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Philosophical Posturing on Israel and Palestine

Ralph Seliger
December 8, 2013
by Ralph Seliger From the Autumn, 2013 issue of Jewish Currents Discussed in this essay: The One-State Condition: Occupation and Democracy in Israel/Palestine by Ariella Azoulay & Adi Ophir, Stanford University Press, 2013, 328 pages. IsraelIT’S EASY TO DESPAIR OF A SOLUTION TO THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT. Any sensitive observer is properly outraged by human rights abuses perpetrated by Jewish settlers, the Israeli military, and civilian authorities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the stranglehold over even dovish politicans exercised by the settler movement and its supporters — not to mention policy decisions within Israel proper that displace Bedouin in the Negev, or plan projects and distribute public funds inequitably toward Arab citizens, 20 percent of Israel’s population. These current realities make it difficult to see the tit-for-tat, interactive quality of the Israeli-Arab struggle and the competing interests, misjudgments and crimes on both sides — but history suggests a different tale. For example, what if the Palestinian-Arab leadership had not opposed Jewish immigration during the 1930s or convinced, through violence, the ever-cynical British to issue their 1939 White Paper, which closed off Palestine to Jews as a refuge during the Holocaust? Might this not have strengthened the binationalist elements within the Zionist movement in the 1940s? What would have happened if Palestinian Arabs had not immediately gone to war with Palestinian Jews after the United Nations voted for partition in November 1947? Would the Zionist leadership have dared attack to forestall a Palestinian Arab state that the UN had authorized alongside Israel if the Arabs had not attacked first? Would Israeli Arabs today be regarded as a potential “fifth column” and treated as second-class citizens? What if the second intifada, and then the Hamas takeover of Gaza, had not quickly followed peace talks and Israeli pullbacks? What if Gaza had not become the source of frequent missile attacks on Israel, despite its total withdrawal from that territory under Ariel Sharon? Would most Israelis have their current political understandings and voting habits? ONE NEEDN’T EXCUSE ISRAEL’S OCCUPATION OF THE PALESTINIANS, nor the systematic discrimination against Israeli Arabs, to show more perspective on the situation. About all of this tit-for-tat, however, The One-State Condition — which purports to be an analysis of how Israel’s domination of Palestinian Arabs is structural and a “grounding principle” of Israel — is strangely silent or coldly abstract. The authors have a mocking tone throughout, loading their text with sardonic quotation marks that invariably denigrate Israeli understandings of such phenomena as “terrorism” or “democracy” but never modify Palestinian phraseology such as “armed struggle” or “resistance.” Critical facts are sometimes omitted. The nearly 1,000 Israeli deaths during the second Intifada (overwhelmingly of non-combatant civilians within Israel’s pre-’67 boundaries) are neither mentioned nor considered by the authors as they analyze current circumstances. Other events are peculiarly framed. The book acknowledges, for example, that Israel strove to minimize civilian casualties during Operation Cast Lead (Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza, December 2008 to January 2009), yet condemns Israel for the high ratio of property damage to fatalities (eight buildings per life). A simple condemnation of the operation as excessively violent and ill-timed, since it totally diverted Israel from a promising round of negotiations between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, might have been more to the point. Adi Ophir, is a professor of philosophy and political theory at Tel Aviv University. Ariella Azoulay is his wife, who has moved from a non-teaching position at Tel Aviv University to an assistant professorship in Comparative Literature and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. She is known for her use of photos in documenting social reality; nineteen black-and-whites of varying quality are included in this book. Some of her captions purport to glean states of mind from the faces of her subjects, but they point to undeniable evidence of oppression, as in, “A Palestinian woman facing the refrigerator from her demolished home in the Jordan Valley, 1999... Who cared... whether her family would have anything to eat that evening?” Ophir and Azoulay note correctly that the Oslo process embarked upon separating out Israeli and Palestinian space more forcefully and successfully than in forging peace. Part of this meant closing access to Israel for tens of thousands of Palestinians who used to work daily within the Green Line. Yet the book doesn’t consider the possibility that lethal attacks by Palestinian workers against their Israeli employers had something to do with this, as Palestinians were soon replaced by “guest workers” from such places as Romania, Thailand, and the Philippines. In the same vein, Ophir and Azoulay critique the pro-separation views of the left-Zionist activist and writer, A.B. Yehoshua, without mentioning the better-known spokesperson of the Zionist left, Amos Oz, who has aptly likened the peace process to a divorce rather than a marriage. In their zeal to find fault with Israel, they even criticize the industrial zones that were set up along the seams between Green Line Israel and the territories, which employed Palestinians alongside Israelis — an effort at cooperation that was destroyed by the second Intifada. DESPITE THEIR SELECTIVE AMNESIA IN RECOUNTING HISTORY, however, the authors do touch upon the two critical events that doomed the Oslo peace process. One was Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of twenty-nine Muslim worshippers in Hebron in February 1994, and the fact that, “at the very last minute, the Rabin government refrained from removing the settlers from the city of Hebron, a measure that could have proven Israel’s determination to pursue the Oslo track.” The other was Shimon Peres’ failure to act forcefully as prime minister following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in November 1995 — not exactly because he was, as the authors contend, “afraid or unwilling to use a moment of grace in Israeli public opinion that had reacted to the assassination by becoming more sympathetic to ‘the Palestinian cause,’” but because he first had to win the