President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in the East Room of the White House to unveil details of the Trump administration’s Middle East Peace Plan. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
Israel will have to reckon with the occupation one way or another

As the Israeli government continues to deny Palestinians their basic rights, its democracy, and American Jewry’s support for it, are in peril.

Peter Beinart, a prominent journalist and lifelong Zionist activist, shocked and outraged much of the American Jewish establishment — as well as many who identify with the Zionist left that opposes Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and its illegal settlements project — when he declared in an opinion piece in the New York Times that he no longer supports the existence of a Jewish state. Instead, he now advocates a single-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict that offers full and equal citizenship to all Jews and Arabs who live in Israel and in the Israeli occupied territories of Palestine.

I assume what drove Beinart to this conclusion was his justified despair that the U.S. or the international community would ever muster the courage to end the impunity they have granted Israel for its blatant violations of international law and its own previous formal agreements not to take unilateral actions that alter the current internationally accepted borders between Israel and the Occupied Territories. No clearer has this been demonstrated than in the recent agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to fully normalize their relations — an agreement that seems to serve the purpose of normalizing the status quo: the complete and permanent disenfranchisement of Palestinians in the West Bank under Israel’s occupation. 

Far from being an unprecedented breakthrough, the UAE initiative is a pale repeat of an initiative by the Saudis and by the entire Arab League already in 2002. The difference between the two is that the earlier one required Israel to accept UN decisions and international law regarding Palestinian rights, and that negotiations between the parties begin at the pre 1967 armistice internationally recognized borders, while the UAE’s offer was made contemporaneously with Netanyahu’s defiant declaration that Israel intends to annex parts of the West Bank whenever it chooses to do so. Saudi Arabia and the Arab League were in constant consultation with the Palestinians, but the UAE never even bothered to inform the Palestinians of their intentions.

Consequently, the self-righteous indignation of Beinart’s critics, most of whom are also outraged by any proposed punishment of Israel for its transgressions, are entirely hypocritical. For his critics know that no future Israeli government is prepared to agree to a Palestinian state that would end Israel’s current de facto apartheid rule in the West Bank.

But to leave matters there avoids deeper examination of issues raised by Beinart’s initiative. For his advocacy of certain models of bi-nationalism, and particularly the idea of a two-state solution that he and most everyone supported until now, allows for a Jewish state that explicitly defines national identity in religious/ethnic terms, and therefore would deny citizenship to non-Jews out of fear a Palestinian majority will alter the religious/cultural identity of the state. The only ones qualifying for Israeli citizenship would therefore be Jews and converts to Judaism.

How does that differ from the denial of citizenship to non-whites and to Jews by white supremacists? Leaders of racist and antisemitic groups congratulated Israel’s Knesset when it adopted its new definition of Israel’s national identity. And how does that definition square with the claim Israel is a democracy — indeed, a model democracy?

For some, the unspoken response is who has the right to ask these questions in the aftermath of the Holocaust, or to deny the Jewish people a home that offers them the sanctuary denied them by much of the world, including America, when the Nazis threatened their total destruction? It is a response I should understand, for I am a survivor of the Holocaust who lived and hid under the Nazis for two years before my parents managed to escape their clutches, arriving in the U.S. in 1942. We were not sent back, but others — within sight of the Statue of Liberty’s declaration of America’s welcome for the world’s “huddled masses” — were sent back, and did not survive the concentration camps, where many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins perished.

Yet the questions must be asked, for can there be a more bitter irony than a Prime Minister of a Jewish state that incarnates the memory of the Holocaust embracing authoritarian heads of states and political parties that have antisemitic and/or fascist pasts — in Hungary, Poland, Brazil and elsewhere — while disdaining Western European leaders who ask that this Jewish state not demean and undermine the institutions that have been the guardians of democratic norms and the rule of law?

While a reappearance of the Holocaust is unimaginable, antisemitism is not. Indeed, we see its recrudescence in countries whose leaders Benjamin Netanyahu admires. His greatest admiration, of course, is for Donald Trump, a racist who found “good people” among the neo-Nazis who declaimed in Charlottesville that “Jews will not replace us.” Trump’s lifelong racism and antisemitism have been attested to by his niece in her just-published book, as well as in a book his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, is about to publish, as reported in The New York Times.

