Groundhog Day in the Middle East … will this movie ever end?

Groundhog Day in the Middle East … will this movie ever end?
A Palestinian man walks past the destroyed Al-Shuruq building in Gaza City on 20 May 2021 after it was bombed by an Israeli air strike. (Photo: Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images)

Israel is now a hold-out in a region where the name of the game is moving towards diplomacy. The Middle East is exhausted by conflict.

In the movie Groundhog Day, a television weatherman waking up to an approaching blizzard in a small town becomes trapped in a time loop where he is doomed to repeat the same tedious and unpleasant day over and over again – until, in true Hollywood fashion, he overcomes his contempt for the small town and beds the girl.

Watching the slaughter in Gaza over the last two week, who did not feel that they had seen this movie before? It began with the evictions of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem and Israeli police attacks on Palestinians at the al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan. Hamas responded by firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel. The Israeli Defense Forces responded with air strikes and the bombing of Gaza in which hundreds of people, including dozens of children, were killed. The casualty numbers were as lopsided as they always are. By the time a ceasefire was agreed, pundits were writing that Hamas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had emerged strengthened.

Whatever tactical gains might have accrued to them did not undermine the apparent senselessness of what happened. This is the fourth time this sequence has played out. Many more people were killed in 2014 – 2,250 as against 300 in this round – but as the people of Gaza begin picking through the rubble and life goes back to “normal” what has changed? Large parts of the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are still effectively occupied lands whose existence depends not on a common adherence to a legitimate constitutional order but on the superior military might of one party.

Israel is now a hold-out in a region where the name of the game is moving towards diplomacy. The Middle East is exhausted by conflict. Countries that only months ago were at daggers drawn are engaging with each other through front, side or back doors: Iran and Saudi Arabia; Egypt and Turkey; Qatar and the other Gulf states; the United Arab Emirates and everybody. The region remains a dangerous place loaded with landmines but the emphasis and the yearning now, is for economic growth and change.

The one consequential piece of diplomacy from the bull-in-a-china shop years of the Trump administration was the “Abraham Accords”, essentially a new economic and power alliance between Israel and the UAE. But the accords, while billed as peace in the Middle East, never seriously grappled with the reality of the Palestinians.

They fed an illusion among many on the right that the Palestinians could be either ignored, because there was no overriding crisis to overturn the status quo, or doled out to the neighbours: Gaza could be dumped into Egypt and the remaining Palestinian rump in the West Bank given to Jordan.

Before the latest eruption, the caravan of the Middle East was about to move on without the Palestinians. Even in Israel proper, Arab parties were preparing to enter a political alliance with Netanyahu.

What just happened in Gaza has ended those fantasies. We have just witnessed an extraordinary moment of solidarity among all Palestinians – in Gaza, in the West Bank and in Israel itself. They showed that despite attempts to write the Palestinians out of history they continue to exist as one people.

When the crisis broke, US President Joe Biden did not welcome adding Israel and Palestine to his to-do list.

Apart from a tough summer ahead to get his domestic agenda through Congress, the president has other pressing foreign policy priorities – the global challenge of Covid, China, Russia, global warming, Iran. He has been around long enough to know that Israel has been a graveyard of peace plans, thwarted by the machinations of Bibi Netanyahu and not helped by the impotence of the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas.

The US, after decades of disastrous wars in the Middle East wants to “de-escalate”.

For Biden, the most immediate piece of business is getting the US back into the Iran nuclear accord – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – which Donald Trump jettisoned in 2018.

Biden would have been mindful of Netanyahu’s attempts to sabotage the deal, the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, and that it was Netanyahu who more than anyone convinced Trump to walk away from it and apply the failed policy of “maximum pressure” to force Iran to its knees.

Small wonder that the incoming administration put Netanyahu near the back of the queue and the US’s erstwhile ally had to wait weeks before Biden called him on the phone. There was even some hope in early May that Netanyahu might not be prime minister for very much longer.

When the fighting flared up, according to most accounts, Biden was at first reluctant to get involved. When he did, it was without grandstanding, careful not to put up Netanyahu’s back. In the end he managed to secure the ceasefire, thanks to the assistance of Egypt and Qatar, in a much quicker time than earlier conflagrations, and (so far) without major lapses.

