The Sunday TimesNews/Comment

18th August 1996



Israel: Enter Jewish fundamentalists

Islamic Fundamentalism. With its astounding reach and influence, the U.S.-dominated global communications system has introduced the Islamic revival as a new menace, the likely successor to "Godless Communism". Evidently, its operational theater is the Moslem world that stretches from Algeria and Sudan to Malaysia and Indonesia.

But the ideological roots of this "fundamentalism" are not traced to Prophet Mohammed or Mecca but to West Asia, to Iran and the Iranian revolution inspired by the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini, a lonely, humble exile in Paris during the reign of the Shahenshah Aryamehr, the king of kings, the Light of the Aryans - the "American Shah" to his people.

It is only when this "light" suddenly went out that western media and academia discovered "Islamic fundamentalism", the new threat to world peace, and more directly to the stability of the strategic, oil-rich Middle East. But the United States and its western (NATO) allies took comfort in the military strength, skill and devotion to duty of its appointed policeman on the regional beat, Israel.

Though Israel remains the strongest power in the region, it has lately run into serious political trouble that could lead to prolonged domestic instability. Ironically one of the more astonishing causes of this new turbulence, so soon after the Knesset elections is identified as "Jewish fundamentalism". Some analysts prefer to introduce it as "a Zionist revivalism".

But it would be a serious mistake in my view to neglect the economic. "Although much of the economy is insulated from regional instability, any return to widespread violence and uncertainty will have serious consequences on tourism receipts, foreign investment and Israel's ability to raise money abroad, particularly in Europe, a new capital market the government believes is now ready to tapped.

It was British journalist Julian Ozanne's next observation that I found far more interesting. Another challenge, he argues, could come "from political conflict within the government. Jewish religious fundamentalists who have more power in government than ever before, will continue to press a theocratic agenda, alienating secular Jews and further frustrating any progress on the peace front."

Jewish Zealots

At this point we should remember that Yigal Amir, the young Israeli who killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the much-decorated war hero, was a Jewish extremist ... in fact a regular participant in secret meetings organized by Jewish Zealots, described by the "liberal" English-language journals in Israel as "hot heads" "fanatics " and "fundamentalists". It was precisely because Rabin was a respected war hero that Labor leader Shimon Peres, neglecting his own strong claims, persuaded General Rabin to contest the June 1992 elections.

A life-long labor party activist - Peres ran the Histradut, the giant trade union federation for many years - he realized that Rabin more than any other leader, could satisfy the average voter, worried over terrorism, political violence, and the predictable consequences of instability.

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin at an election rally saw an immediate change in the mood of the Israeli electorate. Benjamin Netanyahu surprised Shimon Peres and upset the Clinton administration by carrying the day. On the lawns of the White House, President Clinton had publicly blessed the Peres-Arafat dialogue on a negotiated settlement. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the traditional patron of the Arabs, particularly the radical Arab leaders, had greatly increased Washingtons diplomatic leverage.

Moscow had its own massive problems. Russian Jewish families were the latest migrants to Israel. As the numbers swelled, and their problems (housing and jobs chiefly) multiplied, these new immigrants formed their own "Russian" party. It preferred Netanyahu's "grand coalition" where it had a voice, to Rabin-Peres led Labor. Besides, the Labor party was firmly committed to the land-for-peace formula; that is, a self-governing area (Gaza and the West Bank) where a "Palestinian Authority" would exercise the powers of a mini-state, an autonomous area that may become an independent state, some day. And so Chairman Yasser Arafat permitted his loyal supporters and PLO cadres to call him "President Arafat".

Prime Minister Rabin and Foreign Minister Peres were smart enough to understand these symbolic gestures since the majority of Palestinians were convinced that they were finally on the road to their 50-year dream of a free, independent Palestine. Unfortunately, this patiently, even nervously, mapped out Peres-Arafat step-by-step advance to a resolution of the conflict was seen by a clever, cold-blooded and opportunistic Benjamin Netanyahu as a gift from heaven.

All he had to do was to convince an Israeli electorate almost evenly divided between Labor and Likud that the Rabin-Peres "deal" with the P.L.O. was a dangerous sell-out. And his task was not all that difficult. The Arabs of the Middle-East had so many independent states whereas the Jews had only one, Israel. Need the Jews carve that up, too? Could such an Israel, encircled by Arab countries, survive! Would not the Jewish people lose their disintictive identity?

Terrorism Expert

With great care, skill and ruthless self-discipline, Benjamin Netanyahu prepared himself for what he regarded as his date with destiny. "It is clear," writes the Israeli analyst, Avishai Margalit" that Netanyahu sees himself mainly as a leader of the anti-terrorist cause..." (Netanyahu is the author of Fighting Terrorism: How democracies Defeat Domestic and International Terrorism). "One of the people educated by Netanyahu's Jonathan Institute was Ronald Reagan. The Institute organized two conferences on terrorism, one in 1979 and the other in 1985. Netanyahu edited the proceedings of the 1985 conference which appeared under the title Terrorism and How the West Can Win, and included two of his essays, on the need to oppose terror.

In his book published in 1993, Netanyahu claims that Reagan read excerpts from the conference record which appeared in Time magazine - and shortly afterward the Americans attacked Libya...! (The Clinton administration has recently placed Libya, together with Sudan, Iraq and Iran on Washington's hit list).

One of the conditions of the Oslo accords signed by Shimon Peres, then foreign minister, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (now "President" of the autonomous Palestinian authority), was an Israeli pledge NOT to establish Jewish settlements on 'occupied land', particularly the West Bank and Gaza. The Labor government of Rabin and Peres, honoured that pledge.

