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Free Elections, Good News and Bad

Events in the Levant in 2008 add further understanding to the “good news” of those days. In January, in a remarkable act of courageous civil disobedience, tens of thousands of the tortured people of Gaza broke out of the prison to which they had been confined by the U.S.-Israel alliance, with the usual timid European support, as punishment for the crime of voting the wrong way in a free election in January 2006. It was instructive at that time to see the front pages with stories reporting the brutal U.S. response to a genuinely free election alongside others lauding the Bush administration for its noble dedication to “democracy promotion,” or sometimes gently chiding it because it was going too far in its idealism, failing to recognize that the unpeople of the Middle East are too backward to appreciate democracy.

There are virtually no limits to the soaring rhetoric about the marvels of free elections when they are believed to have come out “the right way.” Accordingly, the 2008 election in Lebanon was greeted with euphoria. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gushed that he is “a sucker for free and fair elections,” so “it warms my heart to watch” what happened in Lebanon in an election that “was indeed free and fair—not like the pretend election you are about to see in Iran, where only candidates approved by the Supreme Leader can run. No, in Lebanon it was the real deal, and the results were fascinating: President Barack Obama defeated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.” Crucially, “a solid majority of all Lebanese—Muslims, Christians and Druse—voted for the March 14 coalition led by Saad Hariri,” the U.S.-backed candidate and son of the murdered ex–prime minister Rafik Hariri, so that “to the extent that anyone came out of this election with the moral authority to lead the next government, it was the coalition that wants Lebanon to be run by and for the Lebanese—not for Iran, not for Syria and not for fighting Israel.” We must give credit where it is due for this triumph of free elections: “Without George Bush standing up to the Syrians in 2005—and forcing them to get out of Lebanon after the Hariri killing—this free election would not have happened. Mr. Bush helped create the space. Power matters. Mr. Obama helped stir the hope. Words also matter.”

Friedman was echoed by many others, if less effusively. By Elliott Abrams, for example, who also compared Obama’s victory in Lebanon with the Iranian elections. Under the heading “Lebanon’s Triumph, Iran’s Travesty,” Abrams compared these “twin tests of [U.S.] efforts to spread democracy to the Muslim world.” The lesson is clear: “What the United States should be promoting is not elections, but free elections, and the voting in Lebanon passed any realistic test…the majority of Lebanese have rejected Hezbollah’s claim that it is not a terrorist group but a ‘national resistance’.… The Lebanese had a chance to vote against Hezbollah, and took the opportunity.”

Reactions were similar elsewhere. A few small problems were, however, overlooked.

The most prominent problem, apparently unreported in the United States, is the actual vote. The Hezbollah-based March 8 coalition won handily, by approximately the same figure as Obama vs. McCain in November 2008, about 53 percent of the popular vote, according to Ministry of Interior figures. Hence by the Friedman-Abrams argument, we should be lamenting Ahmadinejad’s defeat of President Obama, and the “moral authority” won by Hezbollah, as “the majority of Lebanese…took the opportunity” to reject the charges that Friedman-Abrams and others repeat uncritically from Washington propaganda.1

Like others, Friedman and Abrams are referring to representatives in Parliament. These numbers are skewed by the confessional voting system, which sharply reduces the seats granted to the largest of the sects, the Shi’ites, who overwhelmingly back Hezbollah and its Amal ally. Furthermore, as analysts concerned with fact have pointed out, the confessional ground rules undermine “free and fair elections” in even more far-reaching ways than this. Assaf Kfoury observes that they leave no space for non-sectarian parties and erect a barrier to introducing socioeconomic policies and other real issues into the electoral system. They also open the door to “massive external interference,” low voter turnout, and “vote-rigging and vote-buying,” all features of the June 2008 election, even more so than before. Thus in Beirut, home of more than half the population, less than a fourth of eligible voters could vote without returning to their usually remote districts of origin. The effect is that migrant workers and the poorer classes are effectively disenfranchised in “a form of extreme gerrymandering, Lebanese style,” favoring the privileged and pro-Western classes.2

Such glaring illustrations of elite hatred and contempt for democracy appear regularly, apparently with no awareness of what they signify—which tells us a good deal about how deeply rooted in the intellectual culture are the sentiments and the doctrines tacitly upheld. To pick another illustration, Cam Simpson reports in the Wall Street Journal that despite the harsh U.S.-Israeli punishment of Gaza, and “flooding the West Bank’s Western-backed Fatah-led government with diplomatic and economic support [to] persuade Palestinians in both territories to embrace Fatah and isolate Hamas,” the opposite is happening: Hamas’s popularity is increasing in the West Bank. As Simpson casually explains, “Hamas won Palestinian elections in January 2006, prompting the Israeli government and the Bush administration to lead a world-wide boycott of the Palestinian Authority,” along with much more severe measures. The goal, unconcealed, is to punish the miscreants who fail to grasp the essential principle of democracy: “Do what we say, or else.”3

It is important not to overlook the fact that the U.S.-Israel operate in tandem. Israel relies crucially on U.S. military, economic, diplomatic, and ideological support. It will proceed as far as the United States allows. Its criminal actions are U.S. crimes.

