With Netanyahu’s latest victory, the prospects of a peaceful outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy seem ever more distant. But it’s not like they were ever very close anyhow. While it’s alleged over and over again that Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist, or specifically its right to exist as a Jewish state, there’s a far more damning fact: Israel isn’t just rhetorically denying the right of a Palestinian state to exist. It has done so in the past, continues to do so, and doesn’t appear to be changing course anytime soon.
Israel has been actively occupying and oppressing the Palestinian people for decades now, though not equally. As Yousef Munayyer notes, only 27% of Palestinians under Israeli rule can vote. That 27% are the Palestinians within the 1948 borders of Israel—basically, excluding the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip—who hold Israeli citizenship, and vote, even if ‘their’ Prime Minister has demonstrated that a good way to win elections in Israel’s ethnic democracy is by race-baiting and fear-mongering. Meanwhile, horrified pundits pretend no such thing has happened before.
Though, let’s be fair: Israeli Palestinians who can vote nevertheless live as second-class citizens. On the other hand, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, who number some 200,000, cannot vote; their neighborhoods have been annexed to Israel, even though international law and the international community recognize that East Jerusalem would belong to a Palestinian state, assuming it were to have existed.
We need even more hands to write this story out: The West Bank is cut open and torn apart by settlements, many of whose inhabitants are fervent ideologues. But not all of them. Some settlers prefer the convenience of cheaper housing, without any apparent concern for how their desire for an affordable place to live jeopardizes the security of their country and the viability of their state. And that’s not even getting to Gaza.
All this trouble, with the continued delusion that somehow it can be sustained, somehow it’ll be made to work, somehow if we just bomb them every few years, and punish them for their desire to be free, we will have achieved a reasonable and acceptable status quo.
But although I welcome the forwardness with which we are beginning to confront the ugly realities of ongoing occupation—as well as the racism and ethnocentrism that are necessarily enhanced in the course of such conflict—I don’t think we quite understand the desperate urgency of the situation. Israel’s elite believe a combination of periodic aerial bombardment, increased settlement construction, ever more partisan alliance with the American right wing, and a healthy dose of indifference to the wider world will somehow preserve an expansionist project. But that is not going to happen.
A recent European Union report states that tensions in Jerusalem are at their highest in years. It’s about time the United States joins the international community in expressing real, and consequential, disapproval of this state of affairs. The relationship between America and Israel isn’t one of alliance so much as one of patron and client. When we, as Americans, could be devoting time and energy to building cooperation around issues of national concern—climate change, for example—we have to beg, persuade and harangue our allies not to turn to the United Nations to censure Israel, or to ask the European Union and the Arab League to keep the Palestinian Authority afloat.
Why are we spending so much political capital on a country that does not hold to our ideals (political idealism), and offers us little in return (political realism)?
For what reason should we continue to devote our diplomatic energies defending an ally that is openly disrespectful of our elected leadership, and only shares our values if we are speaking of the United States from several decades ago? Is it really worth it? And do we not have some kind of moral responsibility to warn a country that has long been our ally of the perils of its chosen path? The longer the occupation grinds on, the more Israel will have to assault Palestinian populations in wars that cause disproportionately high civilian casualties—witness this summer’s brutal exercise—leaving it further isolated internationally. The consequences go beyond the rhetorical.
Amazingly, Netanyahu points to the threat posed by ISIS and Hezbollah alike, despite the fact that they are enemies, and that his support for the Iraq War helped to create the conditions in which and through which ISIS emerged. (Then he has the temerity to ask us to put our soldiers, civilians, and security at risk by pursuing another ill-advised conflict.)
Netanyahu doesn’t just use anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment to win votes, justify occupation, or call for war—the violent consequences of his Islamophobia—but he also deliberately provokes anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment. Then he travels to Europe and declares that he is not just leader of Israel, but leader of all Jews.
If I were Jewish, this would horrify me—as much as the declarations, by unsavory Muslim leaders, that they somehow represent Islam. (At least they don’t try to represent me, or show up in my country and tell me to go back to their own, a message that uncritically and unconsciously mimics the worst kinds of anti-Semitic language.)
As a Muslim, I am likewise disgusted by the anti-Semitism that I see, and the conflation of Israel’s political policies with Jews and Judaism generally. In a reciprocal way, anger over Israel’s occupation of Palestine has been seized by radical groups to justify an all-encompassing hatred of Jews. The longer this conflict drags on, the worse it is likely to get.
But there are ways out—though that window is quickly closing.
It is not true that, as Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times (‘Netanyahu Will Make History’), that there is either ‘only one state,’ in which Israel ‘cannot be Jewish,’ or a two-state solution, an Israel and Palestine living side-by-side. Get over it, folks. Not happening. The time for a two-state solution passed in the previous millennium. Friedman didn’t just miss the window of opportunity, he’s missed the closing credits, too. It’s highly unlikely Israel will uproot its settlers, especially considering the strength of support they can summon in election after election.
Not to mention, I do not believe Palestinians would accept the kind of state that’s condescendingly offered to them in any such conversation about two-state ‘solutions’. Any Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized, and who, really, would accept that—that’s not sovereignty, that’s (at best) autonomy, and if you’re going to be merely autonomous, why even uphold the fiction of statehood?
Think about it: If you had been militarily occupied and attacked for years by the same country, would you accept a ‘sovereign’ state which had no ability to defend itself? Palestinians, furthermore, don’t just have every reason to be wary of Israel’s intentions, and its powerful military, but of many of their neighbors’ as well.
For an idea of what a ‘demilitarized’ Palestine might mean, just look at Gaza. While, yes, the Israeli army withdrew settlers from the coastal territory, it remains under a crippling blockade. And don’t forget that Egypt’s dictator, Sisi, has closed his side of the border too, essentially trapping well over a million people.
No people in the world would tolerate living like that. (We Americans most certainly wouldn’t.) Is this what would become of the West Bank, too—a nominally self-governing state with no control of its borders, at the whims of Israel and Jordan? So with two-states down we appear only to have one-state, but Friedman says no, not that either. He says a ‘one state’ solution would be impossible, because it would mean death by a million votes.
Only if Friedman means, by a one-state solution, a unitary state that makes no distinctions between its citizens. One option is a one-state, but one which would respect the right of Palestinians to return to their country without threatening the deeply felt and understandable Jewish desire for a state—a federation of two states, whose dividing lines are not geographic so much as they are communal and cultural. (I study South Asia’s recent history, especially before and after partition, so trust me, creating ‘homogenous’ territories would only open the door to horrific violence on a scale Mandatory Palestine hasn’t yet seen.)
Two communities with high degrees of autonomy, giving Palestinians their deserved right of return, if they so wished of course, but without threatening the Jewish character of Israel. The two communities would live side-by-side, but not together. Not yet at least. The period of adjustment would naturally be long, painful, and hurtful.
But otherwise Israel doesn’t just hurtle towards disaster, it votes Likud back in and gives that tragedy a mandate to form a government. Insofar as we are more patron than ally to Israel we have the right to ask what else our money and support are for—and what our responsibilities are.
If denial is one of the stages of grief, and Hegel was right about the stages of history, then Netanyahu is an embodiment of denial, the unwillingness of much of Israel—and her supporters—to admit that the longer they resist, the worse the outcome will be. For everyone.
I don’t think we’ve fully comprehended how much worse the situation is than it appears to be. You can march triumphantly into your own grave, the Germans say. We’ve left the two-state solution long behind. God forbid we leave the one-state behind, too.
Photo of West Bank mural by flickr user Jonas Hansel via Creative Commons