On Monday, the Likud government's Defense Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai approved 300 mobile homes on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Mordechai, Reuter reported, had approved a new procedure, though Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed that his regime has "yet to decide whether to allow new settlements or build new roads."

The PLO, who the other party to the 'accord' condemns settlement "building" since it is here in the West Bank and Gaza it plans to set up 'an independent state'. If Defense Minister Moradechai and of course the Netanyahu administration ignore the solemn pledges given by the Labor government, the "accords" backed by President Clinton would be a worthless piece of paper. And that in turn would expose President Arafat and his "Palestinian Authority" to the anger and ridicule of the Palestinian people. Who will gain? First, the more militant Islamic groups, popularly called "Islamic fundamentalists" Hamas, Islamic Jihad etc.

Two Wars

Surrounded by Arab states and confronted by a large hostile Palestinian population within, the Israeli leadership is preoccupied with the problem of lebensraum, living space, a problem which reinforces its sense of insecurity. Thus the regime's obsession with Jerusalem, the capital. Likud's policy makers think like the Afrikaaners in South Africa - land, settler-colonists, encroachment. Less bigoted, the Labor party of Shimon Peres had stopped Jewish settlements in the areas that had been marked out for the "future" Palestinian mini-state or state. Likud has already announced plans for new settlements.

Prime Minister Netanyahu says he will NOT respect the Oslo accords on this question. In a new study by Walidi Khalidi (Islam, the West and Jerusalem) Saladin's letter to Richard the Lionheart, shortly before the latter's departure is cited: "Jerusalem is our heritage as much as it is yours. It is from Jerusalem that our Prophet ascended to heaven and it is in Jerusalem that the angels assemble. Do not imagine that we can ever abandon it. Nor can we possibly renounce our rights to it as a Moslem community." But Israel's new Housing Minister has other ideas.

Prime Minister Netanyahu chose hard-line Ariel (Arik) Sharon as his Housing Minister. General Sharon is quite frank on his "final solution" - Jerusalem to have a Jewish majority forever! The problem of Jerusalem could be the trigger for a Middle-east in turmoil warns Hassanein Heikal, the Arab World's most famous journalist. So, the hard-line Likud ideologies, the uncompromising militarists, the Zionists and the bigoted rabbis open the doors to the Islamic fundamentalists, Hamas and the Jihad.

Media and the two faced politicians

By Neville de Silva

Truth, it has been said, is the first casualty in war, When US Senator Hiram Johnson uttered this sad truth he was doubtless thinking of the misinformation and disinformation practiced in times of armed conflicts.

But it is not only in war that truth suffers. Nor is it the only casualty.

The media becomes one too, and often war is but a convenient excuse to tame a critical media that won't readily yield to the dictates of government.

Five centuries before Christ, the Greek poet Euripides said of the purveyors of news of his time "To give me information is thy office" the task of the media remains essentially the same today, though it has become more complicated by time and history.

Naturally, the media in authoritarian societies are in greater danger of being brought to heel, if they have not already been cowed down by repression or threats of repression, Regimes that have a dubious legitimacy, if they have any at all, have more to be afraid of an independent and unbending media than those who govern with the will of the people.

This is to be expected. But the covert danger to the media comes from those political leaderships in democratic societies which like the ancient Roman god Janus, wear two faces one face it shows the public when out of power and the other when in power.

I raise this issue with very good reason. My week in Sri Lanka was climaxed by an unfortunate and dangerous threat by the country's President Chandrika Bandaranike Kumaratunga, fast acquiring for intemperate and unthinking utterances.

It was bad enough when President Kumartunga threatened to shut down the private media both print and electronic. It was doubly dangerous when she reportedly threatened to do so on the advice of the military.

When an elected president (with an unprecedented 62 per cent of the vote too) who led a socialist coalition which promised the country a free media untrammelled by the heavy hand of government, wants to leave it to the military to decide matters that should remain essentially in the civilian domain, then in is time for all to take serious note. The military no doubt has a vital task to perform in Sri Lanka today, unlike the principally ceremonial role it played until about 20 years ago. That is to protect the integrity of the nation from armed Tamil secessionists.

But to entrust the military with not just a civilian task but one that would necessarily entail the curtailment of fundamental rights - freedom of expression and of the press - is to inject the military into civil society.

It is equally obnoxious when simple- minded political decisions outweigh strategic thinking and military prudence. The occupation of Jaffna, the northern capital of the Tamil Tiger separatists, late last year was surely a political decision rather than a military one.

Sri Lanka's armed forces and public have had to pay bitterly for that ill-conceived decision. Having committed the military to holding territory in Jaffna thereby spreading it thinly the government is now trying to cover up the latest military debacle in northeast Mullaitivu.

Instead of directing her ire at the Tigers, President Kumaratunga turns her guns on the media for purportedly demoralizing the military.

It is not the media but politicians playing tin soldiers and generals who have demoralized the military, if at all. President Kumaratunga is hoping to sweep under the carpet her governments political and military foolhardiness by trying to use the military to punish the media for exposing her sheer inability to govern.

President Kumaratunga and her advisers should heed these words of the Roman philosopher and statesmen Cicero: "An army is of little value in the field unless there are wiser counsels at home."

Meanwhile the opposition United National Party intends to campaign against this latest threat to the media.

One could have had greater faith in the UNP's concern for a free press if it had shown during its 17 years in government the concern it begins to show in opposition.

In politics, the two-faced Janus is everywhere.

The writer is the Hong Kong Standard's Assistant Editor

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