There Still Remains Hope for the Middle East

Finding a just and sustainable solution for the Middle East means contributing immensely to peace and security for Europe, without which welfare and democracy in Europe will not be secured. Europe’s left has to assume its responsibility, also in its own interest.

Now after almost three days full of interesting debates we can confirm that our symposium[1] has been a success, not least because it brought together the right people at the right moment in the right place.

However, this place, my hometown Vienna, can in no way be regarded as an easy place to discuss the Palestine-Israel issue, since, on the one hand, it acquired the reputation for being the ’global capital of anti-Semitism’ in the 19th century, while, on the other hand, it was the city of Theodor Herzl and the place where his emblematic book The State of the Jews was published.  

In 1938, when Nazi troops annexed Austria to the Third Reich, which they were convinced would last 1000 years, Vienna harboured a flourishing Jewish community of 185,000 souls. Seven years later the thousand years were over but the Jewish community consisted of only 25,000 persons.  60,000 Jews were murdered in the camps and many of those who managed to escape genocide were not at all keen to return to a city where they experienced prosecution and humiliation.

It took more than four decades before Austria’s society was willing to acknowledge the dimension of the crime committed here, in which too many of its citizens were involved. The difficult debate about Austria’s considerable record of anti-Semitism resulted in an increased awareness, particularly among young and educated people, which may appear exaggerated to people from abroad unfamiliar with the tragic context; however, we regard it as a major democratic achievement of Austria’s post-war history.

But typically for Austria’s political and cultural establishment it once again chose the easy way. While assuming responsibility for the crimes committed against its Jewish population it failed once again, this time in not acknowledging that Palestine has in no way been a ‘land without people’, not even under British colonial. In recognising the right of the Jewish people to a homeland they turned a blind eye towards the suffering of the people who populated the land that was granted to the Jewish people as their homeland by the international community. So it became commonly accepted that the Palestinian Arabs had to pay the price for the crime which white Europeans committed against white Europeans on European soil.

Thus through a historical coincidence the foundation of the state of Israel not only matched the aspirations of many, though certainly not all, European Jews, but simultaneously reflected the keenness of the European powers to relieve their consciousness and rid themselves of a guilt which in the case of Germany and Austria consisted in the active participation in the Shoah and in other cases in a Realpolitik that allowed the genocide to happen. Would it really be far-fetched to call this a kind of out-sourcing of guilt, the forcing of others to foot its own bill for moral colonialism?

I would like to pay homage to our friend Ari Rath, former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, who was invited to this symposium but passed away a few days ago at the age of 92.

His childhood came to a sudden end when, as a 13-year-old boy in 1938, he decided to flee from Vienna to Palestine where he experienced hopes and the hardships in a Kibbutz, cheered the proclamation of the state of Israel, and although a Zionist was ashamed of the Nakba which led to the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes and villages, but as a loyal Israeli citizen participated in the numerous wars.   

In 2012, looking back on his extraordinary professional career in an interview with an Austrian journal Ari Rath expressed his disenchantment: ’Today Israel is a tremendous disappointment for me; it means a personal disaster. Racism is rampant. Avigdor Lieberman, a guy with radical right views, became foreign minister. They make every effort to avoid negotiating peace. The settlements in the occupied territories are being expanded and the Israeli Left cannot do anything about it.’

Bruno Kreisky, another notable Viennese, of ‘Jewish origin’ as he described himself, decided to champion the cause of the Palestinian people. Not only did he introduce Yasser Arafat into the international arena and give the PLO the possibility of opening a permanent diplomatic representation in Vienna, which is also a host city of the UN; but being a leader of the Socialist International he also was calling on Europe to assume a stance independent of the US towards the conflict in the Middle East and advocate the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people including the right to its own viable Palestinian state.

Notably in 1979, in addressing the Israeli Labour Party at its congress he suggested: ‘Israel has neither the right to decide who its neighbours are nor can it decide who leads the Palestinian people.’

