Destructive Middle East Rituals (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- May 22, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Last week, Israel celebrated Jerusalem Day, commemorating the reunification of the city in 1967.  Destructive?

A. First, a few facts. The majority of Jerusalemites are either Palestinian Arabs or Israeli ultra-Orthodox (Haredim). Neither celebrate Jerusalem Day. The provocative Flag March that has in recent years come to symbolize the celebration consists primarily of non-Jerusalemites: messianic ultra-nationalist youth from West Bank National Orthodox yeshivot and “hill youth” from the West Bank’s illegal outposts. Their marauding annual march through the Old City once again left behind beaten-up Palestinian shopkeepers and trashed Arab shops.

This year, for good measure, members of the international press were roughed up, too. Simultaneously, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who is in charge of order in Jerusalem, paid a provocative visit to the Temple Mount that led to angry Jordanian protests.

This is all the work of a “violent fringe”, according to some National Religious apologists. No. Sorry. These criminal elements are now at the very heart of religious Zionism.

It is only in recent years that messianic Jews like Ben Gvir and the Hill Youth have violated the traditional Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox prohibition (for fear of treading on the ruins of the Temple) on visiting the Temple Mount. The Muslim Arab response has been to reemphasize their traditional position that the entire Mount with its three mosques a ‘Holy Mosque’ and to term every Jewish visit to the esplanade a violation of Muslim sanctity. There is growing religious extremism on both sides.

Here it is helpful to recall that back in June 1967, the then-moderate National Orthodox ministers in Israel’s government voted against the IDF conquering the Old City and the holy places of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They feared igniting extremism. Prominent secular leaders like Moshe Dayan voiced reservations and warnings about the broad regional ramifications of Israel’s occupation. Initial annual celebrations of Jerusalem Day featured mainly secular Israelis.

Euphoria quickly took over. Israel mindlessly annexed to West Jerusalem not just the modest neighborhoods of Arab East Jerusalem but huge expanses of adjacent Arab villages that were never part of Jerusalem. Little constructive thought was given to integrating these Palestinians into Israel.

Q. Surely progress has been made, though.

A. Yes, some Arab neighborhoods have refurbished roads and sidewalks. Some Jerusalem Arabs have good jobs in Israel. Some Jerusalem Arab schoolchildren now study according to the Israeli rather than Palestinian curriculum. More Jerusalem Arabs are entering Israel’s universities.

But overall? The Netanyahu coalition just rejected a five-year plan to develop East Jerusalem. A lot of available land there is allocated to settler enclaves. Many recent acts of terrorism originated with East Jerusalem Arabs.

A few years ago I took an East Jerusalem taxi to Ramallah, capital of the Palestinian Authority. We drove via Kafr Aqab, one of those annexed Palestinian villages. Kafr Aqab is separated from the rest of municipal Jerusalem by the fence/wall that Ariel Sharon erected to reduce terrorist intrusions. This part of sovereign Israeli Jerusalem, along with a few other annexed villages, is now no-man’s land. You can drive the wrong way on the main road, and no one will bother you. You can build whatever and wherever you want without concern for city inspectors, who dare not visit; the municipality will exact property taxes by using drones to calculate how much you owe.

Back in 1966, as an IDF intelligence officer trainee, I lay in a crawl space on the third floor of Notre Dame, a Vatican-owned building abutting the then-armistice line boundary between West and East Jerusalem. With my binoculars, I observed the traffic in what was then Jordan: the comings and goings on Salah a-Din Street. It looked like a dusty Arab village. Five years later, training to be a Mossad collection officer, I walked those East Jerusalem streets under cover as a non-Israeli; for training purposes, East Jerusalem could serve as a foreign Arab country. Today, revisiting East Jerusalem, much of it has changed very little.

This, then, is Jerusalem, eternal capital of Israel, its “unity” celebrated violently on Jerusalem Day by the messianic vanguard of angry Jewish nationalism.

Q. Meanwhile, at its headquarters in New York, the United Nations officially commemorated the Naqba on its 75th anniversary. Also destructive?

A. Sadly, yes. The Palestinian cause still commands an automatic majority in non-binding, barely symbolic UN General Assembly votes. So last November the UNGA voted to hold this commemorative 75th anniversary event on Naqba Day, May 14, which coincides with the celebration of Israel’s independence according to the global calendar.

The Naqba, or ‘catastrophe’ of Palestinian flight and exile beginning in 1948, is for Palestinians a genuine day of mourning. Israel’s Independence Day is celebrated according to the Hebrew calendar, hence almost never coincides. This year it fell on April 26.

The Palestinians have a very legitimate case, within the framework of a two-state solution with Israel, for refugee reparations. Indeed, Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state depends on the creation of a Palestinian state. Right now, neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership is a candidate for serious negotiations: the one insists on coveting all the land and ignoring or robbing its Arab residents, the other is hopelessly split between an Islamist regime in Gaza and a decadent regime in Ramallah.

The question here is, does the UN commemoration, boycotted by nearly 50 member-states, further the Palestinian cause? Does the demand voiced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on May 14 to suspend Israel from the United Nations even make sense?

Q. Also last week, at the annual Arab League summit held in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, Syria was welcomed back into the League 12 years after it was expelled for committing atrocities against its own citizens. Surely inter-Arab reconciliation is a positive sign . . .

A. By and large, Arab states are not democracies. And their human rights record is reprehensible. But even they made an exception, back in 2011-12, for Syria’s President Bashar Assad when he killed and exiled fully half of Syria’s population in the course of suppressing a widespread Arab Spring rebellion: they suspended Syria from the League.

Now Assad, whose crimes against his own citizens should have consigned him to a jail cell in The Hague, is received in Jedda in the name of fictitious and artificial Arab unity. The Saudis, with wind in their sails from renewing diplomatic relations with Iran and negotiating a ceasefire in Yemen, are bent on welcoming him back into the Arab fold. Some Arab leaders grumbled when Assad, at the podium in Jedda, blamed Zionist and Ottoman crimes for his troubles; some walked out; others never showed up in the first place.

Assad’s country is still occupied by Russians and Iranians. And he still has to make good on a pledge to the Saudis to close down Syria’s large-scale manufacture and export of Captagon (Fenethylline), a drug that has become the scourge of neighboring Arab countries while lining the pockets of the Assad clan.

To make amends for inviting Assad to Jedda and perhaps to placate Washington, the Saudis also hosted Ukraine’s President Zelensky in Jedda. When Zelensky spoke to the assembled leaders, Assad, a vassal of Moscow, took off his earphones and stared at the ceiling lest Vladimir Putin suspect him of complicity.

The Arab League was a toothless institution before Assad was expelled. It can hardly be any better now. Don’t expect this Arab fake show of reunion and brotherhood to last very long.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Last week we witnessed, in action, the sick institutions of dysfunctional Middle East societies. The Jerusalem flag march is, frankly, fascist. The UN preoccupation with the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does little to contribute to a future resolution of the conflict. The Arab League, long a toothless body, will surely not redeem itself by readmitting a criminal monster to the fold.

These are all destructive rituals.