In response to the unfortunate free elections of January 2006, U.S.-Israeli punishment of the people of Gaza sharply increased, peaking with many killings in early June, then escalating sharply after the capture of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, on June 25. That act was bitterly denounced in the West. Israel’s vicious response was regarded as understandable if perhaps excessive. These thoughts were untroubled by the dramatic demonstration, at once, that they were sheer hypocrisy. The day before the capture of Corporal Shalit on the front lines of the army attacking Gaza, Israeli forces entered Gaza City and kidnapped two civilians, the Muamar brothers, taking them to Israel (in violation of the Geneva Conventions), where they disappeared into Israel’s prison population, including almost one thousand held without charge, often for long periods. The kidnapping, a far more serious crime than the capture of Shalit, received a few scattered lines of comment, but no noticeable criticism.4 That is perhaps understandable, because it is hardly news. U.S.-backed Israeli forces have been engaged in such practices, and far more brutal ones like them, for decades. And in any event, as a client state Israel inherits the right of criminality from its master.

Western hypocrisy on this score is stunning. Thus Thomas Friedman, while instructing us on how the lesser breeds must be “educated” by terrorist violence, writes that Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006, once again destroying much of southern Lebanon and Beirut while killing another one thousand civilians, was a just act of self-defense, responding to Hezbollah’s crime of “launching an unprovoked war across the U.N.-recognized Israel-Lebanon border, after Israel had unilaterally withdrawn from Lebanon.” The shocking crime was the capture of Israeli soldiers on the border, with the apparent intention of a prisoner exchange, the first recorded significant border violation by Hezbollah in six years despite Israel’s almost daily border violations since the Hezbollah-led resistance forced it to withdraw from its occupation of southern Lebanon in violation of UN Security Council orders.5

The veteran Middle East specialist of the New York Times surely knows about Israel’s criminal practices in Lebanon and on the high seas, which vastly exceed Hezbollah’s crime of capturing two soldiers at the border. At least, he knows if he reads his own newspaper: for example, the eighteenth paragraph of a story on prisoner exchange, which observes that thirty-seven of the Arab prisoners “had been seized recently by the Israeli Navy as they tried to make their way from Cyprus to Tripoli,” north of Beirut—many held for years as hostages, sometimes in secret prisons reported in Israel and Europe, but not the United States.6

Such crimes continue, barely eliciting a yawn. In September 2009, the Israeli army invaded the North Gaza district south of the town of Beit Lahia and kidnapped five Palestinian children on their way home after grazing sheep. Details are reported by the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. No coverage could be discovered in the English-language press, though the capture of Shalit, a soldier of an attacking army, receives regular wide coverage, and is regularly depicted as a prime obstacle to peace.7

Returning to the aftermath of the unacceptable authentic free election in Gaza, U.S.-Israeli atrocities escalated once again in June 2007, after a civil war that left Hamas in control of the territory. That is commonly described as a Hamas military coup, demonstrating again their evil nature. The real world is a little different. The civil war was incited by the United States and Israel, in a crude attempt at a military coup to overturn the elections that brought Hamas to power. That has been public knowledge at least since April 2008, when David Rose published a detailed and documented account of how Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams “backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever.” The account was corroborated by Norman Olsen, who served for twenty-six years in the Foreign Service, including four years working in the Gaza Strip and four years at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, and then moved on to become associate coordinator for counterterrorism at the Department of State. Olsen and his son detail the State Department shenanigans intended to ensure that their candidate, Abbas, would win in the January 2006 elections—in which case it would have been hailed as a triumph of democracy, warming the hearts of loyalists. After the election-fixing failed, the United States and Israel turned to the punishment of Palestinians for voting the wrong way, and began arming a militia run by Dahlan. But “Dahlan’s thugs moved too soon,” the Olsens write, and a Hamas preemptive strike undermined the coup attempt.8

As U.S.-backed Israeli savagery reached new heights in Gaza, the criminal pair continued their work in the other part of the occupied territories, the West Bank, which they have been systematically isolating from Gaza since the “Oslo peace process” began in 1993.9 There Israel is carrying forward its U.S.-backed programs to take over valuable territory and resources, breaking up the fragments remaining to Palestinians by settlements and huge infrastructure projects, and hundreds of checkpoints mostly for harassment, imprisoning the whole by takeover of the Jordan Valley, and expanding settlement and development in Jerusalem to ensure that there will be no more than a token Palestinian presence in the historic center of Palestinian cultural, commercial, and social life. All settlement-related activities are illegal but those in Jerusalem are doubly so, in this case, in violation of Security Council orders that go back forty years. Nonviolent reactions by Palestinians and solidarity groups are viciously crushed. There is little notice. Even when Nobel laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire was shot and gassed by Israeli troops while participating in a vigil protesting the separation wall—now better termed an annexation wall—there was apparently not a word in the English-language print media, outside of Ireland.10

