Israel: Into the Abyss

Israel: Into the Abyss

Ariel Sharon's government is failing to use nonviolent approaches in its confrontation with the Palestinians.



The situation in Israel is now critical, with more than 650 people killed, thousands injured and the violence constantly escalating. It is no surprise that since the second intifada erupted in September last year, the Israeli left has been experiencing a kind of vertigo. Ehud Barak led Israel to the edge of the abyss, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has taken a big stride forward.

Indeed, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the current Israeli government is its complete lack of a political program. During his election campaign, Sharon promised to deliver security and peace. Half a year has passed, and Israel is now further away than ever from attaining either goal, even though Sharon enjoys more than 70 percent public support and has a broad coalition in the Israeli Knesset.

What, one should ask, has Sharon accomplished since taking office? He has attacked Nablus with Apache helicopters and Gaza with F-16 fighter jets, dropping one-ton bombs on buildings in the center of Gaza City. Tank and infantry units have entered Beit Jala and Jenin, and Israeli death squads operate regularly in Tulkarm, Hebron and Ramallah; at least forty-two people have been killed during assassinations. Moreover, Palestinians have been under siege for months, and their economy has all but collapsed, leaving thousands to cope with grinding poverty. The extensive restrictions on freedom of movement have not only prevented Palestinians from reaching hospitals and work but have also cut off access to drinking water in 218 West Bank villages.

The Sharon government has carried out all these actions and many others in order to quell the Palestinian uprising, that is, the Palestinians' struggle for independence. Meanwhile, the United States has reacted with little more than a murmur of protest, often giving Israel a green light to employ disproportionate force. It has actually obstructed many of the attempts to restrain Israeli violence, most recently during the August 20-21 United Nations Security Council meetings.

That the Security Council actually convened in order to discuss Palestinian demands–particularly the request that the UN employ international monitors in the occupied territories–was, in a sense, already an achievement; for five months the United States had succeeded in blocking the issue. But, as is usually the case when the Security Council gathers to deliberate about Israel, the meeting produced no result. "The gravity of events on the ground," US acting UN ambassador James Cunningham explained, "questions the appropriateness and effectiveness of any action" that the UN might take. When a situation is extremely grave, so the twisted logic goes, the UN should refrain from taking any measures. This approach, which the United States consistently pursues in order to "protect" Israel from external intervention and criticism, made it clear to the other Council members that a proposal to send monitors would be vetoed.

Paradoxically, however, it is Sharon's measures against the Palestinians–and not international monitors, popular resistance or even suicide bombers–that are endangering Israel most. Sharon has yet to unveil a political plan that will bring an end to the current crisis and establish a lasting peace; his pronouncements and deeds are limited to military tactics. Moreover, a military discourse has taken over the public domain and has, so to speak, colonized the political realm; so much so that the vast majority of Israelis–58 percent of former doves included–currently support a government that opts for military solutions rather than political ones. The wide public acceptance of Sharon's mantra regarding Israel's unwillingness to negotiate under fire is a case in point, as is the ubiquity and popularity of the slogan "Let the Israel Defense Forces Win."

Like all military discourses, this one is informed by questions relating to the use of violence. And where violence completely reigns, as Hannah Arendt observed, politics–the sphere of speech–is obliterated. A vicious circle has emerged, for violence begets violence, as both Israel's policy of assassination and the Palestinian suicide bombers have proven so well.

The destruction of Israel's political realm has affected all aspects of public life, not only those areas relating to Palestinians. It is no coincidence that the Likud-Labor coalition has yet to hold serious discussions about Israel's negative economic growth (a 0.6 percent decrease over the past six months), the dramatic increase in unemployment and the rapidly deteriorating healthcare system. These are political issues about which the hegemonic militaristic ideology has little, if anything, to say.

So long as the martial discourse Sharon champions remains dominant, Israel will continue on its disastrous path. This is no minor matter. History teaches that following the destruction of the political realm regimes that are oblivious to justice tend to emerge. The Israeli government has chosen its course; it is now up to the public to resist it.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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