Was Barak telling the truth?

The ex-PM's disparagement of the Palestinians began long ago

Yoav Peled

Friday May 24, 2002

Astute observers of Israeli politics have been wondering, ever since Ehud
Barak was elected prime minister in 1999, whether his "peace offensive" was
a real effort to achieve peace with Israel's neighbours or only an attempt
to "expose" the Arabs' intention of destroying Israel.

The debate intensified when the failure of the Camp David II summit in the
summer of 2000 was almost universally interpreted as a rejection by Yasser
Arafat of Barak's "generous" offer to end Israel's occupation of the West
Bank and Gaza and enable the Palestinians to establish an independent state.

An interview Barak recently gave to Benny Morris - a convert to the cause of
the Israeli rightwing - which was published in the New York Review of Books
(and reprinted in this newspaper yesterday) allows a glimpse into some of
his underlying assumptions.

The controversy over what actually transpired at Camp David is well known by
now, and Barak's version of events is disputed (yet again) in the same issue
of the New York Review by Robert Malley and Hussein Agha. What is more
revealing is Barak's view of the people with whom he was purportedly trying
to reach a peace agreement.

"Repeatedly during [the] interview," Morris reports, Barak spoke of the
Palestinians as products of a culture "in which to tell a lie ... creates no
dissonance. They don't suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists
in Judaeo-Christian culture. Truth is seen as an irrelevant category. There
is only that which serves your purpose and that which doesn't." Curiously,
Morris, who did more than anybody to dispel official Israeli lies about the
war of 1948, does not record his own reaction to these racist stereotypes.

Polite western society no longer tolerates such characterisations of entire
cultures, although I suspect things may have changed, at least in the US,
since September 11. But in Israel the public denigration of Arab culture was
historically acceptable, since, like all colonial movements, Zionism had to
dehumanise the indigenous inhabitants of its country of settlement in order
to legitimise their displacement. Thus, as many studies have shown,
depictions of the Arabs as conniving, dishonest, lazy, treacherous and
murderous were commonplace in Israeli school textbooks, as in much of
Israeli literature in general.

For the past two decades, however, Israeli society has been going through a
profound and wide-ranging process of liberalisation. A great deal of effort
was invested, by the upper-middle strata of Jewish Israeli society (the
people who voted for Barak in 1999), in the struggle against the mutual
stereotyping of Jews and Palestinians.

A whole industry of "dialogue and coexistence" groups sprouted up. As a
result, generalisations such as the ones used by Barak were delegitimised to
the point where it became difficult, in classroom situations for example, to
make any general statement about a particular group in society. Tragically,
all of this was halted by the breakdown of the peace process and the onset
of the second intifada.

The question, then, is whether Barak's statements reflect a genuine
frustration over the Palestinians' response to his peace efforts; are an
effort to cater to changing public opinion; or whether he held this view of
the Palestinians all along.

As chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Force, he opposed the Oslo accords,
and as minister of the interior in Yitzhak Rabin's cabinet he abstained in
the crucial vote on the Oslo II agreement. When he took office as prime
minister he reneged on the commitments undertaken by his predecessor,
Benjamin Netanyahu, in the Wye Plantation agreement, to further withdraw
from occupied Palestinian territory. And throughout his tenure as prime
minister he refused to abide by any clause of the Oslo agreements that
mandated further Israeli "concessions" to the Palestinians. This behaviour
is perfectly understandable if the Palestinians are all pathological liars
and agreements signed by them are not to be trusted.

During Barak's year and a half in office as prime minister, he kept warning
that Israel was like a ship heading towards certain collision with an
iceberg, and that his peace efforts were crucial for avoiding a catastrophe.
Unfortunately, what is revealed in the Morris interview is that the captain
of the ship may have been blinded by prejudice, so that instead of avoiding
the iceberg he sailed full steam ahead right into it.

Yoav Peled teaches political science at Tel Aviv University. He is
co-author, with Gershon Shafir, of Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple
Citizenship (CUP).