Published in: Arena Journal, New Series, Vol. 16 (2001): 1: pp. 13-25
FROM FRAGILE ‘PEACE’ TO CREEPING APARTHEID:
NOTES ON THE RECENT POLITICS OF ISRAEL/PALESTINE
Hope and Beyond
“We have a clear plan for the Camp David peace summit: go all the way in our effort to achieve peace; if we fail, we know it’s the fault of the other side… We’ll be able to look at the eyes of Jewish mothers and say: we have tried everything and we can need to unite for our defence.”
(Ehud Barak, Israeli Prime Minister, July, 2000).[b]
In the summer of 2000 there was cause for some optimism in the war-torn land of Israel/Palestine. There was hope for Palestinians in the occupied territories who were seeking political liberation; to their deprived brethren inside Israel who were pursuing equality and some autonomy; and to Israeli Jews who were still looking, finally, to achieve a secure Jewish state at peace with its neighbours. The stakes were high as both Jews and Palestinians were keen to enter a new era, free of the violence and destruction that characterised their painful histories.
At the helm of the Israeli government stood Ehud Barak -- a pragmatic general who replaced the rightist and belligerent Netanyahu, and Israel had just withdrawn its troops from decades of occupying southern Lebanon. Peace negotiations with the Palestinians were gathering momentum, culminating in the Camp David summit under the auspices of a ‘caring’ Bill Clinton.
But the spring of 2001 tells us that the great expectations must, for the time being, be suspended. In the following pages, I shall try and account for the shattering of these hopes, and for the replacement of peace rhetoric with a violent reality, I describe as ‘creeping apartheid’. This paper offers a vantage point ‘from within’, which combines political analysis with impressions gained by first-hand daily exposure to the sorry tale of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict.
Still in the summer of 2000, but below the surface of ‘peace talks’, another reality was festering. Israel’s promised phased withdrawal from the Palestinian Territories as part of the ‘peace process’, had been delayed by more than three years; settlements were being built at a rapid pace; and the daily movement of Palestinians was tightly controlled. There was much talk of “peace” and a stubborn reality of a deepening, violent, occupation.[c]
Then peace negotiations hit a deadlock, largely (although not solely) due to an enduring denial by most Israeli-Jews of the main problems simmering below the Palestinian-Zionist conflict. Issues such as the future of Palestinian refugees, control over Jerusalem or the future of Jewish illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, were systematically silenced in the Israeli public arena, and were even marginalised in international discourse by a powerful American influence. As a result, when these issues were inevitably raised during serious peace negotiations, Israeli negotiators were locked inside their own traps – they were unable to think about resolving the conflict on equal terms, or even discuss the minimal parameters requested by the Palestinians.
In historical terms, most Palestinians felt they had already performed their historical compromise with Zionism. During the 1993 Oslo agreements, the Palestinians recognized Israel’s right to exist securely on 78 percent of their historic homeland (that is, Israel within the ‘Green Line’ – its internationally recognised border, not including the Palestinian occupied territories). This step was taken without the approval of most Arab states, after decades of frustration and disappointment from reliance on assistance from the Arab world. The Palestinians thought that the remaining 22 percent would be gradually transferred to their control (with minor modifications) during the implementation of peace accords. Hence the stand expressed by Faisal Husseini, a renown Palestinian leader, in a recent interview”:[d]
“There is no compromise on the compromise!”
But most Israeli-Jews were lead to think otherwise. They perceived the historical compromise between Zionists and Palestinians as occurring within the territories conquered by Israel in 1967. The main Jewish perception is that the conflict is between a Jewish Israel and ‘the Arabs’, and hence the only Jewish state in the world -- established after centuries of anti-Semitism -- must exist within secure borders, while the Palestinians (refugees and others) can safely integrate within any of the 22 Arab states. In recent years many Israeli-Jews have reluctantly accepted the existence of a Palestinian nation, after decades of denial. However, they still perceive overwhelmingly the Palestinians as part of a hostile Arab region, which has continued to deny the right of Jews for national self-determination.
This view lead most Israelis, including the ‘leftist’ Labour camp, to equate “going all the way for peace” with the annexation of most (internationally illegal) Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and with a total denial of the right of return for Palestinian refugees to their original lands and villages. In his recent memoirs of the Camp David peace talks, Israel’s leftist foreign minister at the time, Shlomo Ben-Ami boasts:
“The Camp David summit was a major Israeli achievement: for the first time… the American accepted.. and Clinton stressed the importance of annexing 80 percent of the settlers… and a large Jewish Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.. and we never, at no stage, agreed to the return of the Palestinian refugees”.[e]
The vastly differing perceptions of Israeli-Jews and Palestinians lead to the collapse of peace talks and harbored the seeds of eruption.
