Benjamin Netanyahu reacted negatively to President Obama’s Thursday speech. (AFP photo/Jim Watson)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in reaction to US President Barack Obama’s speech last week that Israel will not be able to defend itself if it retreats to its 1967 border. But reiterating decades-old arguments at a time when change is sweeping the Middle East makes Israel seem anachronistic and in desperate need of new ideas that match the ongoing Arab Spring.
Throughout history, Israel has justified its existence by citing a few concerns, many of them legitimate. But while it became impossible for the Jews to live in German-controlled land under Adolf Hitler, escaping death in Europe does not grant the Jews exclusive sovereignty over Palestine.
The creation of an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine did not come out of nowhere. The experience of minorities living among Muslims in Arab countries explains why non-Muslim groups – whether Jews in Palestine, or Christians in Lebanon and Egypt – fight, or once fought, for exclusive homelands where they wouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens. Even non-Sunni Muslims in the Middle East have voiced frustration, as the Shia of Iraq and Lebanon have always complained that they were rarely treated as equals to their Sunni compatriots.
Over the past few centuries, the Middle East has been a tough area to live in. Different religious and ethnic groups vied for absolute power, with many of them trying to carve out exclusive states. Whether Sunni Caliphates or Shia republics, religious states have been the norm in the region.
Israel has reiterated the idea that Jews were never given equal rights in Arab Muslim countries, and that therefore a purely Jewish state was needed. Israel has also cited the danger from Arab rogue states and their ongoing tirades against Israel as another justification for its need to be able to defend itself. Israel has maintained that it is not interested in talking about peace with terrorist groups such as Fatah in the past and Hamas and Hezbollah today.
But times change. Yitzhak Rabin was the first Israeli prime minister to observe Jewish disadvantage when it comes to demographics. He reasoned that if Israel says that Palestinians do not exist, like it used to do until 1993, they would not just disappear.
Rabin also realized that his government would not be able to get away with whatever past Israeli governments had done, such as expelling Palestinians to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. With unstoppable news coverage, it became nearly impossible to "transfer" Palestinians to neighboring lands.
In a breakthrough step, Israel started dialogue with Fatah in 1993, which until then did not admit Israel's existence. Land for peace was the guiding principle of that period.
In the decade that followed, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders perfected the art of double talk. In public, they promised peace. In private they vowed to keep "all the land." Duplicity, however, backfired. It killed the chance of peace, and it dampened international interest. Now the Israelis have to face Palestinian demographics on their own. Without prospects for peace, and therefore a better future and heightened standards of living, Palestinians have become agitated, further aggravating Israel's problem in dealing with them.
While the whole world, including Obama, understands this, only Israel lives in denial. According to Netanyahu, Israel will not withdraw to the 1967 borders. It will not stop building settlements. No refugees, even in symbolic numbers, will be allowed to return. There will be no bargaining over Jerusalem, and Israel will negotiate only with those who admit its existence beforehand. But even when "unconditional" peace talks start, what exactly will be on the table?
No one buys Israeli peace promises anymore. Only America is forced to believe them, at least publically. After all, only Barack Obama, not the whole world, is standing for reelection and needs pro-Israeli Americans’ votes and support.
Not only does most of the world not believe Netanyahu, the excuses for Israel's existence as a purely Jewish state are being challenged with time and the ongoing revisiting of old paradigms about the nation-state, citizenship and democracy. Arab autocrats are falling, and radical Islamist groups too. Already Hamas has turned coat, with its patron, the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, shaken. Soon, Israel will lose another foe with which to legitimize its self-defense machine when Hezbollah starts losing ground, too.
When minorities become citizens with equal rights throughout the Middle East, and when Hamas and Hezbollah become irrelevant, Israel will have little justification to stay as the world's only exclusive Spartan state.
When the Middle East spring blossoms, Israel will be living alone and fighting imaginary wars to defend its never-drawn borders.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai