Mythical Transformations


Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 25 - 31 October 2001, Issue No.557

The assassination of Rehavam Zeevi is the first Palestinian killing of an Israeli political figure in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel, on the other hand, has targeted Palestinian political figures deliberately for decades, claiming such victims as Kamal Adwan, Kamal Nasser, Ghassan Kanafani, Abu Jihad and Abu Ali Mustafa. Despite this lengthy record, only the assassination of the PFLP's secretary-general prompted Palestinian retaliation (one suspects they had similar plans before, but failed to carry them out). The assassination rocked the ruling establishment as well as Israeli society, which views it as an assault on a symbol of national sovereignty.

The assassination was carried out during a cease-fire to which the PA leadership was adhering strictly, even though Sharon has never believed a cease-fire should prevent him from applying his chase-and-kill policy to Palestinian activists. Shortly before the assassination of Zeevi, during an earlier cease-fire when the US and Britain were making promises to the PA, Israel had assassinated several Fatah and Hamas activists.

True to form, Sharon sought to squeeze every last drop of political advantage from Zeevi's assassination and implemented military measures that were part of a scheme with no bearing on the specific situation or its political and ideological consequences. Sharon has been obsessed with recent international efforts -- to him unwelcome pressure -- to bring the Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table. In a negotiating context, Sharon can no longer be perceived as a "fighter of terrorism" in keeping with the post-11 September climate; rather, he will be revealed as an opponent to peace. Sharon, after all, has no plan for a deal. He and his ruling coalition reject the Clinton- Barak formula, which the US wants to repackage and bring back to the negotiating table. His only alternative, therefore, is to score political points by creating new realities on the ground, while keeping the Palestinians hamstrung. Sharon is overjoyed at having compelled the PA to agree to a cease-fire without reciprocating with a freeze on Israeli settlement construction. He perceives this as a triumph for his government's policy of brute force. Now he hopes to use force to reap other "victories" -- i.e., which will drive home to the PA its precise role in "fighting terrorism" that threatens Israel. Once these "gains" are achieved -- but before any form of international intervention -- Sharon will no longer be averse to resuming a "dialogue" with the Palestinians.

Zeevi's assassination brought Israeli society together, enabling Sharon to invade Palestinian cities in the West Bank for the first time since the second redeployment, and essentially create a state of war. The former minister of tourism was assassinated on 17 October. Two days later, Maarev and Yediot Aharonot announced the results of opinion polls they had conducted on 16 and 17 October respectively. The results are somewhat startling.

In the Yediot Aharonot poll, in response to the question "Following the assassination of Zeevi, should PA leaders be eliminated?", 62 per cent of respondents answered yes. Just before the assassination, Maarev had asked: "In your opinion, should Israel renew its policy of eliminating Palestinians at this time?" Seventy- two per cent had replied yes. Note, too, that the Maarev question did not use the word "leaders." In the same poll, 60 per cent of respondents agreed that Yasser Arafat was not a negotiating partner but rather an enemy who should be fought.

Wide support for the use of brute force, including political assassinations, reflects an instinctive tribe-like solidarity more than a unified political outlook. In the Yediot Aharonot poll, 60 per cent of Israelis still felt that Israel should dismantle its settlements in Gaza. In addition, 60 per cent believed that a Palestinian state should be created. Almost the same proportion provided the same response to a similar question in the Maarev poll.

As the latter figure indicates, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians today is not over the creation of a Palestinian state, as George Bush believes, but over the principles of a just solution. For example, 58 per cent of Israelis oppose the annexation of East Jerusalem to a Palestinian state; 44 per cent oppose the return of Palestinian refugees to a Palestinian state. The answer to whether refugees should be allowed to return to their homes inside the green line was a foregone conclusion -- more than 95 per cent were opposed.

Political opinions in Israel have not changed much in the wake of the assassination; if anything, the prevalent mood is more tribal than ever. Zeevi, after his death, found a place in the centre of Israeli politics. This is far more than he could have hoped for while still among the living. Figures from across the spectrum of political opinion attended his funeral, and not simply because they felt they had to.

"Gandhi," as he was nicknamed, was not your typical Jewish extremist -- some eccentric from the US who moved to the West Bank in search of his roots or an adventure in the land of the pioneers. Zeevi came from the same cauldron that produced Rabin, Sharon, Rafael Eitan and Moshe Dayan. He was a product of the 1948 War, fighting in the Palmach, the paramilitary outfit of the Haganah. He was therefore relatively mainstream. The "transfer" of Palestinians that took place in 1948 became a constant in his political thinking. Indeed, he boasted that he remained truer to this notion than his comrades in arms, like Rabin. He was also closer to the generals who, after 1967, hoped to regain "the whole of Israel" and shifted to the right following the first major rift in Israeli society over the prospect of a peace agreement that called for a withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Such differences, however, did not erode the bond of affection between Zeevi and his former comrades. In 1974, Rabin appointed him as his government's adviser on counter- terrorism. After all, the Palmach was one of those tribal crucibles eulogised in Israeli tales of heroism. Its progeny, regardless of subsequent political affiliations, are united by their secularism, worship of physical strength, arrogance, love for life, riotous parties, group songs and "straight talk," and by their aversion to ostentation and glitter. The "Palmachnik" was the model for a whole generation of Israeli soldiers and profoundly influenced Israeli social and cultural life before 1967.

Although Zeevi had been a symbol of Israel's ultra-right, he became a Palmachnik again after his death. The friends who survived him rallied around before the Israeli television cameras to reminisce against a background of military dirges. And, because Zeevi was shot by Palestinian bullets -- in battle, so to speak -- his aged colleagues returned to him as comrades in arms.

Alongside the old symbols of the Zionist labour movement (the Haganah) marched the armies of Israeli settlers and the supporters of the religious and ultra-right parties. Zeevi, leader of an ultra-right party, was a secular Zionist fanatic; but to the ultra-religious settlers, whether he liked it or not, he was the bearer of a religious message: that it was their duty to settle on the "land of Israel."

Zeevi, indeed, was renowned for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the historical "land of Israel," which had inspired the head of the Tel Aviv municipal council to appoint him director of the Museum of Eretz Israel before he became a Knesset member. Following his death, Israeli tribal sentiments extolled him as a historian and scholar, among his many other virtues. As extensive as his knowledge may have been, however, he was not so much an academic as a fanatical Zionist who believed that touring his country, memorising the ancient Hebrew place names and inspecting the antiquities was a patriotic duty. As such, he was naturally selective and undoubtedly very imaginative in the information he collected. He was not a writer, a scholar or an intellectual, even by the modest standards of the Israeli right. After his death, his gruffness was transformed to humility, his rudeness to rectitude, his extremism to "love for the land of Israel" and his racism to patriotism.

Amid the fever of the funeral and the mournful enumeration of the virtues of the deceased -- during this production of a new symbol for the Israeli settler drive in its conflict with the Palestinians, the indigenous people of this country -- no one, not even from the Zionist left, mentioned what Zeevi truly stood for. He was a virulent anti-Arab racist who believed that expelling the Arabs from their country was the only possible solution to the conflict, and a staunch proponent of the use of force to accomplish this aim.

In Zeevi's death, the Israeli political fringes have met the centre, cultural diversity has become branches of a single settler culture, political trends have receded back to the tribal womb, and the supporters of Zeevi's post-1967 transfer solution have joined hands with the perpetrators of the transfer of 1948. The climate is ideal for Sharon's policy of terror against the Palestinians in Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Tulkarm and Ramallah.