It is useful to bear in mind that Israel understood at once that its settlement projects in the occupied territories, and anything related to them, are illegal. Israel’s top legal authority on international law, Theodor Meron, a distinguished international lawyer and a leading figure in international tribunals, informed the government in September 1967 “that civilian settlement in the administered [occupied] territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” the core of international humanitarian law. The cabinet had already been informed of that by Justice Minister Ya’akov Shimshon Shapira. A few weeks later Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who was in charge of the occupied territories, informed his fellow ministers that “we must consolidate our hold so that over time we will succeed in ‘digesting’ Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and merging them with ‘little’ Israel,” meanwhile “dismember[ing] the territorial contiguity” of the West Bank. This would have to be done by expropriating land from Arab owners, under the pretense “that the step is necessary for military purposes,” a subterfuge that had also worked quite well to deprive Israeli Arabs of the rights accorded to Jewish citizens, as in the notorious case of the town of Carmiel. The settlement and dismemberment policies have since been followed systematically, and still are. Throughout, a leading role has been played by the official “doves,” notably Shimon Peres.

Dayan had no illusions about the criminality of the enterprise he was recommending. “Settling Israelis in occupied territory contravenes, as is known, international conventions,” he observed, “but there is nothing essentially new in that.” He evidently expected the paymaster in Washington to object formally, but with a wink. That too has been the regular practice, even as the criminality has been underscored by Security Council resolutions and more recently by the International Court of Justice, with the basic agreement of U.S. Justice Buergenthal in a separate declaration.11

Criminal actions by Palestinians, such as Qassam rockets fired from Gaza, are angrily condemned in the West. The far more violent and destructive Israeli actions sometimes elicit polite clucking of tongues if they exceed approved levels of state terror. Invariably Israel’s actions—for which of course the United States shares direct responsibility—are portrayed as retaliation, perhaps excessive. Another way of looking at the cycle of violence is that Qassam rockets are retaliation for Israel’s unceasing crimes in Gaza and the West Bank, which is not separable from Gaza except by U.S.-Israeli fiat. But standard racist-ultranationalist assumptions exclude that interpretation.

There is almost universal agreement in the West, including the human rights organizations, that Israeli actions to deter rockets are legitimate self-defense, even if disproportionate, sometimes perhaps even verging on criminality. The framework was adopted with virtual unanimity once again when Israel carried out a merciless attack on Gaza in December–January 2008–9. The position is quite clearly untenable, another reflection of the power of the formidable Western propaganda system with its deep roots in imperial mentality.

The facts and principles are quite straightforward and unambiguous. Like other states, Israel has the right of self-defense; that has not been in question. But the operative question is an entirely different one: does Israel have the right of self-defense by force in this particular instance? On this matter, international law, including the UN Charter, is unambiguous: it has that right only if it has exhausted peaceful means (among other conditions that must be met). But Israel not only has not exhausted peaceful means, it has refused even to consider them. Putting aside the broader matter of its ending its daily crimes in occupied Palestine, and just keeping to Gaza, Israel refused even to consider accepting a cease-fire. Hamas repeatedly offered a cease-fire, which Israel and the United States had every reason to suppose would end Hamas rocket firing. These facts utterly undermine any justification for the U.S.-Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008, apparently initiated to carry forward the programs of imposing massive suffering on the animals in the Gaza prison, taking over whatever is valuable in the West Bank, and ensuring that others are properly intimidated by Israeli force.12

Given the virtual unanimity of the claim that the 2008–9 attack on Gaza was undertaken in legitimate self-defense, even if disproportionate in means, it is worthwhile to recall the immediate background. In June 2008 Israel and Hamas reached an agreement on a cease-fire, which called for opening the border crossings to “allow the transfer of all goods that were banned and restricted to go into Gaza.” Israel formally agreed, but immediately announced that it would not abide by the agreement and open the borders until Hamas released Gilad Shalit.

After immediately rejecting the June 2008 cease-fire it had formally accepted, Israel maintained its siege. We may recall that a siege is an act of war. In fact, Israel has always insisted on an even stronger principle: hampering access to the outside world, even well short of a siege, is an act of war, justifying massive violence in response. Interference with Israel’s passage through the Straits of Tiran was a large part of the justification offered for Israel’s invasion of Egypt (with France and England) in 1956, and for its launching of the June 1967 war. The siege of Gaza is total, not partial, apart from occasional willingness of the occupiers to relax it slightly to allow bare survival. And it is vastly more harmful to Gazans than closing the Straits of Tiran was to Israel. Supporters of Israeli doctrines and actions should therefore have no problem justifying rocket attacks on Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip.

