“We need a Palestinian Mandela”

May 23, 2002


1. "Israel on the edge" (By Paul Johnson, April 25, 2002)
2. "'We need a Palestinian Mandela'" (By Robert L. Pollock, Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2002)


[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach two items:

(1) "Israel on the edge" by Paul Johnson. Johnson, a British Catholic historian, writes: "It is now clear that the Oslo accords were a mistake and have been used by Arafat and his foreign backers merely as a platform from which to launch indiscriminate suicide bombing against Israel's cities."

Johnson laments the decline in the quality and energy of Israeli diplomacy. He says that many Israeli ambassadors now "tend to be second-raters with limited fluency in English." He also compares the "lack of symmetry between the risks taken by Arabs and by Israelis" and says that "by one wrong decision, an Israeli leader cannot only lose the war in one afternoon, he can lose half the Jewish people too." This, says Johnson, may be one factor in explaining the "different view of the sanctity of human life" held by Jews and Arabs. He adds: "We in the West would be well advised to appreciate the strength of the hatred the Israelis face, for it may soon be turned against us too."

(2) "We Need a Palestinian Mandela" An interview in The Wall Street Journal with Omar Karsou, a 42-year-old banker from Nablus. Karsou is the kind of Palestinian moderate usually threatened, harassed or in some cases killed by Yasser Arafat's security forces. As Karsou notes, "our cause has been hijacked by extremists" and for anti-Arafat moderates like him to get an audience with western leaders he "might do better to leave the democracy rhetoric at home, and adopt a head scarf and 'martyr' talk."

-- Tom Gross


Israel on the edge
Fighting despair, Arabs, and the enmity of the world.
By Paul Johnson
April 25, 2002

In the current Arab-Israeli crisis, the Israelis appear to have forfeited the sympathy of much of the civilized world. Why is this? And what can Israel, and its allies, do about it?

Part of the explanation lies in the failure of Israel's once brilliantly efficient instrument of state to deliver. After half a century of embattlement with the Arab world, Israel has a tired and combat-weary look and seems to be asking, despairingly: "Where will it all end?"

Israel's case for its offensive against its neighboring terrorist enclaves is, in essence, excellent and unassailable. It is now clear that the Oslo accords were a mistake and have been used by Arafat and his foreign backers merely as a platform from which to launch indiscriminate suicide bombing against Israel's cities. But this case has been poorly presented by officials who seem to have lost heart. At any rate it has not got through.

When Colin Powell was in Israel, most of the horrifying facts presented to him by Ariel Sharon appeared to be news to him. And if Powell does not grasp the strength of Israel's case, how can millions of ordinary TV viewers across the world, who nightly see Israeli tanks trundling through Arab villages, be expected to understand why the Israeli army has had to conduct its campaign?

Second, there has been a manifest decline in the quality and energy of Israeli diplomacy, formerly one of the world's wonders. Israel's ambassadors in key capitals were handpicked for outstanding ability and high profiles, with a superb grasp of English forensic skills. They seized with relish on the smallest chance to provide "bites" for television audiences. Now they tend to be second-raters with limited fluency in English.

Third, and more serious, is the decline in the morale and effectiveness of the Israeli army, the overwhelming victor in four trials of strength with the Arab world over the last 50 years. This decline has been noted both by well-disposed military experts from the West and by critical Israelis themselves. Operations are less well planned, troops often inadequately trained, and individual soldiers, most of them conscripts, poorly motivated.

These factors lead to excessive use of heavy firepower, needless killing of innocent civilians, and painful delays, all of which the TV cameras magnify.

These weaknesses on the Israeli side could be removed if the will were there. But is it? Israel has some of the characteristics of a gerontocracy, a state run by old men who have forgotten nothing and learned little in recent decades. It is a genuine democracy none better but its multiple-party system makes for a deadly paralysis at the top, where old men never seem to die, or fade away either. The man who tried to break this impasse, Benjamin Netanyahu, was eventually rejected by voters (who are highly conservative too), but they now seem to be having second thoughts and it may be that a return of Netanyahu to power would be the first decisive step in putting Israel to rights.

