The Palestinian cause is one which has long claimed a place in the hearts of all Egyptians. Politically, Egypt is the first country to make peace with Israel and, as such, has become the natural mediator between Palestinians and Israelis. In recent times, the region at large has been seeing normalization or increased cooperation with Isael state.
Socially, however, mass anger and discontent at Israel’s actions continues to permeate the region. Peoples of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) by and large consider Israel as an illegitimate Zionist occupier.
To form nuanced and rigorous arguments regarding Israel’s actions, it is important to understand the domestic political landscape in Israel—how it has reached this historical moment, what is motivating the government and society’s actions, and how it sees its role in the region evolving.
To address these questions, Egyptian Streets invited Dr. Michael Reimer, Professor at the American University in Cairo’s history department, to relay his knowledge on the matter. Reimer is specialized in the history of the Modern Middle East and is known for teaching a rich and rigorous course on the history of Zionism.
How has the role of the far right in Israeli politics changed over the years?
No one doubts that right-wing parties in Israel have been gaining in strength over the past 50 years, and especially over the past two decades. The last Labor government, that of Ehud Barak, came to an end in 2001, and Labor seems to have gone into terminal decline after that. The entire spectrum of politics in Israel has moved very far to the right, so that persons belonging to groups that were considered extremist in the past, like [Minister of National Security] Itamar Ben Gvir, are now given powerful positions in [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s government.
I want to caution against two misconceptions here. One is to see the Netanyahu government solely within the context of the history of Zionism; the other is to minimize the unique history of Zionism. The first is probably the bigger problem. Zionism as a Jewish nationalist movement is not sui generis [i.e. one of a kind], and the behavior of the state of Israel is not driven solely by this history. There is a world context to the extremism of the current government. Political analysts are pointing out, I think rightly, that we are seeing a surge of xenophobic nationalism and authoritarianism in many places, and the emergence of leaders willing to flout international law and diplomacy in order to satisfy and even outdo their xenophobic constituencies. Examples of leaders of this type include [former President Donald] Trump in the U.S., [President Xi Jinping] in China, [President Vladimir] Putin in Russia, [Prime Minister Viktor] Orban in Hungary, and [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in Turkey.
On the other hand, Zionism has had within it this militaristic, chauvinistic strand since at least the 1920s. The most aggressive and expansionist form of Zionism, going back to the 1920s, was known as Revisionism and was founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky. Netanyahu as the leader of Likud Party is, ideologically and organizationally, the heir of the Revisionists. The Revisionists never believed that peace with the Palestinians was actually possible, and Netanyahu has no interest in a solution that would give the Palestinians anything approaching genuine self-rule.
Do you think Israel being seen more and more as an apartheid regime is a paradigm shift or is it the culmination of historical opposition by Palestinians and pro-Palestine activists?
I think apartheid was the logical outcome of two contradictory impulses in Zionism. One was the commitment to create a democratic polity, and the other was for the state to be predominantly, if not exclusively, Jewish. The only way for this to occur, as Azmi Bishara pointed out, in a country that in 1948 had a population that was about two-thirds ethnically Arab was, first, a mass expulsion of Arabs, as happened in 1948. Then the second step occurred after the conquest of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza in 1967: a regime had to be created that would keep most of the Arabs under Israeli rule in a stateless condition, and thus in a position of permanent political subjugation vis-a-vis the Jewish population. So I guess I would lean toward saying this is a culmination of the contradictory tendencies I noted above. That’s why it’s worth studying the history of Zionism, to see that these divergent tendencies have been there for a long time.
What does the Zionist vision entail and has Zionism adapted to the times with its changing circumstances and worldviews or is it true to its original conception? Also, how do you see it moving forward?
I remember Dr. Jeff Helsing, who used to teach Political Science at AUC, saying once that a conflict had emerged between Zionists whose main goal was a “state of Israel,” and those whose priority was claiming the “land of Israel.” I think this is a useful way to think about some of the current issues, and again it takes us way back in the history of the Zionist movement.
For [founder of the Zionist movement Theodor] Herzl, a secular Jew, the goal was clearly the former: he cared so little about the land of Israel, at least at first, that he was willing to contemplate other locations for the state. However, for others, and especially the Religious Zionists (some of whom have positions in Netanyahu’s government), the state existed for the sake of taking back all the land, and especially Jerusalem, since the land is regarded as part of the divine covenant with the people of Israel. So there is a significant and politically active minority who are ideologically opposed to giving up any of the land that would be required to create a Palestinian state. Although most Israelis are not religious, certainly not in a doctrinaire sense, they have now occupied Jerusalem, and what they call Judea and Samaria (for Arabs, the West Bank) for such a long time (since 1967), it has become hard for them to imagine giving it up as well, especially if the alternative is a Palestinian state, which right-wing Israelis would regard as certain to be a “terrorist state.
What was the closest moment we got to a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
I think the period 1993-1995 was the period when there was a possibility of ending the conflict, or at least creating the conditions that would end the conflict. There is some debate about this, but I think Yitzhak Rabin saw the necessity of disengaging from the Palestinian territories (West Bank and Gaza) and was working toward that end, and that is why he was assassinated.
The assassination was not the act of a deranged killer; the killer was encouraged to act by certain rabbis, and also—as shown in a recent Israeli film titled “Incitement”—by Likud politicians like Netanyahu, who it appears took part in demonstrations where “Death to Rabin” was among the chants. We don’t know what the outcome would have been if Rabin had lived, but I tend to think that Rabin had the foresight and credibility to move toward a final agreement.
How do you see Israel’s role in the Middle East given a notably different regional dynamic compared to past decades?
The Israelis are delighted that they have been able to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. As long as Iran is a threat to certain Arab countries, Israel is seen as a counterweight: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And normalization with Israel is also a way in which these countries can get into the good graces of the U.S. However, normalization with the Arab states in the absence of an agreement with the Palestinians is fragile; Israel cannot have peace without conciliating the Palestinians.
Most Arabs continue to feel that a basic injustice has not been addressed. If the Israelis want an enduring peace and acceptance, this issue must be resolved.
Would the resolution of other regional issues, such as Yemen, Libya, and Syria, as well as detente between regional rivals, bring renewed energy for mediation and, ultimately, resolution between Palestinians and Israelis?
I have not thought about how all these other issues might be interrelated. I think, however, that the resolution of other issues is not going to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli problem, because no matter how secure Israel is in the region, it has an “internal other” (the Palestinians) that is treated as alien and will never give up its distinct national identity.
How should education in Egypt address the history of Palestine and Israel given Egyptians’ strong affinity to the Palestinian cause? Is a notion of objectivity even possible?
I teach a course on the history of Zionism. I don’t think our goal in this course is objectivity, if that means seeing both sides as having equally legitimate claims. However, our aim is to read documents in modern Jewish history, to see why increasing numbers of Jews were convinced by Zionist arguments. I think the first step toward an enduring peace in this or in other conflicts, is getting to the point of having a certain empathy with the Other. The policies of the current government in Israel are making achieving that kind of empathy harder rather than easier.