Ira Chernus  


"The current [Israeli-Palestinian] 'peace process' is far from having anything to do with making peace. The sides today relate to it more like seeking a divorce. With so many promises of an "early resolution", members of the family are weary with despair. Soon, members of the family will seek alternative means for speeding up the process. That means violence."

That is the opinion of Gershon Baskin, a Jewish Israeli scholar and co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, writing recently in the Jerusalem Post. Sadly, he is probably right about the threat of violence. And it matters, immensely, to everyone in the United States.

If the Oslo Agreements are not soon implemented, giving the Palestinians some meaningful form of independence, Palestinian frustration may boil over into outright resistance. This may not mean outright war. In the late '80s the Palestinians waged an "intifada" resistance movement for nearly four years, relying mainly on economic warfare. Their physical violence was minimal, relative to the firepower Israel could, and sometimes did, bring to bear upon them.

But another intifada would galvanize the growing anti-U.S. sentiment throughout the Middle East. In 199, when the U.S. set out to destroy Iraq's economic infrastructure, plenty of Arab people on the street were horrified at yet another example of Western imperialism. But their governments joined the U.S.-led coalition, figuring they could withstand the public pressure. By 1998, when the U.S. loudly considered another round of bombing in Iraq, the Arab governments found public opinion so strongly against the U.S. plan that they had to check out of the coalition.

Arab people on the street are not pro-Saddam Hussein. But they do have some sense of proportion. They have watched U.S. efforts to dominate the Middle East, for the past half century or more, with dismay. They have seen the U.S. take Israel's side in virtually every dispute that came along. Even when the U.S. "pressures" Israel to make concessions, as it is doing now, the so-called pressure is clearly for public show, with no real diplomatic force behind it. But if an Arab government gets out of line, by U.S. lights . . . well, the destruction of Iraq is an all-too-visible demonstration of the lengths to which our government will go to remind Arabs who is really running the show.

How long can this last? Some empires last longer than others. But all eventually reach too far. They try to dominate too many frustrated in people in too many far-flung places. Eventually they just don't have the resources to put out all the fires. Sooner or later, the empire collapses. But not without bloodshed—at least, in every case so far.

And there is no indication that the people who run the U.S. will refrain from bloodshed in the interests of saving their dying empire. Consider again the destruction of Iraq. Consider the size of the U.S. military establishment, which dwarfs every other military in the world by orders of magnitude. Consider, despite the end of the cold war, the continuing investment in weapons at nearly cold war levels—including weapons of mass destruction, the very weapons for which we continue to deprive Iraqi children of food and medicine.

Our massive military machine is surely there for show. It is a performance meant to frighten the world into obedience. Few Americans are eager to go to war, especially in the military. From the top brass on down, our warriors would rather frighten the world by threats of force than actually use the force. The Vietnam war taught most business people that modern war may be good for the economy in the short run, but not in the long run. George Bush learned that the inevitable lift politicians get from a war is also very short-lived, and the political climate created by war can be quite unstable.

All around, we have good reason to want to avoid war. But if push comes to shove, we'll obviously fight, if only to give another Iraq-style demonstration of our "resolve."

If Palestinian frustration leads to violence, it will no doubt trigger Israeli counter-violence on a larger scale. It always has. Next time, though, public outrage in the Arab world may force other governments to jump in. There is no way to predict with any certainty where that would lead. The push from so-called "pro-Israel" factions in the U.S. could easily shove the U.S. into at least indirect, and perhaps direct, military involvement.

We may get a brief but exhilirating national high from a war, as the Gulf War proved. It could give an illusion of national unity, which is harder and harder to come by as the years go on. (After all, the Olympics is only a few weeks every four years, and Seinfeld can have only one last episode.)

But the price we pay would last much longer. Every time we force people to do our will, we piss people off, especially if we use bombs and guns. That makes the empire's job even harder. There is a snowball effect. The frustrations of the dominated peoples rise exponentially. They vent their frustrations, eliciting more strong-arm tactics, which only raises the frustration further.

Again, no one can predict how it will end. But we can be sure that it won't be a pretty sight. Just ask the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Mongols, the Turks, the British, the French—or the Arabs themselves. They've all been through it.

That is one reason the Israeli-Palestinian situation has far-reaching implications for us. The longer our government gives kid-gloves treatment to the intransigent Israeli government, as it refuses to move toward peace, the more fuel we build up for an international bonfire in which we are most likely some day to get burned.

So we would all be well advised to consider the views of Gershon Baskin, and hundreds of thousands of pro-peace Israeli Jews like him:

"In order to reach peace, Israel will have to withdraw from most of the territories. Just because for many Israelis it is difficult to 'give back' these parts of the Land doesn't mean that we can keep them. We can have the territories or we can have peace - we can't have them both.

We must fight terror and we must demand from the Palestinians to fight terror. Making real peace is the best ammunition possible for those waging war against the extremists. The key to peace is only in making the necessary compromises.

Not one single Palestinian would agree to give up their political rights over Palestinian Jerusalem. We can control all of Jerusalem, or we can have peace; we can't have them both.

In 1999 Arafat will declare the establishment of a Palestinian State. We all know that if the roles were reversed, we [Israeli Jews] would do the same.The Palestinian state will be recognized by most of the world with full membership in the United Nations. We all know that there is nothing we can do to prevent it. We can either accept it and make peace with it, or we can fight it and bring violence to us all."

If we want to protect our own interests, which are the interests of peace, we would be well advised to share these ideas with our elected representatives. The Clinton administration may be the most "pro-Israel" ever. But Congress is even more blindly "pro-Israel."

The Israel lobby plays our Congress as brilliantly as Perlman plays the violin. For years it has intimidated legislators with threats of election day reprisals. Now, seeing that public opinion may override all the lobbyists' candidates into the way like all administrations before it, it is forced to be even more pro-Israel than it would like to be by an incredibly pro-Israel Congress.