October 16, 2009It was a masterful piece of self-deception.
Benny Begin, Israel's fiercely secular Minister without Portfolio, turned up to Jerusalem's King David Hotel on Tuesday to brief the foreign press corps on the threat to Israel posed by the fusion of religion and politics in Lebanon and Iran.
Noting that the Middle East was a region that rarely produced ''good days'', Begin said that June 7 of this year had in fact been one such good day.
It was the day Lebanon's pro-Western March 14 alliance won that country's parliamentary elections, defeating the March 8 coalition that includes Hezbollah, the Shiite ''party of God'' that is strongly backed by Iran.
''The June elections were a triumph for the good guys,'' enthused Begin.
Putting Saudi Arabia at the top of his list of ''good guys'' that had provided support for March 14, Begin said the Lebanese election results proved at least one thing.
''It showed us that when you really make an effort, the good people can win.''
Since when did Saudi Arabia top Israel's list of good guys? - But more of that later.
Despite the ''good guys'' triumph, Begin lamented that it had all been downhill since then.
Hezbollah had succeeded in retaining its power of veto over all cabinet decisions in a new government of national unity.
Worse still, Hezbollah had managed re-arm itself and now 40,000 rocket heads pointed towards Israel.
''Where do Hezbollah's real loyalties lie?'' Begin asked, getting to the meat of his argument.
In Iran, of course, the country that tops just about everyone's list of bad guys, and where, said Begin, ''religion and politics go together''.
''This theology is not something we are used to anywhere in the free world,'' warned Begin. ''This is something else.''
Quoting a few choice examples of vitriolic extremism that often punctuate the speeches of Iranian leaders and their Hezbollah clients, Begin asked what other country in the world would tolerate such a threat on its doorstep.
''Actually, we live a mad house,'' said Begin, with the clear implication that Israel was the only sane nation among them.
Yet where else in the Middle East is there such a fusion of religion and politics?
The lines between the two are so blurred in Israel that it has prevented the country's legislators from formally adopting a constitution for the past 61 years.
Begin himself, in almost his very next breath, then did what every Israeli politician – secular or religious – does when they start defending Israel's right to occupy the West Bank: he weaved together history as told by the Old Testament, with facts on the ground.
The land of the West Bank, which he referred to exclusively by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria, was the ''cradle of Jewish civilisation'', Begin argued.
Therefore no Israeli leader, Begin reiterated, should ''relinquish'' this land to the Palestinians, and no one had any right to demand that Jews should stop settling this land.
The mixture of religion and politics may well be a dangerous thing in the hands of Shiite clerics such as Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah and Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But religious extremism is not exclusive to Islam. Israel has its own Jewish extremists that Begin is happy to ignore. People who are settling the land of ''Judea and Samaria'' because they believe they are acting on God's explicit wishes.
Are these people dangerous?
Last Sunday it was reported that Israel's internal security service, the Shin Bet, had recently received intelligence on the existence of an ammunition cache in the West Bank settlement of Beit Hagai.
A year ago, religious extremists detonated a pipe bomb at the front door of the distinguished Israeli historian Professor Ze'ev Sternhell, a longtime campaigner against Jewish settlement of the West Bank.
How far would such people go if Israel ever moved to evacuate the West Bank and start evacuating settlements?
When I asked Begin if he was concerned about the fusion of religion and politics in the settler movement, he simply dodged the question.
His bottom line was that because Jews have a strong historic link to the land of West Bank, they have a perpetual right to live there.
As Begin indicated in his earlier blessing of Saudi Arabia – an Islamic monarchy that is one of the world's most repressive regimes – the fusion of religion and politics is not his real concern.
What Begin really demands of movements like Hezbollah, and countries such as Iran, is obedience. An unswerving commitment to the West's geopolitical strategic vision.
If secular moderates were what politicians like Begin were looking for, then the one person they might embrace is Salam Fayyad, the Western-educated former World Bank economist who is now the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister.
But instead of moving to strengthen Fayyad and set the course towards a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict, the Netanyahu Government prefers to weaken the Palestinian Authority by encouraging more settlements, and maintaining the restrictions that make the occupation intolerable for Palestinians.
Two days after Begin appeared before the foreign media in Jerusalem, Salam Fayyad did the same at the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah.
Time and again Fayyad repeated his affirmation of the pro-Western mantra of rejecting armed resistance as the only way to achieve the goals of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state.
But as the recent weeks of rioting across East Jerusalem, and the bitter backlash against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' mishandling of the Goldstone Report suggests, the grass roots of Palestinian society seem to have reserved their perceived right to use armed resistance to achieve their national goals.
Ignoring the effects of 42 years of military occupation with specious arguments about religious extremism is a good way to prolong the Israel-Palestinian conflict, not end it.
Jason Koutsoukis is Middle East correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.