I personally made Bruno Kreisky’s acquaintance in 1983 just as he was withdrawing from politics and also refraining from further engagement in Middle Eastern affairs for reasons which I prefer not to describe here. However, he warned that if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was not settled peacefully in the foreseeable future the whole Middle East would go up in flames, which unavoidably would affect Europe and even create the risk of a global war. Bruno Kreisky may have failed in some respects, however his pessimist prospect regarding Israel and Palestine has been proven right.

However, there still remains hope for the Middle East. The recently adopted United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 marks a significant shift in the reaction of the international community to the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land as it squarely focuses on Israel′s settlement activity in the occupied territories as one of the major obstacles for peace between Israel and Palestine, stating that it  constitutes a ’flagrant violation under international law‘ and ‘reiterates its demand that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem’ and reffirms ‘the obligation of Israel, the occupying Power, to abide scrupulously by its legal obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention’.

However this will remain words on paper as long as the international community is not willing to take action to exert pressure on the Israeli leadership to change its attitude.

This also concerns the European Union. Therefore the Party of the European Left calls on the EU to suspend the EU-Israel- Association Agreement until Israel dismantles the illegal settlements, ends the occupation of Palestine, and begins a genuine peace process to achieve a sustainable two-state solution.

Nobody in this room has illusions about the difficulties and obstacles on the way to a just and sustainable peace. Nor will it be easy to solve the problem of the settlements in the occupied territories even if the occupation is terminated and a Palestinian authority established. It will be equally difficult to satisfy the just demands of the 800,000 Palestinian refugees to return to their homes or be otherwise compensated. Additionally, much good will and political wisdom will be required to transform Jerusalem into the capital of both Palestine and Israel. But without settling these delicate issues peace will not be attainable.

In the end, peace can only be conceived by accepting the ‘two-state solution’, which after decades in which these two people have been pitted against one another, is the only pragmatic way forward, as we all agreed in our debate. But there also is a principle involved since the ’two-state solution’ can only be achieved if the two sides mutually recognise the fact that in this tiny strip of land between the Red Sea and the Jordan River there are two peoples co-existing, each with the right to live in peace and security and to exercise democratic self-determination. 

During our debate criticism of the political leaderships was also expressed, particularly of the nationalist right Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a situation in which official politics fails to deliver, hope must be placed in civil society and particularly in the young generations of both sides. However, if the yearning of young Palestinians for a decent and dignified life is further frustrated even more despair, disorientation and violence will be the consequence.

One of the very remarkable features of our symposium has been the dialogue between politicians and artists. Indeed, art through its particular universal language can transcend borders and connect people where the conventional language of politics fails to do so.   

Let me recall therefore some of the proposals made in the course of our debates. One was to spread our message by means of the wonderful exhibition which was presented here, considering presenting it in other capitals like Brussels, Berlin, Paris, or elsewhere. 

Also the proposal has been made to continue this ‘Vienna Dialogue’ and bring it to other cities. Ramallah and Tel Aviv were named as possible venues. Let us carefully ponder the various ideas in order to come up with something which is acceptable to all sides and feasible in technical and financial terms.

Many participants in the debate expressed the concern that we are running out of time, especially in view of Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the US.

In winding up I would emphasise that Europe’s left has to assume its responsibility, also in its own interest. Finding a just and sustainable solution for the Middle East means contributing immensely to peace and security for Europe, without which welfare and democracy in Europe will not be secured. In this respect, it is highly significant that this Symposium saw the important presence of Gabi Zimmer, Chair of the Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left in the European Parliament, Gregor Gysi, the newly elected president of the Party of the European Left, and Wolfgang Gehrcke, Member of the German Bundestag (Die LINKE) where he has long been active in its Foreign Policy Committee.


[1] The above talk was delivered on 16 January 2017 at the transform! Symposium “The Middle East at Historical Crossroads” in Vienna.