Essay posted in conjunction with The Forum for Regional Thinking
On Monday February 3, 1919 a delegation of the World Zionist Organization, led by Dr. Chaim Weizmann, submitted to the victorious High Contracting Parties heading the Paris Peace Conference a 3 page document asking them “to recognise the historic title of the Jewish people to Palestine and the right of the Jews to reconstitute in Palestine their National Home.” The West Bank was a minuscule part of the territory requested. During the 101 years that followed the sole empirical-material process that has been unfolding throughout the territory of mandatory Palestine is one that is probably best labelled “Israel’s One-State Solution,” that is, ceaseless consolidation of Zionist/Israeli domination over the area stretching between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea. It is no surprise that some ponder whether a game changer can be spotted on the horizon.
“Game changer” is a concept that involves individuals, tactics, strategies, and more. As such, it saturates the mind of every losing player, team, and/or party; a player who is winning a game, let alone decisively, is rarely interested in a game changer. In the hazardous Israel/Palestine playing-field, the issue may well be more complex or counterintuitive. That is so not because the losing collectivity is somehow uninterested in a game changer (Palestinians are interested); it is because the leadership of the winning Israeli collectivity has convinced itself, perhaps paranoidly, that the “game” is not yet over and that it still needs to settle on what the endgame is. I wish to suggest here that annexation-cum-apartheid may not be this endgame.
“Peace to Prosperity”?
A significant development—possibly even a game changer—has been three years in the making, and is led by a group of American-Israeli policy makers linked to Israel’s “Block of the Faithful” settler movement. The development reached an important point in Washington, D.C. in January 2020 when Donald Trump’s administration introduced a 181 page plan entitled “Peace to Prosperity”—colloquially referred to as “the Trump Peace Deal” or “the deal of the century.”
The Plan is mainly comprised of data-tables and what are labelled “conceptual” maps. Its thrust is to annul established international conventions that regulate border demarcations. The goal is realized through permission to Israel, given by the Republican Party, to formally annex (illegal) settlements in the West Bank unilaterally. The Plan dictates an unequal land exchange between the two asymmetric parties: while Israel is to incorporate the Jordan Valley’s fertile land, desert plots, located to the southwest of the Gaza strip, will be provided to the Palestinians. Trump’s Plan ultimately reserves a stretch of fragmented land for a future de-militarized Palestinian statelet which institutionally cannot escape the label Bantustan. As visualized in one of the official maps, the combined size of the Palestinian archipelago is set to include 19% of the 26,320 square KM of former Mandatory Palestine, assuming no Israeli infringements.
In Israel, meanwhile, a coalition government was finally formed in April following three exorbitant rounds of general elections within a span of a single politically grotesque year. The new coalition is comprised of eight parties, three of which are the most crucial: the Likud, headed by the immortal Benjamin Netanyahu; the pseudo-oppositional Blue & White Party (Kahol Lavan), headed by former IDF Chief of Staff Benjamin Ganz, who has managed to renege on every promise made to his constituents; and the junior partner, the Labour Party, headed by Amir Peretz, who has been in the past a member of the celebrated Peace Now movement and Israel’s Defense Minster during the 2006 Lebanon confrontation. This coalition includes a staggering 73 Knesset Members out of 120. Their first act as a body was to endorse Trump’s Plan. Netanyahu declared that annexation will happen within “a few months,” by which he subtextually meant prior to the November 2020 American presidential election that—at this moment of writing—still stands some chance to oust Trump, who is searching for the widest possible evangelical support.
Israeli implementation of Trump’s Plan will in all likelihood transform the West Bank’s extant de facto apartheid into a de jure one. Is that a game changer? If yes, in what direction/s? Most crucially, is de jure apartheid by definition more ruinous empirically vis-à-vis the long-term future than de facto apartheid? Attempts to unemotionally address this puzzle are morally obliged to acknowledge two issues at the outset. First, it is Palestinians who must ultimately have the final word and verdict on this non-hypothetical question (Palestinian Jews possibly included). Secondly, both de jure and de facto apartheid are abominations; they must as such be morally opposed, and socio-politically resisted, in the West Bank as much as anywhere globally. If one were to attempt and make sense of such a chilling scenario as apartheid formalization then there is no choice but to first rewind to November 29, 1947, the day the UN General Assembly voted to affirm Resolution 181(ii) to partition mandatory Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state (that were supposed to share a single economic union).
