Conrad Black Headshot

Israel's Task: Win the Waiting Game

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It is impossible not to sympathize with Jews outside Israel trying to be sensible advocates for Israel's interests. A belligerently self-righteous stance, though it is often justified on the facts, is rarely a diplomatic success in the circles these people are trying to influence. But a conciliatory attitude, as such well-intentioned efforts usually are, is generally seen to be a commendable posture for the emissary, and to that person's credit.

But it only encourages Israel's enemies to press harder, as it is taken as evidence that anti-Israeli militancy is a force for attrition wearing down Israel's power to resist the daunting demographic numbers in its region and the endless anti-Israeli propaganda generated by the Arab league and its Third World and Communist parrots.

It is the conundrum of all peoples and movements which enjoy success or are trying to protect an acquired position, in the teeth of the hostility of a larger antagonist. They always want to end play where they are and render the status quo more durable, and the larger antagonist always has other ideas. For the emissary of good will, it is always difficult to square the desire to draw a line under the current correlation of forces with a confident attitude that his side possesses the ability to conserve that status quo whatever the antics of the larger opponent.

And as people generally believe what they want to believe, the larger antagonist will always see time as on his side, along with demography and, doubtless, the rights and wrongs as well, and he will see peace-making efforts by the advantaged underdog as a confession of weakness, justifying devious behaviour to seem to accept an olive branch while in fact assimilating its concessions and inflicting disappointment on and wearing down the nerves and morale of the rival.

That is effectively what has been the lot of the Jews, in Israel and out, for a very long time. Oversimplifying grossly, but, I believe, accurately, about 80 per cent of Jews became Christians in the first few centuries of the Christian Era, and those that did not, suffered many centuries of intermittent persecution of varying stages of barbarity. Their refusal to join the Christian wave, their alleged status as Christ-killers, and their comparative success, especially in financial matters and sophisticated professional occupations, the consequence of their persecution and resultingly heightened determination to persevere, increased the abrasions with the majorities in the host European and Middle Eastern societies where they were scattered.

Sufficient numbers of them successfully decamped to the United States (and Canada and Australia and up to a point, South America), new and relatively optimistic countries pledged to the avoidance of Europe and the Middle East's ancient hatreds, that they flourished and became somewhat influential in those countries. And the United States, and, proportionately, Canada and Australia, grew to such geopolitical importance that they became important, and finally indispensable, to resolving the European balance of power in the 20th century in favour of the democracies led by Britain and France.

This led the British government, through its foreign minister, Arthur Balfour, in the desperate struggle of the First World War, to make a pitch for American support with a gesture to the Jews, now stirring with the idea of the creation of a Jewish homeland where they would be self-governing and not persecuted any more. To this end, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised a "Jewish Homeland" in Palestine, (the ancient Roman colonial name, not a local one), around Jerusalem, which they were seizing from the Turks, who had occupied and governed it for many centuries.

Unfortunately, Balfour, in deference to the large Arab majority, which had its own expectations of how the area would be occupied in a post-Turkish time, in the following sentence, promised not to disturb the legitimate interests of the Palestinian Arabs. This was a flim-flam job that has haunted the world ever since: a classic case of selling the same real estate to two different and hostile parties at the same time. In the end, there would be no alternative than to divide it between the two parties, half a loaf for each and full satisfaction for neither.

The horrible atrocities committed against the Jews in Europe in the '30s and up to the end of the Second World War, causing the death, in the most horrible circumstances, of half the world's Jewish population, six million souls, so shocked the Western world that even Stalin's Russia agreed to the founding of Israel. The Arab position was that terrible things had indeed been done to the Jews, but in Europe and not by Arabs (though all indications are that they were in entire sympathy with the Nazis on this point and emulated them where they could). So if territory needed to be found for Jews, the Europeans should provide it.

For not entirely comprehensible reasons, the Arabs saw the founding of Israel in their midst as the crowning and intolerable humiliation after more than a millennium of Arab retreat, at the hands of Europeans, Turks, and Persians, and Israel was the last straw. The Israelis, after the massacre of half of Jewry by the Nazis, (and Germany had been one of the most philo-Semitic of societies outside the New World), were horrified and traumatized not only by the Holocaust, but by the fact that most of their co-religionists had gone quietly to their deaths, apart from the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto. For the first 30 years or so of Israel's history, the Arabs regarded the existence of Israel as intolerable, and many Israelis regarded, reflexively, any concessions as a first step back to the camps of the Third Reich. It was an unpromising ambiance for negotiation.

Since Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat recognized Israel as a Jewish state and exchanged embassies with it, (in exchange for restoration of the Sinai and the Suez Canal), there has been considerable progress toward the two-state solution. But with Sadat's expulsion of his Soviet advisors, and Israel's eviction of Jordan from the West Bank in the 1967 War launched by the Arabs, negotiations are now with the local factions rather than between Great Powers, or even Israel and the Arab Powers. The Palestinian factions, Fatah, Hamas, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, are splintered, desperate, and fanatical, and they influence the Arab masses among the major Arab nationalities, and now non-Arab Muslims, especially the theocratically governed Iranians, and recently even the Turks have been whipping up Arab sentiments against Israel as part of a power play within the Muslim world, as Turkey has been effectively rejected by Europe.

The Israelis would have accepted the 1967 borders prior to being attacked by and defeating the Arabs in the war of that year. The Arabs have become deft at promising land for peace, which in practice has meant permanent return of land to them for temporary cease-fires, which some Arab factions do not recognize in any case. Israel and overseas Jews keep hoping that peace will attract Israel's neighbours, most of whom think of peace as bait to get more concessions from Israel without really making peace. They cling to their idea that six million or more supposedly displaced Palestinians can return to Israel and demographically swamp the Jewish state, and have gulled much of the world with their agitation about Jewish settlements. The Israelis demonstrated in Sinai and Gaza that they would uproot settlers in a real peace agreement, but rightly decline to do so for another Arab bait and switch operation.

Trying to put Israel's best foot forward, the Canadian Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the principal agency for promotion of Israel's interests in Canada, has adopted what it calls its Ten Commandments, which include: "Do not directly attack or assign blame to the Palestinians or their leadership; Do not ask Canadians to pick a side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Do not ask the government of Canada to appear -- or be -- more favorable to Israel; and Do not attack the media for being biased against Israel." Here, in a word, is the problem. So hobbled, Israel would be better off without any advocates for it in Canada.

It is slightly reminiscent of the group of leading American Jews, including the late publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, that called upon President Roosevelt at the end of 1938, and asked him not to name a second Jew to the Supreme Court, succeeding Benjamin Cardozo (and joining Louis Brandeis), because it would incite anti-Semitism. Roosevelt pointed out that he had just pulled his ambassador from Berlin after the infamous Kristallnacht attacks on German Jews, and given a world broadcast condemning religious and racial persecution. He sent the nomination of Felix Frankfurter to succeed Cardozo almost immediately after this visit and he was confirmed without opposition.

The temptation is often strong to appease; it must always be resisted. The temptation to preemptive tangible gestures for durable improvement in relations is also strong but is not the same thing. That was done by Ehud Barack in 2000 at the second Camp David Conference and led to the Second Intifada. The Arabs could have peace tomorrow if they were prepared to accept the right to exist of Israel as Jewish state. Israel and its espousers must stay the course and wait for it. It will come; slowly, but it will come.