New Left Project

Israel-Palestine: Time for a Paradigm Shift? (Part 2)

Ben White is a freelance journalist and writer specialising in Palestine/Israel. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the New Statesman, and Electronic Intifada.  He is the author of 'Israeli Apartheid' (2009) and, most recently, 'Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy' (2011). In the second of a two-part interview, he discusses his new book with NLP's Jamie Stern-Weiner.

Part 1 of the interview, which examined Israel's discriminatory practices towards its Palestinian citizens and how they relate to its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, can be read here.


In the book you illuminate the various mechanisms by which the Israeli state discriminates against its Palestinian citizens. How has this discrimination changed over time? There seems to be a broadly-held sense that now is a particularly bad period in terms of racist legislation being proposed in the Knesset, and an atmosphere of hostility towards and intimidation of Israeli human rights organisations. Does the level of repression against Palestinian citizens of Israel tend to rise and fall in over time, and if so, what factors does it generally reflect or respond to?

This is really interesting, because it starts to speak to some much bigger issues. I will try to give a shot answer to it. In the 1950s, the small number of Palestinians who managed to stay inside Israel were in a state of shock: their leadership had been shattered, they'd been separated from their relatives, etc. Moreover there was still a pretty hard military regime in place that was actively pursuing internal colonisation strategies, punishing villages according to whether they were nationalist or not, and so on. In this situation there was very limited breathing space for resistance, because people had to concentrate on survival.

Moving forward, the territorial reunification of all of mandate Palestine, with the Israeli occupation from 1967, was a pretty big change. The 'Israeli Arab' identity that Israel had been trying to create was now challenged by the fact that, suddenly, Palestinians inside Israel were physically reunited with Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, many of whom were connected by family ties. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza had, unlike those inside Israel, been shaped by external developments, notably the establishment of the PLO. So that's another key development.

In the mid-1970s there was the dissent leading up to Land Day, when six people were killed protesting land confiscation by the state. In this period resistance was very much focused on trying to assert civil rights. It was framed as Palestinians inside Israel saying, 'we're Israeli citizens and we want to not be subjected any longer to these discriminatory practices'.

To jump forwards massively, the Oslo period in the 1990s was a potential moment for improvement. It wasn't just about offering concessions in the occupied territories, it was also supposed to be a period in which the state would adopt a more conciliatory approach towards the Palestinian minority. But this all took a negative turn in 2000, when 13 people were killed by state forces in the context of solidarity protests with the second intifada.

Now, although most people have focused blame for the recent spate of racist bills on the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman, actually some of the key ones go back well before that, to Olmert's presidency and Sharon's before his. So 2000 is another useful marker.

Then came the Arab community documents: the calls that came out in 2007 from a few key Israeli Palestinian organisations that explicitly called for Israel to be a state for all its citizens rather than a Jewish state.

So you can see how Palestinians in Israel have moved from calls for, 'we want, as individuals, to be not discriminated against', towards demands for collective rights, and more recently beyond that, to the point where many are challenging Israel's very identity as a Jewish state. So that's the kind of trajectory we've seen. So you can see some of the recent attacks on Palestinian citizens—the racist bills, and so on—as in part a reflection of this increasing radicalisation, although the relationship between the two isn't as simple as straightforward cause-reaction.

It is also important to look at the targeting of Israel's Palestinian minority in relation to the bigger picture. The borders of the state aren't going to expand any more. Israel has reached a maximum point of expansion: it withdrew from Gaza, and in the West Bank, while individual settlements may slightly grow, there isn't going to be another massive land confiscation. Effectively, the boundaries of the Palestinian reservations in the West Bank are established. In this context of the territorial expansion hitting a ceiling, the focus has shifted back to internal concerns and anxieties in the pre-'67 borders. A lot of the Israeli discourse promoting Judaisation in the Negev and the Galilee now, for instance, portrays the presence of Palestinians there as akin to a military threat, like they're taking over state land that must be defended. So I don't think legislative attacks on Palestinians inside Israel can be separated from the bigger picture in terms of how the conflict is changing. And leaders like Ameer Makhoul and Knesset members like Haneen Zoabi are targets because they're making links with Palestinians in the occupied territories and abroad— precisely the links that Israel has tried to prevent from forming.

If one were to confront an Israeli liberal with the basic question of, how can you justify Israel being a specifically Jewish state given the discrimination this entails, what's the typical response?

