Transcending shrunken politics in Israel-Palestine

By Harry Hagopian
15 Mar 2010

It’s the same world as the one into which Jesus came - in so many ways a place that can drive us to despair or rage, and yet now and forever a world in which God is real, so that neither rage and despair can be the only or the ultimate option for us – Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Amman, Jordan, February 2010.

I would like to juxtapose those inspiring words of faith from a Christian of deep conviction and breadth with the belief system of Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps the ultimate atheist and celebrity philosopher. In one sense, both men hold out for me a similar note of encouragement toward peace-seeking and non-violence in Israel-Palestine or - for that matter - throughout a whole region riven with violence, hatred, injustice, discrimination, corruption, nepotism and wars.

After all, Sartre was a man who provided the French people with some direction and hope during World War Two - not unlike Archbishop Rowan Williams in the midst of so much present-day uncertainty, diffidence and fear. It has been written that Sartre’s existentialism addressed the dangers of allowing oneself to get trapped in the past, weighted under a whole slew of positive or negative expectations, and that he underlined his belief in the corresponding need to take personal responsibility for the future.

This idea of freedom, of stepping out boldly beyond the confines of one’s narrowly defined identity with its exogenous parameters, was a political manifesto as much as a philosophical creed. Dr Williams’ ethos also steers people in the direction of liberating oneself from a past of rage and despair and moving faithfully toward the future - in other words, not to be beholden to the angst of the past but to labour for the promise of better times.

For me, one major difference between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Jean-Paul Sartre, though, is that the former is a man of mature Christian faith as well as spiritual leader of some 77 million Anglicans worldwide, while the latter was someone who drifted away from his maternal Catholicism - although he still retained enormous influence in France until his death in 1980, as he highlighted the constant interplay between an inherited ‘facticity’ that forms us and a ‘freedom’ that takes us into a heretofore inexistent future.

I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian, more of an independent legal politician, but I believe that both men encourage people to move forward rather than stay shackled to the past. I would even venture to add that Sartre’s famous “L’enfer, c’est les autres” in the play Huis clos is tantamount to a political meditation on the ill-effects of living in what we call today a surveillance society that is dramatised by insufferable oppression and overweening vanity.

But why introduce Jean-Paul Sartre and Rowan Williams into a reflection on the Israeli-Palestinian situation now? Perhaps it is a cheeky response to my increasing frustration at the inability of second-rate politicians to go to a place where rage and despair are no longer the ultimate option, but where they could discover a future that is not incandescent with bitter memories or insuperable checkpoints. I find it harder every year to lay the blame for the political stasis in the region - including that in Israel-Palestine - on global influences alone rather than on a lack of fresh political vision that could couple itself with good will for peace.

So what about Israel-Palestine today as one case of the future overtaking the past?

It is quite obvious that Palestinians are in dire straits - or colloquially ‘in a pickle’. The Palestinian Authority remains seriously discredited despite its hollow attempts - and those of other countries like Egypt - to revive its credibility after the hard blows it sustained in the recent past - not least following its unsuitable reaction to the Goldstone Report saga.

Moreover, and encouraged initially by no less than President Obama’s demand from Israel for a full freeze on settlements, it is now left even more powerless since the US Administration has singularly failed to achieve anything more substantive than oratorical or rhetorical displays.

President Obama seems to have almost yielded to Israeli diktats for the sake of his domestic and foreign policy considerations. Hence his abandonment of the pre-condition of a settlement freeze and the adoption of the already tested and failed proximity talks as a way of elongating the negotiations whilst aborting any tangible results.

With Hamas sniping at the legitimacy of the Authority, despite the fact that it is marginalised in Gaza and faces serious geopolitical challenges, Palestinian Authority President Abbas finds himself on a political tree, unable to climb down with any half-decent face-saving formula. I applaud his irenic intentions, but his mandate has been characterised with manifold errors or misjudgements that have negated democracy, good governance and secular politics and have led many people to question his penchant for going the extra mile with Israel - leading to an accrual of extra miles that together have left Palestinians with hardly any territory, and with a sense of hybrid nationalism that neither feeds hungry babies nor restores any sense of dignity and pride.

Facing this Palestinian evanescent dream is a hapless US administration that is a wonderful gift for the current Israeli government as its troika implements vicious right-wing policies on an occupied land that is not its own anyway. So vicious in fact, that it does not even refer to occupation anymore as the source of the conflict when dealing with the 1967 territories, but instead turns the whole issue on its head by claiming that the occupation is actually helping combat terror!

The Israeli truism suggests that any relinquishment of land to Palestinians would clearly weaken the so-called “war on terror”. How suitable for Israeli expansionism, but equally how sad for world opinion - for us in the EU, for many Arab states and for much of the US - which accept the oppression visited upon Palestinians as a quid pro quo for an amorphous global security.

