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Israel in Peril

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Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Palestinian children walking past Israeli border policemen standing guard near a Palestinian house taken over by Jewish settlers in the center of Hebron, April 3, 2012

The book has a welcome pragmatic thrust to it, reflecting the urgency—and the immense difficulty—of generating change, but here again Beinart’s recommendations seem to me rather limited.10 He wants to strengthen liberal Jewish education in the US and to expand its funding basis; no one could take exception to this plea, though its potential effects on Israeli policy may be decades away. More immediately, he recommends a boycott by American Jews of products coming from Israeli settlements in the territories. This may seem a bold step in New York or Philadelphia, given the current climate in American synagogues and other Jewish institutions, though many of us have been doing it for years, publicly or silently, to no great effect. I once threw a fit in a well-known Jerusalem restaurant when it turned out that they had in stock only wine produced by settlers or in wineries located in the territories. The owner eventually appeared and apologized profusely, promising that in future he’d have a wider selection. That’s about as far as we’ve got, although there is at least one case—that of the Barkan wineries—where pressure from outside, probably mostly from Europe, apparently led to the closure of the main production unit on the West Bank, near Banu Hassan. Lest this example inspire inflated hopes, I should add that, according to recent studies, many if not most Israeli wineries process grapes grown in settlements.

By now, targeting settlers’ produce has a slightly anachronistic feel to it. Does it make sense to focus on wine from Hebron or milk products from the Susya dairy when the entire Israeli political system sustains the colonial project in the territories? I should make it clear that I oppose the call for an across-the-board boycott of Israel, and in particular for an academic-cultural boycott, which, in my view, can only be counterproductive, strengthening the prevalent paranoid mythology and its strident spokesmen on the right. Although I spend a portion of my time in often quixotic gestures in the south Hebron hills, in general I’m not fond of the ineffectual.

What is needed is something far more effective—perhaps something that a second-term Democratic president could achieve if he had the courage to confront the stranglehold of AIPAC on American politics, partly described by Beinart. In the meantime, we could use the kind of idealistic and hardheaded volunteers whom Arnold Wolf, the charismatic liberal rabbi who was one of Obama’s mentors in Chicago, took to Selma, Alabama, during the civil rights struggle. We need volunteers on the West Bank, to protect innocent Palestinian civilians from marauding settlers and the soldiers who invariably back the settlers up. Even a few hundred people would make a real difference.

But it may already be too late. Analysts like Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, have been saying for years that the idea of the two-state solution is no more than a fig leaf, to which both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships pay lip service, hiding the recalcitrant reality of what is already a single state between the Jordan River and the sea. At the moment, this single state, seen as a whole, fits Beinart’s term—a coercive “ethnocracy.” Those who recoil at the term “apartheid” are invited to offer a better one; but note that one of the main architects of this system, Ariel Sharon, himself reportedly adopted South African terminology, referring to the noncontiguous Palestinian enclaves he envisaged for the West Bank as “Bantustans.”

These Palestinian Bantustans now exist, and no one should pretend that they’re anything remotely like a “solution” to Israel’s Palestinian problem. Someday, as happened in South Africa, this system will inevitably break down. In an optimistic version of the future, we may be left with some sort of confederated model that is more than one state but somehow less than two—and in which the Jews will soon become a minority. I do not see how that can happen without a struggle, hopefully nonviolent at least to some degree, in which Palestinians claim for themselves the rights that other peoples have achieved.

How did we reach this point? Why do Israelis cling to a policy so evidently irrational, indeed suicidal? The simple—too simple—answer is: we’re afraid. We’ve been so traumatized, first by our whole history and then by the history of this conflict, that we want at least an illusion of security, like the kind that comes from holding on to a few more rocky hills. Never mind that every inch of Israel is within range of tens of thousands of missiles currently stationed in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza, not to mention Iran, and that a few more square kilometers make no difference to that threat. We’ll still take over those West Bank hills, and we’ll even put a few rickety caravans on them for anyone crazy enough to want to live there, and we’ll station a few dozen bored soldiers on top of each of them and all around them, and we’ll connect them to the Israeli electricity grid and the water system, and we’ll build a big perimeter fence to enclose the new settlement and to provide land for it to grow on (usually many times the size of the settlement itself). The land happens to belong to Palestinians, but that, clearly, is a consideration of no relevance here.

The fears of Israelis are no doubt real enough, and a generous interpretation of Israeli policy over the last four decades would give them due emphasis. As Ali Abu Awwad, one of the leaders of the new generation of Palestinian nonviolent resisters, often says: “The Jews are not my enemy; their fear is my enemy. We must help them to stop being so afraid—their whole history has terrified them—but I refuse to be a victim of Jewish fear anymore.” He’s right to refuse. But I think the reality we inhabit and have largely created by our own actions has more to do with the story we Israelis tell ourselves about who we are—a powerfully dramatic story that, like many such mythic stories, has a way of perpetuating itself, at continually escalating cost to those who tell it. This story more and more coincides with the primitive Netanyahu narrative I mentioned earlier.

To get away from it, we need to recognize certain primary facts, however uncomfortable they may be for some of us. As has been the case in the past, there are always easily available diversions and distractions that mask the true basis of the ongoing struggle; in Israel today, the main such diversion is called “Iran.” Along with such distractions we have the Israeli refusal to see the present Palestinian leadership in Ramallah for what it is, a more than adequate partner for Israel. Those who don’t agree should be thinking about men such as Marwan Barghouti, still biding his time in an Israeli jail. He’s no saint, to be sure, but he enjoys enormous authority among Palestinians, and he knows very well what is required to strike a deal. There is good reason to believe that he wants such a deal, along the lines that are by now recognized as reasonable by a majority on both sides of the conflict and, indeed, by most other nations. He has recently published a strong statement calling for mass nonviolent resistance in the territories and an end to the farce of a negotiating “process” that has allowed Israel to stall endlessly—and to hide its deeply rooted hostility to the very idea of coming to some form of agreement with the Palestinian national movement.

This profound antipathy to making a meaningful peace will undoubtedly continue to dominate the present Israeli government, now expanded by the entry of the Kadima party into the coalition; Kadima presents itself as “centrist” but is, in fact, hardly distinguishable from the Likud, from which it seceded under Sharon’s leadership, when it comes to Palestinian matters. The new cabinet will continue to entrench the occupation and to legalize the massive theft of Palestinian lands while loudly complaining that the Palestinians are responsible for the collapse of negotiations.

So again, it is worth stating the self-evident truths: at the core of this conflict there are two peoples with symmetrical claims to the land. Neither of the two has any monopoly on being “right,” and each has committed atrocities against the other. One of these two sides is, however, much stronger than the other. Until the national aspirations of the weaker, Palestinian side are addressed and some sort of workable compromise between the two parties is achieved—until the occupation as we know it today comes to an end—there will be no peace. It is impossible to keep millions of human beings disenfranchised for long and to systematically rob them of their dignity and their land.

To prolong the occupation is to ensure the emergence of a single polity west of the Jordan; every passing day makes a South African trajectory more likely, including the eventual, necessary progression to a system of one person, one vote. Thus the likelihood must be faced that unless the Occupation ends, there will also, in the not so distant future, be no Jewish state.

—May 9, 2012

Letters

The ADL & Palestine July 12, 2012

  1. 10

    For a more radical critique, see Joseph Dana, “The Crisis of Zionism: Undeterred by Unavoidable Realities,” The National, April 20, 2012. 

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