Category Archives: graphic art

Why don’t the Abraham Accords look like peace?

It has often been noted that it’s easier to represent war visually than it is to represent peace. When did you last go to see a peace movie? But peace agreements provide photo opps of the signing of peace agreements by leaders who synecdochically stand in for whole nations. This has certainly been the case for previous peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbours under the auspices of the USA.

Consider two previous occasions on which peace agreements were signed at the White House, first in 1979 between Israel and Egypt, then in 1993 between Israel and the PLO. The hands of the leaders portray reconciliation and the relinquishing of weapons in different ways. President Carter demonstrates his mediating role by joining hands with President of Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel, just six years after the two countries fought each other in a bitter war. President Clinton’s outstretched arms and tall stature seem to create through magnanimous power the space in which Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin come together in an allegedly reluctant handshake. Clinton was also there to observe a much warmer handshake between Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan when the two countries signed a peace agreement on their border in 1994.

If this is the simple iconography of peace agreements, it should be straightforward to represent the agreements signed at the White House between the governments of Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as peace. Yet, it doesn’t look that way to me.

Perhaps its the absence of hand-shaking, which might be attributed to Covid-19 precautions if there were any evidence of such precautions being taken throughout the event. As it is, it looks as if Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan have all just received a certificate of good behaviour from Trump.

This picture of peace is lacking not simply because of an absent iconographic element, but because of what is missing from it as what scholar W.J.T. Mitchell calls an “imagetext.” An “imagetext” is a hybrid of picture and text and the accompanying texts to the pictures of signing these peace agreements are the stories and dramas for which the pictures are culminating events. If a picture is going to speak a thousand words, you have to know the story. In 1979, the story included wars between Israel and Egypt, the media event of Sadat’s surprise visit to Israel in 1977, and the setbacks and breakthroughs of the negotiations at Camp David. The backdrop to the signing of the Oslo accords was the first intifada, revelations about track-two diplomacy behind the scenes, the apparent conversion of two main protagonists, Rabin and Arafat, from men of war of to peacemakers. To some extent then, as many have said, this doesn’t look like a peace treaty because Israel has not been at war with the UAE or Bahrain. So there has been little drama – other than surprise – to provide the text for this image.

There is more to it than that. This doesn’t look like peace because, even while the agreement claims that the normalization of relations between states is intended to contribute towards peace in the region, including a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it does the opposite. Not only is its context the conflict between the Gulf States and Iran, but like its predecessor, Trump’s “Vision for Peace,” it undermines the prospects for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Normalization of relations with Arab states was one of the diplomatic carrots held out in the 2002 Arab peace initiative for Israel to end its occupation and creeping annexation of the Palestinian Territories. As things stand, the occupation has become normalized by Israel, especially under Trump’s administration. Israel no longer pays any evident price for its relentless and continuing injustices, except perhaps for erosive moral corruption, as remarked by Raja Shehadeh. On the same day that the agreement was signed in Washington, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that a Jerusalem court had ordered the “eviction of dozens of Palestinian residents from their homes in East Jerusalem. The beneficiaries will be settler associations who argued that the homes belonged to Jews before 1948.” Needless to say, Palestinian refugees who owned property in Jerusalem until 1948 are not eligible to reclaim their homes as they are not Jewish. That is one of the injustices that the “Abraham Accords” sanctions, seemingly taking inspiration not from mythical shared ancestry but from the Biblical story of Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, depicted here by Israeli artist Jakob Steinhardt in 1950, with the refugees of 1948 in mind.

Flags, place, and people

Growing up in the UK in the 1970s, I had no love for the British flag which had been appropriated by the racist far right, especially the National Front. As I was a keen Zionist at the time, I’m pretty sure I felt a lot more affinity to the Israeli flag then. I’m visiting Israel again, but without the Zionist identity that brought me as an immigrant to this country in 1985. It’s not long after Independence Day, so there are perhaps more flags around than at other times of the year, but there seem to be a lot of them. Living in the US, I’ve grown used to seeing the red, white and blue on the houses of neighbours, on massive poles outside shopping malls and in the town square. Perhaps it’s unfair, but I can’t help feeling that when a nation feels the need to brand a place so insistently with its flag, there’s some insecurity there about the land belonging to the new nation rather than the people who lived there before.

It was hard to feel ambivalence at all about the Israeli flag on “Jerusalem Day,” a day that marks the Israeli conquest in June 1967 of the eastern part of Jerusalem, which had been under Jordanian rule since 1948. There might be something to celebrate about the reunification of a city torn apart by war, but the unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel makes it clear as can be that the city is not united but deeply divided along the lines of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The “celebration” of the day has been thoroughly appropriated by the religious nationalist settler movement which re-stages the conquest of East Jerusalem, especially the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, each year with the “dance of the flags.” The “dance” has been accompanied by physical and verbal violence on the part of the conquerors and the police who enforce their passage through the streets placed on lock down, but less so this year. The Israeli flag in the hands of the marchers has become a symbol of an exclusive Jewish claim to the place of Jerusalem, of racist superiority over the Palestinians who live in the place, and of possession of place by violent means.

Over the years, the British union flag has become cool again, reclaimed from the racists even if it’s been appropriated as a fashion item. There are Jewish Israelis opposed to the settler nationalists who also want to claim the flag for themselves. Peace Now has its own flag for Independence Day, which replaces the Star of David at the center with the word “shalom.”
Last night in Zion Square gay rights activists did their best to engage mostly religious protagonists while holding the rainbow flag embellished with the Star of David.

At the counter-demonstration to the flag march organised by Free Jerusalem someone held the blue and white flag among the red flags of Hadash and other socialists and the green banner of the liberal Meretz party.

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Free Jerusalem Facebook photo

Free Jerusalem Facebook photo

The flags confronted each other across barriers, with a small proportion of the thousands of marchers lingering to stand opposite the small number of counter-demonstrators corralled into a balcony overlooking the street corner, like a bunch of hobbits hoping to hold off the orcs. There were drum rhythms and slogans from the balcony: “End the occupation.” “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” The conquerors also chanted and sang songs which in another peaceful contexts of mutual recognized attachment to place would have been tuneful. It was hardly an opportunity for a frank and free exchange of views, as we regraded each other with mutual dislike and disdain. Indeed, the largest of the counter-demonstrator’s banners (which I didn’t see from where I stood within our corral until I saw this photo on Facebook) spoke over the heads of the conquerors to wish the Muslim residents of the Old City Ramadan Kareem.

People on flags. Design by Ariel Katz, produced with her by John and Hazel Varah from Same Sky.

People on flags. Design by Ariel Katz, produced with her by John and Hazel Varah from Same Sky.

I don’t feel like reclaiming the Israeli flag for peace and tolerance, not least because its symbolism excludes its non-Jewish citizens. People are more important than the flags with which they brand places with their identities. When that’s forgotten racism and chauvinism blot out the identities and belonging to place of those who don’t adhere to your banner. If there must be flags, these are the ones I can identify with. Women and men, Palestinians, stand together, refusing the monopoly of national identities and looking for ways to reach across to each other. Flags don’t dance, but people do, and there’s no place we can’t dance, not even divided Jerusalem.