Sunday, November 13, 2005

A jahrzeit, a political death, and some hope

Three deaths in the Middle East give me pause for thought this week. It's the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, the final knell for the occasionally illustrious political career of Shimon Peres, and the accidental killing of a 12 year old Palestinian boy called Ahmed Khatib.

Whatever one's opinion of Yitzchak Rabin, there can be no question of his important (if often controversial) role in Israel's history. A brilliant tactician on the battlefield and in the political arena, able to ride out storms over personal scandal and political imbroglios, he was a heavyweight respected by his colleagues and opponents in domestic politics and international affairs.

He made decisions that seemed instinctively to be right to him at the time, at personal risk. His choice to bring Arafat in from the cold and offer him partnership through the ill-fated Oslo Accords was not the first such move. He was also responsible for the decision to bring the force of arms against fellow Jews bringing illegal weapons shipments into pre-1948 Palestine.

Although in the years following his murder, we have found out what Yigal Amir and his supporters insisted at the time, that Arafat was betraying Rabin from the outset, his actions were borne of a desire to sit with the enemy and break bread. Rabin tired of the constant bloodshed, just as Sharon and Begin, men of the Right, did before making their own concessions of previously sacrosanct land and principles.

The lessons we should learn from Rabin's murder are twofold. Firstly, all parts of the political spectrum must unite in the understanding that violence of Jew against Jew resolves neither our internal or external conflicts - a recent reminder was the Disengagement, where ultimately peaceful resistance and debate resonated much more powerfully and allowed a divided nation to heal. Secondly, for Rabin not to have died in vain, we have to learn the lessons both of what he was attempting (dialogue with our enemies, however unpalatable) and of the reality of his actions (hope and work for a just and warm peace, but plan for your own stability and security as a priority).

This brings us onto Shimon Peres, Rabin's sidekick in so many of his activities. Peres managed an impressive 10 election defeats in 10 attempts, yet maintained his place at the top table of Israeli politics for 5 decades. The old-guard middle class Ashkenazi pragmatic left-centrist's electoral defeat to the younger, working class Sephardi socialist Amir Peretz represents a change in the political dynamics of Israel, and perhaps is a sign of Sharon's success, that he has succeeded in conquering the centre ground and driving the main opposition party to the left.

Unfortunately, Peretz represents the same kind of soft-centred left wing that has proven ill-equipped to handle modern economies in Germany and France, and spineless in its stance against terror as in Spain and on the back benches of the UK's own Labour Party. Peace with Israel's neighbours relies increasingly on economic prosperity creating an urge for trading ties, which are the strongest foundations for a "warm peace". Even under the forward-thinking, investor-friendly leadership of the current Likud government, with policies that appeared painful but are already proving successful as drivers of investment and wealth generation, too many concepts are scuppered by the Histadrut and their allies.

If Peretz wishes to alienate the burgeoning middle class as well as the religious right and those who believe in Sharon's policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians, he could entirely sink the Labour movement. Better the doveish pragmatism and compromise of Peres and Rabin than the albatross-like leftism that the rest of the developing world has come to reject.

So Rabin is commemorated, and Peres passes from political life. Of the three winners of that infamous Nobel Peace Prize, one paid with his life, one paid with the lives and livelihoods of his own people, and one is still paying with humiliation and defeat.

In this moment of circumspection, a message of hope. Golda Meir famously said that "we will have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us." This week, a rare example of a Palestinian family showing that their love for life exceeds the seething hate and resentment generated by the culture that surrounds them. Ahmed Khatib was accidentally shot by Israeli soldiers in Jenin, and later died in hospital of his wounds, after being spotted with what appeared to be a rifle and transpired to be a toy.

Rather than the usual recriminations, his parents accepted the explanation of the IDF and saw their attempts to treat him once they realised their mistake. After seeing Israeli children being treated in the same Haifa hospital ward as their son, they chose to make a different poster-child of their son from the "martyrs" pasted up on the walls of Gaza and Nablus, and donated his organs to any who needed them. Recipients included Israeli Jews and Arabs, all of whom are reported to be making good progress.

From the legacies of Yitzchak Rabin and Ahmed Khatib, we must recognise that our differences are mere excuse, and that dialogue with each other and our neighbours, however painful and alien it may seem, is ultimately our only hope.

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