Of course, again we run into the nullifying principle: This is us, that is them.

Israel not only maintained the siege after June 2008, but did so with extreme rigor. It even prevented the UN Relief and Works Agency from replenishing its stores, “so when the ceasefire broke down, we ran out of food for the 750,000 who depend on us,” UNRWA director John Ging informed the BBC.13

Despite the Israeli siege, rocketing was sharply reduced. The spokesperson for the prime minister, Mark Regev, acknowledged that there was not a single Hamas rocket among the few that were launched from the onset of the June 2008 cease-fire until November 4, when Israel violated it still more egregiously with a raid into Gaza, killing six Hamas activists and eliciting a retaliatory barrage of rockets (with no injuries). The Israeli government acknowledged the same on its official website. The November 4 raid was on the evening of the U.S. presidential elections, when attention was focused elsewhere. The pretext for the raid was that Israel had detected a tunnel in Gaza that might have been intended for use to capture another Israeli soldier; a “ticking tunnel” in official communiques. The pretext was transparently absurd, as a number of Israeli commentators noted. If such a tunnel existed, and reached the border, Israel could easily have barred it right there. But as usual, the ludicrous Israeli pretext was deemed credible, and the timing was overlooked.14

What was the reason for the Israeli raid? A fair question, since it was evidently not to stop Hamas rockets or other potential attacks. We have no internal evidence about Israeli planning, but we do know that the raid came shortly before scheduled Hamas-Fatah talks in Cairo aimed at “reconciling their differences and creating a single, unified government,” British correspondent Rory McCarthy reported. That was to be the first Fatah-Hamas meeting since the June 2007 civil war that left Hamas in control of Gaza, and would have been a significant step toward advancing diplomatic efforts. There is a long history of Israel provocations to deter the threat of diplomacy, some already mentioned. This may have been another one.15

After Israel broke the June 2008 cease-fire (such as it was) in November, the siege was tightened further, with even more disastrous consequences for the population. According to Sara Roy, the leading academic specialist on Gaza, “On Nov. 5, Israel sealed all crossing points into Gaza, vastly reducing and at times denying food supplies, medicines, fuel, cooking gas, and parts for water and sanitation systems.… During November, an average of 4.6 trucks of food per day entered Gaza from Israel compared with an average of 123 trucks per day in October. Spare parts for the repair and maintenance of water-related equipment have been denied entry for over a year. The World Health Organization just reported that half of Gaza’s ambulances are now out of order”—and the rest soon became targets for direct Israeli attack. Gaza’s only power station was forced to suspend operation for lack of fuel, and could not be started up again because they needed spare parts, which had been sitting in the Israeli port of Ashdod for eight months. Shortage of electricity led to a 300 percent increase in burn cases at Shifaa’ hospital in the Gaza Strip, resulting from efforts to light wood fires. Israel barred shipment of chlorine, so that by mid-December in Gaza City and the north access to water was limited to six hours every three days. The human consequences are not counted among Palestinian victims of Israeli terror—or “disproportionate retaliation,” to adopt the standard ideological construct.16

After the November 4 Israeli attack, both sides escalated violence (all deaths were Palestinian) until the cease-fire formally ended on December 19, and Prime Minister Olmert authorized the full-scale invasion.

A few days earlier Hamas had proposed to return to the original June cease-fire agreement, which Israel had not observed. Historian and former Carter administration high official Robert Pastor passed the proposal to a “senior official” in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), but Israel did not respond. The head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, was quoted in Israeli sources on December 21 as saying that Hamas is interested in continuing the “calm” with Israel, while its military wing is continuing preparations for conflict.

“There clearly was an alternative to the military approach to stopping the rockets,” Pastor said, keeping to the narrow issue of Gaza. There was also a more far-reaching alternative: namely, accepting a political settlement including all of the occupied territories.17

Israel’s senior diplomatic correspondent Akiva Eldar reports that shortly before Israel launched its full-scale invasion on Saturday, December 27, “Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal announced on the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Web site that he was prepared not only for a ‘cessation of aggression’—he proposed going back to the arrangement at the Rafah crossing as of 2005, before Hamas won the elections and later took over the region. That arrangement was for the crossing to be managed jointly by Egypt, the European Union, the Palestinian Authority presidency and Hamas.”18

In brief, Israel had no right to fire a single bullet into the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, it is hard to see how the conclusion can even be controversial.