It baffles me, firstly, that a whole stable of regional experts in those world capitals which matter - and those which do not matter either - have not cottoned on to the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the skeleton key to any peace in the whole region, despite the sophistry of all contrary arguments; and secondly, that it is a wasted and unproductive effort to spend time fighting Syria, Hizbullah or Hamas when the whole point is that Syria and those two resistance movements are viewed by a huge number of the pan-Arab populace as the sole true proponents of their inherent rights - against corrupt, authoritarian, money-hungry and oil-friendly Arab regimes and their foreign backers.

When American, Israeli and Arab state policies continue to dehumanise and dismiss the ordinary Arab in the street, it does not require a genius with a degree in political science to conclude that those peoples would strongly resent their oppressors and those who support or are allied with them. Convinced of Western double-standards, and the impotence of their regimes, they dig in their heels against further injustice, seeking self-protection in those core values that are sometimes viewed as regressive Islamist, extremist and violent.

Yet, do Israel and the US truly appreciate this reality, and understand the shadow it is casting on the efforts of many peacemakers? After all, Israel (or the spoilt child of the Middle East, as the Saudi Foreign Minister described it recently), pursues apace its apartheid and colonial policies with arrogant impunity, correctly calculating that, regardless of PM Netanyahu’s lack of chemistry with President Obama, the US would not jeopardise the bilateral strategic relationship with Israel in the face of the Iranian nuclear issue. Only yesterday, Israel stated its plans to build another 600 homes in occupied Arab East Jerusalem, near the Pisgat Ze'ev and Shu'fat neighbourhoods.

There are now roughly 200,000 settlers ‘squatting’ in the greater Jerusalem area, with the number of settlers in the West Bank having quadrupled from about 78,000 in 1990 to around 300,000 in 2009. This is not only a demographic issue: it also wreaks havoc with any hope for a future independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state. As far back as 1988, the PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat had predicted the establishment of a Palestinian sovereign state within two years.

Yet today, 22 years later, that prediction remains a distant unreality and the peace process has become an offensive façade. America continues to bankroll Israeli policies that undermine its strategic objectives and render the whole region less safe - a Congressional Research Service stated that US aid to Israel totalled $28.9 billion over the past decade - and the Arab World busies itself with summit meetings and compulsive communiqués.

But what about the EU, our own club of 27 member-states, a reader might ask me? One unusually blunt - albeit much-edited - statement earlier this year criticised Israeli settlements, the ‘separation barrier’ and the demolition of Palestinian homes, adding that they were “illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible.” It also reminded all concerned that the EU “has never recognized the annexation of East Jerusalem.”

In some sense, this pan-European statement might well be the most meaningful development since the Venice Declaration of 13 June 1980. However, the fact remains that the EU - whether as a collective body or individual states - is still unable to translate its financial and moral support to Palestinians under occupation into genuine political impulse. It needs to decouple its foreign policy from that of the USA long enough to deal with the conflict proactively and help tailor a resolution that would, incidentally, also serve our European interests. Otherwise, its gestures - whether over the import of agricultural products from settlements or its cost-free perorations - will remain mere whimpers in the face of a roaring regional calamity.

Global terror is admittedly a menace today, but it is not a genetic Middle Eastern / Arab one. Most Arabs are not terrorists, just as most Palestinians are not rabid Israel-haters and most Muslims are not blood-curdling fanatics! Global terror results from a mutation of different conditions ranging from military occupation to political oppression and consequential economic penury. Is it not high time that politicians stop using pretexts to ‘justify’ their immobility let alone their reluctance to act decisively?

It is self-evident that Palestinians should get their own house in order - a herculean task given their current fragmentation and animosities - and they should also be more inclusive of Israel as a lasting reality, but let us not hoodwink everyone by hiding behind spurious pretexts and conveniently overlooking that Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the south-side of the White House lawn in 1991 with the PLO charter to destroy Israel still intact.

Things change through negotiation, not necessarily through bombs or militarisation or side-talks. After all, if we are ready to engage Taliban elements in Afghanistan today, could we not also think a bit more laterally in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too? Or has the political imagination of our leaders become so insular - dare I add sterile - that they create ethical excuses to justify unethical inertia as they pick and choose their friends and foes at the expense of Palestinian lives, hopes and wishes?

Jean-Paul Sartre and Rowan Williams - perhaps ideological antipodes - understood this transparent reality, encouraging us to overstep our narrow realities and engage with the future. So my challenge to politicians and readers is for them to mull over an ancient Roman saying Tempus edax, homo edacior, in the hope that they might - just - prove Victor Hugo wrong!

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© Harry Hagopian is a former executive secretary for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). He is now an ecumenical, legal and political consultant for the Armenian Church. As well as advising the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales on Middle East and inter-faith questions, Dr Hagopian is involved with ACEP, the Paris-based Christians in Political Action (http://www.chretiensenpolitique.eu/). His own website is Epektasis (http://www.epektasis.net/)

This article is slightly edited, with kind permission, from one entitled ‘Theology, Philosophy and Israel-Palestine’ on Epektasis.

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