election against Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres lost a twenty-point lead when Hamas and Islamic Jihad murdered sixty Israelis in dramatic attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in February and March 1996. Desperate to make up his lost ground, Peres tried to reclaim the image of a strong leader by responding to Hezbollah rocket attacks in the Galilee with a massive artillery bombardment of Lebanon called “Operation Grapes of Wrath.” Instead, the inadvertent killing of a hundred Lebanese civilians seeking refuge at a UN encampment infuriated Israeli Arab voters, suppressing their turnout for Peres. Incredibly, while Ophir and Azoulay cite Operation Grapes of Wrath, they omit mention of the terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They are correct that Arab citizens of Israel have legitimate grievances. In 1994 and ’95, a minority Labor-Meretz coalition remained in power because of the votes of predominantly Arab parties in the Knesset, whose support had been secured by Rabin in return for more equitable public funding for Arab schools and municipal services. This was the first time that Arab parties, although not formally invited into the governing coalition, obtained a sense of participation in Israel’s national government. They expected more from Ehud Barak when he defeated Netanyahu in 1999 thanks largely to Arab voters, in the second of three direct elections for prime minister (Israel returned to the indirect party-list method of electing prime ministers in 2003). Barak, however, bitterly disappointed them by insisting upon what the authors justly see as a flaw in Israel’s democracy — its traditional insistence upon a “Jewish majority” — as he included the pro-settler National Religious Party in his coalition rather than any of the three Arab parties. AS FOR THE SETTLEMENT ENTERPRISE, Ophir and Azoulay acknowledge that it escalated enormously after the first Likud-led government was elected in 1977, but they provide little sense of historical evolution in Israel’s occupation and settlement policies. To be fair, this is a reflection more of Labor’s past lack of resolve to complete a deal with Jordan’s King Hussein than of the authors’ ideological bias. According to historian Avi Shlaim, in his biography of Jordan’s King Hussein, The Lion of Jordan (Knopf, 2008), the monarch met with Israeli leaders numerous times during those years, establishing a de facto alliance. Shlaim’s account of negotiations reveals an initial Jordanian demand for total Israeli withdrawal in exchange for peace (flatly refused by Israel), which evolved to some minor border adjustments and then to the possibility of trading territories, including Hussein’s offer to take over the Gaza Strip. The Israeli position went from an insistence on retaining only the newly expanded municipality of Jerusalem to the ambitious Alon Plan, which proposed Israel’s retention of about one-third of the West Bank to produce in-depth security for Israel’s heavily populated coastal plain. As with more recent negotiations with the Palestinians and Syria, these efforts came close but no cigar — and then political fortunes changed. The authors never take into account the dynamic nature of Israeli politics and society; the fragile, unwieldy makeup of coalition governments makes bold actions difficult, with an electorate quick to punish established parties and promote new ones. Labor, for example, has never recovered from Oslo’s collapse, while Kadima (which didn’t even exist until late 2005), failed both as a governing party and in opposition, sinking from first place with twenty-eight Knesset seats (of 120) in the 2009 elections to barely surviving with two seats in 2013. Even the governing Likud (which dropped to twelve in 2006) is now only at twenty, the weakest showing of any ruling party in Israel’s history. While Ophir and Azoulay are itching to illuminate the possibility of a one-state future, they devote only one paragraph to assert rather than explain how Palestinian refugees might be absorbed into Israel and the Green Line eliminated (they cite the joint activism of Israelis and Palestinians against the separation barrier and Jewish settlements as if this proves their case for modern binationalism). Their book thus claims there to be an alternative to a two-state solution without taking the opportunity to convince anyone of a one-state reality. Nothing is said about the legitimate interests of Israeli Jews, or about Israel’s serving as a bulwark against persecution for a historically hounded, stateless people. The authors allude positively to “Zionism pre-1947” as “an environment rich with political imagination that invented new possibilities for Jewish existence,” before “The freedom to imagine... was cut down as the ‘statist’ stream of Zionism took over...” — as if Jewish helplessness during the Holocaust and ongoing Arab enmity had nothing to do with this process. They also seem ignorant of what Palestinian negotiators have actually agreed to when they claim that the Palestinians “insist on the evacuation of all the Jewish colonies... and return to the 1949 armistice lines, even in Jerusalem. Moreover, they refuse to demilitarize their territory and insist on including the refugees in a peace treaty.” Maybe this is a Hamas position, but this does not reflect views expressed by most Fatah and Palestinian Authority representatives. If this were all true, in fact, the Israeli right and center would be fully correct in their belief that Israel has no partner for peace. Oddly, the authors see this imagined Palestinian hard line as a good thing. And if Palestinians have a “right of return,” do Jews have a right to Israel’s Law of Return? They don’t say. While The One-State Condition is accurate in its assessment of injustice in the occupied territories, it is totally utopian in prescribing a solution, which isn’t even spelled out; the authors don’t actually commit to one state instead of two. Rather, they cite some studies and artworks, while failing to outline any political process or movement that could conceivably bring about the outcome they desire: Arabs and Jews co-existing in a more cooperative socio-political arrangement. Ultimately, they provide less a vision for a better future than wishful thinking. Ralph Seliger specializes in writing about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues. He was the final editor of Israel Horizons, the print publication of Meretz USA, now Partners for Progressive Israel; he co-administers Partners’ weblog and writes for a variety of other print and online venues.