By Roger Cohen
LONDON — Sheldon Adelson’s right-wing Israel Hayom, the newspaper with the highest circulation in Israel, has called for Gaza to be “returned to the Stone Age.” During the last Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza, in 2012, a government minister called for Gaza to be consigned “to the Middle Ages.” Before that, there was the Gaza War of 2008-2009, in which 1,166 Palestinians died and 13 Israelis, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
The story goes on and on. There is no denouement. Gaza, a small place jammed with 1.8 million people, does not recess to the Stone, Iron, Middle or other Ages. It does not get flattened, as Ariel Sharon’s son once proposed. The death toll is overwhelmingly skewed against Palestinians. Hamas, with its militia and arsenal of rockets, continues to run Gaza. The dead die for nothing.
Israel could send Gaza back to whichever age it wishes. Its military advantage, its general dominance, over the Palestinians has never been greater since 1948. But it chooses otherwise. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talk of a ground invasion is empty. The last thing Israel wants, short of a cataclysm, is to go into Gaza and get stuck.
What Israel wants is the status quo (minus Hamas rockets). Israel is the Middle East’s status quo power par excellence. It seeks a calm Gaza under Hamas control, a divided Palestinian movement with Fatah running the West Bank, a vacuous “peace process” to run down the clock, and continued prosperity. Divide and rule. Hamas is useful to Israel as long as it is quiescent.
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is also a status quo man. Late in his life, he is not prepared to make the painful decisions necessary to attain a two-state peace, decisions that would include relinquishing, against compensation, the so-called “right of return” for millions of Palestinian refugees. He prefers the comforts of his position and the ambiguity of concessions not formalized.
The Palestinian unity government recently established with Hamas is no more than a marriage of convenience, sought by a weakened, unpopular Hamas to escape isolation and unmet salary obligations in Gaza, and by Abbas as a distraction from his failures. There is no unity of Palestinian national purpose. There is no Palestinian democratic accountability; election talk evaporates. As for Israel, the fig-leaf Palestinian reconciliation was a godsend for its status-quo objective. Netanyahu was in sound-bite heaven, his favorite environment, on the risible notion of peace with Hamas.
None of this is edifying. Much is abhorrent: indiscriminate Hamas rockets on Israel, Israeli killing of Palestinian civilians in “collateral damage.” Yet I find myself short on moral outrage. It is all so familiar, a recurrent curse. It is a sham fight, and so doubly inexcusable. The Jews and Arabs of the Holy Land are led by men too small to effect change. Shed a tear, shed a thousand, it makes no difference.
Of course the status quo is illusory. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in Munich (to a chorus of Israeli fury), “It cannot be maintained.” True, this violence will subside. Gaza will revert to its routine misery. Peacemakers may bestir themselves. Netanyahu will find another sound bite. Things may look the same; and the next 150 dead will be part of that sameness.
Images of blown-up Palestinian children, and that skewed death toll, will hurt Israel. Its drift toward a culture of hatred toward Arabs will continue. The murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir in revenge for the murders of three Israeli teenagers, and the brutal police beating of his cousin, were signs. Netanyahu called the Israeli teenagers’ killers “human animals.” The liberal daily Haaretz rightly observed: “Abu Khdeir’s murderers are not ‘Jewish extremists.’ They are the descendants and builders of a culture of hate and vengeance.”
That culture is reciprocated by Palestinians toward Jews. Last month Mohammed Dajani, a professor at Al Quds University, quit after being hounded with death threats for taking a group of Palestinian students to Auschwitz. He thought young Palestinians should learn about the Holocaust, a heinous affront to the ruling order in the West Bank and Gaza. Enough said. Palestinians get weaker — a 66-year trend now — because they fail to look reality in the face.
Jews should study the Nakba. Arabs should study the Holocaust. That might be a first step toward two-state coexistence. And everyone should read the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s lines about redemption only coming for all the peoples of the Holy Land when a Jerusalem guide tells his tour group:
“You see that arch over there from the Roman period? It doesn’t matter, but near it, a little to the left and then down a bit, there’s a man who has just bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”