Soon after the 1993 Oslo accords, a Lebanese economist named Georges Corm wrote an article entitled “A Peace without a Peace Process in the Middle East?” In it, he predicted that the momentum toward peace begun at Oslo would eventually falter. Now that it is clear that events have proven him more or less right, it is worth examining whether his reasons for thinking they would bear any resemblance to why they did.
In some ways, Mr. Corm’s article was the book-end to another that he wrote before Oslo, entitled “Thoughts on the Roots of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” In it, he argued that Palestinians and Israelis would be unable to create a gradual process – from conferences (such as Madrid), through accords (such as Oslo) to ultimately in a fabric of mutual accommodations (such as Wye River) – that would solidify into a comprehensive acceptance of their mutual co-existence. This was consistent with the concept of “small, confidence building steps” that had been the hallmark of Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic approach to breaking deadlocks between Israel and the Arab world, which bore fruit in the treaty that Egypt and Israel signed in 1979 – something that Mr. Corm was clearly not buying into.
In his post-Oslo article, Mr. Corm explained his thinking:
In order for Jews and Arabs to live together and build a future where war, expulsion, and oppression are no longer the order of the day, a new regional context must emerge. In a very real sense, it is in the hands of the West. The Arab-Israeli conflict was forged not by the malevolence and fanaticism of the Arabs, nor even by biblical sources transformed into a modern nationalist ideology. Rather, it was forged in the history of the West, or at least in the history of a Europe rent by massive nationalist conflicts. It was forged, too, in the European and American borders closed to the victims of anti-Semitism. It is thus for the West to start down the road toward repairing the ravages that its tormented and traumatizing history wrought in the Near East.
Mr. Corm is still among us, publishing his opinions into his early 80s. While it has no doubt changed in various ways, his thinking in the earlier years of his career illustrates the underlying tension that still engulfs the conflict today. He could see that both sides seemed to have found themselves at risk of profound despair, as when he wrote – translated from French – that “[r]eligious and mystical exaltation, Muslim or Jewish, leads directly to the suicide of both populations.” But in fact, that universal human failing – the oft-expressed desire and intent to conquer your neighbor out of a sense of superiority or destiny – did not seem to him to be the true culprit in this particular conflict. Rather, it was “the West,” that ascendant force in geopolitics and international diplomacy by virtue of its increase in global power through the Industrial Revolution, that had put its own imperial ambitions at center stage in Palestine’s affairs. Because of this “original sin,” it was also up to it to develop the antidote that would roll back all of the consequences of its actions in and around the Middle East. In short, from the West came an external virus that still afflicted the Arab world through its stepchild Israel and for things to change, Israel’s presence within the region must be brought to an end.
Looking at them with a fresh eye now, Mr. Corm’s views in the early 1990s seem to overlook any sense of awareness that it was the West that drove – since the end of the World War I – the creation of the global diplomatic forums that were meant to serve as a vaccine to any injustices of the world’s complex system of self-governing, independent nation-states. It did so first through the League of Nations; the second time, after World War II, resulted in the United Nations, which is still with us on FDR Drive in New York City. There, outside of its Security Council, all nation-states have a platform on which they can articulate their principles, combine with one another to recommend or announce their collective humanitarian, diplomatic, legal or even military actions, and otherwise enjoy the fruits of their recognized exercise of their “right of self-determination.”
But according to Mr. Corm, and others of his ilk, in so forming these organizations and institutions, “the West” apparently injected them with a foreign substance that the Arab world could simply not tolerate. First, during the League of Nations era, it was the Balfour Declaration, which “view[ed] with favor” the existence of a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine and led to a nearly 30-year “mandate” over that territory by Great Britain, during which Jewish Europe was given sanction to enter Palestine. Then, during the UN’s early days, it engaged in a process of partition that left the Jews in control of the bulk of the territory under mandate. At the time of his writing (although to a large extent not now), this was widely viewed as a distilled poison injected into the Arab Muslim world that it has steadfastly rejected ever since. At the heart of its Levantine neighborhood, home of the third holiest site of Islam, a new nation-state with a Jewish nationality was born a bastard by a midwife with European (and at this point, also American) hands.
In his first article noted above (published in 1994), Mr. Corm make clear his belief that the West’s guilt in allowing Zionism to come to fruition in the Middle East is the root of all evil in Palestine:
The roots of this logic, prevailing since the Balfour Declaration, can be found in the fact that no principle of law could allow for the creation ex nihilo of a state whose population has no link whatsoever with its territory except for what a religious book, the Bible, describes as events that have taken place millennia ago.
