GERARD HOWLIN: Land for peace is fool’s gold when it comes to the Middle East

Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for Jewish people. It is 45 years since the war which bore its name.

That was the last of three assaults launched by surrounding Arab powers to eradicate Israel.

The previous one, in 1967, ended when Israel drove Jordan out of the West Bank, Egypt out of Gaza and Sinai, and Syria from the Golan Heights.

In light of this weekend’s visit by the President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, this is context to be remembered.

Understandably there is focus on the need for Israel to leave the West Bank.

The eastern boundary of the Jewish state is intensely fraught. The plight of Palestinians in Gaza is correctly an international concern. What signifies debate in Ireland is neither focus on the West Bank nor Gaza, however, but annexation of nearly all context from the debate.

That narrow focus on undeniable plight and an accompanying, relentless emphasis on Israel alone leaves no room for remembering or examining causes.

In three wars, Israel defended itself against mass attack. Let me be clear. I wish
Israel out of the West Bank, but finding a way out, if there is one, requires remembering how it arrived.

I welcome President Abbas to Ireland. Our Government’s policy is about right. We need relations with both sides to access and influence either. We are not main players but we are part of the EU.

We have valuable economic relations with Israel and a significant stake through the Irish Army’s presence with Unifil in Lebanon. The attempt, sometimes difficult, to pursue a positive agenda with both sides is under sustained attack now by an ultra anti-Israel lobby in Ireland.

Its hallmark is vitriolic, one-sided attack on an “oppressor” and demonisation of Israel in ways that echo and worryingly perpetuate anti-Semitism. This isn’t Jeremy Corbyn’s Britain.

But unfettered focus on one side, the blanking of even recent history from current context and a feral demonisation of one people only, is the underbelly of a fixated sort of anti-imperialism that is as amoral in its attitude to collateral damage, including truth, as the powers it claims to be the polar opposite of.

What remains real is the plight of Palestinians. Their situation is nearly hopeless — partly that is because they are leaderless.

If current boundaries were shaped by the consequences of outright attack on Israel, there have been attempts at peace. One was partly successful. The 1979 accord with Egypt brought bilateral peace and
returned Sinai.

Tellingly the Egyptians demurred at reasserting authority over Gaza. Eventual Israeli
evacuation in 2005 is seen by some Israelis as a mistake, which brought no peace, but forfeited effective control. I don’t agree, but it is part of a hardening sense that land for peace is fool’s gold.

Fundamentally there is no real Palestinian acceptance of the right of Israel to exist. Essential to this is refusal across an otherwise violently divided Palestinian polity to abandon the right of return.

That means 5m Palestinians settling within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, mostly generations after they left. By another name, “the right of return” is a war of return for the outright destruction of Israel. It is Palestinian policy. It is Abbas’ policy.

It was what Hamas in Gaza drove its march to the wall for, and whether out of weakness or principle, ideological ground staked out by Hamas is political turf Abbas cannot or will not abandon.

It is this issue, more than any other, which ensured the Oslo Accords remained unfulfilled hope. Yitzhak Rabin paid for peace with his life. Yasser Arafat died in his bed, but not before he resiled from potential peace at Camp David in 2000.

Abbas similarly refused a deal that offered over 90% of the territory sought in 2008. Israel asks now, what peace with whom? Abbas is 82.

Elected for four years in 2005, he is still in office. There has been no election since. He has no apparent successor but almost certainly bequeaths chaos.

It is reasonable to ask those who insist that Israel, as an apartheid state, be boycotted what we would embrace and if it actually delivers anything.

Those who return home here, after seeing the straits of Palestinians behind a “peace” wall, speak of apartheid, but seldom have anything to say about the disappearance of Arab Christians from the same land.

Under Abbas’s rule, two thirds of the Arab Christian population of Bethlehem has left.

They speak freely here of a situation where the people they talk of enjoy no similar rights of expression.

That is only to mention the harshness meted out to scrutineers or critics of the Abbas regime in the West Bank.

In Gaza, criticism of Hamas is death. And of that wall, and its undeniable, harsh consequences in 2002, 225 people died in Israel from attacks launched from the West bank into Israel. Last year only one attack made it through the wall, but 11 people died.

That wall has an appalling logic.

The weaponising of words like apartheid is to recall George Orwell’s 1945 essay Anti-Semitism in Britain: “The starting point of any investigation of anti-Semitism should not be: ‘Why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?’ but ‘Why does anti-Semitism appeal to me?”

Einat Wilf, an atheist, Zionist, and former Labour member of Israel’s national legislature, the Knesset, defined anti-Zionism as anti-Semitic because “it argues that Jews alone among the nations, cannot partake in the universal right of all peoples to govern themselves”.

A vocal critic of Israeli annexationists on the West Bank, she asks fairly, “why is it when Jews want to settle EAST of 1967 lines, international community goes crazy, but when Arab Palestinians demand to settle WEST of line within [the] sovereign state of Israel, couched in [the] idea of ‘return’, the world sustains it through UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees]?”

UNRWA differs completely from the consideration offered to all other refugees in the world by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

It perpetuates inter-generational un-settlement of Palestinian political sentiment. It prevents state building because ‘return’, not a two-state solution, must, by definition, be the answer to exile. If, generations later, you are still a UN refugee, you cannot be at home.

If, for those millions, home is Israel, that is destruction for the Jewish state.

It is the antithesis of a two-state solution and the ultimate apartheid. The dividing line won’t be the Green Line or the so-called peace wall, it will be the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea.

That’s why our own faux freedom fighters sing “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”.

Listen this weekend, you will hear it sung as a nursery rhyme. But as Orwell wrote, “one of the hallmarks of anti-Semitism is an ability to believe stories that could not possibly be true”.

Our Government’s policy is about right. We need relations with both sides to access and influence either

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