Partition as Mantra
From 1947 to date the notion of territorial partition has remained the organizing international mantra for resolving the Palestine/Israel question. As explained in detail elsewhere, the international community’s long-lasting fixation on partition has dominated, notwithstanding that there never was a consequential pre-1948 Zionist constituency, nor has there been a post-1948 Israeli-Jewish constituency in support of a viable two-state partition. Anti-partition has likewise been the historically dominant Palestinian stance, save perhaps for the 1988–2000 period. Most Palestinians and Israelis have never supported the idea of slicing into two viable states what they see as their respective “historic” homeland. Following its monumental triumph in 1967, however, Israel was able to maintain effective control over 100% of mandatory Palestine. Since 1967, the principal solution the international community has offered to resolve the collision has ceased to rest on the 1947 Plan. The new idea envisions an Israeli return to the 1949 armistice Green Line and the establishment of a modestly viable independent Palestine in the Gaza Strip and West Bank (East Jerusalem included). Not enough Euro-Americans know that this bifurcated territory consists of 6205 square KM—smaller than the state of Delaware and one-fifth the size of occupied Crimea or pre-1967 Israel.
As neat and soothing as the newer partition vision was for the lethargic international community, it faced a barrier immediately: it was sliced like a salami because of Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem (against the vote of the UN Security Council), by Israel’s confiscation of public and privately-owned West Bank land, and by colonization activity involving the implantation of 620,000 Jewish settlers east of the Green Line (notwithstanding the contravention of article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention). Recall that Israel’s settler population also grew by 49% during the most conciliatory government of Yitzhak Rabin from 1992 to 1995/6. The latest stage in this take-over is Trump’s Plan. Is transformation from de facto to de jure apartheid a game changer? If yes, is it exclusively for the worse? It is illogical to address this unsettling conundrum without appraising alternative options, that is, whether there are—right here and now—forces capable of unleashing into Israel/Palestine dynamics of liberal democratization in the opposite direction of apartheid. Four asymmetric power-containers could theoretically spark liberal-democratic modification: Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab world, and Euro-America.
Consider Israel first. A worldwide wishful thinking spread after the 1993 Washington, D.C. signing of the Oslo Accords. On this line of thinking, a sufficiently formidable Left-Zionist force was present that was capable of reversing the 1967 occupation and delivering a viable partition. If such a Left-Zionist power ever existed empirically, it doubtlessly faded in 2005 upon Ariel Sharon’s implementation of the “Disengagement Plan”: from 2005 onwards, all Israeli leaders have (nominally) embraced the slogan “two-states”—foremost Netanyahu in his June 14, 2009 Bar Ilan University speech—for the sole purpose of its suffocation; in wrestling they term this position a “bear hug.” Note that Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” is also framed/marketed as a “two-state” solution. In the 2009 Israeli election the Meretz party—the only Israeli-Jewish party between 1993 and 2005 that promoted a viable, non-deceitful two-state solution—was erased. Save for those who willingly blind themselves, now in 2020 it is evident that only bold and less-bold shades of colonizing right-wing Zionism exist. Israel’s phantom-left can at most deliver symbolic protests. It is thus impossible to detect domestic forces emerging from within Israel that could spark liberal modification. An Israeli De Klerk likewise does not exist.
Consider now the Palestinians who are currently quite weak, divided, and fragmented. Liberal-democratic modification of the status-quo is unlikely to emerge in the near future from within Palestine nor, so it seems, from the dispersed Palestinian people globally. This results from the Palestinians’ structural inability to amass by themselves a sufficient Vietnamese/Algerian-type of anti-colonial power. While a Gandhian non-violent resistance, that incidentally typified the first intifada, may stand a better chance to deliver liberation, both resistance types presently seem incapable of countering in a sufficient manner Israel’s massive military, economic, and technological forces. This profound imbalance of power enabled the present apartheid setting to begin with.
The third power-container that can theoretically spark contra-apartheid dynamics is the Arab world that surrounds Palestine. The thoroughly underutilized human “capital” in the Arab world consists of over 300 million people. The Arab collectivity probably embodies the sole potential reservoir for counterweight to Israel’s social, military, economic, and technological force. Yet the derailing of the post-2011 democratic Arab Spring—coupled with the social fragmentation of Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and (pro-Israel) Egypt—seems to mean that some time would be needed before an Arab power could become consequential vis-à-vis the Israel/Palestine question. It is worth reminding that only a democratically inclined Arab force could potentially challenge Israel: non-democratic Arab developments (such as ISIS) merely strengthen indirectly Israel’s standing vis-à-vis the Palestinians globally. The final force left then is Euro-America.
