Sunday, March 22, 2015

Israel/Palestine: The Realistic Solution

Somewhere right now in the forgotten but still teeming bowels of the U.S. Postal Service is a check with my name on it, fighting to make its way to the New York offices of B’Tselem – the embattled Israeli organization that works for human rights in the Palestinian occupied territories. I doubt I’m the only person who makes this kind of nominal and conscience-salving donation only when there’s especially bad news out of Israel, but still it embarrasses me that it takes something like Netanyahu's reelection to jog me out of my complacency. The good people at B’Tselem, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and others must feel somewhat torn at the fact that their financial windfalls come precisely at moments like these, when their objectives are most deeply threatened.

Yet I see that there’s a relevant point within that same paradox – now that I think about it. The pecuniary aspect just alluded to, that is, is only one of the ways in which Netanyahu’s reelection may actually not be such a bad thing for the people who would apparently stand to lose most by it – namely, the Palestinians in the occupied territories, Arabs living in Israel, and their allies. After all, most of these people had little reason to hope for a hasty end to the occupation, regardless of the outcome of the election. What recent events may have done, though -- as has been pointed out by all sides to the issue -- is cleared the way eventually for a one-state, democratic solution.

Had someone other than Netanyahu won, after all, liberal Zionist hopes for two separate sovereign states and Israel’s return to its 1948 borders would have been kept on life support. Netanyahu’s victory has made that position far less tenable. Some among the liberal Zionists who place the accent on the second half of that political identity will no doubt respond to this by prioritizing the preservation of Israel as an ethnically-identified Jewish state, over the vanishing shot at Palestinian sovereignty. The others among them, however, who really cared from the start about Palestinian human rights -- more than they did about burnishing Israel’s image -- may begin to rethink the classic liberal Zionist paradigm of 1948 borders and the end of the occupation. They may start to favor what seems to me the far better—really, the only decent – solution, which is to make Israel a democracy that includes all the people over whom it exercises effective control, that refuses to identify itself with any particular ethnic group, and that does not aim to preserve any particular ethnic composition.


This point I have just made can be invoked in a particularly hoary, and even dangerous form, of course, which I do not want to echo. After all, the notion that apparently worse political outcomes are sometimes historically necessary and fruitful, because they hasten some dramatic crisis point and clear the path for genuine change, has a long and thoroughly disreputable pedigree on the Left. Thus, I cannot be enthusiastic about Ilan Pappé’s projections for the future, say, with which he ends his book on the Palestinian minority within Israel:
“[Israel’s] overall political situation at the beginning of the twenty first century [is indicative] of an escalating cycle which carries the potential to end the pretense and the false inclusion of Israel in the frame of analysis of Western democracy [….] According to the scenario described and analyzed in this epilogue, the short-term repercussions may be catastrophic […] However, in the long run, they may rob Israel of the moral and political shield with which the West has provided it [… D]e-democratizing Israel could give Palestinian resistance hope for change and lead it to abandon its tactics, which are rooted in despair and anger[….] If Israel is seen as a permanent oppressive state, the Palestinians may see a light at the end of their tunnel of suffering and abuse.”
Obviously, Pappé is not enthusiastic about this vision of the future either – he is simply finding a silver lining in a situation he regards as basically abhorrent. Furthermore, he’s right that if the Israeli government loses the support of the United States and suffers a further moral de-legitimization in the eyes of the world – as would likely happen if Netanyahu’s proposed “nationality bill,” say, became law – then this could eventually force a change of political structures in Israel and the occupied territories.

However, I object as a general rule to the idea that creative forces arise out of destruction, as the belief that they do seems to me a very implausible reading of human history. Nor is the de-legitimization of existing institutions, however abhorrent those may be, in any way a good thing unless a plausible and superior alternative has emerged to replace them. Given that all human institutions are likely to be deeply flawed, we need something more than justified moral outrage to make it right to topple the system we've got. Otherwise we will end up someplace like where the anarchist character in Germinal would take us ("If justice was not possible with man, then man must disappear" (Ellis trans.)) where we end up becoming far more destructive and odious than the destructive and odious institutions we were trying to replace.