I can't speak in generalities, but I can talk about the kind of responses I've had, from Jewish liberal Zionists outside of Israel too. If you're positioning the idea of a Jewish state as an obstacle to equality for Palestinians, then you are likely thinking about some kind of one-state solution as an alternative. Not necessarily, but that might be the direction you're going in. Arguments you hear against this are things like: the need for security, not in the narrow sense (counter-terrorism, etc.) but in the more fundamental sense of the need for collective Jewish security, echoing very early Zionist ideas that Israel would serve as the place where Jews would be safe to express themselves culturally, religiously, and so on. Or it will be said that a secular-democratic state sounds nice, but is unrealistic. That argument can go in a problematic direction, and can almost have a kind of racist element to it, suggesting that Arabs are not capable of living peaceably in a secular democratic context, and that they would ultimately just seek to dominate and run out the Jews (or something like that). Alternatively some will try to deny that discrimination is a problem at all, contesting that there even is a contradiction between Israel's 'Jewish' and 'democratic' commitments. They'll point to the High Court, to the democratic structure of the legislature, examples of legal victories that Palestinians citizens have won, and all that sort of thing, to argue that actually there is recourse within the system to change without having to alter the structure itself.

Let's look at the strategic implications of all this for Palestinian solidarity activists. In the book you argue that we need a 'reimagining' of 'the Jewish and Palestinian presence in Palestine/Israel', towards a 'future based on a genuine co-existence of equals, rather than ethno-religious supremacy and segregation'. Do you  argue, then, that solidarity activists should shift their advocacy away from being specifically anti-occupation and supportive of a two-state settlement, towards a one-state solution?

Yes. Look now at who advocates for a two-state solution. Who uses that framework as a future solution? Tony Blair, George Bush... Netanyahu's kind of an exception, because he's still not happy with this, but [former leader of Israel's centrist opposition party Kadima] Tzipi Livni for example — if Livni was Prime Minister, that's what she would be saying. And all the key pro-Israel advocacy groups, particularly in the UK and Western Europe, that's what they all say. (Again, AIPAC is kind of the exception here, because it's dominated by the Right.) The meaning of the two-state solution is not what it might have meant in 1968, the year after the occupation began. A call for a two-state solution in 1968 is different to calling for it now. By which I mean, OK, one could argue for a two-state solution—and I mean a genuine one: a real sovereign state, total evacuation to the '67 lines—and putting aside the issue of the refugees and Palestinian citizens inside Israel for a moment, you could argue that it would produce a realistic entity, a viable prospect. But I'm saying that's not something that is going to happen. I don't think it's possible to establish that kind of genuinely independent Palestinian entity without, putting it bluntly, dismantling the Zionist framework entirely. Because it won't allow that possibility to happen.

Why not?

Well take Jerusalem. It's even a Basic Law that a united Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

OK, to ask the question differently: do you think it can't happen because of practical infeasibility, or a lack of political will on the part of Israel planners, politicians, etc.?

I'd say both. There are many ways to answer this. The Palestinian political leadership's decision to push for a two-state solution was a political pragmatic choice based on decision-making that I think was flawed. Part of their whole strategy for 20 years has been this idea that it could persuade America to pressure Israel to grant enough concessions, which I don't think is a viable model, or a model based on a particularly good analysis of the relationship.

I don't think it's particularly practical to partition Palestine-Israel, either. Partition has been the name of the game for so long, but when you look at it, even just from an environmental point of view—water resources, the way communities have relationships between each other—you're looking at a territory which is a cohesive whole. Attempts to divide it are genuinely practically difficult, and also come down to shaping the territory on quite an unpleasant ethnic basis. And that's what I mean about a shift in solidarity advocacy. When people talk about the two-state solution, it's around the framework of 'two states for two peoples', which is how for example the family separation law was justified by a Kadima member of the Knesset. The MK said, this law affirms the principle of separation between the peoples, and is of a piece with 'two states for two peoples'. So, apart being objectionable in principle—it's based on ethnic separation—what does 'two states for two peoples' mean for the 20% of Israelis who are Palestinian, and for the Palestinian refugees?

With regards to advocacy, I understand the argument that the framework of international law is an important tool for advocacy. It's not a vacuous argument. But I don't think it's everything, because international law is not fixed. Moreover the simple message of 'equality' is also powerful and easy to get for the average person. I think the idea of basic democratic equality is just as easy, or easier, to get and push advocacy-wise as an argument based on the framework of international law and the idea of separation. That's what I find when I talk to people. (Not that you just pick one or the other, of course).

Another important point is that you can't divorce external advocacy from the Palestinian national program, which of course at this point does not call for a one-state solution. That's not irrelevant, because if you've got a dynamic Palestinian program and strategy that is also calling for equality and a one-state solution, that changes the game. Then, one-state solidarity advocacy would be echoing, or would have a more complimentary relationship with, Palestinian national politics. But I think the Palestinian scene is currently in a transition phase.

For the past three or four decades activists have tried to persuade people to take action in their own countries to change their government's policies towards the conflict, and they haven't got very far. And that's just with advocating a relatively limited solution, the two-state settlement. Increasingly, though, activists have been able to appeal to both an international consensus of official government positions on the conflict—

But we know those governments don't respect those official positions in practice.