Euro-America until Trump
Unlike Israel, the Palestinians, or the Arab world, Euro-America was, and remains, the most potent power-container; as such, it could have long generated a degree of liberal-democratic change over what is after all an economically dependent Israel—the same Israel that has been exercising de facto apartheid for decades without effects on its trade. Pre-Trump Euro-America did not introduce any liberal-democratic dynamic to Israel/Palestine. It therefore seems that no contra-apartheid development will be delivered for Israel/Palestine by some benevolent Western remote control. This has been thus far the case in relation to (1) Western states that occupy the center-stage of all Eurocentric analyses of the two-state school and to (2) the symbolically pro-Palestinian Western civil society—that occupies in toto the Eurocentric (and non-Arab-centered) analysis of the 21st century one-state school. Recalling pre-1993 South Africa can be helpful comparatively.
Apartheid in South Africa was toppled foremost as a consequence of decades of organized mobilization by a domestic triangular force comprising the African National Congress (ANC), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATO), and the South African Communist Party. These organs have no Palestinian or Arab equivalents. With all due respect to Euro-American civil society and its committed activism, ending apartheid would not have materialized without, first, the non-sectarian counter-power that the triangular South African force amassed from within and, second, state-based international sanctions. The boycott by Western civil society was the icing on the cake, whereas the cake remained what it was: South African bottom-up, domestic-democratic power and activism. In this context, pro-Palestinian forces within the world’s southern and Western civil societies were undoubtedly committed to their cause; yet the fact remains empirically simple regardless of whether or not one likes it: these constituencies are not that powerful and have had only modest tangible achievements since the 1960s activism of the New Left. That said, it is possible that a sophisticated and sustained tapping of pro-Palestinian grassroots activism into the globally transformative Black Lives Matters movement—including via multilingual rap/hip-hop music—could modify the historical equation to some degree.
To date, only one single international intervention over-powered Israel in a top-down fashion: President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s forcing of Israel’s immediate, full, and unconditional withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in 1956.
Likely Effects of De Jure Apartheid
Forces that could spark anti-apartheid dynamics are thus weak or absent altogether, unlike Trump’s Plan and Israel’s possible annexation. The most crucial subject pertaining to apartheid formalization is the tangible impact on the daily lives of “ordinary” Palestinians. Their property rights are likely to be hit: Israel may deepen its land expropriation by declaring it “state owned.” Specifically, Israel might apply to annexed land its 1950 Absentee Property Act, which was originally enacted to grab property of 1948 refugees; under the Law of Belligerent Occupation such seizing is harder to accomplish.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, the profoundly potent new existential effects that de jure apartheid would generate are finite: de facto apartheid has been in place for decades and it is uncertain whether or not its formalization will substantially modify existing life under prolonged military occupation. Egregious developments might of course emerge (for example, new aggravating legislation). Yet, it seems unlikely that it will take effect immediately.
Annexation will present conclusive proof that Israeli rulers have ceased fearing consequential protests from within Israeli civil society. This could simultaneously ignite some corrective to the prevailing wishful thinking from across the globe that a pro-partition, Left-Zionist anti-occupation force exists in Israel (or abroad). The formalization of apartheid may lead honest members of Left-Zionist constituencies to cease relying on phantom forces and ideas and explore alternatives that lean on forces that are tangible. These may include Israel’s Arab-dominated political party “The Joint List,” various campaigns that harshly target bodies operating in the occupied West Bank (as several faith-based groups do), the more “standard” BDS campaign against Israel (presently endorsed by few unions and scholarly associations), or other initiatives or groups that oppose unconditionally all post-1967 occupation and settlement apparatus.
A move to formalize apartheid will clarify something graver: that Israeli rulers overcame fears of the international community. While this may well be so, this feature per se has little to do directly with Israel. The international reality is one of comprehensive inaction vis-à-vis Israeli violations—by American administrations, individual European governments, the European Union, or international organizations. Israeli rulers have good reasons to cease fearing the international community. Yet, introducing de jure apartheid could become a tipping point of sorts—that additional straw needed to begin denting patterns of international inaction. To date Israel camouflages apartheid under an elaborate web of informal settings and this matrix may actually be more insidious than de jure apartheid.