However, there are some factors in Israel's present predicament that are outside her control. Here are the most important. First, there is no symmetry in the Arab-Israeli conflict. If the Israelis score a military victory, or a diplomatic one for that matter, the Arabs live to fight another day. Israel, by contrast, cannot afford one serious mistake. If Israel lost control of the air, and her army were overrun, there can be absolutely no doubt that the entire Jewish-Israeli nation would be exterminated. It would be Hitler's holocaust all over again, conducted not in secrecy and shame but in the open, in a spirit of triumphant exultation as the successful climax of a jihad. This is the nightmare not distant but proximate that every Israeli prime minister must face and for which he will be held posthumously responsible if he guesses wrongly and fails to use the necessary force in time. By one wrong decision, an Israeli leader cannot only lose the war in one afternoon, he can lose half the Jewish people too. This helps to explain why the Israeli elite are hag-ridden with anxiety, obstinate, and often closed to argument.

The lack of symmetry between the risks taken by Arabs and by Israelis is one result of a different view of the sanctity of human life. The Jewish faith was the first religion to preach this sanctity and to magnify the value of each individual human being in the eyes of his Creator hence, equally, in other human beings. This is the main reason that Mosaic law differs so markedly in humanity and reason from all the other fiercely retributive codes of the ancient Near East. The value placed on human life by Jews has steadily increased over the centuries, as a response to persecution and, above all, to the Nazi attempt at extermination of the entire people. Israel itself was created as a refuge and fortress in which Jewish lives would be safe from annihilation. It is thus the physical embodiment of the principle that individual life is sacred.

By contrast, the Islamic-Arab concept of "the war of the martyrs" places no value on human life except as a sacrifice in the holy war. A warrior gains infinitely more by losing his life than by preserving it, for then he gains eternal life, and his status as a martyr is enhanced by the number of dead Israelis "sons and daughters of Satan" whom he takes with him.

It is very difficult for the Israelis to know how to straddle this complete lack of symmetry in warfare and to combat an enemy that has so few inhibitions about killing either opponents or its own people. There is, indeed, something Hitlerian about the implacable hatred Israel faces on its own borders. It should come as no surprise that Arabic translations both of Mein Kampf and of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that diabolic forgery, are best-sellers in the Arab world. We in the West would be well advised to appreciate the strength of the hatred the Israelis face, for it may soon be turned against us too. (We received a foretaste on September 11.)

However, for the moment, the world is unconscious of these deep underlying forces, and tends in its ignorance to see the Arab-Israel conflict as a war like any other, with the faults 50-50. From this perspective it is therefore the Israelis who appear to be guilty of a disproportionate use of force, an impression the nightly TV images seem to confirm.

Thus the Jews, not for the first time in their long and tragic history, are blamed for the persecution they suffer. Like the Israelis themselves, the world is tired of the endless antagonism of the Arabs and wishes that somehow or other the Jews and their state would simply fade away and allow everyone to have some rest. Thus, similarly, in wartime Germany, ordinary Germans, vaguely aware that countless thousands of Jews were being "sent east" that euphemism employed for Destination Auschwitz were furious at the rattling of vast trains of cattle-trucks packed with doomed Jews, which disturbed their rest throughout the night, and cursed "those damned Jews, never letting us get a decent night's sleep."

(Paul Johnson is a journalist and historian whose books include A History of the Jews and whose latest volumes are on the Renaissance and Napoleon.)



'We need a Palestinian Mandela'
Meet Omar Karsou, a moderate in a land of extremes.
By Robert L. Pollock
The Wall Street Journal
May 17, 2002

Just days ago conventional wisdom was that Israel's recent invasion of the West Bank had only strengthened Yasser Arafat's hand by forcing Palestinians to rally behind their leader. But as he ventured out of Ramallah this week, Arafat was met by sparse crowds, and he canceled plans to visit the Jenin refugee camp for fear of being heckled, or worse. Such discontent apparently led to Arafat's unprecedented speech Wednesday, in which he accepted blame for unspecified "mistakes," and promised reform of the Palestinian Authority.

"There's a lot of soul-searching, a lot of people asking what has he done," says a Palestinian named Omar Karsou. But Mr. Karsou remains skeptical that Mr. Arafat will ever give up his decades-long practice of dictatorial rule secured by rewarding cronies. "We're the only nonentity in the world with 28 ministers," he marvels.

