Contemplating 'politicide'


Current Affairs: It is difficult to see how a Jew can be anti-Semitic, so the charge can hardly be levelled against the author of this controversial book. But non-Jewish criticism of Israeli security policies is often dismissed in this way. As Kimmerling puts it: "The accusation of anti-Semitism has become a powerful tool for silencing opposition to Israel's oppressive policies," writes Deaglán de Bréadún

I have also known criticism of the Palestinians to be dismissed as racist, in line with the view, once endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly, that "Zionism is racism".

It would be better, of course, if arguments could be considered on their merits, rather than being attributed to anti-Semitism, "Zionist racism" or, as some of his more strident critics might claim in the case of this author, Jewish self-hatred. But given the passions that surround the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the continual violence and killing in the region, that is probably too much to expect.

Edmund Burke said that, for evil to triumph it was only necessary for good people to remain silent. Kimmerling is not one of those who will keep their mouths shut in the face of what they perceive to be evil.

He believes there is an Israeli policy of "politicide" towards the Palestinians. It's an unhappy word, which means the destruction of the Palestinians as a political entity, turning them from a nation in search of a state back to what they were in the years after Israel was founded: a leaderless community desperate for survival.

Although there is relatively little in the book about Yasser Arafat, it was he who forged the Palestinians into a nationality with a claim on the world's attention. Many might wish he had chosen Gandhi as his role model, but he did not. Violence featured strongly in the process, as it did on the other side when Israel was being founded and later defended. We do not hear much about Arafat's role models, but one of them appears to be Menachem Begin, notorious for his use of terror in the struggle to set up the state of Israel, of which he subsequently became prime minister. In the course of a message to Begin in 1982, urging him to call off the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Arafat reportedly wrote: "I have learned more from you as a resistance leader than anyone else about how to combine politics with military tactics."

Although he clearly dislikes and is even appalled by Ariel Sharon, Kimmerling, the Romanian-born professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, acknowledges the former military leader's political and strategic skills. Sharon is variously described as "a brave and original officer", "an extremely successful military commander" and "a daring and highly sophisticated tactician".

But Kimmerling also reminds us of Sharon's role as minister of defence in the events surrounding the brutal massacre of anything from 700 to 2,000 Palestinian refugees (estimates vary depending on the source) by right-wing Lebanese militia at the camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut in September 1982, and quotes the verdict of the commission of inquiry headed by Israel's chief justice, Yitzhak Kahan: "Responsibility is to be imputed to the minister of defence for having disregarded the prospect of acts of revenge and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population of the refugee camps and for having failed to take this danger into consideration."

The Kahan Commission was set up following an angry demonstration by some 400,000 Israelis in Tel Aviv, protesting about the massacres. Rarely has the humanity inherent in the Israeli people and the Jewish faith been more clearly illustrated than by this vast turnout.

The number of Palestinians killed in the latest Intifada is comparable with the figures for Sabra and Shatila, but there is no mass movement of protest under way in Israel. The deplorable and counter-productive suicide bombings are part of the reason. Kimmerling points out that, in Palestinian eyes, Israel's policy of "targeted killings" of those it claims are responsible for violent acts is an equivalent evil. He writes:

First of all, the murder victims were public figures, many of whom were admired by the Palestinian people; secondly, the operations were often not clean, and killed other, innocent, individuals along with the targeted person.

The author worries that worse, much worse, than targeted killings may be in the minds of certain planners. He believes high-ranking members of Sharon's administration have for some time been seeking "to prepare the Israeli public for far-reaching measures against the Palestinians". He also quotes a chilling interview by the Israeli chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, who describes Palestinian resistance as a cancer: "Some will say it is necessary to amputate organs. But at the moment I am applying chemotherapy." Interestingly, Gen Ya'alon recently revealed that there had been several discussions, "in terms of costs and benefits", about killing Yasser Arafat, the elected president of the Palestinian people.

Sharon himself remains something of an enigma to the author. His hardline - many of his critics would say "brutal" - reputation is not in doubt. But what precisely is he up to with his endorsement of a Palestinian state? Is he a de Gaulle, prepared to abandon Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, just as the French leader ditched the pieds noirs in Algeria? Or is he a second Milosevic, adopting ethnic cleansing as the answer and pushing the Palestinians out of the West Bank and into Jordan and elsewhere?

Kimmerling does not have a clear answer, perhaps because it depends ultimately not on Sharon's personal inclinations but on the rest of the world, particularly the United States, Israel's senior partner and staunch supporter over the years. He writes that many Israelis regard the US as their country's "political and moral super-ego", setting the parameters for what is permissible, excusable and right.

The US administration is currently the driving force behind the "Road Map" for peace and Palestinian statehood, although the looming presidential election may test George Bush's resolve. While the powers and even the borders of a Palestinian state are still vague, many believe its establishment would be a step in the right direction and a protection for the Palestinian people against the darker schemes of right-wing elements in Israel.

It could well be the antidote to politicide.

Deaglán de Bréadún is the Foreign Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times

Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War Against the Palestinians. By Baruch Kimmerling, Verso (London and New York), 234pp, £15