by Allan C. Brownfeld
EVER SINCE 1967, Israel has occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As the world now marks 50 years of Israeli control of these territories — and its building of settlements housing approximately 700,000 people, in violation of international law — it appears that, to the current Israeli government, this occupation is permanent. Prime Minister Netanyahu has declared that there will never be a Palestinian state while he is in office. Other members of his government call for the annexation of the occupied territories.
Many Israelis are concerned about their country’s treatment of Palestinians. Professor David Shulman of the Hebrew University, notes in The New York Review of Books that, “No matter how we look at it, unless our minds have been poisoned by the ideology of the religious right, the occupation is a crime. It is first of all based on the permanent disenfranchisement of a huge population. Many Israelis seem not to know this. Once, I was detained by soldiers in a rocky field in the South Hebron hills (in what is known as Area C, under full Israeli control). These soldiers had just driven several Palestinian shepherds and their flocks of sheep off their traditional grazing grounds.
“One of the soldiers — hardly more than a boy — was curious about the Israeli activists he had encountered, and he came to talk to us. We informed him that what he had just done was clearly illegal, according to a Supreme Court ruling from 2004. ‘What do you mean?’ he said. ‘I’m here to protect democracy.’ ‘Really?,’ we replied. ‘What democracy do these Palestinians have?’ For example, do they have the right to vote for candidates who will represent them?’ The young soldier thought hard for a moment. He had obviously never considered this problem. Finally, he said, ‘I don’t know, but there must be someone they can vote for.’ Even worse,” writes Shulman, “is the continuous theft — literally hour by hour — of Palestinian land.”
While Israeli settlers enjoy protection from the Israeli army and subsidies from the government, Israel keeps three million indigenous Palestinians in the West Bank under prohibitive military rule, with restrictions imposed on nearly every aspect of their lives — from which cellphone network they can use, to how they can travel, to how they can farm. While Palestinian residents live under military law and cannot vote, settlers have the full rights of Israeli citizenship and conduct themselves as if they lived in Israel rather than in occupied territory.
Two settlers serve on Israel’s Supreme Court. Three settlers serve in Netanyahu’s 22-member Cabinet. The speaker of Israel’s parliament is a settler. So is one of the recipients of Israel’s highest honor, the Israel Prize, an activist who is dedicated to settling Jews in Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. When a pollster recently asked Israelis about annexing all of the West Bank, 44 percent favored the idea compared with 38 percent who opposed it.
THE LEGAL STRUCTURE imposed upon the West Bank makes no attempt at being democratic, although Israel likes to refer to itself as the “only democracy” in the Middle East. Dan Ephron, author of Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, describes it this way: “That structure includes separate legal systems — Israeli law for settlers and much harsher military law for Palestinians — and separate courts that mete out wildly unequal penalties. An Israeli settler arrested for protesting in the West Bank without a permit would be tried in a civilian court and subject to no more than a year in prison. A Palestinian arrested for the same crime would face trial in a military court, where nearly all cases end in conviction, and a sentence of up to ten years.”
Beyond this, argues Ephron, “[the] governing system has also evolved to include an informal understanding within the Israeli bureaucracy that the territory is effectively part of Israel but its residents — the vast majority of them — are not. On Israel’s Independence Day in May, the government’s Central Bureau of Statistics published a report with updated population figures, as it does every year. A map in the report depicted the West Bank as just one more region of Israel, labeling it ‘Judea and Samaria District.’ The population figure, 8.68 million, included settlers who live in the West Bank. But it left out their neighbors, the Palestinians.”
The Israeli government is promoting the idea that the occupied territories are really part of Israel. The Green Line, the border which separates Israel proper from the occupied areas, no longer appears on schoolbook maps or newspaper weather charts. In official documents, Israel stopped referring to the territory as the West Bank, using instead the biblical terms Judea and Samaria. For many years, the U.S., under both Republicans and Democrats, has promoted the creation of two states, with Israel withdrawing from the occupied territories so that this area could become a Palestinian state. President Trump, on his recent trip to the Middle East, promoted peace along these traditional lines. The Arab League reaffirmed that it would recognize Israel if it withdrew from the territories and a Palestinian state was created. But Israelis seem to view these occupied territories as a permanent part of Israel, and continue to build new settlements.
