IN THE last days of the dying year, Israel’s foreign office issued a sharp rebuke to the European nations on the UN Security Council, accusing them of “interfering with Israel’s domestic affairs.’’ Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal had pointed to the upsurge in violence against the Palestinians by Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, and called upon Israel to reverse its settlement policies. The Europeans are part of the “quartet’’ of peacemakers, made up of the United States, Europe, Russia, and the UN.
One can understand Israel’s ire and unease. The loss of Turkey as an ally, the enhanced power of Iran in the wake of America’s Iraq war, and the events of the Arab Spring in which Israel can see little benefit to itself, has led to a growing sense of isolation. And now the Europeans were coming in with renewed criticism over the Palestinian issue.
“We felt that the European statement broke all the diplomatic rules,’’ said a foreign ministry spokesman. “You aren’t meant to issue such a harsh statement by surprise without prior consultations.’’
Why was Israel being picked out for criticism when worse things were happening in Syria? Yet, the diplomatic flap underlined the longevity and centrality of the Palestinian issue. Fair or not, it’s an issue that’s just not going away.
The four Europeans were all old colonial powers. The Germans lost their colonies after World War I. The British and French empires wound down after World War II, some peacefully, and some bloodily. Portugal, the first in, was one of the last out of the colonial game.
By 1967, just at the time Israel was gaining control over its captive peoples, the institution was dying. Once empires were praised as the bringers of civilization to backward peoples, the “white man’s burden’’ and all that. But by the mid-’60s, empires were no longer acceptable.
Israelis don’t like to think of their rule over the West Bank as colonialism. Some will say the territories are disputed territory, that the West Bank was never a sovereign country, that the Jordanians, from whom the Israelis took the West Bank, had no legal right to the territories. After all, were not Judea and Samaria the ancient home of the Israelites in biblical times? And are there not people other than the Palestinians without countries of their own? Think of the Kurds.
The French used to say that Algeria was never really a colony because they had made it a department of France. And the Italians used to argue a prior claim to Libya because the Romans were there before Libyans spoke Arabic.
But call it what you will, the domination of one people over the other, leaving the occupied without political rights or even freedom of movement, is no longer a viable policy.
Some Israelis sensed that even at the moment of triumph after the Six Day War. “In a time of decolonization in the whole world can we consider [controlling] an area in which mainly Arabs live?’’ asked Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira right after the conquest.
As colonialism was once acceptable in the West, so once was slavery for thousands of years until the 19th century. And then it was not. Jim Crow laws were acceptable in America until the 1960s, when they were not. Withholding voting rights for women was acceptable in Western democracies, until it wasn’t.
After the Six Day War Israel hoped it could give back the West Bank in exchange for peace with the Arabs. But the three no’s of Khartoum — no negotiations, no recognition, and no peace — was the Arab’s answer. Today the three no’s have become the three yeses, if Israel will relinquish Palestinian territories. This unanimous Arab League offer may not last if the Arab Spring radicalizes the region.
Israel fears for its security if it relinquishes control of the West Bank, but its security is more surely endangered by continued occupation.
The so-called separation fence, tall and implacable, marching along the scared old hills of Jerusalem, is a statement that the two peoples cannot live together, and yet cannot arrange a divorce. This is Israel’s tragedy.H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.