Sure, but in terms of persuasive, authoritative sources that can be appealed to by activists as part—

But those governments are not going to be persuaded in the way that I think you're talking about. Western governments are not going to be persuaded that way: 'oh, you've mounted such an effective argument, that we will now change our policy'.

No, sure. I'm talking about persuading people. When you're trying to persuade people, you've got—not that I want to portray it as a war between us and them—but you've got certain weapons at your disposal. Resources you can draw on, when you're trying to construct a persuasive case addressed to people—

Sure, and that's what I mean when I refer to a broader framework of equality and freedom and democracy.

Well, hang on, let's come back to that. So, you've got the 2004 International Court of Justice advisory opinion, which lent authoritative legal weight to Palestinian claims on all of the issues at the heart of the case against the occupation, and which classified the West Bank and Gaza—though not Israel itself—as occupied Palestinian territory. And then you have people, especially after the 2006 Lebanon war and the 2008-9 Gaza massacre, being increasingly exposed to, and hence opposed to, the realities of Israel's conduct in the occupied territories through human rights reports. You have all this confluence of authoritative, official condemnation of Israeli policy grounded in the mainstream interpretations of international law, and focused on the occupation specifically. Even with all of that behind us, it still isn't an easy task to get people on our side and active.

So, having loaded the question in this way: don't you think that to try and go beyond a two-state settlement and argue for a solution that lacks—indeed flies in the face of—this broad official consensus, is unrealistic? Does that really stand a better chance of persuading people to act? And relatedly: I think it's true that ideas of 'equality' and 'freedom' and so on have powerful resonance with people, but at some point, they will ask 'equality of what, and where, and for whom?' And, especially given how loudly the other side will be trying to counter our arguments, they will ask, eventually, 'by "equality" do you mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state?' Is that something that people will be as ready to agree to as a two-state settlement?

There is no denying that support for a one-state solution is a minority position. There is no denying, in fact, despite the fact that you're loading the question to support a particular argument, most of what you just said. A lot of the key elements of what you're saying are factual realities, in terms of the consensus positions, the body of law, and so on. But I guess I would want my starting position, before looking at the question of advocacy, to be: what is the best end goal? For me, that means decolonisation, and a state in which Jews and Palestinians are sharing one country with equality. And, of course, plenty of people who support a two-state solution, maybe for the kinds of reasons you've just argued, would even agree that that is potentially the best end goal, even if they don't agree, for a variety of reasons, that that's what we should be advocating.

I would say that if that is the end goal—because of what it means for the refugees' right to return, and so on—how are we going to get there? Given that the task is monumental, I want to be trying to change and shape the discourse towards the end goal, and I don't want to be pushing something that I don't think can happen, even if it might present strategic advantages, as you've outlined.

Public opinion is obviously something that can be changed. The anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa lasted for a significant period of time before there was any international legal consensus that what was going on there was criminal, and before there was broad international opposition to it. Before there was that kind of framework, resistance was based on a basic opposition to injustice and inequality.

The realisation of the impossibility of creating a genuine two-state solution—which, obviously, is a key element of my argument—is creeping in to mainstream discourse. The reason something like J Street exists is to argue for saving Jewish privilege in most of historic Palestine through a two-state solution. That's basically what it exists to do: to save Zionism through a two-state solution, similar to Livni's position. And people like William Hague and others will regularly talk about this being the last chance for a two-state settlement, and all that kind of thing. 'We have to make it happen now, because what will come after will be much, much worse'. So we are, I think, entering a very key period of change in how people are looking at this. The penny is dropping.

I think another element that is important is the growing dissent within the Jewish community towards Zionism itself, or towards policies that are shaped on Jewish privilege in Palestine. That kind of discourse won't only grow but will also be an important part of shaping a changing conversation. I think the conversation is more open to change than maybe the position you advocate in the question assumes. Take human rights groups, for instance: they're not really operating in the context of any political solution, they're mainly just identifying particular abuses that occur. True, they reference international law, which in turn kind of operates within the framework of a two-state solution. But for example, this year Amnesty is having a focus on Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Human Rights Watch too has called out, in very stark terms, what it has described as racial discrimination inside Israel. So I think that whole body of stuff is not necessarily supportive of one particular solution over another. I would emphasise a rights-based approach.

Going back to how I started this answer off: you begin with your desired end goal, and you also want an analysis of the situation that is based on why the problem actually exists—that is, which gets to the root of the problem. And if you understand the root of the problem as the creation of a political Jewish state in a land where there is a non-Jewish majority, then you can't but want to go back to the root as a means of moving forward to something better. And I think that's why an approach that frames itself around international law, and a two-state solution, is problematic.

Jamie Stern-Weiner writes about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and co-edits New Left Project.

Front image: crop from poster promoting the first Land Day protest in 1976. Via the Palestine Poster Project

About this article

Published on 04 May, 2012
By Ben White, Jamie Stern-Weiner