Apart from the fantastic tendentiousness of such a sentiment, Mr. Corm proceeds to argue on its basis that given the “secular principle[s] of international law,” as conceived through “various resolutions since 1947” passed by the UN General Assembly, Israel has failed. Notwithstanding that peace between Israel and other Arab countries had been achieved by this time with Egypt and Jordan, Mr. Corm felt it important to point out, on the rest of the Arab world’s behalf, that this was the fatal flaw of the entire enterprise. After all, apart from the Bible, why would Jews ever be considered to have belonged in Palestine anyway? But even so, it was the Zionists’ maximalist position – insisting “they were entitled to the whole territory under British administration” – that led to the inevitable clash. The wording of his sentiments is familiar: “no principle of law could deprive [Palestine’s Arabs] of part of their ancestral land.” As long as the Jews kept up their pretensions of having genuine roots there – indeed, even asserting deeper roots than the very people who were already there when they arrived – and as long as their own nation-state was denied them, the Palestinians had no choice but to oppose the entire Zionist enterprise.
As we update our sense of reality to reflect the situational dynamics affecting the conflict today, what is most striking about such sentiments is that they still resonate within the Palestinian viewpoint. They suggest that until the West – that is, through its creation, Israel – recognizes that Palestine can never be displaced by a Jewish state, there is zero chance for peace. Clearly, such a view will never be accepted by anyone supporting or acting on behalf of Israel. But the key elements of the “Georges Corm position” on the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine are still with us and can be boiled down into the following three assertions:
FIRST, Israel’s advantage is based on its oppressive use of superior military power supplied by the West.
While the Oslo agreements should have meant a final stop to violence in the occupied territories, the Israeli army has continued to shoot heavily at young Palestinian stone throwers.
That the Palestinians are the plucky underdogs against the massively over-armed and militaristic Israelis is a deeply embedded aspect of the current anti-Israel narrative, as reflected by the emphasis placed on “disproportionate force” used by Israel in its latest war with Hamas. Examples of this sentiment are abundantly shared on all the leading social media platforms. Simply try a Twitter search using the hashtag #IsraelGenocide and see what comes up.
SECOND, Israel relies on an unjustifiable biblical justification to engage in apartheid, ethnic cleansing and settler-colonialism.
The whole Israeli state is a state of settlers supported by a biblical legitimacy which has paralyzed the implementation of standard recognized principles of secular law.
In fact, the “settler mentality” of Israel is a relatively recent development, as described in “Catch-67”, by Micah Goodman. But more importantly, Mr. Corm’s reference to “secular” legal principles must be seen as absurd in the current environment, where it is now clear that the Islamist side of the secular-religious divide has taken charge of Palestine’s ongoing confrontations with Israel. Hamas, which is a political organization engaged in a national campaign based on “Islamic fundamentalism,” is an ongoing offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, its “ideological parent organization.” It is not only unlikely but downright impossible to consider it – or its apparent “sidekick,” Islamic Jihad – as anything other than a cat’s paw for Iran in its overall strategy of opposing Israel at every turn.
THIRD, The West is responsible for its failure to restrain Israel’s aggression.
There has been “a worldwide failure of “moderates” and “secularists” to modulate the dynamics of Israel as a polity and impose clear limits on its territorial expansion since 1947.
There may be some overlap between this point and the second one in that both focus on the fact that Israel seems to want to justify its existence, and manage its affairs, based on a non-secular, “Jewish homeland” approach. But was it ever otherwise, given that it has always identified itself as a Jewish state and has reiterated its national identity as such by recently declaring itself the nation state of the Jewish people? This has engendered terrific controversy but is it conceptually any different than how other countries – including several in the Arab world – define themselves based on ethnicity or religion? Yet there remains an ongoing concern that Israel’s long-term “Jewish” strategy must be seen as subterfuge to realize its expansionist dreams of “Greater Israel.” True, its settler movement has gained steam over the years and has expanded steadily into what once was the site of an ancient Jewish civilization. But even if that movement is religiously motivated to some degree – although “only about a quarter of West Bank settlers live there out of ideological conviction” – the concern is clearly tired and stale when it is increasingly clear that the most prominent voices of today’s “Free Palestine” movement also place religious views at the center of their national ambitions even while they rant about apartheid.
In sum, Georges Corm’s writings were never going to be the last word on why Israel, and Israel alone, must be held responsible for the ongoing despair of Palestine, nor can they be considered the “latest and greatest” thinking on the subject. Still, they reflect the same attitudes that have pervaded those who have opposed Israel since its inception. They may have been transmogrified lately into the “progressive” argument that Palestine is “a litmus test, not of a person’s individual conscience, but of our collective ability to change a global narrative that has legitimated oppression for many decades.” But they are not the true reason for Palestine’s ongoing inability to realize its dream of “self-determination.” For that, we must consider what it would mean for Palestine’s leaders to take irreversible steps toward establishing a permanent and secure peaceful co-existence with Israel. Simply put, the process of doing so seems to be entirely beyond the ken of Palestine’s present leaders. But if he was among them now and asked to advise them, there can be no doubt that based on his Oslo era writings, he would still tell them to “keep doing what you are doing.”