U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was musing this week about the "possible creation of a provisional Palestinian state." No doubt his musings were designed to bolster the "hope" liberals feel the Arab side is lacking. Unfortunately, hope for the Arab side translates into the elimination of the Jewish state, not the creation of a Palestinian one. Which is why Mr. Powell's words reminded me of an article I saw in a Canadian Jewish newspaper 13 years ago.
In 1989, the first intifada had been in progress for about 18 months. The ostensible focus was the West Bank and Gaza, captured by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967. Needless to say, many Arabs and Muslims disputed the entire existence of "the Zionist entity" in the Middle East, as they had from the beginning and still do today. But the intifada was supposedly about the "occupied territories," as were the eventual peace negotiations at Oslo, Camp David, and Wye River.
The article in The Jewish Times sounded the pained tone of liberalism betrayed. It outlined how living standards had improved for the Arab population in the occupied territories since 1967. It listed the educational, medical and economic advances that two decades of Israeli presence had brought to the Arab population of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and of the Gaza Strip.
Apparently, life expectancy rose from an average of 48 years in 1967 to 62 years in 1986. Infant mortality declined from 90 per 1000 babies to 45 per 1000. The Arabs had no university in the region under Jordanian rule; Israel had built five. The percentage of those with nine or more years of education doubled from 19% to 38%.
Before the Israeli presence in Gaza, only 18% of homes had electricity and 14% had running water; by the mid-'80s, the numbers rose to 88% and 51% respectively. The percentage of homes with household appliances of any kind used to be a mere 5%. In 1986, it was 30% for washing machines, 60% for refrigerators, and 80% for stoves.
The figures filled the writer of the piece with pained bewilderment. Why, Israel had been magnanimous with its enemies. In 22 years it doubled the living standards of people who "wanted little else than the destruction of the Jewish State." And what did Israel receive in return? Terrorists, rioters, stone-throwers and a bad press throughout the world.
Despite my sympathy with the writer's feelings, the same facts led me to different conclusions. To me they proved that politics, especially religious or national politics, can't be measured with the yardstick of economics or welfare.
As a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Europe, I heard endless discussions between my Zionist uncle and non-Zionist father. The State of Israel was only a dream then; reality for Jews was impending death at the hands of the Nazis guarding the ghetto. Yet my uncle, a man in his eighties, was talking about the bright future for Jews in the Middle East after the war.
"And what about the Arabs?" my father asked.
"Well, what about them?" was my uncle's response. "We'll bring them enlightenment and prosperity. We want nothing but freedom and equality for everyone, Arab or Jew. Trust me: Once the Arabs understand this, they'll support us."
"Trust me," my father replied, "the Arabs will hate you. They may desire prosperity and health, but only from their own hands, not from yours. They want self-government, not good government. The more you give them the more they'll resent you. You'll be forced to dispense your gifts with one hand and fire at them with the other."
My uncle, a passionate optimist, viewed my father as an embittered cynic for such remarks. I had no opinion of my own but, as most nine-year-olds, I was an idealist. It seemed to me that my uncle ought to be right. If he wasn't, then human beings weren't rational, and there was little hope for the world.
Today, I'd say my father wasn't a cynic, only a realist. The fact that he turned out to be right doesn't mean there's no hope. It only means people are motivated by a lot of things in addition to statistics on running water or infant mortality. It means that unless a state can reach a political -- indeed, a spiritual -- accord with its inhabitants and neighbours, the cellphones or washing machines it gives them will only fuel their discontent.
I doubt if such an accord can be reached between Israel and the Arab/Muslim world at this time. Without it, though, it'll make little difference whether Israel behaves cruelly or magnanimously. As long as Jews rely on having given schools or fridges to Palestinians who think of them as having stolen their land, they can expect nothing but stones thrown at them in return.
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