Ironically, it was Shimon Peres who coined the term “mafia state.” Responding to the charge that Israel had begun to show as much regard for the law as a gang of mobsters, the Israeli foreign minister announced at a press conference: “Israel, gentlemen, is not a mafia state.” Of course, he was trying to be clever. Eloquently laden sarcasm, he thought, would furnish the most forceful rebuttal to the charge. The sarcasm backfired, and the term stuck. To many, Peres’s expression perfectly encapsulates Israel’s unique position in contemporary international relations. If “mafia state” applies to any nation, it is to Israel.
History is replete with cases of “rebel” or “outlaw” nations, but, to this writer’s knowledge, Israel is the first example of a mafia state. There have been nations that, at certain phases of their history and as a result of certain contingencies, have contravened international law. Never before, however, especially since the emergence of the nation-state as the basis for international relations, has a nation, for reasons integrally related to its existence and aims, so wholeheartedly subscribed to the principle that the ends justify the means, and so adamantly placed itself above the law, normal conventions of international relations and the accepted ethics of civilised peoples.
For a government to authorise the assassination of officials representing a political entity with which it has engaged in an internationally recognised negotiating process and concluded binding agreements is to engage in criminal activity. To publicly declare that such criminal activity is official policy is openly to defy all principles of international law.
“Mafia” — the generic term for underground crime rings — exist worldwide and run their operations both domestically and across international boundaries. Frequently, mafia organisations have been able to infiltrate government administrations and suborn officials to serve their ends. But of course, no official would have the audacity to make such connections public or suggest that they were in any way legitimate. After all, an international campaign is in progress to combat organised crime.
“Mafia states,” of which Israel is the prime example, are phenomena of a different order. A mafia state pursues its activities in broad daylight and with flagrant contempt for the law. Such is its hold over international decision-making centres that all other governments tremble at the mere thought of accusing it of breaking the law. Indeed, they are forever ready to ignore or cover up the most horrendous atrocities, from the forced deportation of civilians under occupation to murdering prisoners of war, massacres of civilian populations and other war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The international community’s desire to pamper and mollify Israel has reached pathological proportions. What would be considered aggression under international law in every other case becomes “legitimate self-defence” when it comes to Israel. Behaviour that would bring charges of fanaticism and obsessive inflexibility upon other governments becomes, in Israel’s case necessary prudence due to historically justified security concerns. Policies that anywhere else in the world would be condemned as racist are, when Israel implements them, billed as necessary to the preservation of the state’s “Jewish identity.” Israel is exempt from respecting international agreements it has signed, such as the 1949 Geneva Conventions, or ratifying agreements all other nations are pressured to sign, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; no further evidence is needed to prove its unique, unprecedented status in the history of international relations.
Israel’s unique status, moreover, has gradually come to pose a threat to the edifice of international law. Perhaps the complexities surrounding the situation of the Jews following World War II justified, at least to some powers in the international order, the need to grant Israel most-favoured-nation status, particularly in the years immediately following its creation. Israeli leaders took this preferential treatment as a licence to use every means at their disposal, legitimate or not, to expand the Jewish state toward the realisation of the Zionist dream of “Greater Israel.” With emotional blackmail as their primary weapon, they violated the law with impunity while coercing other nations to place Israeli interests above their own. Eventually, they succeeded in creating a mafia state complete with a nuclear arsenal to keep others silent.
Nevertheless, some still cling to the belief that Israel can be kept under control, reasoning that, even with its nuclear capacity, it is still a relatively minor player in the greater scheme of international balances of power. Sadly, this belief is overly optimistic, because Israel has subjugated the single most powerful nation in the contemporary world. The nation that should shoulder the greatest responsibility for safeguarding international law sees everything through its beloved’s eyes and, in the throes of its infatuation, calls the killer the victim and the victim the assailant. The structure of international law cannot withstand such a sustained perversion of truth and justice.