A standard claim of the more vulgar apologists for Israeli violence is that in the case of the 2008–9 Gaza assault, “as in so many instances in the past half century—the Lebanon War of 1982, the ‘Iron Fist’ response to the 1988 intifada, the Lebanon War of 2006—the Israelis have reacted to intolerable acts of terror with a determination to inflict terrible pain, to teach the enemy a lesson. The civilian suffering and deaths are inevitable; the lessons less so” (New Yorker editor David Remnick).19 The 2006 Lebanon invasion can be justified only on the grounds of appalling cynicism, as already reviewed. The reference to Israel’s brutal response to the 1988 intifada is too depraved even to discuss; a sympathetic interpretation might be that it reflects astonishing ignorance. But Remnick’s claim about the 1982 invasion, though equally astonishing, is quite common, a remarkable feat of incessant propaganda, which merits a few reminders.

Uncontroversially, the Israel-Lebanon border was quiet for a year before the Israeli invasion, at least from Lebanon to Israel, north to south. Through the year, the PLO scrupulously observed a U.S.-initiated cease-fire, despite constant Israeli provocations, including bombing with many civilian casualties, presumably intended to elicit some reaction that could be used to justify Israel’s planned invasion. The best Israel could achieve was two light symbolic responses. It then invaded with a pretext too absurd to be taken seriously.

The invasion had nothing to do with “intolerable acts of terror,” though it did have to do with intolerable acts: of diplomacy. That has never been obscure. Shortly after the U.S.-backed invasion began, Israel’s leading academic specialist on the Palestinians, Yehoshua Porath—no dove—wrote that Arafat’s success in maintaining the cease-fire constituted “a veritable catastrophe in the eyes of the Israeli government,” since it opened the way to a political settlement. The government hoped that the PLO would resort to terrorism, undermining the threat that it would be “a legitimate negotiating partner for future political accommodations.”

The facts were well understood in Israel, and not concealed. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir stated that Israel went to war because there was “a terrible danger.… Not so much a military one as a political one,” prompting the fine Israeli satirist B. Michael to write that “the lame excuse of a military danger or a danger to the Galilee is dead. [We] have removed the political danger” by striking first, in time; now, “Thank God, there is no one to talk to.” Historian Benny Morris recognized that the PLO had observed the cease-fire, and explained that “the war’s inevitability rested on the PLO as a political threat to Israel and to Israel’s hold on the occupied territories.” Others have frankly acknowledged the unchallenged facts.20

In a front-page think piece on the December 2008 Gaza invasion, New York Times correspondent Steven Lee Meyers writes that “in some ways, the Gaza attacks were reminiscent of the gamble Israel took, and largely lost, in Lebanon in 1982 [when] it invaded to eliminate the threat of Yasir Arafat’s forces.” Correct, but not in the sense he has in mind. In 1982, as very likely in 2008, it was necessary to eliminate the threat of political settlement.21

The hope of Israeli propagandists has been that Western intellectuals and media would buy the fairy tale that in 1982 Israel was reacting to rockets raining on the Galilee, “intolerable acts of terror.” Hence as in Gaza in 2008, they were acting in legitimate self-defense, though perhaps killing some fifteen thousand to twenty thousand Lebanese and Palestinians, and destroying much of southern Lebanon and Beirut, was “disproportionate,” however understandable. And those who run the efficient propaganda services have not been disappointed,22 just as they have not been disappointed by the remarkable unanimity in adopting Israel’s utterly indefensible claim of having acted in legitimate self-defense when it attacked Gaza even more ferociously than before in December 2008.

Criticism by human rights organizations and others, including the Goldstone report, has kept to the narrower question of propriety of means, a secondary issue, and a focus welcomed by advocates of U.S.-Israeli violence because of the inevitable uncertainty about evidence under wartime conditions, even though international humanitarian law is explicit. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1950 states that “no protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.… Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.” Gazans are unambigously “protected persons” under Israeli military occupation. The Hague Convention of 1907 also declares that “no general penalty, pecuniary or otherwise, can be inflicted on the population on account of the acts of individuals for which it cannot be regarded as collectively responsible” (Article 50). Furthermore, High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Convention are bound to “respect and to ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances,” including of course Israel and its U.S. partner in crime, which is obligated to prevent, or to punish, the serious breaches of the convention by its own leaders and its client. When the media report, as they regularly do, that “Israel hopes [reducing supplies of fuel and electricity to the Gaza Strip] will create popular pressure to force the Hamas rulers of Gaza and other militant groups to stop the rocket fire,”23 they are calmly informing us that Israel is in grave breach of international humanitarian law, as is the United States for not ensuring respect for law on the part of its client. The same is true when the Israeli High Court grants legitimacy to these measures, as it has, adding another page to its dismal record of subordination to state power. Israel’s leading legal journalist, Moshe Negbi, knew what he was doing when he entitled his despairing review of the record of the courts We Were Like Sodom.24

International law cannot be enforced against powerful states, except by their own populations. That is always a difficult task, particularly so when articulate opinion declares crime to be legitimate, either explicitly or by tacit adoption of a criminal framework, which is more insidious because it renders the crimes invisible.

