Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Of Borders, Identity and Hard Decisions

Parshat Chayeh Sarah is also known as Shabbat Chevron in commemoration of Avraham buying the Cave of Machpelah to bury his wife. The Cave ultimately 'houses' three generations of our forefathers and mothers and turned Hebron into an important religious and historical site for the Jewish people. Based on Biblical stories (and the fact the places were bought for their full market price), the Talmud mentions that there are three locations which are indisputably the legal property of the Jewish people; Hebron, Shechem (modern day Nablus) and Jerusalem.

It was this religious reasoning mixed with the continuation of pre-State strategy, coalitional sensitivities and Arab intransigence that allowed governments of the day (both left and right) to ambivalently acquiesce to the settler movement after the 6 Day War, ignoring warnings by some politicians and foreign ministry lawyers that in an era of decolonization the world would never tolerate such fait-accompli's. 40 years later, over 200,000 Israelis live in the West Bank. And by encouraging continued settlement on the one hand while emphasizing Israel's readiness to withdraw on the other, no government has ever formulated a clear position on their future…

That Talmudic statement always makes me smile – after all, how ironic (or prophetic) that the three most controversial areas Israel captured in 1967 are Nablus (the most populous city in the West Bank) Hebron (where several hundred Jews live among 170,000 Palestinians) and Jerusalem (which the world still refuses to recognize as Israel’s capital).

The 1967 War constituted a great victory for Israel. Not only did we survive, but the temporary disappearance of the armistice lines between Israel and Jordan “erased the difference between the State of Israel and the land of Israel” in the words of poet Nathan Alterman. Yet perhaps smiling is not the correct response. As a side effect, the fruits of victory and settlement growth artificially created a Bosnia scenario violently locking Jews and Palestinian Arabs into a Gordian ethnic embrace.

The future of the settlements is one issue to be discussed at the Annapolis Summit in Maryland later this month. At Reut, we've been working on the prospects for the Summit (
not great) and the potential consequences for their failure (very serious). Due to the changing geo-political reality, failure may be the straw that causes the end of Abu Mazen’s political career, a Hamas take over in the West Bank and a third Intifada. Moreover, it may further erode the already weakening consensus that a Jewish Israel alongside a Palestinian state is the correct paradigm to solve our conflict. If we’re not careful, if we don’t decide the future of the West Bank soon, the international community may be tempted to support a bi-national state.

Deciding on the future of the liberated / occupied territories has haunted Israeli governments since the immediate aftermath of the war. In a conversation between President Johnson and PM Eshkol, the Prime Minister is unable to answer a simple question posed to him by the leader of the free world – “What Israel would you like to see?” Forty years and many administrations later, we’re still unable to genuinely decide what type of country we want Israel to become, what its border will be, how its identity will be defined.

No one suggests it's easy to determine a border, and not just because of emotional attachment to areas of biblical significance. Israeli author A.B Yehoshua discusses the interconnection between boundaries and identity explaining that Jews have traditionally been unrestricted by national borders, used to crossing boundaries and moving between cultures. Setting a border in some way restricts our identity - it permanently fixes what is inside and belongs to us, and what is outside and doesn’t. Like choosing one option yet closing the door to others, determining a border is necessary, but inevitably leads to loss.

Continued indecision meanwhile, will endanger the whole Zionist project. Unless we finally decide what parts of our identity are central to us and which are not, unless we succeed in once again separating the State of Israel from the Land, we may be in danger of losing both. We can't keep putting it off. Johnson's question has gone unanswered long enough.


Nina S Bendheim said...

Welcome back;)
For someone who claims his writing has regressed since last Rosh Hashana; well, welcome back xx

Anonymous said...

Great post Calev, I pretty much agree with everything you've written.

One difference between Camp David in 2000 and Annapolis later this month, which may be significant when evaluating the potential consequences of failure, is the issue of expectations. This time round everyone is playing down the chances of any significant progress or success, whereas Camp David there was talk of an end to the conflict, final status etc.

Fingers crossed.

Yellow Boy