalem like Issawiya and Silwan or learn of more settlement plans flouting International law in the northern suburb of Ramat Shlomo or in nearby Ramot in Jerusalem?
In fact, so serious has the situation become that another concerned group of 106 retired army generals, Mossad directors and national police commissioners recently signed a letter to PM Benyamin Netanyahu pressing him to “initiate a diplomatic process” based on a regional framework for peace with the Palestinians – purportedly akin to the dormant Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 that I would argue remains one of the cornerstones of peace for the future.
Indeed, despite the deaths and physical or structural violence over the past few months, the monthly Peace Index poll, carried out by the Israel Democracy Institute (DI) and Tel Aviv University, revealed that a majority of Israelis still favour negotiations with Palestinians. This is encouraging for me, but the tragedy subsists in that Israel has the power to move the political process forward if only it discards its expansionism, stops using Gaza as a fig leaf for inaction elsewhere and engages the Palestinians – and their flailing Authority – in concrete negotiations that could yield a solution whose overall parameters are in the drawers of most Israeli, Palestinian and US negotiators anyway.
I am against violence and against all forms of terror whether Israeli or Palestinian. I have spoken out against it, not least during the second Intifada. However, I am also passionately for the right of a people for self-determination, for dignity, for freedom from occupation and for a homeland. This is more so given that all precepts of International law underline that the occupied Palestinian territories should be returned to their rightful owners who will then have to put their house in order and learn how to run a state that is more than virtual. Anything less and we can easily see ourselves sliding down the road of further repression and the establishment of an institutionalised apartheid regime.
Is this too delusional of me? After all, in a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan and PM Benyamin Netanyahu in Amman earlier this week, US Secretary of State suggested that a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian two top politicians is too ‘ambitious’ at this stage. And if so, what makes it so ambitious that it becomes unrealistic?
I would argue that PM Benyamin Netanyahu is not interested in the freedom and rights of Palestinians and at times seems focused much more upon his own survival at the head of a discordant coalition government. This is not only sad on an individual level, but also on a regional one. After all, and given the sheer turbulence of the MENA region, it does not take much political nous to deduce that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be in the interest of both peoples let alone the wider international community. I would go further and add that a resolution of this conflict would enable the various protagonists to deal with the wider region more coherently and credibly.
However, we are all held hostage to ego-politics that negate win-win solutions. Yet, such win-win solutions alone can extricate this conflict from its vicious spins. Walls or fences cannot protect a whole people. Nor can military might and live bullets on the one hand or sputtering missiles, religious radicalism and ululating extremism on the other. History has shown us that these are ephemeral. What is critical is the elusive good will that facilitates peace.
Let me be frank: if Benyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas cannot deliver a deal or find an answer to the plight of those ordinary and long-suffering men and women, and if the international community is incapable or unwilling to force both their hands, is it not high time for them to shift away from the levers of power so that the inertia does not eventually turn things uglier and bloodier? Surely, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
Is the Jerusalem that we all claim to love not bigger than ego-politics, self-interest or self-aggrandisement?