The January 2008 Hamas-led prison break allowed Gazans for the first time in years to go shopping in nearby Egyptian towns, at least briefly, plainly an intolerable act because it slightly undermined U.S.-Israeli-Egyptian strangulation of these unpeople. But the powerful quickly recognized that these events too could turn into “good news.” Israeli deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai “said openly what some senior Israeli officials would only say anonymously,” Stephen Erlanger reported in the New York Times: the prison break might allow Israel to rid itself of any responsibility for Gaza after having reduced it to devastation and misery in forty years of brutal occupation, keeping it only for target practice, and of course under full military occupation, its borders sealed by Israeli forces on land, sea, and air, apart from an opening to Egypt (in the unlikely event that Egypt would agree).25

That appealing prospect would complement Israel’s ongoing criminal actions in the West Bank, carefully designed along the lines already outlined to ensure that there will be no viable future for Palestinians there. At the same time Israel can turn to solving its persistent and deeply troubling “demographic problem,” the presence of non-Jews in a self-declared “democratic Jewish state.” The ultranationalist right-wing extremist Avigdor Lieberman, now foreign minister, was harshly condemned as a racist in Israel when he advanced the idea of forcing Arab citizens of Israel (in Wadi Ara in the Galilee) into a derisory “Palestinian state,” presenting this to the world as a “land swap.” As Israel and its paymaster have shifted to the right, Lieberman’s proposal has been incorporated into the mainstream. Knesset member Otniel Schneller of Ehud Olmert’s Kadima Party, “considered to be one of the people closest and most loyal to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert,” proposed a plan that “appears very similar to one touted by Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman,” though Schneller says his plan would be “more gradual,” and the Arabs affected “will remain citizens of Israel even though their territory will belong to the [Palestinian Authority and] they will not be allowed to resettle in other areas of Israel.”26 The right-wing ultranationalist Ariel Sharon had reservations about such actions, but by now his views seem moderate within the U.S.-Israeli spectrum.

In December 2007, Tzipi Livni, the leading figure in Kadima after Olmert’s forced resignation under corruption charges and the last hope of many Israeli doves, adopted the same position. An eventual Palestinian state, she suggested, would “be the national answer to the Palestinians” in the territories and those “who live in different refugee camps or in Israel.” With Israeli Arabs dispatched to their natural place, Israel would then achieve the long-sought goal of freeing itself from the Arab taint, a stand that is familiar enough in U.S. history.27

The Lieberman-Schneller-Livni notions of “soft transfer” were first proposed by democratic socialist political philosopher Michael Walzer, who wrote thirty years before Lieberman that those who are “marginal to the nation” (Palestinians) should be “helped to leave” in the interests of peace and justice. The ideas are praised by New York Times Israel correspondent Ethan Bronner, who writes that the left likes Lieberman’s “willingness to create two states, one Jewish, one Palestinian, which would involve yielding areas that are now part of Israel” in a land swap—a polite way of saying that Israeli citizens of the wrong ethnicity will be transferred by force, relieving Israel of its “demographic problem.”28

Of course the unpeople are not consulted, though their views are occasionally reported, including their vociferous objection to being forcefully transferred from a rich first-world country to some barely existing fragment that might graciously be called “a state.”29

For Israel, this is no small matter. Despite heroic efforts by its apologists, it is not easy to conceal the fact that a “democratic Jewish state” is no more acceptable to liberal opinion than a “democratic Christian state” or a “democratic white state” or an “Islamic democracy.” Such notions could be tolerated if the religious/ethnic identification were mostly symbolic, like selecting an official day of rest. But in the case of Israel, it goes far beyond that. The most extreme departure from minimal democratic principles has been the complex array of laws and bureaucratic arrangements designed to vest control of over 90 percent of the land in the hands of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization committed to using charitable funds in ways that are “directly or indirectly beneficial to persons of Jewish religion, race or origin,” so its documents explain; “a public institution recognized by the Government of Israel and the World Zionist Organization as the exclusive instrument for the development of Israel’s lands,” restricted to Jewish use, in perpetuity (with marginal exceptions when useful), and barred to non-Jewish labor (though the principle has often been ignored for imported cheap labor). This radical violation of elementary civil rights, funded by American citizens thanks to the tax-free status of the JNF, finally reached Israel’s High Court in 2000, in a case brought by a professional Arab couple who had been barred from the town of Katzir. The Court ruled in their favor, in a narrow decision, which seems to have been barely implemented. After various delays, they were finally permitted to purchase land in Katzir in 2006, and put up for sale their former house in Baka al-Garbiyeh. They expressed their hope that a Jewish family would move in, explaining why: “I’ll tell you why my family won’t object to Jews living here. It’s a known fact that the State of Israel takes care of every Jew, all over the world. As soon as a Jew moves in they’ll give us new asphalt roads without potholes. The electricity network will be replaced too, and even the sewer system will be improved. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll build a little synagogue, the light from which will finally enable us to see our way at night.”30

The comment tells us a good deal about significant aspects of Israeli democracy—again, matters hardly unfamiliar here.