Mr. Karsou, a 42-year-old banker from Nablus, has been a quiet advocate of democratic reform in the Palestinian Authority. Now he's about to become a public advocate, launching a movement--tentatively called Democracy in Palestine along with a small group of Palestinian legislators, businessmen, academics, lawyers and journalists. Their mission: to promote a true "rule of law" in the PA; to promote national and local elections in the PA; and to demand a renunciation of the use of force in settling disputes. Mr. Karsou will make his first public appearance a week from today on a panel sponsored by Washington's Hudson Institute.

I first met Mr. Karsou last summer, shortly after he moved his wife and their four children to the U.S. to ensure their safety after the launch of the movement. At the time he assured me that a silent majority of Palestinians didn't understand why Arafat walked away from Camp David and didn't understand what the current violence was all about. A common joke, he said, was that "We had British occupation. We had Jordanian occupation. We had Israeli occupation. Now we have Tunisian occupation" a reference to the long exile of Arafat and his PLO cronies in Tunisia. They now dominate PA institutions; locals have been largely frozen out.

But before Mr. Karsou could get the movement off the ground, Sept. 11 happened, and the world's attention moved elsewhere. Mr. Karsou used the delay to great effect, quietly making the rounds in Washington, where surprisingly given his political inexperience and yet-unborn movement he generated a lot of buzz.

A few months ago I even got a phone call about Mr. Karsou from Israel's deputy prime minister, Natan Sharansky. While Mr. Sharansky didn't specifically endorse the man or his group, he wanted to stress how important it was that such democratic movements be encouraged.

"We have no one but ourselves to blame," Mr. Sharansky said of the violence, arguing Israel had foolishly gambled that having a strong dictator like Yasser Arafat running the Palestinian Authority would help Israel crush groups like Hamas. As it turned out, legitimacy not won at the ballot box was maintained by keeping Israel an external enemy. That's why, Mr. Sharansky said, "It's much better to deal with a democracy that hates you than a dictator who loves you."

Mr. Karsou says the Palestinians aren't faced with a choice between a dictator and Hamas: "If we have a free and fair election, the moderates will win." Of his frank discussions with the deputy prime minister: "Sharansky believes in the land of Israel. But more importantly he doesn't want to rule over other people."

Mr. Karsou is a self-described "Palestinian nationalist" and no lover of Israel. (His Ramallah offices were ransacked by Israeli troops during the recent incursion.) Nor is he willing to compromise much in his vision of a future Palestinian state. He advocates something like the Saudi plan, a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and a just settlement of the refugee issue, though not necessarily the right to return to Israel proper. ("Officially I am a refugee" his family fled Jaffa in 1948 "but the West Bank is my home.") But he has apparently succeeded in convincing a number of pro-Israel hawks that with the right leadership and democratic institutions, such a Palestinian state needn't be a threat to Israel's existence.

Yet while some words of encouragement from Washington would help safeguard Mr. Karsou and his colleagues while they challenge Arafat's regime, the real test will be winning support back home. He says he isn't too concerned about being tainted by his contacts with Israelis and their supporters. Palestinians understand that "we negotiate with our adversaries, not with our friends. That the hawks are talking to us means there is some hope for this movement."

Mr. Karsou laments the fact that other would-be moderates like Hanan Ashrawi and Saeb Erekat have thrown in their lot with the PLO, and now spend more time denouncing the occupation than working to build the kind of Palestinian society that would make it easier to end the occupation. "Once the Israelis see some serious, peaceful leadership on the Palestinian side, they'll be willing to go out of their way to accommodate it," he says, citing a recent poll showing 57% of Israelis support the Saudi plan. "The way to end the Palestinian issue is by having a Palestinian Mandela. That's what we urgently need."

There are, of course, plenty of reasons to be cynical about the prospects for Mr. Karsou and his group. But then any revolutionary movement is a long shot at the outset. And, ironically, one of his biggest obstacles to international recognition might be the State Department, which has too often written off Arabs who speak the language of democracy such as Iraqi opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi as unrepresentative and inauthentic. We joke that he might do better to leave the democracy rhetoric at home, and adopt a head scarf and "martyr" talk for his visits to Foggy Bottom. "If I say our cause has been hijacked by extremists some people find it strange," says Mr. Karsou. "Well, it is a fact."

Mr. Karsou has bravely abandoned a life and a home to do something about that fact. He deserves all the support he can get.

(Mr. Pollock is an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal.)

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.