Nor do I think that regimes have some “true” nature that is different from what they do on a daily basis, and which is only obscured through “pretense.” Israel is not “really” a democracy or “really” a settler-colonial ethnocracy. It is what it is (much like everything else in this world, as Naipaul would remind us). It is a state which, within its 1948 borders, has basically fair elections, a degree of civil rights protections for minorities (however much the latter had to fight for them and however threatened they still are by right-wing legislation), and a comparatively well-functioning legal system – but which has written into its defining documents a irreconcilable contradiction between aiming to be a democracy that grants  the same rights and inclusion in its institutions to all its ethnic groups, and aiming to preserve a majority and supremacy within its leadership of one particular ethnicity – and which, meanwhile, exercises effective state control over millions of people in the occupied territories, who nonetheless have no representation whatsoever in the Israeli institutions that govern them, and who are ruled under a military regime with its own quasi-legal court system that is politically unaccountable and brutally discriminatory. Oh, and which systematically violates the laws of war year-in and year-out by constructing settler colonies in land wrested by military conquest. That mouthful is what Israel is.

All of that may be true, and yet, how then is my own hope that I expressed above -- that some positive result will grow indirectly out of Netanyahu’s reelection -- any different from the sort of thing Pappé is suggesting?

The main difference I see is that it actually seems to me that abandoning the two-state solution and pressing for a democratic one-state solution is likely to lead to less destruction in the short term as well as in the long term -- in addition, besides, to according far better with the ideals of justice. I can't really think, after all, that any conflict between human groups is really solved by segregating them from one another into ethnicized states. The differences between peoples are not so great as that, and the differences within peoples are in fact much greater than that! People can in fact live together despite linguistic and racial and religious distinctions, that is to say, and at any rate, there is no such thing as a truly "pure" ethnicity that anyone could retreat to if they tried.

Mine therefore is not a “worse is better” argument, because I don’t really see the worse.

Sayed Kashua, writing in the Guardian, presents some very good reasons for disagreeing with me, however, and makes a very important argument against the more noxious kinds of thinking that would view temporary reversals as good if they lead to same later salutary result (the actual casualties of these “historical processes” are seldom asked for their input on the matter, after all). Writes Kashua:
“[Some] of my colleagues will also say that [Netanyahu's reelection] is preferable, because it’s a sure recipe for the emergence of a single binational state [….] However, that’s an extremely problematic argument. The hope for a binational state […] will be shunted aside for years by the racist separation that already exists in the occupied territories. Israel will continue to expand at the expense of Palestinian land, the Palestinians will continue to be squeezed into densely populated cantons encircled by walls, until the international community will ostracise Israel and force it to grant civil rights to the Palestinians – thereby perhaps bringing about a binational state. […] That’s a dangerous process, grounded in the trampling of the Palestinians.”
I have great sympathy for this viewpoint, and have no interest in being another determinist willing to sacrifice other people to the demands of "history" from a position of personal safety on the other side of the globe. Again, however, what does not persuade me of this argument's ultimate truth is that I do not believe that the democratic one-state project will result in more destruction than the two-state solution -- definitely not in the long term, but not in the short-term either.

The two-state solution, after all, would have to involve the scenario in which the Israeli government removes its own settlements in the West Bank. The chances of that happening at all, under any elected Israeli government, are negligible. The chances that it could be done by peaceful means are nil. And I ask us to remember that while those settlements are flagrantly illegal and ought never to have been built, they still contain human beings, including a younger generation who had no conscious part in the decision to construct them. And I don’t think there is any historical precedent that suggests that a huge civilian population like this can be moved out of their homes and across borders without intolerable violence and injustice being done to them. It would be a terrible irony to tag on to this all-too-human story, if the same villages that were ethnically cleansed of Palestinians by Israel in its 1948 war, later still became silent monuments to a generation of Israeli children forced out by the same kind of violence. And that’s not to mention the very strong likelihood that fanatical settlers would rebel by force of arms against any attempt to uproot them.

I also don’t think that the democratic one-state solution needs to involve the type of utter scrapping or overhaul of Israel’s existing institutions that it does in the fevered day-sweats of Zionists and in the all-too-sanguinary fantasies of the more extreme anti-Zionists. Rather, I think the best shot Israel and Palestine have of developing into a single state that grants full inclusion and human rights to all its ethnic groups will come from building out of what already works well in Israel’s institutions. That country does, after all, have some functioning representative apparatus and independent judiciary, some civil society and watchdog groups and dissident intellectuals with a history of pressing for human rights. It has basically fair elections in which non-Zionist parties can participate – parties who might have a shot at winning a national election if Palestinians in the West Bank succeed in gaining the franchise. It has roots in a diasporic Jewish intellectual tradition that prized Enlightenment values and social equality. These are not things worthy of the trash heap. These are essential sources of hope that need to be resuscitated, strengthened and built upon in any move toward a secular democratic state in which Jews and Palestinians will participate as equals.