A year later, a young Arab couple was barred from the town of Rakefet, on state land, on grounds of “social incompatibility.”31 The Knesset later took steps to undermine the historic court judgment banning the racist land laws. In December 2009, it passed legislation introduced by (centrist) Kadima Knesset members “which states that reception committees of Israeli communities can decide who will reside in their towns. One consequence of that bill is that Israeli Arabs would not be able to live in those towns if the reception committees decide so.” The effect is to reverse the High Court decision, though one Likud MK felt that it did not go far enough in overturning the Court decision. “In this way,” Avirama Golan writes, “Israel is shutting an entire population group out of the state’s life and turning it into an oppressed, bitter, irredentist community.” The Ministerial Committee for Legislation also rejected a bill “proposing that the state enforce equal allocation of land to Jews and Arabs.” The bill’s sponsors observed that the Israel Lands Administration “hasn’t approved the building of a new Arab village since 1948,” and has allocated state land only to Jews, one of many aspects of the severe discrimination against non-Jewish citizens.32

As the year 2010 opens, one Israeli demand holding up negotiations is that Palestinians must not just recognize Israel, but must recognize it as a “Jewish state,” that is, a state in which Palestinian citizens reside by sufferance, not by right. And in reaction to the expression of sympathy for Gazans under Israeli attack by Arab parliamentarians, the Knesset passed a law changing the oath taken by members so that instead of swearing loyalty to “the State of Israel and its laws,” they will be required to vow loyalty to the State of Israel as a “Jewish democratic state.”33

The contradiction in terms is not easy to overcome. Americans who pay the bills are expected to look the other way.

For Palestinians, there are now two options. One is that the United States and Israel will abandon their unilateral rejectionism since the 1970s and accept the international consensus on a two-state settlement, in accord with international law. That outcome is not impossible. A settlement along these lines came close in negotiations in Taba, Egypt, in January 2001, and might have been reached, participants reported, had Israeli prime minister Barak not called off the negotiations prematurely. We return to this important exception. There have been unofficial negotiations since that have produced similar proposals. Though possibilities diminish as U.S.-Israeli settlement and infrastructure programs proceed, they have not been eliminated. By now the international consensus is near universal, supported by the Arab League, Iran, Hamas, in fact every relevant actor apart from the United States and Israel.34

A second possibility is the one that the United States and Israel are actually implementing, along the lines described earlier. Palestinians will then be consigned to their Gaza prison and to West Bank cantons, perhaps joined by Israeli Arab citizens as well if the Lieberman-Schneller-Livni plans are implemented. For the occupied territories, that will realize the intentions expressed by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in the early years of the occupation: Israel, he informed his colleagues, should tell the Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories that “we have no solution, you shall continue to live like dogs, and whoever wishes may leave, and we will see where this process leads.” He explained to a Palestinian poetess that “the situation today resembles the complex relationship between a Bedouin man and the girl he kidnaps against her will.… You Palestinians, as a nation, don’t want us today, but we’ll change your attitude by forcing our presence on you.”

Not an original thought. When reports arrived of the massacres of Mexican civilians and rapes of local women by U.S. soldiers during what Mexican historians call “the American invasion” of 1846–48, the New York Herald thoughtfully observed that “like the Sabine virgins, she will soon learn to love her ravisher.”

For the former Palestine, the general conception was articulated by Labor Party leader Haim Herzog, later president, in 1972: “I do not deny the Palestinians a place or stand or opinion on every matter.… But certainly I am not prepared to consider them as partners in any respect in a land that has been consecrated in the hands of our nation for thousands of years. For the Jews of this land there cannot be any partner.”35

A third possibility would be a binational state.36 That was a feasible option in the pre-state period, and advocacy of that outcome was regarded as part of the Zionist movement, and had a degree of popular support within it (not just among a few leading intellectuals, as often assumed). It again became a feasible option in the early years of the occupation, perhaps a federal arrangement leading to eventual closer integration as circumstances permit. There was even some support for similar ideas within Israeli military intelligence, but the grant of any political rights to Palestinians was shot down by the governing Labor Party. Proposals to that effect were made (by me in particular), but were either ignored or elicited fury. The opportunity was lost by the mid-1970s, when Palestinian national rights reached the international agenda, and the two-state consensus took shape. The first U.S. veto of a two-state resolution at the Security Council, advanced by the major Arab states, was in 1976, though it explicitly granted Israel all the rights called for in UN 242, which everyone, Israel included, regards as the basic diplomatic document. Washington’s rejectionist stance continues to the present, with the exception of Clinton’s last month in office. Some form of unitary state remains a distant possibility through agreement among the parties, as a later stage in a process that begins with a two-state settlement. There is no other form of advocacy of such an outcome, if we understand advocacy to include sketching a process leading from here to there; mere proposal, in contrast, is free for the asking.

