I was fortunate to attend Prof Benny Morris’s lectures at UCT Summer School 2014, entitled, “Milestones in the Arab-Zionist Conflict”. It is a measure of his stature, some might say notoriety, that it is not necessary to mention his credentials to an educated audience. He is the first and the most scholarly of the New Historians.
Besides the fact that he provided us with a firm conceptual framework, enriched with important details of the struggle between these two camps over the past century, while emphasising events prior to and around the 1947-9 war and the creation of the State of Israel, Morris demonstrated the scholarly integrity and balance which characterises his work. He avoided glib moral judgements and slogans in favour of presenting the historical context and motivations accounting for the intractability of the conflict.
That is why it was all the more telling when he stated (in answer to a direct question) that he had no solution to offer us and doubted that the current peace negotiations would result in anything tangible and robust. Partly by inference and partly explicitly he attributed most of the responsibility for this situation to the Arab-Muslim rejection of the existence of a Jewish State within the Arab-Muslin core domain. Issues around settlement construction, Jewish extremism and expansionism, relatively fringe phenomena both, may aggravate matters, and provide fuel for propaganda, but they are surmountable obstacles; Arab rejectionism is not.
Stating that does not constitute a moral judgement – it is simply a statement of fact. By far the majority of Arabs and most Muslims would see such rejectionism as an entirely natural and moral reaction to the presence of Jews on “their” territory. I disagree and have reasons (I believe quite good reasons) for doing so. But whatever the moral squabbling, and there is no final authority to make judgement on this issue, there are two important points worth making:
Firstly, that the Arab-Muslim culture and political models current in the Middle East-Asian-North African region are disastrous examples for a modern world in which human rights, democracy, freedom of thought and belief are foundational values in confronting the immense power of technology in a “flat” interconnected planet. The reality is that that the backward, repressive, undemocratic Arab-Muslim political culture in that region is an incubator for violent and fanatical movements which physically and psychologically threaten the entire planet, and offers no hope whatsoever to an expanding population confronting a resource-poor environment. Take away oil, and that is proceeding apace, the peoples of that region – with the notable exception of Israel – would be staring starvation and terminal conflict in the face.
Secondly, the integration of Israel in a democratic Middle East could be the catalyst for the reflowering of a Muslim civilisation with enormous benefits to all the peoples of the region and the wider world.
It is for these reasons that the Obama-Kerry focus on one of the many symptoms of current Arab-Muslim political pathology, the Arab-Zionist conflict, rather than addressing the disease itself is so desperately misplaced. They, together with much of the world, have lost sight of the core issue; namely, the dysfunctional cultural-political syndrome afflicting huge parts of the Arab-Muslim domain.
Part of the problem is that the core issue is so difficult to solve, but appeasement will simply encourage its dissemination. Subtle diplomacy and clever manuvering cannot defuse the threat of totalitarian and messianic movements. They need to be explicitly and unambiguously named and confronted at every turn. Extremism is not necessarily wholly irrational and the basic calculus of cost and benefit is better applied before such currents gain momentum.
We have the history of the rise (and ultimate fall) of the totalitarian movements of the 20th century to guide us. Division, indecisiveness, appeasement and inappropriate and misplaced idealism in the West allowed Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and China (and slightly lesser examples) to wreak disaster upon their own populations and much of the rest of the world before the inevitable confrontation was initiated. The fanatical Islamist-Jihadist movements of the late 20th and early 21st. centuries are no different.
Israel has become the testing ground for the courage and clarity not only of pro-Zionist Jews and their supporters but for the West as a whole. Until the nettle of Arab-Muslim extremism, intolerance and violence is openly identified and confronted, such movements will undermine the resolve of the West and open the world to conflict exceeding the terrific slaughters of the last century. Millions of lives have already been lost.
It is time to reject appeasement in all its manifold disguises and draw the lines needed to contain and defuse these destructive urges.