But of course, one thing about Israel’s existing institutions that will have to change is their formal identification with the Jewish people. But this is a basic consequence of any aspiration to democracy and inclusion in that country -- one that would remain true even if Israel did return to its '48 borders -- and it should not be treated as a loss.

The problem with a state having an explicitly “Jewish character” is not just that this tends in the direction of ethnic hegemony. It is that it is formally and necessarily racist. For the Israeli state to preserve a “Jewish character,” it must either maintain a Jewish majority in the population, or it must ensure Jewish supremacy in its institutions. The racist quality of the second alternative is more obvious, but the first can be condemned on the same grounds. Once one defines one’s state as a place with a particular ethnic composition, after all, one quickly runs up against the fact that human populations change. The Arab minority in Israel may have higher birthrates, for instance, than the Jewish (temporary) majority. And an Israeli state that is alarmed by this, has shown itself by that very alarm not really to accept Arab people as full and equal members of its society.

Thomas Friedman was warning the other day, in lines that are often re-echoed in different forms by Zionist writers:
"In 2014, the estimated Palestinian Arab population of the West Bank was 2.72 million, with roughly 40 percent under the age of 14. [...] According to statistics from the Jewish Virtual Library, the Jewish population of Israel grew by 1.7 percent over the past year, and the Arab population grew by 2.2 percent. [...] If there is only one state, Israel cannot be Jewish and permit West Bank Palestinians to exercise any voting rights alongside Israeli Arabs. But if Israel is one state and wants to be democratic, how does it continue depriving West Bankers of the vote — when you can be sure they will make it their No. 1 demand."
This notion that it is somehow threatening to have an Arab majority in Israel is something more than just racist (though it is that). It is also the inevitable and logical outcome of the idea that Israel is and must remain a "Jewish state." In case Friedman's fears still seem reasonable to you, meanwhile, I ask you to try for an instant to think what it would mean to be a non-Jewish citizen of a state that speaks and reasons in this way. "I wonder whether readers can imagine," writes Ilan Pappé, "how it feels for the birth of your child to be perceived as a threat to the state of which you are a citizen." Obviously people whose children are treated as this kind of "threat" will never truly be included by an Israeli state, so long as that state considers itself formally "Jewish." This simple and inescapable fact belies categorically the glowing encomiums that Zionist writers heap on Israel's treatment of its minorities.

If the idea of Israel remaining a Jewish state that is also a democratic one were always incoherent, however, it becomes especially so once the two-state solution is extinguished as a possibility. For decades, liberal Zionists have been able to strike the balance, in their own view, between Israel’s Jewish character and its human rights commitments, by insisting on an end to the occupation and a return to the 1948 borders. They have insisted that this would effectively guarantee (for how long?) a Jewish ethnic majority in Israel’s proper borders, while taking that country out of the business of operating a parallel military dictatorship over millions of Palestinians. In the absence of a two-state solution, however, Israel either remains a quasi-authoritarian Zionist regime in the occupied territories, or it becomes a non-Zionist democracy. If there is no two-state answer, in short, then liberal Zionism becomes a contradiction in terms (or at least, even more of one than it always has been).

And people are waking up to this fact. I think this is suggested by the fact that of all the writers to comment on the elections over the past week, those most deeply distraught seem to be the liberal Zionists. (Palestinians and their allies seem to approach it, by contrast, with weary non-surprise, coupled with the sort of beleaguered silver-lining hunt I am attempting here). We have already noted the splutterings of Thomas Friedman, and he is spluttering, we find, because he has realized exactly the conclusion I drew in the previous paragraph:
"Now, if there are not going to be two states for two peoples in the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean, then there is going to be only one state — and that one state will either be a Jewish democracy that systematically denies the voting rights of about one-third of its people [My note: in what sense would that be a "democracy," Jewish or otherwise?] or it will be a democracy and systematically erodes the Jewish character of Israel. [...] I doubt, in the heat of the campaign, Netanyahu gave any of this much thought when he tossed the two-state solution out the window [...] To be sure, he could disavow his two-state disavowal tomorrow. [...] But, if he doesn’t — if the official platform of his new government is that there is no more two-state solution — it will produce both a hostile global reaction and, in time, a Palestinian move in the West Bank for voting rights in Israel, combined with an attempt to put Israel in the docket in the International Criminal Court."
The end of that prediction may sound to you like the best news since Christmas, but keep in mind that for Friedman it represents the nightmare scenario. (Friedman also opines: "The biggest losers in all of this, besides all the Israelis who did not vote for Netanyahu, are American Jews and non-Jews who support Israel." I can think of a few other losers -- but I'm not sure they exist for Friedman, except as a ticking population bomb and as fixtures of Iranian propaganda.)