Instead of condemning the antisemitism of these authoritarians, Netanyahu had two of his political advisers help Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban mount a country-wide antisemitic campaign to defame George Soros. When Israel’s ambassador to Hungary criticized Orban’s project, Netanyahu repudiated him publicly, to the outrage of the official Hungarian Jewish community.

Violence by American neo-Nazi antisemites and white nationalists may be overlooked by Donald Trump, but not by the American justice system. Yet the violence of Israeli Jewish far-righters against Palestinians is not treated seriously by the Israeli police or military. It is unusual for perpetrators of Jewish violence against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories to be arrested; when they are, they do not receive harsh punishments or serve their full terms in jail.

The hatred of antisemitism has unique historical roots, to be sure, but it is not all that different from the hatred far right Jewish nationalists in Israel have for “lefty” Israeli Jews, whom they demonize as traitors and terrorists for valuing and respecting the humanity of Palestinians and their civil and human rights. If national identity is defined not by a people’s values but by who they are not — not Black or brown, not Christian or Muslim, or not Jewish — it is not surprising that Israeli far-righters consider fellow Jews who defend the humanity of “the Other” to be traitors deserving a traitor’s punishment.

It should therefore not be shocking that the son of Israel’s Prime Minister, Yair Netanyahu, invokes antisemitic and fascist memes in his attacks on Israeli Jewish liberals, or that his parents are grooming him for political leadership in the Jewish state. So yes, Jewish far right nationalism can incite some Jews not only to violence against Palestinians but to antisemitic violence against fellow Jews in a Jewish state in which Jews are in the majority.

Which leaves us to the question of what or who might lead to an end of the Israel/Palestine conflict? Israelis object to a single binational state advocated by Beinart even more intensely then a two-state agreement. And most Israelis who favor a two-state solution claim the peace process has failed because Palestinians refuse to resume negotiations with Israel. What they don’t tell you is that the only subject Israel’s government has been willing to discuss at such negotiations is a Palestinian entity that has none of the defining features of statehood, and would much resemble Gaza — basically the “deal of the century” that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, the two supporters and financiers of Israel’s illegal settlements, cooked up.

That is not to say there is no way of getting Israelis to change their cost/benefit calculations for what has been essentially a cost-free occupation. I have argued for over the past decade that given the immunity granted Israel by the United States and by much of Europe, it is only the Palestinians themselves who can change the status quo,if they finally decide to shut down the Palestinian Authority, oust their current political leadership, and declare that their national struggle is no longer for a separate Palestinian state along the 1967 lines but for full and equal rights in the one state that Israel has forced them into. Because the one binational state solution Beinart proposes has in fact been the Palestinian’s de facto apartheid reality, their national struggle will now of necessity be an anti-apartheid struggle for equal rights. Indeed, the recent Israel/UAE normalization deal would appear to underscore the importance of a Palestinian anti-apartheid resistance movement as the only path to the end of their suppression.

Israel’s cost/benefit calculations will change only when such an anti-apartheid struggle will have been launched, and the world will understand that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not been a border dispute, in which few were able to distinguish between victims and aggressors. And it is only when Israelis actually incur the cost of maintaining a Jewish state and an occupation while countering an anti-apartheid struggle, and also facing an international community that has some experience dealing with an apartheid state, that they will finally consider alternatives to the current impasse.

The alternatives are limited to a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state within the borders designated by the international community, with minor territorial adjustments to accommodate genuine Israeli and Palestinian security concerns, or a single binational state. If the Palestinian anti-apartheid resistance reaches the point where Israel is prepared for negotiations within the framework of international law, Israel will without a doubt insist on a two-state solution, and Palestinians, who will have made major sacrifices in their anti-apartheid struggle, will have to decide which of the two options they will hold out for.

However, if Israeli governments do not abandon their current opposition to both options, the single Jewish Arab state proposed by Beinart will in time turn into that binational state, for no apartheid regime based on the suppression of a people as large, or larger, than Israel’s own population can permanently survive. Unless, of course, Israeli governments resort to policies (such as massive ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, as once suggested by Historian Benny Morris) that will not only alienate Israel from the civilized world but from world Jewry.

Sadly, signs of such possible estrangement have begun to appear, not only in America but among Israel’s own progressives a well. Paradoxically, it is this growing estrangement that may be the best hope for its ultimate decline.

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