What followed was quick deterioration. Ariel Sharon, then leader of the rightist opposition, lit the fire, with a provocative, well-publicized, visit to the sacred Muslim mosques in occupied East Jerusalem. A deprived and frustrated Palestinian population, encouraged by opposition (especially Islamic) organizations, began to mobilize. The early grassroot uprising quickly received the support (quiet at first) of a besieged and increasingly unpopular Palestinian leadership keen to improve its ineffective and corrupt image. The ensuing weeks saw mass street demonstrations, continuing with armed attacks on Israeli settlers and army installations, and reached terrorist activities inside Israel proper. The vast majority of violent activities were carried inside the occupied territories and against the main symbols of occupation – Jewish settlements and the Israeli armed forces. However, the few suicide attacks in the heart of Israeli cities have made a major impact on hardening public opinion against peace with the Palestinians, and against the Palestinian Authority which was perceived as a main facilitator of the violent turn of events.
An all-too-familiar cycle of violence ensued with deadly momentum. In six months, some 450 Palestinians and 55 Israelis were killed and scores injured. In widespread acts of collective punishment, hundreds of Palestinian homes were demolished, large tracts of Arab agricultural land cleared for ‘security purposes’, and repeated impositions of closures and curfews sunk the already struggling Palestinian economy into a grave crisis.
The events ‘peeled-off’ the thin layer termed ‘peace process’, exposing the deeply entrenched ethnic and nationalist assumptions governing the players in this game. In a famous pre-election speech, Ehud Barak, then Israel’s Prime Minister, claimed that his style of “turning every stone for peace” resulted in “exposing the real-face of the Palestinians”, as rejecting a “realistic” option of peace.
But using the same terminology, it is possible to claim that Barak actually exposed the real face of the Israeli regime, which I have termed elsewhere as ‘ethnocratic’. In such a regime, ethnicity, and not citizenship, determines one’s accessibility to power and resources. Ethnocratic regimes are found in contested territories, whereby a dominant ethnic nation appropriates the state, and uses it to further its expansionist policies and aspirations while using the language of ‘democracy’.[f]
This ethnocentric attitude was vividly reflected in the broad sympathy offered by the Israeli public to the settlers during the beginning of the latest uprising, almost without mentioning or questioning the occupation or the illegality of Jewish settlements. The conflict was represented entirely in ethnic terms, devoid of its conflictual history and geography. Hence the common description in the Israeli public was that “Arabs are again attacking Jews”, or that: “Palestinians demonstrate again their one and only goal – the destruction of Israel”.
This placeless ethnic solidarity was vividly illustrated during the main public ceremony commemorating Rabin’s assassination, a couple of months into the current Intifada. Rabin was assassinated by an extremist right-wing Jew, Yigal Amir, for his willingness to hand territory to Palestinians in exchange for reconciliation. But the banners in the ceremony told the audience loud and clear: “Together we remember”, and “Together We Continue”. This vague sense of ‘togetherness’ was aimed at the Jewish public, including the settlers and the circles from which Rabin’s Assassin emerged.
No reference, and worst -- no protest -- was made during this peace rally against the occupation and settlements. Indeed, since the outbreak of the second Intifada, Israeli-Zionist society has by and large chosen to rally behind the settlers, who – paradoxically -- dragged the country into its current predicament! This clearly illustrates the force of the ethnocratic logic, and the strength of ethno-nationalist sentiments and manipulations. These are usually at their highest during periods of national elections, as transpired in February 2001.
”Only Sharon will Bring Peace”
“I Trust Sharon’s Secure Peace”
[Leading election slogans, Israel, January/February 2001]
The people of Israel/Palestine awoke on February 7, 2001, with the specter of Ariel Sharon, one of the most belligerent, controversial and influential politicians in the Middle-East, being crowned as Israel’s new Prime Minister
In a landslide victory Sharon received nearly 63 percent of the vote, thereby achieving a massive 37% swing, and forcing Ehud Barak to resign from Labor’s leadership. Barak was ‘fatally wounded’ by the Palestinian ‘al-Aqsa intifada’ and by the violence unleashed during the Israeli effort to crush it. He was also hurt by his willingness to openly discuss far-reaching compromises with the Palestinians (without delivering any agreement) and by the contempt he showed towards Israeli minorities and towards democratic procedures. His defeat signaled the death of the Oslo framework of peace negotiation and phased Israeli withdrawal, and a gradual consolidation of a pseudo-apartheid ‘ethnocratic’ regime in Israel/Palestine.
The popular image portrays Israel as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’. But a closer look shows that Sharon’s impressive victory was far from democratic. First, it was achieved with the lowest election turnout in Israeli’s history, with participation at only 59%, and Sharon receiving the support of only 36% of eligible voters. Second, and more importantly, the vote only represented the mood among Jews in Israel/Palestine. Due to a widespread election boycott, only 15% of the Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel cast a vote, with the majority refusing to grant legitimacy to neither of the two candidates.
And most significantly, despite the focus of these elections on the future of the occupied territories, the three million Palestinians residing in these territories under the (direct or indirect) control of the Israeli government did not have the right to vote. At the same time, it is taken for granted by the distorted Israeli system of government that the nearly 400,000 Jewish settlers in the same areas are given full voting rights.
This abnormality was condoned and illustrated by High Court Judge Michael Kheshin, chair of the Israeli elections committee, who was viewed on national TV on the eve of the elections traveling to a West Bank settlement in an armored vehicle to deliver ballot boxes. Kheshin commented: “this is a day of celebration for our democracy”, ignoring, as most Israeli-Jews do, not only the existence of millions of disenfranchised Palestinian subjects of the Israeli regime, but also their violent uprising against their occupation.
The distortion and manipulation were nowhere more evident than in the election campaign. George Orwell would have been proud of the Newspeech used in Sharon’s election slogans shown on huge billboards, TV ads, bumper stickers and election mail. These directly associated this notorious general, the invader of Lebanon, the builder of most settlements, who has never supported any peace plan or accord in Israel’s history, as “a man of peace”. The designers of Barak’s campaign tried hard to expose the ‘real Sharon’ of malicious wars and immoral aggression, but this actually assisted him maintain an image of a strong leader who “will teach Arafat and the Palestinians a hard lesson”.
But beyond campaigns and images, the Labour camp in general, and Barak in particular, had a concrete problem among Israel’s one million Palestinian-Arab citizens. In the past, this community has always given overwhelming support to candidates of the left, but no longer.
The Arab (non)Vote
“For the first time, the Arab citizens in Israel united in a political struggle; our campaign for boycotting the elections has succeeded beyond our dreams… we began the road of building a national identity”. (A. Bishara, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament).[g]
The 2001 elections exposed a new agenda of a national minority in conflict with its state. Some even called it “the independence day of the Arabs in Israel”. The high hopes generated among the Arab citizens by Barak’s 1999 victory crumbled without a trace, as did the massive 95% support he received 20 months earlier. Following his 1999 win, Barak acted in a typical ‘ethnocratic’ manner: he never negotiated with the Arab leaders about forming a coalition, nor shared any significant decision-making with the Arab parties. His insistence on being “elected by a Jewish majority” was perceived as aloof and patronizing.
Further, the sustained violent response by the Barak government to the al-Aqsa Intifada, and the violent police reaction to mass Arab demonstrations during the first week of the intifada, in which 13 Arab citizens (and one Jew) were killed, angered the Arabs to the point of vowing never to vote for Barak, and hence demonstrate their emerging collective political power.
This strategy proved highly effective, and clearly, no left-wing candidate can now take the Arab vote for granted. But the move was not without hazards. The experience of national minorities boycotting elections, as occurred for example in Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland, shows how difficult it is to reverse such a move. Despite its frustrating history in the Israeli political arena, it is difficult to see the Arab minority progressing without participating in national politics. Further, on the day following the elections, political leaders from both left and right, such as Meretz leader Yossi Sarid and Likud’s (now president) Moshe Katzav, expressed “deep resentment” towards the Arab mass abstention, and Sarid even claimed that the Arabs “betrayed” the cause of peace.
These (distorted) allegations may spell increasing tensions between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens, and may lead legitimacy to right-wing leaders to push anti-Arab policy agendas. This may cause further diminution of Arab citizenship in Israel, and a deepening of the state’s ethnocratic regime.
This situation was paradoxical for two main reasons: First, Barak was the first Israeli Prime Minister to adopt a peace plan resembling the UN resolution 242. This plan was based on “the Clinton outline” – aired by the American president in December 2000, entailing Israeli withdrawal from 94-5% of the Occupied Territories, settlement of the refugee problem only in future Palestinian territories, and re-division of Jerusalem/ al-Quds. This proposed solution resembled many of the demands made for years by Arab-led parties and a considerable distance from the positions of any Zionist party. It had a potential to achieve a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations, perceived as impossible under Sharon.
Second, his rival was no less than Ariel Sharon -- arguably the most aggressive, anti-peace leader Israel has ever had. The Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel have indeed taken a risky (though calculated) gamble in assisting the ascendance of Sharon to the helm of controlling Israel/Palestine. The ethnocratic logic was at work here too, with Israel’s Palestinian citizens unwilling to trust a Jewish leader, and staging a campaign, which for the first time played heavily on the ethno-national sentiments, rather than civil equality.[h]
Ethnocratic Culture and the Defeat of Peace
We shall build our land, our homeland
Because it’s ours, ours, this land
We shall build our land, our homeland
This is the command of Jewish generations
The command of our blood
(a popular Hebrew song, A. Levinson).[i]
Yet, beyond the boycott staged by Israel’s Arab citizens and beyond the machinery of campaigning and image-making, lies a deeper reason for the defeat of the peace camp. As noted above, and as expressed in the song above (one of hundreds projecting a similar message), it is linked to the ethnocratic culture developed in Israel, which saw the Judaisation -- and de-Arabisation -- of Palestine/Israel as a moral historical process, with scant attention to its impact on the Palestinian-Arabs.
That culture was at the basis for the massive transformation of the landscape.[j] During the last 50 years, 93% of land within Israel and about 50% of land in the Occupied Territories has been declared ‘state land’, being effectively transferred to Jewish ownership and control. Over 600 Jewish settlements were built in two main stages, first inside the ‘Green Line’, mainly on land confiscated from Palestinian refugees, and later in the occupied territories. Since 1948, some 2.8 million Jewish refugees and immigrants arrived in Israel, while Palestinian refugees were denied the right to return. Economic and infrastructure development during this period has been overwhelmingly directed to Jewish localities and regions. At the same time, the Palestinian population suffered from dispossession, discrimination and fragmentation, and was powerless to resist the powerful Judaisation project.[k]
Both left and right Zionist camps were full partners in this ethnocratic project. The differences between them were mainly about the geographical extent of Judaisation, and about the desired level of anti-Arab brutality, but not about the project itself. Historically, this encouraged the left to offer greater territorial compromises (important in themselves) but to continue and be apathetic to Palestinian pain, memory and concerns, and thus ignore or silence the fundamental issues at the heart of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict.
But Barak did attempt, for a brief period, to rupture this ‘Jewish bubble’. He tore open the internal Jewish debate, by exposing the distance between the common political positions among Jews, and the exigencies of peace making. Barak communicated boldly that Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation must entail major compromises, far beyond the previous ‘red-lines’ of any Zionist party. Ultimately, his proposals fell short of a possible common ground, but they were closer than any previous leader.
But by laying some of these issues open in the public debate, Barak lost many of his supporters from the political center, who either bemoaned the “loss of sacred national values” such as a “united (read: occupied) Jerusalem”, “the irreparable decline in Israel’s deterrence”, or his reckless and centralist style in governing the country. But the desertion of Barak would have been much smaller from both center and left, had he managed to deliver an agreement with the Palestinians, or had he not faced a Palestinian uprising.
“The popular Intifada will continue until we achieve our aims of a fully independent state; nobody can stop it!”
(Marwan Barghutti, a PLO leader, November 2000).
The new uprising was perhaps the central factor to topple Barak. For most Jews, convinced by Jewish politicians and media, which portrayed Barak’s proposals as ‘extremely generous’, it came as a real surprise. Many Israeli leader expressed ‘shock’ at the ‘sudden’ eruption of violence in the occupied territories. The American-backed rhetoric of the ‘peace process’ since 1993 and the specter of Palestinian self-government putatively “already in-place”, made most Israelis oblivious to the continuing suffering of Palestinians under the new conditions of occupation created by the (largely unimplemented) Oslo Accord.
Most Israeli-Jews condoned, or even supported, the on-going construction of Jewish settlements and by-pass roads, and became blind to the intensifying frustration of the Palestinians. The latter were promised ‘peace and independence’ some seven years ago, but received a cocktail of heavier oppression, coupled with collective punishments, and continued refusal by Israel to implement the second and third stages of the Oslo accords.[l]
Equally, many among Israel’s left and center were angered and even frightened by the surfacing of anti-Jewish nationalist and Islamic rhetoric, aggression and hatred, emanating from Palestinian institutions, organisations and media during the new Intifada. They became frustrated by the lack of direct explanation for this armed rebellion during the reign of an Israeli peace-leaning government, and following a peace process where their arguments could have been directed to the Israeli public.
These sectors in Israeli-Jewish society were also concerned at the general contempt with which Palestinian officials (Islamic and secular) were treating Jewish history, fears and connection to the land. Further, wide circles of Israeli Jews were also horrified by scenes such as the Ramalla lynch, the public executions of collaborators by the Palestinian Authority, and the glee with which young Muslims vie to act as living terrorist bombs. Despite the obvious asymmetry of power, and the brutal force used by Israeli in the occupied territories, no political peace camp can win an election during a period of major violence, especially after the major loss of trust felt by many Israelis towards the Palestinians.
Finally, many in Israel’s mainstream circles, which have (reluctantly) come to accept the existence of the Palestinian nation, could not understand the lack of strategic calculations among Palestinians to the political, economic and physical consequences of a violent Palestinian revolt. For most Israelis it was obvious that given the balance of power, such a move would inevitably lead to further destruction of Palestinian society, economy and environment, to the hardening of anti-Palestinian sentiments among Israelis, hence to the distancing of the dream of Palestinian independence. Given these doubts, most Israelis found comfort in blaming the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, while ignoring the structural conditions leading to the revolt.
In that mood, Amos Oz, one of the most well-known Israeli intellectuals, and a renown supporter of peace, commented on the pages of “the Guardian” following the elections: “the loss of the Israeli left in this election lies squarely on the shoulders of Arafat…. He does not seem to realize that we have entered a new stage – talking has replaced shooting… Arafat has brought disaster on both Israelis and Palestinians for years to come...”[m] Oz captured the public mood, but strangely failed to mention the central role of Israeli leaders, and the obvious frustration of the Palestinians from their helpless on-going oppression, in Israel, the occupied territories, and the refugee camps across the Middle-East.
“First we shall work to unite our nation; later we shall work to return personal security each of our citizens… wherever they are” (Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister, spelling his post-election agenda, February 2001).[n]
“We shall defend every settlement; this is our duty as the only Jewish State in the world… these people guard the cradle of Judaism… “I cannot see a possibility of separation… I have always said we can live with the Arabs.”
(Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister, April 2001).[o]
Ehud Barak paid the price for his disastrous leadership, but not him alone: it appears the entire land of Israel/Palestine may be heading towards further conflict, with Sharon likely to reinstate the ‘Jewish bubble’ (he terms ‘unity’) and consolidate the occupation by expanding Jewish settlement. He has offered (unacceptable) Palestinian ‘sovereignty’ in several small Bantustan-like regions, stretching over 42 percent of the Occupied Territories.[p]
As highlighted in the quote above, Sharon’s plans entail the protection of all settlements, and at the same time the ‘living together’ of Jews and Arabs. Given Sharon’s firm belief in total Jewish control, the foundations now exist for a ‘creeping’ institutionalized apartheid regime. Needless to say, the reality of apartheid existed for decades in Israel/Palestine, but this is the first time a Prime Minster spells out clearly the strengthening of this reality as a long-term political platform.
The Labour Party – now stripped of significant power -- will probably support Sharon’s moves to “strengthen Jerusalem” (that is, expanding Jewish construction in occupied East Jerusalem), consolidate the settlements and move towards “Palestinian self-government” from the Palestinians. He is likely to ‘sell’ this to the public as the basis for dividing the West Bank ‘temporarily’ between Jews and Palestinians. It is safe to assume that the ethnic affiliation of the Zionist leftist camp, headed by Labour, will keep it in the fold of the Zionist-Jewish camp, and override its fleeting attempt to negotiate a just peace.
The continuing guerilla and civic resistance by Palestinians will probably not be sufficient to prevent the uni-lateral or imposed implementation of Sharon’s plans, at least in the short-term. In response, the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps will have to debate the relative merits of two main strategies.
They may try to reverse the (deepening) occupation and pursue a two-state solution, based on UN Resolution 242 and evacuation of settlements. This will include the implementation of the Palestinian Right of Return mainly within the sites of settlements evacuated by Israel. A two-state solution may have to involve the deployment of international forces, and may lead, in the long-term, to an Israeli-Palestinian confederation.
Or alternatively, if this is deemed beyond hope, they may adopt a new strategy of struggle against the consolidation of ethnocratic apartheid under Sharon. As advocated and predicted some time ago by the Palestinian intellectual Prof. Edward Said, this will entail local and international campaigns for equal Palestinian citizenship and political rights in a bi-national political framework.
These strategies necessitate new and innovative forms of Jewish-Palestinian cooperation, and possibly the emergence of a new generation of leaders, working towards creating bi-national frameworks and reinstating the mutual trust gravely damaged during the Barak-Arafat period. They both entail keeping alive the main issues at the base of the conflict, and a gradual transformation of ethnocracy to democracy in the governance of Israeli/Palestinian space. Neither of these strategies promises political success in the near future, but given the current state of crisis and fluidity, almost any political future is possible on this sorry land.