Apartheid formalization will ridicule the countless warning letters international bodies have manufactured since 1967 against the occupation, proving that their worth equals that of their printing paper. De jure apartheid will confirm beyond doubt that Israel neither views the occupation as “temporary”—contrary to what it has argued for decades, including via its Supreme Court—nor that its West Bank activities arise from security considerations, as it argued in The Hauge in 2004. It will be somewhat clearer to see that these policies result from a commitment to expansionist colonization. If annexation is in place formally, the questions of democracy and equal citizenship are bound to surface more visibly at both the international and domestic level. The international community may start initiating a more coherent consensus for counter-actions vis-à-vis official apartheid. While external intervention of a 1956 calibre stands a modest chance to follow formalization of apartheid, it clearly has not preceded it thus far and seems unlikely to materialize without it. Palestinians are cruelly imprisoned between a rock and a hard place. The spectre of annexation did trigger some calls for a more vigorous action.
A cross-party group of 143 UK parliamentarians—curiously including one who defamed Jeremy Corbyn as an anti-Semite—published an atypically strongly worded letter to Boris Johnson: “[…] The UK must work with other states to respond robustly to both the US plan and any annexation of Palestinian territory. It must demonstrate that serious breaches of International Law result in serious consequences just as the UK and European partners have rightly done with regards to Russia in its illegal annexation of Crimea. Double standards would have dire consequences for the role of International Law which would put in danger all nations and peoples, including our own […].” The International Relations & Defense Committee of Britain’s House of Lords meanwhile sent a strongly worded letter to James Cleverly, Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa. The letter recommends limiting preferential economic access to the UK market that Israel has long enjoyed, notwithstanding its de facto apartheid, if annexation should go ahead. EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell declared that Israel’s annexation is “the most important item” in the meeting agenda of EU Foreign Ministers. EU’s Foreign Affairs Commission was reported to suggest that sanctions could be introduced if Israel annexes. Such a decision necessitates a unanimous vote of support by all 27 EU member states. It does not seem likely that ultra-conservative members such as Hungary, Romania, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy or Bulgaria will support sanctions on Israel even after annexation.
Apartheid as a Means?
Concerns about, and warnings against, apartheid have naturally mushroomed among ideologically diverse observers of Palestine/Israel following the publication of Trump’s Plan. Practically all have overlooked one critical point: Israeli leaders are perfectly well-aware of the fact that de jure apartheid remains a toxic public relations exercise—a commodity difficult to market even in an exponentially more illiberal/authoritarian world (Russia, Turkey, Hungary, China, India, Philippines, the US, Brazil, Austria, Italy, and more). Analysts may thus be better off understanding Israeli apartheid solely as a means to a different end. While Israel is, historically, a resolutely winning player, it neither views the “game” as over nor de jure apartheid as its endgame.
Israel may well strive for a dilution of the apartheid condition. It must be firstly acknowledged that Palestinians are an indigenous national collectivity, and not an emigrant minority. It is the state of Israel that migrated onto their heads, not the other way around. That is one of the reasons why Israel’s interest is dilution and relaxation of de jure, South African-like apartheid. This could happen, for example, if Israel opts to extend to West Bank Palestinians something that legally resembles the current status of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the American “Green Card,” or the British “Indefinite Leave to Remain.” All of these are configurations of permanent-residency based on a categorical denial of voting rights in national elections.
Israel may ultimately aim not just for dilution of apartheid but for its evaporation. Contrary to the hopes of some, that is unlikely to come about by means of legal extension to West Bank Palestinians of citizenship identical to that which Israel extended to Palestinians in 1948. For the foreseeable future Israel is unlikely to join such campaigns as “One Democratic State.” Evaporation of the apartheid setting can paradoxically be maximized via the logic of settler colonialism itself. One thrust of Israel’s one-state project is demographic change: “maximum territory, minimum Arabs.” This is a continuous effort to minimize the number of Palestinians on the ground by bureaucratic, procedural, legal, peaceful, forceful, and/or violent means. Palestinian misery is never coincidental but strives to increase emigration. Military orders 1649 and 1650 of October 13, 2009 are good illustrations: they define all Palestinians in the West Bank as “infiltrators” who may be jailed and deported. The remainder of this essay consequently explores whether Israel may be in search of a game changer that surpasses annexation.
Displacement vs. Apartheid?
Trump’s Plan and/or Israel’s possible annexation are neither the sole issues in motion in 2020, nor necessarily the most critical ones. A State Department official who accompanied Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 13th of May visit to Jerusalem commented on reports that Israel has been intensifying airstrikes in Syria, chiefly against Iranian targets. For him it seems clear that Israel increased its “operational tempo” and broadened its “target set” in Syria. Contrary to most interpretations, a reliable Haaretz analyst explained that annexation was not the prime reason for Pompeo’s visit but the question of Iran’s containment (as well as Israel-China trade relations during the COVID-19 pandemic): Trump fully backs Israel’s anti-Iran actions.