But while Biden had warm words in public for Netanyahu, the shift in the US-Israeli relationship is unmistakable and is underscored by changes in US politics. Vocal members of the Democratic left, such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have expressed sympathy for the Palestinians and condemnation of Israeli actions. 

During an event in Detroit last week, Biden pointed to Representative Rashida Tlaib from a heavily Arab-American district in Michigan, and expressed concern for the safety of her grandmother on the West Bank. But Tlaib supports a single state solution for Israel/Palestine, a perspective fairly new to US politics.

Starting with a massive effort to rebuild and provide humanitarian support to Gaza, a wary US is about to re-engage as a mediator, a critical piece of which will be rebuilding its relationship with the Palestinians – which it hopes to do without directly speaking to Hamas.

The mainstream of the Democratic Party, which includes 25 Jewish members of the House and 10 Jewish Senators including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, has moved as well, reflecting a broader shift in US public opinion. The overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans voted Democratic and while supportive of Israel many are critical of its current direction.

New York Congressman Jerry Nadler summed it up in a piece in The New York Times this weekend, writing, “We disdain Mr. Netanyahu’s vile, hateful rhetoric and are horrified by his efforts to align himself with Donald Trump and an overtly racist, Kahanist, political party in his own country.”

The close alliance between Netanyahu and Trump has turned Israel into one of the most partisan issues in Washington. In the Republican Party the impetus for such emotional support comes not just from the highly religious American Jews or Likud supporters, but from evangelical Christians and, in some cases, from deep wells of Islamophobia (from people unaware that a large percentage of Palestinians are Christian).

But the signs are that since the flare-up the US has realised it cannot walk away, not only because of its history of supporting and arming Israel and holding out the promise of a Palestinian state as part of the bargain, but because the recent crisis has shown that there is no other country that can mediate here.

Starting with a massive effort to rebuild and provide humanitarian support to Gaza, a wary US is about to re-engage as a mediator, a critical piece of which will be rebuilding its relationship with the Palestinians – which it hopes to do without directly speaking to Hamas.

But is there any hope of success for peace-making again? Prospects for a settlement look bleaker than ever: the two-state solution, in which a coherent and free Palestine emerges, has been eaten into by Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and many have given up on it as a practical prospect. The alternative one-state solution means Israel relinquishing its Jewish identity – and is thus seen as a matter of survival.

The comparisons with our own country are many – not least in the increasing numbers of people who describe Israel as an apartheid state – but if so where does Israel stand on the timeline of change in comparison to South Africa? How close is it to the equivalent of 1994? What would the equivalent of 1994 even look like?

In South Africa, it took a number of factors to drive change – not just an escalation of violence, which is counterproductive when the capacity to inflict pain is so one-sided.

International sanctions and boycotts had their role – and the BDS movement will have gained public sympathy from the terrifying images of what went down in Gaza. The fundamental commonality in both situations is the determination of people to fight.

And it took leadership on both sides, something which South Africa certainly had more of.

It also took the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union to take South Africa over the line. We could be at another critical international inflection point in the Middle East that makes change safer and more possible. Any new reaching for a settlement will involve other countries in the region, such as Egypt, Qatar and the UAE. 

Joe Slovo, the former South African Communist Party leader, had his own version of Groundhog Day. He used to joke that when he was asked how long it would take for South Africa to be liberated, his answer was five years. “I’ve been very consistent in my prediction,” he would say. “I’ve been saying that since 1960.” He would tell the same joke throughout the 1970s and 1980s until one day it actually became true.

His message was never give up – but don’t bet on it either. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Weinkove says:

    Despite the suffering in Gaza the people live in buildings and not in corrugated iron shacks like South Africans.

  • Andrew Wright says:

    This “opinion” piece is pure propaganda. The conflict did not start with Israel evicting anyone – it started with Hamas calling thousands of its rioters to the mosque & then followed up with thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli citizens. All part of the Hamas plan to create a pan-Islamic state.

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