How did the international community let blindness bring it to this pass? Disregard for international law where Israel is concerned began long before the creation of the state. In fact, the tone was set with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a promise made by one who had no right to give it to one who had no right to receive it, as Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild was famously described. While that document was kept secret until the end of World War I so that the allied powers could ensure Arab cooperation against Germany and Turkey, however, all subsequent violations of Palestinian rights took place under the auspices or with the full knowledge of those institutions charged with upholding international law, from the League of Nations to the UN. It was the League of Nations that conferred international recognition upon the Balfour Declaration when it authorised the British Mandate over Palestine.
If the international community assisted in the creation of a “Jewish homeland,” on the other hand, there was no understanding that the existence of such a homeland implied the creation of a Jewish state. On the contrary: the mandate charter explicitly called upon the executive authority to respect the rights and interests of the non-Jewish populations of Palestine. Of course, Great Britain was not about to honour that portion of the agreement; nor could the League of Nations compel it to.
Following World War II, the Palestinian cause imposed itself upon the UN, which proved no more capable than its predecessor of enforcing respect for the principles of international law. In 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution to partition Palestine, a resolution that violated the text and spirit of the League of Nations’ mandate charter by authorising the creation of an independent Jewish state on the greater portion of Palestine although the Jewish population in Palestine at the time amounted to less than a third of the number of Arabs. During the deliberations over the Partition Plan, moreover, the assembly rebuffed an Arab appeal to seek an opinion from the International Court of Justice over the General Assembly’s right to partition the land of a people under international mandate without first submitting that decision to those whose fate would be affected most directly.
In 1948, Israeli forces occupied territories considerably beyond the partition demarcations, forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into exile. The UN was unable to compel Israel to withdraw behind the 1948 lines; nor could it permit the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, although Israel’s acceptance into the UN in 1949 was explicitly linked to its implementation of UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
It is distressing to ponder the destruction and loss of life that could have been avoided had Israel abided by the international resolutions at the time. The Arab-Israeli conflict could have been resolved at that early date. But then, the primary reason that the conflict has persisted until the present is that Israel was not to be dissuaded from its Zionist enterprise, which entails control over what it considers the “promised land,” with Jerusalem as its capital. It has never foregone an opportunity to advance this enterprise and impose it upon the Arabs. In 1956, it participated in an invasion intended to break the will of revolutionary Egypt, but failed. In 1967, it renewed its assault on Arab territories and succeeded in conquering more land, but again failed to impose a settlement by force. Meanwhile, instead of acting to resolve the conflict in a manner that would be binding on all parties, the UN continued to capitulate before Israeli intransigence and went no further than Resolution 242, which voiced some of the parties’ concerns but ultimately tied the region’s fate to developments on the ground. These developments led to war rather than to a settlement.
Following the 1973 War, Israel sought to exclude the UN and any reference to UN resolutions from the negotiating process. Israel has held fast its opinion that the land it has held since 1967 is “contested” and not occupied. In addition, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Israeli policymakers began to feel it was only a matter of time before they could force the Arabs into a settlement on Israel’s terms. The Arabs unwittingly lent themselves to Israeli designs when they allowed the US to take sole command of the peace process.
The collapse of the process following the failure of Oslo and the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada furnishes the most damning proof that Israel will never accept an agreement founded upon the principles of international law, and that it will persist in its attempt to impose its conditions regardless of the cost. The Arabs have accepted the pre-June 1967 borders as the basis for a settlement — in itself an enormous compromise, since the only truly internationally recognised borders are those laid out in detail in the appendices to the UN Partition Plan. Israel, however, will never return to the 1967 borders or the 1948 borders, for the very simple reason that it will never agree to Arab sovereignty over East Jerusalem or the return of Palestinian refugees.
How can the Arabs and Israel reach a settlement rooted in international law, given infinite international indulgence for a state that has placed itself above the law, and the US’s unswerving devotion to a mafia state bent on imposing its apartheid project on the Arab and Islamic worlds by force of arms? If peace could not be achieved under an international bipolar order, can it possibly be reached under the US’s monopoly of global power? Perhaps these questions will show the Arabs the way to defend the Palestinian cause against the designs of a treacherous adversary, led by a war criminal determined to remain a criminal in times of war and peace.
The writer is head of the Political Science Department at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science.