In the Middle East, religious extremists have once again derailed the fragile peace train.
On 4 November 1995, Israeli Jewish extremists assassinated their Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in the middle of Tel Aviv, because he was negotiating the gradual establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza.
On 7 October 2023, with their unprecedentedly violent attack on Israel, the Islamist Arab extremists of Hamas sought to derail the train of the Abraham Accords, which were to include Saudi Arabia in this process of political, economic and cultural exchanges between Israel and the Arab countries (United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, in addition to Egypt and Jordan).
The leaders of Hamas were no doubt horrified to see Israeli orchestras performing in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, much to the delight of the Emirati public. More than 150,000 Israeli citizens visited the Emirates in 2022, proof – if proof were needed – that harmonious economic and cultural cohabitation between Jews and Arabs is entirely possible, and even mutually enriching.
In the Middle East, religion, instead of remaining a personal, intimate affair, too often interferes with politics. This leads to tragedy, because the absolute nature of religious doctrines forbids any compromise, whereas politics is the art of working out compromises between people.
For Jewish religious extremists, not a single parcel of the Promised Land can be abandoned, because it was given by God to Moses for the Jewish people. For Muslim religious extremists, any territory that once belonged to Dar-el-Islam must remain there indefinitely – like Palestine, which was a province of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries, before becoming a territory under British mandate from 1922 to 1948.
The violence and savagery used by the Hamas attackers has no chance of advancing the idea of the need for a Palestinian state, living peacefully alongside Israel. History has shown that Israeli society is never intimidated by violence or fanaticism.
The Palestinians made a serious mistake when, at the beginning of the 21st century, they opted for a Kalashnikov culture in preference to a Gandhi-style non-violent struggle. Because, at that time, there was still a large part of the Israeli population that wanted to give them national rights.
Where in the whole of the Middle East did the largest demonstration of indignation take place after the massacres of the Palestinian refugees of Sabra and Shatila, committed in Beirut in September 1982 by a Lebanese militia, under the indifferent eye of the Israeli army of occupation? In Tel Aviv!
It is clear that Israel cannot submit to Hamas and that we, the French, must show solidarity with the Israelis under attack. 11 September, Bataclan, 7 October, same fight: never give in to terrorism. In the short term, we must support the Israeli military action to free their hostages.
But, in the medium term, it is equally clear that the resolution of the Palestinian problem can no longer be put off indefinitely. David Ben-Gurion’s ideal of a Jewish, democratic state living in harmony with its Arab neighbours cannot be achieved if the Israeli right persists in opposing the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
The Hebrew state is threatened by an Arab demographic bomb. There are over a million Arabs with Israeli nationality, over two million Palestinian Arabs in Gaza and over three million in the West Bank. In the long term, the Jewish state faces an untenable situation if it persists in trying to control, or even confine, such a large Arab population.
Many Israelis believe that the future Palestinian state should be in Transjordan. Is this a realistic idea, given that Amman does not agree to it and that the time has passed for massive population movements of the kind seen in Europe in 1945? The Israeli security forces are not Stalin’s NKVD.
When the fragile peace train in the Middle East goes off the rails, it is always the civilian population that pays the heaviest price. It was mainly Israeli civilians that the Hamas attackers killed or took hostage during their murderous raid on 7 October.
From tomorrow, it will be the Palestinian civilians who will suffer most, in a Gaza under siege, deprived of water, gas, electricity and food. In the bombardments, they will have nowhere to take refuge.
Prime Minister Netanyahu will have to calibrate his response very carefully. If it is too weak, Israel will lose its power of deterrence. If it is too strong, if it causes a large number of collateral victims, it risks creating hatred for a long time to come: Gazan children who have lost a mother or a sister in the bombardments will swear to take revenge one day.
When Arafat and Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993, I was in Gaza as a special correspondent for Le Figaro. Television was broadcasting live the signing ceremony in Washington of the agreements that had been secretly negotiated in Oslo.
A huge outcry arose in the city, which was then occupied by the Israeli army. The whole population rushed into the streets, and I saw Palestinian teenagers throwing themselves at the Israeli soldiers guarding the public buildings, to embrace them.
That evening, I really thought we were nearing the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was full of hope. It’s true that the Palestinian leadership at the time (Arafat’s PLO) was not Islamist and that five years earlier it had recognised Israel’s right to exist and renounced terrorism. This is not the case with Hamas, a movement descended from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The hope of peace in Palestine is therefore no more than a glimmer on the horizon. But let us have no illusions. The national aspirations of a people cannot be swept under the carpet indefinitely. They will always resurface. And often in very violent ways.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.