Democracy and demons

It provokes extreme passions. From a country the size of Wales, conflicts and arguments touch lives

If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict did not exist, or had been resolved, the world would see Israel as one of the notable successes of modern history. Established as a state in 1948, Israel has moved in half a century from the third to the first world. It has become a developed and prosperous nation, integrated immigrants from several countries and cultures (though, in appearance at least, of a single religion), resuscitated a dead language, Hebrew, as its national tongue and equipped itself with atomic weapons and one of the world's most advanced armies, capable of mobilising about a fifth of the population at short notice.

This success appears even more significant if we note that when the first Zionist immigrants arrived from Europe a century ago, Palestine was a poor province of the Ottoman empire, largely composed of stony deserts. It is true that Israel has enjoyed generous aid from abroad, mainly from the United States, from which it receives about $3bn annually, and from the Jewish diaspora. But this in itself hardly explains its impressive transformation into a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world. Few countries have succeeded in exploiting their resources, and the opportunities created by globalisation, in the way that Israel has.

Yet it is also true that in recent years, following industrial expansion, especially in the field of new technologies, the egalitarian society dreamed of by the early Zionists and epitomised internationally by the kibbutz movement has been replaced by one that is much more divided and antagonistic. The gulf between rich and poor has grown dramatically, and the idealism of the pioneer founders of Israel has given way to the egoism and materialism common to all modern societies.

Israel is proud of its adherence to legality and liberty, and its respect for the values and principles of democratic culture - something that is conspicuous by its absence in the rest of the Middle East. But these are relative truths, calling for qualification. Israel is a democracy in the full sense of the word for its Jewish citizens. It respects their human rights, guarantees freedom of expression and criticism, and anyone who feels his rights have been infringed can go to courts that are independent and effective.

These bright democratic colours fade considerably, and indeed at times disappear, when we turn to the 1.4 million Israeli Arabs - Muslims and a minority of Christians - who make up 20 per cent of the population. In theory they are full citizens, with the same rights and duties as the Jews. But in practice they are not. They are subject to many dis-advantages and do not enjoy the same opportunities as Jewish citizens. Their access to public services, and even their physical movement, is often limited or prevented, with the argument that these measures are indispensable to the security of Israel.

But Palestinian Israeli citizens live in enviable conditions compared to the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and, until recently, in the Gaza Strip, the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 after the six-day war in which it defeated the forces of Syria, Jordan and Egypt. This victory, of which most Israelis feel proud - defeating an Arab military coalition, recovering for the Jews the whole of their biblical ambit - turned Israel into a colonial country. This has been its nightmare ever since, and has done more than anything else to alienate world public opinion.

From civic and moral points of view, nothing corrupts a nation more than becoming a colonial power. At the time of the 1967 war, General Charles de Gaulle described the Israelis in terms that caused great controversy. He called them an "elite people, self-confident and dominating". I am not sure whether that was true then; but I am sure that Israel has since come much closer to what, when it was uttered, seemed an exaggerated description.

Israel's relationship with the Palestinians is a shadow that morally darkens its material and social progress. In 38 years of occupation, the Palestinians have seen their lands invaded by hundreds of thousands of settlers who took their land and fenced it - followed by the arrival of the army to ensure their security and keep the victims at bay. In spite of the rivalries between left and right in Israel, they coincide in their support for settlement proliferation and enlargement. This abuse has been the greatest obstacle to any peace agreement. While Israeli governments have paid lip service to peace, in practice they have belied it with a policy that manifestly supports colonial occupation.

There is no doubt that the Palestinians, through political division, terrorism and the inefficiency of their leaders, have been poor defenders of their cause, wasting the opportunities that, in my view, were offered by the Camp David and Taba negotiations in 2000 and 2001. Suicide bomb attacks on buses, restaurants, cafes and discotheques have provoked rage in Israel. But the outrages committed by the Israeli government against the general Palestinian population - collective punishments, demolition of houses, murder of terrorist leaders with inevitable collateral deaths, torture, show trials in which judges sentence the accused to long prison terms - are unjustifiable and indecent in a civilised country.

With the rise to power of Ariel Sharon, all hope of peace seemed buried for a long time. No one had promoted the policy of settlements in the occupied territories or sabotaged attempts at a negotiated solution to the conflict more vigorously than the Likud leader. And here is the puzzle. How is it that the same person who directed the military invasion of Lebanon, who was implicated in the massacres of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila, and who with his provocative stroll through holy Muslim places helped to unleash the second intifada, has now unilaterally closed the 21 colonial settlements in the Gaza Strip and returned the seized land to the Palestinian people? What lies behind this audacious initiative? Is it a serious attempt to show the world Israel's desire to put a reasonable end to the conflict - or a tactical concession, to distract international attention while Israel continues its policy of land appropriation in the West Bank?

Copyright: Mario Vargas Llosa 2005