Israel has acted in an overall provocative manner in the region. It has done so since Netanyahu’s re-election in 2009 and his uninterrupted reign since. Willful regional escalation or confrontation could serve as a game changer for Israel. Recall that the Palestinian Nakba’s pinnacle cleansing materialized in 1948 during a regional confrontation; that was likewise the case during the 1967 Naksa (“setback”) that resulted in an additional massive displacement of Palestinians (and Syrians). Israel’s hunger is for territory, albeit without the Palestinians living in it. Paradoxically, then, colonial displacement, let alone cleansing, are macabre antidotes vis-à-vis the apartheid setting itself. Should heightened regional confrontation erupt—such as between Israel and ISIS or Israel and Iran—some Palestinian communities could find themselves displaced in the same manner as countless Arabs were in war-torn Syria, let alone as happened in 1948 and 1967. Little international attention was paid when Israeli police publicly exercized a transfer scenario on October 7, 2010, or when Israel provoked Syria by bombing its nuclear facility on September 6, 2007.
Regional confrontation need not produce wholesale cleansing; it could still affect existing demography and geography in a mode conducive to annexation sans apartheid. If displacements emerge amid regional confrontations that involve Israeli victims and physical harm, it will be harder to solicit sufficiently vigorous formal opposition to them from (conservative) Euro-America. When the Geneva Convention is cited in the Israel/Palestine context, it is usually done in relation to illegal settlement activities. Yet the legal minds laboring for Israel always emphasize that international law affords sovereign states ample rights to defend citizens and territory. Under confrontations involving civilian Israeli victims/harm, it becomes easier to defend internationally (and frame as legal) acts of displacement as defensive measures. Iranian bombs on Tel Aviv—as happened in 1990 with Iraq—could be rather useful in facilitating disproportionate Israeli aggressions, including vis-à-vis a domestic “enemy-affiliated population.”
It is thus possible that otherwise triumphant Israel remains in search of a game changer as much as Palestinians are. What appears quite clear is that Israel’s endgame is more open-ended than de jure apartheid. Therefore, while anti-apartheid mobilization vis-à-vis Lilliputian Israel/Palestine is obviously needed, a considerably broader anti-war movement, whose scope is explicitly regional, seems equally critical, if not more so.
En Masse Bi-Nationalism as Game Changer?
Following the 50th commemoration of the Palestinian catastrophe across Euro-America in 1998, employment of the idiom “ongoing Nakba” has grown among scholars and others. Few people, however, seem to comprehend in sufficient detail and depth the idiom’s concrete meanings and continuous inner-workings, as this essay partially attempts to elucidate. This misapprehension may be one of the impediments for formulating—and propagating en masse to broader constituencies—an alternative, contra-apartheid pathway capable of addressing viably both colonial and national formations. Many have realized by now that a game-changing pathway ahead cannot rest on territorial partition. Yet only a handful dare acknowledge that liberalism, and the institutionalization of individual rights including One-Person/One-Vote, are necessary, yet entirely insufficient, conditions to ameliorate inter-communal and inter-religious tensions in post-Ottoman Palestine/Israel. Messianic liberalism that chiefly sees atomized individuals is equally insufficient to heal diverse societies in neighbouring states such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen.
Irrespective of one’s liking or disliking, one hundred and forty years of Arab-Zionist enmities have been socially-constructed in the (empirical) Middle East as two collectivities that cannot be understood outside the global playing-field of the phenomenon of ethno-nationalism: Palestinian-Arab and Hebrew-speaking Israeli. The non-partitioned pathway ahead cannot become a game changer that magnetizes new secular and religious constituencies so long as eyes remain obliviously shut to the foundational notions of federalism and bi-nationalism. Non-partitioned settlement in Israel/Palestine stands thus only a modest chance to materialize as long as liberalism and individual rights remain as unfastened as they presently are to bi-nationalism and collective rights. Collective identities that are informed by religious, ethnic, or national ties are unlikely to “disappear”—or be wishfully willed away—through the liberal privatization of them to some imaginary non-public sphere. It is worth rereading Edward Said’s seminal 1999 essay, preferably without bypassing its single most central contention: “real peace can come only with a binational Israeli-Palestinian state.”
How to cite this essay:
Moshe Behar. “In Search of a Game Changer in Israel/Palestine.” Contending Modernities, June 2020.