Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo: Remy Steinegger / World Economic Forum)
It's the same old tragic story. Just when there is a glimmer of hope that Israel and Palestine might take a step toward peace, the Israeli government swoops in to sabotage it. At least this time the Israelis are not killing anyone - yet.
In fact, now they've found a way to set back the chance for peace that seems, on the face of it, wholly benign. They simply want to renovate and restore "national heritage sites." Who could object to that? Don't progressives in the US often fight to protect cherished historical sites from the developer's wrecking ball?
The Israeli plan was relatively unobjectionable until last Sunday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added to the list of heritage sites two places in the West Bank that are treasured by Muslims as well as Jews: Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron (which tradition holds to be the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives).
Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, called it "a serious provocation which may lead to a religious war." However, no war between Israelis and Palestinians has been, or would be, motivated primarily by religion. For most people on both sides, it's a secular conflict about political power, economic resources and, above all, national pride. When religious factors enter in, as in this case, they are used mainly as symbolic pawns in the struggle.
There are minorities on both sides who do see it as a genuine religious conflict. And they can be politically useful. In this latest episode, Netanyahu shrewdly used the religious minority on his own side to justify a blatantly political move. He claimed that he was "persuaded" by one of his coalition partners, the religious Shas party, to add the contested burial places to the heritage site list.
But it seems likely that Netanyahu's real motive had little to do with religion. As Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said: "Netanyahu is actively working to sabotage the two-state solution.… The unilateral decision to make Palestinian sites in Hebron and Bethlehem part of Israel shows there is no genuine partner for peace, but an occupying power intent on consolidating Palestinian lands."
The UN's special Mideast coordinator, Robert Serry, agrees. Since the sites are "in Palestinian territory, he pointed out, "implementation of the government's decision could harm trust between the two sides and hurt the efforts to renew talks." Which is exactly, it seems, what Netanyahu wants.
Consider the timing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that there is a real chance that Israeli-Palestinian talks "will commence shortly." Jordanian sources recently told the influential Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz that Abbas has agreed to US-mediated talks with the Israelis, which will start in March and go on for three months. This comes after Abbas received answers from the US to a list of questions.
Whether the Ha'aretz report proves fully accurate or not, there have been clear signs that Abbas is backing away from his once-firm stand of no negotiation until all settlement expansion ceases. Netanyahu himself said in a recent interview: "I think the Palestinians, at least, may be backing down. There are signs that negotiations with them will begin in the foreseeable future."
For Netanyahu, the important piece is not the negotiation but the backing down. He gets his support from people who want, more than anything else, to inflict symbolic defeats upon people they see as enemies of the Jews. Unfortunately, as an in-depth research project found, that's a common feeling among Israeli Jews: They are less eager to gain a settlement that will bring them security than they are to prove themselves always one (or two or three) up on the Palestinians. As long as he can keep creating visible appearances of "the enemy" backing down, Netanyahu will keep his own power.
That makes it dangerous for Netanyahu to take his government to a negotiating table where the US mediators could end up calling the shots. It's safer to keep on inventing new ways to symbolize Israeli dominance over Palestinian land - and, by clear implication, Palestinian people.
For a substantial number of Israeli Jews (though still a minority, the polls show), it's not Palestinian land. It's Jewish land. The Yesha regional council, the political arm of Jewish settlers on the West Bank, speaks for many of them. Yesha predictably praised Netanyahu's decision, saying that it "strengthens the connection with land of our forefathers." Netanyahu used similar words when he explained his decision to his cabinet. "Our existence depends not only on the IDF or our economic resilience," he said, but on "our ability to justify our connection to the land."
Justification is becoming a major issue, close to an obsession, in Israel - justification of the settlements, the Gaza war, the occupation and of Israel's very existence. So, putting the two contested burial sites on the historical preservation list helps the frantic justification project as well as Netanyahu's approval rating among his right-wing base.
In that right-wing base, political life - and indeed all of life - is generally dominated by one question: Are you for or against Israel? Which translates (in their worldview) into: Are you for or against the Jews? Any criticism of Israel, from the mildest call for halting settlement expansion to the harshest critique of Zionism itself, is taken as a vote against the Jews.
So, all the issues get lumped together in right-wing discourse. Any move toward peace negotiations is seen as a symbolic defeat, an opening for those who would call into question Israel's very right to exist. Backing down on the new "national heritage sites" would be seen as equally damaging.
On the other hand, expanding the heritage site list and avoiding talks with the Palestinians are both seen as symbolic victories and therefore, by this perverse logic, justifications of Israel's legitimacy - not to mention its strength, which for some right-winger is the most important issue of all.
It's ironic, and perhaps amusing, that all this fuss is about a so-called "historical" claim that no reputable historian would take seriously. There is not a shred of evidence to prove conclusively that the biblical patriarchs and their wives are buried in these tombs, or that they even existed. The whole brouhaha is about legend.
But there's nothing amusing about the larger, more tragic irony at work in Israel. Netanyahu and his right-wing supporters justify their policies not only by invoking spurious claims about history, but, much more often, by insisting that it is all necessary for their national security. Yet, by torpedoing the fragile possibility of peace negotiations, they are insuring that their own people, as well as the people of Palestine, will go on living without security.