No matter how you look at it, Israel doesn’t want peace

The Israel-Palestine conflict shows the difficulties of maintaining an impartial approach in the face of Israeli aggression, writes Sholto Byrnes.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not want peace, Sholto Byrnes argues. Abir Sultan / Pool / Reuters
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It is hard to be impartial about Israel. As the death toll in Gaza climbs ever higher, many in the Gulf might query why one would want to make the effort in any case. What’s there to be “impartial” about? But in reporting, analysing and commenting on the current conflict, newspapers and television reports are piecing together the first draft of history. There is a place for polemic and a place for passion – but there is also a necessary place for objectivity.

That's something that many organisations around the world strive for in their coverage of Israel (not withstanding that there are those that don't, particularly in the US, as James Zogby pointed out in these pages a few days ago). In doing so, they frequently please no one. The BBC, for instance, has regularly been accused of demonstrating both a pro- and an anti-Palestinian bias, with both sides maintaining a hot certainty that the validity of their complaints is beyond question. Only recently, an Al Jazeera presenter remarked bitterly to me that the BBC always took a "Zionist" stance.

But to make the attempt is an obligation, for otherwise anger and ignorance can totally obscure the facts. How many Americans are aware, for example, that the 1967 borders – which mark the only probable chance for agreement of a two state solution – are not some natural boundary and that it would be relatively easy for Israel to agree to retreat to them and hand over the occupied territories. That instead, those borders represent a very painful compromise for Palestinians, the absolute minimum to what they could possibly accept as the remnants of their lands, most of which they were forcefully dispossessed of in 1948? And how many still believe that Palestine was a “a land without a people, for a people without a land”, when as far back as 1920 the League of Nations recorded that it had a population of 700,000, a mere 76,000 of whom were Jewish? That large numbers still believe both myths is due to the fact, as Zogby demonstrated clearly with reference to the Washington Post, that much of the US media makes no effort at all to present the Israel-Palestine conflict with any historical context or balance. So impartiality is not just important – it’s vital.

I believe that impartial reporting is not just about the facts but also extends to motives, to trying to understand why people act as they do.

On those grounds, one has to say that a degree of reaction from Israel in the last month was predictable. What nation would allow rockets to be fired at its towns and simply do nothing?

There was, too, in the past a far greater sympathy for Israel in Europe. In the 1960s and 1970s, it appeared to be a country in which the secular social democratic model that many European states had followed with varying success, actually worked. A Europe that had conveniently forgotten the plight of the Palestinians, and which then designated the PLO as a terrorist organisation, saw a country much in its own image, one that was deemed almost an honorary exclave of the continent.

The eminent Argentinian-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim was nostalgic for that time when I interviewed him in Berlin.

But he, like a significant proportion of Jews and Israelis, recognised that the attitude of Israel’s governments had changed.

“So many of the policies are simply not intelligent, quite apart from the morality,” he told me. “You want a state for the Jews? Then why do you hang onto territories where there are no Jews, and artificially build settlements there? Why? What is the logic?”

And the overwhelming and disproportionate Israeli response in the last month, in which well over 1,000 Palestinians, but fewer than 50 Israelis, have died, fits a long and depressing pattern.

The British columnist and historian Max Hastings dated the tipping point to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 in a recent article, citing the opinions of five former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, that since then “no Jerusalem government has pursued a serious political strategy for peace”. Others may look back to the 1980s premiership of Yitzhak Shamir, who was such a hardliner that he even abstained during the Knesset vote on the Camp David Accords of 1978, which led to peace between Israel and Egypt.

It is hard to be impartial about Israeli governments that have erected a “security wall”, but have chosen to build much of it on Palestinian land, so much so that it includes up to 10 per cent of the West Bank. It is hard to be impartial about a government that claims to want to talk about peace, but continues to create “facts on the ground”, new illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas. And it is hard to be impartial about an administration that appears to be so indifferent to the deaths of civilians, of whole families, in pursuit of what they view as their righteous revenge and, even more coldly, as the victims of a justified policy of deterrence.

All of this matters because, unless the bombs, the destruction and the appalling loss of life are to continue indefinitely, all of us have to hope that a lasting solution can be found. That can only come about if the two sides believe they are both negotiating in good faith. And that requires a leap of the imagination, the setting aside of past atrocities, of an impartial mindset, one that can accept that an opponent can become a neighbour and maybe one day even a friend.

That it is increasingly hard to see any evidence of such a willingness on the Israeli side is a tragedy not just for the Palestinians but for Israel itself. One can perform intellectual somersaults trying to understand the motives and perspectives in Tel Aviv and still end up, confronted with the reality of many, many years, with the simple question: is Israel a state that ever wants peace?

Sholto Byrnes is a Doha-based commentator and consultant