Shortly after his election as Prime Minister in May 1996, Binyamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the United States Congress. There he denied any irreconcilable differences, or clash of civilizations, between Israel and its Arab-Islamic neighbors. This denial—disingenuous or not—anchors Netanyahu’s current plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By building up the Palestinian economy, which of course will be greatly dependent on Israel, peace between Jews and Arabs will eventually follow. “The hardliner” Netanyahu has joined the fabulist Shimon Peres, author of Oslo and The New Middle East.
Netanyahu and Peres are both secularists. I mention this because, as Abdallah al-Tall, a leading Arab polemicist expressed it, “The propagandists of secularism, who leave out of account the religious factor in the Palestine problem, ignore the fact that this is the only bone of contention in the world which has persisted for thirty centuries and is still based on religious and spiritual foundations.”
To the “propagandists of secularism,” economics trumps religion. This, of course, is a precept shared by both Marxism and capitalism. And it’s the link that joins Bibi to Shimon. The two are married to Oslo.
When Shimon Peres was Yitzhak Rabin’s foreign minister, he applied for Israeli membership in the Arab League. Peres’ comically naïve attitude toward the anti-Jewish and warlike nature of Islam is widespread in Israel and throughout the West, and it inspires Oslo’s fundamental premise, “land for peace” – a premise based on a materialistic conception of human nature that gives primacy to economic motives in human affairs.
This belief (that at rock-bottom we all share common desires) also gives rise to “conflict resolution,” a notion that animates political scientists, diplomats - and Harvard-trained lawyers - throughout the democratic world. Conflict resolution asks mutual concessions or compromise of the parties to a conflict – in this case Jews and Muslims – in order to reach the resolution. Conflict resolutionists reject or trivialize what “has persisted for thirty centuries.”
This rejection allows Netanyahu to propose an economic plan to overcome the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not that he believes economics can solve every problem, or that he dismisses as negligible the aggressive autocratic nature of Islamic culture. Nevertheless, like Peres, Bibi’s eagerness to bailout the Arab Palestinians, coincident with territorial concessions, means that cultural or religious considerations are not crucial to his thinking toward Israel’s enemy. In 1997, then-Prime Minister Netanyahu shook hands with Arafat and ceded parts of Hebron to the Arabs.
Strange as it may seem, Karl Marx, the father of socialism, and Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, were present at Oslo. For Marx, the basic cause of conflict is not human nature but economic scarcity. Eliminate scarcity by an equitable distribution of goods, and men and nations will live in abiding peace.
Meanwhile, Adam Smith maintained that human misery and conflict can be overcome by the wealth of nations promised by economic laissez-faire. He proclaimed that war could be replaced by economic competition. The idea of “conflict resolution” links both of these worldviews – President-elect Obama’s “citizen of the world.”
But to expect the Islamic Middle East to yield to globalism or consumerism is to expect more than twenty Arab-Islamic regimes to declare bankruptcy and go out of business. Thus, any political plan that trivializes the religious and cultural dimensions of the Moslem-Jewish conflict is bound to fail - as “the peace process” already has in all three of its incarnations, Oslo, the Road Map and Annapolis.
True, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in March 1979. But after thirty years trade and other normal exchanges between the two countries are minuscule. And the border between Gaza and Egypt has a become a weapons pipeline for Hamas.
Closer to reality is a description by Maj. General (res.) David Ivri, a former Director General of Israel’s Defense Ministry, “The peace with Egypt is not peace. It is actually a cease-fire …” A view confirmed by Anwar Sadat in a New York Times interview. “Poor Menachem [Begin], he has his problems … After all, I got back … the Sinai and the Alma oil fields, and what has Menachem got? A piece of paper.”
While the theological/ideological dimension of the Arab-Israel conflict is written off by secular mystics enthralled by capitalist ideas and, especially in Israel, by socialist concepts too, Moslems are proud of their heritage and retain a keen sense of their unique history. They regard the secular democratic State of Israel as another temporary outpost of Western decadence and non-Moslem influence. Erasing this state from the map of the Middle East is a religious imperative.
A group of Arabs once wrote the great Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky, saying: “You are the only one among the Zionists who has no intention of fooling us and who understands that the Arab is a patriot and not a prostitute who can be bought.” But even though Muslims have never dwelt in peace with each other, Shimon Peres and Binyamin Netanyahu share the fantasy they will live in peace with a Jewish state, if only they enjoy something akin to a Western standard of living – and a bit more Jewish land on which to enjoy it. Arabs consider this an insult.
Unfortunately for Israel, the Likud candidate for prime minister has moved too far from Jabotinsky, and too close to Peres, to take this message seriously. But still, there’s hope. If Netanyahu becomes Israel’s leader again, the Persians may yet frighten Bibi and his nation back into Jabotinsky’s arms.
*Paul Eidelberg is a political scientist and commentator. He resides in Jerusalem.