It is of some interest, perhaps, that when short-term advocacy of a unitary binational state perhaps had some prospects, it was anathema, while today, when it is completely unfeasible except as a long-term goal after many intermediate stages, it is greeted with respect and is put forth in leading journals. The reason for the new tolerance, perhaps, is that the proposal serves to undermine the prospect of a peaceful diplomatic settlement in some tolerable terms, the only form of true advocacy of a unitary outcome that I know of.

It is sometimes argued that Israeli settlement programs have proceeded so far that a two-state outcome has been eliminated—which means that a unitary binational state is barred as well, unless some other form of true advocacy can be devised, which has not so far happened and seems unlikely. The objection is based on the assumption that if the IDF were to try to remove settlements by force, it would lead to civil war. But there is no need to remove settlements at all. It would be enough for the IDF to be withdrawn to Israel’s borders, in which case the vast majority of settlers would move from their comfortable subsidized illegal West Bank homes to subsidized homes within Israel. Those who choose to remain should be granted citizenship in a Palestinian state. The Gaza evacuation in 2005 could have been carried out the same way, but Israel preferred what the distinguished Israeli sociologist, the late Baruch Kimmerling, described as the “absurd theater” of a constructed trauma “to demonstrate to everyone that Israel is incapable of withstanding additional evacuations,” a farcical replay of what the press had ridiculed as “Operation National Trauma ’82,” when Israel had to withdraw from its settlements in Egyptian Sinai.37

There is of course a possibility that the IDF would refuse orders, which would amount to a military coup, in which case all bets are off.

One can also contemplate what seem to me more favorable outcomes, erasing state boundaries altogether in closer forms of integration. But those are questions for the future.

Those who call for a binational (one-state) settlement argue that on its present course, Israel will become an apartheid state with a large Palestinian population deprived of rights, laying the basis for a civil rights struggle leading to a unitary democratic state. This position is based on the assumption that there are only two options: the international consensus and Israeli takeover of all of the former Palestine. But that is a fallacy. There are three options: the third, which is omitted in these discussions, is what the United States and Israel are now implementing, and will continue to implement unless something approaching the international consensus can be achieved. There is no reason to believe that the United States, Israel, or any other Western state would allow anything like a full takeover of Palestine to happen. Rather, they will proceed exactly as they are now doing in the territories today, taking no responsibility for Palestinians who are left to rot in the various prisons and cantons that may dot the landscape, far from the eyes of Israelis (and tourists) traveling on their segregated superhighways to their well-subsidized West Bank towns and suburbs, controlling the crucial water resources of the region, and benefiting from their close ties with Western powers and the U.S. and other international corporations that are evidently pleased to see a loyal military power at the periphery of the crucial Middle East region, with an advanced high-tech economy and close military, intelligence, and economic links to Washington.

In that way, the “demographic problem” will be resolved, but it is unlikely to retard Israel’s descent to the status of a pariah state. In fact, Israel’s global status is already coming to resemble that of South Africa forty years ago, particularly after its invasion of Gaza. And it is reacting much the same way as white nationalists did: with “information campaigns” (“hasbara” exercises) to instruct the world on its errors and misunderstanding, arrogant self-righteousness, circling the wagons, defiance, reliance on the United States to protect it no matter what the world thinks, and often with extraordinary paranoia.38

Despite many differences, it is worth recalling the history of the Apartheid regime. In 1958, the South African foreign minister informed the American ambassador that strong UN resolutions against South Africa passed by the majority of countries do not matter: “What matters more than…all other votes put together is [the position] of [the] U.S. in view of its predominant position of leadership in [the] Western world.” In brief, there is really only one vote at the UN, an observation that gained more force in subsequent years as decolonization proceeded and protests grew more intense.39

By the late 1970s, decades of protest against apartheid had expanded to initiatives of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). Corporations were beginning to abide by the (1977) Sullivan principles of pulling out, and Congress was soon to pass sanctions (over Reagan’s veto). But the South African minister’s insight into world affairs retained its force. Through the 1980s, U.S. trade with South Africa increased despite the 1985 congressional sanctions (which Reagan evaded), and Reagan continued to back South African depredations in neighboring countries that led to an estimated 1.5 million deaths. As late as 1988 the administration condemned Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress as one of the world’s “more notorious terrorist groups.”40 The Apartheid regime remained strong, some thought invulnerable. But then U.S. policy shifted, and within a few years, the regime had collapsed.

There are clear lessons here both for Israelis and for those outside who are committed to bringing some measure of peace and justice to the region. As long as U.S. rejectionism remains firm, Israel may feel that it can defy the world, but it is treading on dangerous ground. And tactics of protest should be guided by the recognition that in the current world order, despite growing diversity, the observation of the South African minister remains largely accurate.


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