The Night “Bibi” Won or My Balkan Nightmares
During the 1996 Israeli election, I was in the Channel 4 Television studios in London. I still remember the surrealistic atmosphere sitting in the editing room, putting the final touches on a film that was supposed to be broadcast in an hour, while on a small TV, the Channel’s news was broadcasting images of the spontaneous celebrations in the Likud party’s headquarters. On stage was the beaming winner: Bibi Netanyahu. “Bibi, Bibi, King of Israel,” they sang. It was indeed a historic election, a metaphor for the near death status of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. The process had been slowly killed by expanding Israeli settlements and Palestinian suicide bombers. After the murder of Yzhak Rabin by a right-wing assassin it was only a question of time, we felt, until the death of the peace process would be made official. For me, the election of Bibi Netanyahu in 1996 was that moment. Four years later the disillusionment of both societies from any process of reconciliation produced the blood letting of the second “intifada”.
I suddenly remembered that episode yesterday as I was watching on the Internet, the live election coverage from Israel. Don’t believe the morning papers that report inconclusive results and don’t be distracted by the stories of the power struggle between the night’s two winners. Who the next Prime Minster will be and the precise list of parties, which will form the future coalition, is unimportant. The reality is that the right-wing block in Israeli politics received close to 65 members of Parliament out of a possible 120. As in 1996, the results are not surprising. In fact, they should have been predictable to anyone who has watched and lived the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But I do not want this blog to become an analysis of Israeli electoral politics or about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but about the lessons I learned in the Balkans while making the film that was going to be broadcast in the UK the night Bibi won. Throughout 1995, my colleagues and I worked with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Roy Gutman, on an investigation into the UN role in the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica—designated by the UN as a Safe Haven. It was my second film in Bosnia. The first one was an investigation into the beginning of the ethnic cleansing campaign as it unfolded in the Bosnian town of Zvornik. It was that film that brought me to Belgrade at the beginning of the war in Bosnia. At first the city was surprising. Belgrade, even during the war, had a liberal, sophisticated and strong intellectual elite. Sitting in sun-drenched cafes in Belgrade as Serb paramilitary units were decimating Bosnian towns only a few hundreds kilometers away was almost surreal. It was hard to reconcile the urbane atmosphere with the horrors of Bosnia. But, Serbia, as I soon learned, was gravely ill. Impressive as Serbian intellectuals were, the country was on a path of self-destruction; dark ghosts of nationalistic fantasies gripped its soul and were slowly eating its body politic. Serbia, by choosing an uncompromising, extremist nationalist position, pinned itself into a corner from which there was no exit. The massacre in Serbrenica was not the last stop in that journey of self-destruction but it was visibly the beginning of the end.
Israel is, of course, no Serbia and there are many differences between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Balkans. But as I watched the election results last night I could not escape the feeling that since 1996, Israel too has embarked on a similar journey of self-destruction. Of course Israel’s journey began long before Bibi Netanyahu was elected, and he is hardly the only one responsible for it. But the process of destruction has accelerated since the collapse of the Oslo Peace Process and Bibi’s election in 1996. Violence has been radicalizing both Israelis and Palestinians and has steadily eliminated the available political options. The ruins of Gaza are the most recent evidence of how destructive the last 13 years have been. But as I learned in the Balkans, they are only but a preview of the conflicts ahead.
There was something else last night that reminded me further of the dark days of the Balkan wars. It was the meteoric rise of Avigdor Liberman, the arch nationalist, whose party got more votes than the Labour party did, becoming the third largest party in the Israeli Parliament. I saw his ilk in Serbia too. It is a mistake to consider Avigdor Liberman as just one more voice in the nationalist chorus. He is far more ambitious and clever than that. Liberman carved his role in the Israeli right by stoking the fires of a much more dangerous aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the future of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. “Without Loyalty—No Citizenship,” proclaims his party’s motto. It was splashed behind him on the stage. He wants to impose a loyalty oath on the Palestinians citizens of Israel. Their refusal will lead to loss of citizenship. It is only one part of an ambitious goal: to rid Israel of this “Fifth Column” which, according to Liberman, is what the vast majority of the over one million Palestinian citizens have become. Liberman is, of course, not alone. His party could not end up with 15 members of Parliament unless it represented and attracted a far wider segment of the Israeli society. On the stage behind him last night were former Likud members of Parliament, generals, and even Israel ‘s former ambassador to the United States. All have recently joined his party.
In 1995, the war in Bosnia came to an end, and Srebrenica was its last massacre. The searing imagery haunted the entire world and distracted us from another conflict that was brewing in the background. The Albanian majority in Kosovo first demanded the return of the Province’s autonomous status, which it had enjoyed as part of the former Yugoslavia. When their struggle was met with Serbian repression, their demand was changed to full independence. Kosovo was where Slobodan Milosevic baptized his nationalist campaign and where it ultimately ended with disastrous consequences to Serbia. In 1996, with the images of Srebrenica still seared in my mind, it was difficult to see the looming time bomb, which was Kosovo. In the wake of the war in Gaza, it is hard to focus on the radical change that the election of Avigdor Liberman signifies. But I believe that last night Avigdor Liberman laid the foundations for what could become an “Israeli Kosovo.” He, like his counterparts in Serbia, is ensuring that the delicate, tense and complex relationship between Israel and its Palestinian minority will be further damaged, leading to the radicalization of both societies.
The film we were making in 1995-1996 was not just a chronicle of Serbian and Bosnian-Serb atrocities. Its main focus was the moral bankruptcy of the international community, which had promised the Bosnian citizens of Srebrenica protection, and then betrayed them. At the core of this failure was the international community’s inability to grasp the fact that the war in the Balkans was not going to end by itself or run out of steam. Western politicians failed to grasp that virulent nationalist and ethnic conflicts such as these are like fires that feed on themselves. Without outside intervention and help, Serbia could only but continue to advance deeper and deeper into that dead end corner. Its political system was not only held hostage by Slobodan Milosevic. Its soul was infected with xenophobic rhetoric, and its passions whipped to hysteria by nationalist politicians . No opposition could grow in that barren landscape. The Bosnian Muslims, on the other hand, were wounded and radicalized by the atrocities committed against them and could only produce a desire for revenge. Srebrenica was a reminder that without international intervention, the Balkans would not only burn themselves to death but ignite other parts of Europe and the Muslim world. By the time the West was propelled into action, over 200,000 Bosnians of all religious beliefs had lost their lives and over 1.5 millions refugees were expelled from their homes. In 1996, the night Bibi won, I did not understand the parallels with what I saw on television and my film, which was about to be broadcast. Last night I felt I was watching the future unfold… and it looked painfully familiar.
Israeli novelist, David Grossman, wrote in a recent article that Israelis and Palestinians are like the foxes in the biblical story of Samson. In the Bible, Samson, in his war against the Philistines in Gaza, tied two foxes by their tails and placed a burning torch in their midst. The terrified foxes, unable to untangle themselves, were unleashed on Gaza ‘s wheat fields, setting them on fire while the foxes themselves burned.
Yesterday, the Middle East made yet one more step toward that great fire that, at the end, could consume us all.