Someone like Friedman, who treats the birth of Arab children in Israel as a self-evident “problem,” and who assumes as a matter of course that if you have "two peoples" you need "two states," has always been a big “Z” and small “l” kind of liberal Zionist. If it came down to a genuine choice between the two, I don’t doubt his Zionism would win out.

Yet among liberal Israelis who have been fighting the occupation for decades and pressing for a return to the ’48 borders and a recognition of Palestinian sovereignty – often at considerable risk and against enormous odds -- I think we may well see a change in the opposite direction in the years ahead. B’Tselem, which has long favored the two-state solution and ending the occupation, issued a statement after this week's election that seemed to hint that these were now failing to suffice as answers. The executive director wrote in a sober -- but sobering -- open letter:
“The election results show, loud and clear, that the voting public in Israel favors the ongoing occupation in its present form: a military rule that denies basic rights to millions of people, settlement expansion and its inverse the expropriation of Palestinian lands and the dispossession of its owners, and an entire occupation apparatus that entrenches two separate legal systems, unjust military courts, and a permit regime controlling most aspects of Palestinian life. […] The verdict is crystal clear – as are the limits within which it was handed down. This week, millions of Palestinian subjects, living for more than two generations under Israeli control, again did not get to cast a ballot in an election that fundamentally impacts their daily lives and their future.”
Obviously, that is not a repudiation of the two-state solution, but it does suggest that if that solution does not work, the only possible answer is to give Palestinian people in the occupied territories a voice in Israeli elections. It does not seem beyond the realm of plausibility that B'Tselem and similar groups will shift their strategy in the years ahead to pressing for the second of these two options. It would besides be a program that people of good will in both Israel and Palestine could get behind. The moral authority of it would be very difficult for anyone to deny.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been reading a lot lately of the work of the great pacifist Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes in the process of researching a master’s thesis. It was his lot, as a true and thorough idealist, to be derided throughout his life as someone who refused to face reality, who kept his head in the clouds; and when he opined on the subject of the creation of the State of Israel, he was subjected to the same treatment.

The great irony of it is, though, that with the benefit of hindsight, nearly everything he says seems far more realistic than anything his opponents urged against him. It was he, not they, who foresaw the consequences of atomic weapons and incendiary bombing in Japan and Germany. He saw before most others did on the Left the nature of Stalin's regime in Russia. And he knew already the obvious truth about the Israel-Palestine question that we today are still struggling to grasp, sixty years later. As he wrote as early as January of 1946, in the Unitarian journal Unity:
"Curious, how men are proposing these days to settle the world's problems by tearing people apart rather than bringing them together! [...] In Palestine, the idea of dividing the Holy Land into a Jewish state and an Arab state is being revived. This, said the London Times [...] is the only solution of the Zionist problem. [... A]ll over the the map, there are exchanges of population, migrations of whole peoples, an attempt to sort out nationalities, and thus set up everywhere a great array of homogenous countries, each fearing and hating all the others. Anything more melancholy than this I cannot imagine. Anything more hopeless than this I cannot conceive. If we have actually gotten to the point in this unhappy world where people of different blood and creed cannot be expected to live together any more [...] then we might as well give up the idea of peace right here and now. This policy can bring us nowhere but to a final maelstrom of blood and death. There is only one sure road to peace, and that is to learn to live together as citizens of one state, as members of one family."
Today as in Holmes' time, we are constantly being told that Israelis and Palestinians getting along as equals and partners in a single democratic state is an absurd pipedream. And nobody, not me nor Holmes, is saying that it is easy for different peoples to get along, in the Middle East or elsewhere. But it seems to be the only hope that there is. There is no solution in Israel and Palestine that does not eventually require Jewish and Arab people to regard each other as friends. This is the hard truth that we need to face. Those who think there is some way around it—and around the stringent effort and moral onus it imposes on all of us – are the ones who are fleeing reality.

My vote then for greatest Realist on the subject of Palestine remains John Haynes Holmes. Either him, or that other Palestinian-- the one who told us to love our neighbors.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to Ajay for bringing this note to my attention. Plainly, I'm not the only one who felt that these elections spell the end of liberal Zionism: