Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2010
POLITICS AND VIOLENCE IN ISRAEL/PALESTINE: DEMOCRACY VERSUS MILITARY RULE
by Lev Luis Grinberg
Review by Oren Yiftachel
It will not be news for most readers that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is gripped by a profound deadlock. Lev Grinberg's new book offers a welcome and timely analysis of the impasse.
Grinberg's main argument points to the failure of all key players in the conflict, and particularly Israel, to create definable "political spaces," without which peace or reconciliation cannot be achieved. The main tool for creating such spaces is the creation of clear and firm borders. This would allow three such spaces to develop—an Israeli space, a Palestinian space, and a joint space—where political competition would replace violence as a form of conflict management.
Violence and politics, Grinberg warns, are mutually exclusive. He argues that Israel's "blurring" of the borders, both geographically and legally, has seriously undermined the possibility of democratization and decolonization necessary for moving toward peaceful coexistence. Grinberg builds a theoretical "matrix" that shows how violence, democracy, party politics, economy, civil society, and militarization are interdependent. Violence disrupts the movement of the matrix toward democratic politics, militarizes ethnic relations, and thus "closes" political space.
Grinberg argues that the problem was not always so profound. During Yitzhak Rabin's term as prime minister (1992-1995), for example, Israel was potentially capable of establishing geographical and legal borders. Rabin's assassination was the only way possible for the enemies of peace and democracy to halt the process. The insistence of Rabin's successors to maintain the blurriness of the borders has seriously eroded any attempt to decolonize the West Bank and democratize both Israeli and Palestinian societies. This has led both to the rise of Hamas to political prominence and to the pivotal role of religious and nationalist zealots in Israeli politics.
Grinberg observes that in response to the stalemate (which entails the continued blurring of borders and empowerment of the settlers) and to the looming risk of Israeli occupation becoming irreversible, Yasser Arafat was forced to use violence and turn a blind eye to Islamic terror, in order to prise open Palestinian political space. This has had disastrous consequences. The violence further closed the Israeli political space by weakening pro-peace elements, as well as the indifferent moderate middle classes, whose interests were swept aside by the growing militarization of Israeli politics. The peace process, Grinberg argues, has since become an imagined ritual, enveloped by the harsh realities of military domination and geopolitical interests. This has been augmented by the acute imbalance of power that enabled Israel, with the not-so-innocent backing of the American empire, to dictate matters unilaterally.
Grinberg reiterates how the blurring of the borders (and hence the continuing colonization of the Palestinians) has fractured the internal Israeli political space by driving a growing wedge between the state's Jewish and Palestinian citizens. He reminds us that Rabin was the first and only Israeli leader to rely on Arab members of parliament for his coalition, thereby creating the foundation of a common, "nontribal" Israeli citizenship.
But in the decade and a half following Rabin's assassination, all Jewish leaders have actively or passively campaigned against the inclusion of Arab citizens in the Israeli political space, and the chasm between the two communities has grown alarmingly. This has paid handsome returns for most Jewish ethnic leaders, who rallied peripheral communities such as Mizrahim, Russians, and ultra-orthodox around the anti-Arab cause. Hence the lack of an external border has deepened internal ethnic borders and strengthened what he terms Israel's "tribal politics."
The book takes the reader through a detailed (and painful) history of Israeli political struggles during the last two decades. Grinberg perceptively analyzes the role of key leaders such as Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, and Sharon, correctly linking their actions to structural factors involving the Israeli military and Jewish economic elites. The delicate cooperation between Israeli militarism and economism has managed to preserve the status of the powerful Israeli war machine and at the same time accelerate the globalization of economy and society. In this context he shows how, without the charisma of Rabin's leadership, the vested conservative military and economic interests have swayed all Israeli leaders (with the partial and contradictory exception of Ariel Sharon) from reversing the colonization of the occupied Palestinian territories.
Grinberg is somber about prospects for peace in the face of profound Palestinian fragmentation and the depth of the economic and political gaps. He notes:
In the current conflict, there are no victors: both Israelis and Palestinians lose ... in this situation Israeli youth lose their reason for living in their own country and the material gains and military success lose their meaning.... Israelis and Palestinians deserve some positive visions of their future.
In his own attempt to craft a positive vision, Grinberg calls for the institutionalization of political spaces, aided by international intervention, and a new confederation-like political design that would go beyond the standard (and arguably defunct) two-state solution. In such a setting, violence would be replaced by political competition, promoting decolonization and democratization.
Despite its many insights, Grinberg's book is not without some weaknesses. First, it underplays the colonial nature of the Israeli "ethnocratic" regime stretching between Jordan and the Sea (see my 2006 book Ethnocracy for a discussion of this topic). While Grinberg does note the need to decolonize Palestinian territories, he rarely refers to Palestinian politics as working under violent colonial settings. Consequently, Israel is portrayed as merely blurring its borders. This account conceals the critical fact that borders remain closed for Palestinians while wide open for Jews. Hence, the Green Line is not a border but a colonial line of racist control, with Israel ruling on both sides with the exception of small pockets of ghettoized Palestinian "autonomy" in the colonized territories.
Second, Grinberg focuses on the need to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as a prerequisite for peace but generally overlooks the injuring legacy of the 1948 Nakba in the ongoing conflict between the two nations. Hence, if Israel clearly defines its borders and decolonizes the territories, it will still have to deal with the polarization between Jewish and Palestinian citizens, and the rights and demands of millions of external refugees, especially the right of return. These factors are largely absent from Grinberg's analysis.
Grinberg appears to somewhat glorify Rabin's political project. Peace-oriented readers should be reminded that Rabin never committed to the creation of a Palestinian state or to a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Rabin allowed all settlements to remain in the Oslo accords and began the bypass roads policy that legitimized their existence. He was also a firm advocate of Israel's Jewish nature, and he promoted a militarized, rather than political, approach to peace. "Reconciliation" under this paradigm would mean, as Rabin famously remarked, that "Arafat would fight Hamas without Bagatz and B'Tselem" (that is, without recourse to high court or human rights standards).
The above points of debate, however, do not in any way detract from the important contribution made by Grinberg's work. Anybody wishing to understand in depth the stalemate in Israel/Palestine, including Obama's frustrations, is well advised to read this perceptive and insightful book.
Oren Yiftachel is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University, Beersheba. He is active in several civil society organizations, including B'Tselem, Adva, and the Regional Council of Unrecognized Bedouin Villages.