IF PRESIDENT TRUMP is serious about peace, it is possible to move this process forward. By providing Israel with massive aid, the U.S. has made its settlement policy possible. In his recently published book, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise In Israel and Palestine, Nathan Thrall, Jerusalem-based senior analyst with the Middle East and North Africa Program of the International Crisis Group, states that the only way to produce some movement toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to apply significant coercive force to the parties involved, particularly to Israel.
Thrall argues that the worldview of Israelis, both the ruling Likud Party and its Labor opposition, is that “it makes no sense for Israel to strike a deal today rather than wait to see if imagined threats” — such as an apartheid state ruling over a Palestinian demographic majority, and thus the end of Israeli democracy –“actually materialize.” The idea that Israel genuinely wants a peace agreement, writes Thrall, is wrong because the costs of such an agreement are tangible and immediate, involving the loss of territory and political chaos. The cost of maintaining the status quo, on the other hand, seems bearable. Thrall declares: “The U.S. has consistently sheltered Israel from accountability for its policies in the West Bank by putting up a facade of opposition to settlements that in practice is a bulwark against more significant pressure to dismantle them.”
Thrall makes a strong case that only coercion by those who have the power to do so — namely, the U.S. — can bring peace and a Palestinian state. Washington, however, has not recently seen fit to use its influence. James Baker was the first and only U.S. Secretary of State to say (in 1991) that Israeli settlements in the territories were the main obstacle to peace. President Jimmy Carter pushed through the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1979 partly by threatening to cut off all aid to Israel. President George H.W. Bush refused to approve loan guarantees of up to $10 billion that Israel needed unless it moved toward peace, and a reluctant Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was forced to attend negotiations in Madrid, which eventually led to the Oslo Accords (1993) between the Israelis and Palestinians and a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan (1994).
“Stern pressure from the United States,” says Thrall, “including the threat of sanctions, forced Israel to evacuate Sinai and Gaza after the 1956 Suez crisis and compelled Israel to commit to a partial Sinai pullout in 1975. It [also] made Israel acquiesce to the principle of its withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war, including the West Bank, in the 1978 Camp David accords…”
If President Trump wants to bring a peace deal to the Middle East, he would do well to review the roles played by former Presidents Carter and Bush Sr.
BUT ISRAEL should have its own incentive to move toward peace — preserving its own democratic character, which is now eroding. In an editorial, “Why Israel Needs A Palestinian State,” The Economist states: “…the never-ending subjugation of Palestinians will erode Israel’s standing abroad and erode its democracy at home. Its politics are turning towards ethno-religious chauvinism, seeking to marginalize Arabs and Jewish leftists, including human-rights groups. The government objected even to a novel about a Jewish-Arab love affair… Its predicament grows more acute as the number of Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean catches up with that of Jews. Israel cannot hold on to all of the ‘Land of Israel,’ keep its predominantly Jewish identity and remain a proper democracy.”
While Israel proclaims itself a “Jewish” state, more and more Jewish voices are being heard, in Israel, in the U.S. and throughout the world, saying that its treatment of Palestinians violates Jewish moral and ethical values. Hebrew University’s David Shulman put it this way: “In the end, it is the ongoing moral failure of the country as a whole that is most consequential, most dangerous, and most unacceptable. This failure weighs … heavily on our humanity. We are, so we claim, the children of the prophets. Once, they say, we were slaves in Egypt. We know all that can be known about slavery, suffering, prejudice, ghettos, hate, expulsion, exile. I still find it astonishing that we, of all people, have reinvented apartheid in the West Bank.”
Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and is editor of ISSUES, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.