BOOK REVIEW / Trying to win the war of the womb: 'A Place Among the Nations' - Benjamin Netanyahu; Bantam, 17.99

Sarah Helm
Friday 27 August 1993 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


ON PAGE 227 of Benjamin Netanyahu's book, A Place Among the Nations, there is an interesting revelation: the author once met an ordinary Palestinian. It was clearly a novel experience for him and, he boasts, somewhat daring. As if he were writing a script for a campaign photo opportunity, Netanyahu describes how he 'left behind his military escort' and strolled through the alleys of Jabalia refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip.

Here he 'struck up a conversation' with an elderly Arab refugee who told Netanyahu that he would like to return to his home in Israel and that Israelis should return to their homes in Europe. Confirmed in his view that all Palestinian refugees are nothing but political propagandists, living a 'Palestinian liberation fantasy', Netanyahu then beat a hasty retreat back across the Green Line, failing to note the appalling squalor of the camps. There are no more reports of such meetings.

It is not unusual for Israelis who purport to know what is best for Arabs rarely to have met an Arab. In fact it is the norm. It is not unusual for Israelis who rule over 1.8 million Palestinians on their doorstep never to have set foot in the occupied territories, except in army uniform. That too is the norm. But Netanyahu is not just any Israeli. Leader of the right-wing Likud opposition party, he is a possible future prime minister. What is more, he is one of the country's new generation of young politicians. He already has a popular appeal in the West: a brash former paratrooper, his mastery of the sound bite during the Gulf war meant that he shot to fame as the debonair spokesman for the Israeli cause.

For these reasons, one might have expected a little visionary thinking about how to bring some understanding between all sides in the Middle East conflict. A little sympathy for the Arab side of the story would have been refreshing. An awareness of the complexities of the issues would have been welcome. And an up-to-date analysis of the changing political complexities of the Middle East would, one might have thought, have been essential from a premier-in- waiting. But there is none of this. The author shows only contempt for all things 'Arab'. His sole strategy for the future appears to be to bully Israel's neighbours into doing things Israel's way. And perhaps the most striking failure of the book is that its political analysis is astonishingly dated.

Not short on self-esteem, Netanyahu boasts that he has embarked on the 'Sisyphean labour of rolling back the boulder of ignorance' about the Middle East. But he doesn't appear to have noticed that the Cold War has ended, changing the balance of power in his neighbourhood. Instead, he sees the 'Arab domain' as a place where 'forces feed upon others in a circle of unending instability and violence'. Nor does he see that the Palestine Liberation Organisation has become a force for moderation. To Netanyahu the 'terrorist PLO' is an an 'octopus' and a PLO state would lead to 'unbridled confiscation, wanton murder, wholesale rape'.

The single greatest security concern in the eyes of most Israelis today is the rise of Islamic militancy in the Middle East, particularly in the occupied territories, where Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement is a growing force. Netanyuhu mentions Hamas only in passing.

So what is the future according to Benjamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu? Netanyahu is at his most deluded when setting out the future for the Palestinians. It is here that he lays bare his loathing for Arabs, largely through his telling use of language. Arabs 'swarm' on Israel's doorstep and threaten to 'swamp' the Jewish state. Early in the book he sets out his version of history to prove that Palestinians never had a right to self-determination. That anyone should think otherwise is simply the result of Arab propaganda, which his mission is to counter. While Jews were a 'minority everywhere' - which gave them the special right to claim a homeland - Palestinians, he says, have a homeland - in Jordan. They have as much right to claim independence as Hispanic immigrants to the US, he says.

Although Israel may be able to divest itself of the slumland of the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu holds strongly to the mainstream Likud view that Israel must hold on to every inch of the West Bank, which it seized in 1967, because of the 'primal' hostility to Israel from predatory Arab neighbours. As any CNN watcher will remember from the Gulf war, Netanyahu - in a real-life photo opportunity - was the man who covered Israel up on the map with his thumb to illustrate its vulnerability.

But what to do with the 'hostile' population which so inconveniently comes with the land? Netanyahu is clearly sickened by the 'morbid' prospect of more and more Arab children, whereas every Jewish birth is a 'fresh infusion of vitality'. So he urges Jews to win the 'war of the womb'.

In the meantime, he proposes giving the Palestinians four self-managing 'counties'. After a 'cooling-off period' of 20 years, the Arabs - if they have behaved - can choose Israeli citizenship as long as they make an oath of loyalty to the State of Israel and agree to serve in the Israeli army. This he says, preposterously, would be 'the largest scale experiment in democracy ever conducted in the Arab world'.

Any Israeli voter choosing Netanyahu at the next election would surely do so knowing that such policies would mean an instant end to the peace process. Any hope that Israel could soon acquire a confidence to settle down, and play a positive constructive role in a co-operative Middle East would also be put to rest. For Netanyahu seems to have no desire to be part of any Middle East.

He believes Israel can only survive in a constant state of siege in a region which is a 'morass of depravity and duplicity'. He peppers his lectures on this with lists of Arab depravities, lest the reader ever forget. 'It will not be tolerated . . . It must be stopped,' he says, with as much gravitas as a hectoring schoolmaster. For Israel to survive here it must adopt a more aggressive posture, not a more submissive one. Contrary to the view of the current Israeli Prime Minister and security hawk, Yitzhak Rabin, the threat to Israel has not diminished, says Netanyahu. 'In many ways the neighbourhood has been changing for the worst,' he says.

So under Netanyahu there will be little time for Israel to think about its own internal problems. Nowhere does Netanyahu pause to talk about the issues Israelis are concerned about today. He doesn't attempt to address the growing religious-secular divide. He gives scant attention to the Israeli economy and ignores entirely the failure of the state to absorb new immigrants, which he deems so essential for a stronger Israel.

Perhaps, in the next election campaign, some Israelis will do more than listen to Bibi's famous sound bites - and read this book. Perhaps, if they do, they will have the sense to reject him, not because of the policies of despair he presents to the Arabs, but because the only vision he offers to Israelis is a reinforcement of the siege.

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