Roger Lieberman: Palestine and Israel: Twilight of Apartheid?

By Roger H. Lieberman

There is something disturbingly clinical about the way America’s establishment politicians and pundits will fret profusely over something as minor as a book title, while refusing to do anything to amend the dire problems the book itself brings to light. It is through such puerile tactics that Israel’s “defenders” have attempted to stymie thoughtful evaluation of former President Jimmy Carter’s monumental book, “Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid”.

As has happened far too many times since 1948, Palestinian suffering – the central reality of the Middle East crisis – goes largely ignored by the American “mainstream”, as the conflict is transmogrified from its proper geographical setting onto the minus-land of domestic politics. Creativity and humanism, alas, do not fare well a society whose elected (and unelected) representatives display these qualities almost as rarely as the Soviet Politburo did during the Brezhnev years.

As long as the preponderance of American politicians remain so willfully divorced from the realities of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Bush Administration – and whoever their successors may be – will simply continue the tiresome charade of promoting “the peace process” while continuously augmenting Israel’s means to render the very concept of a “two-state solution” irrelevant. For the international community to allow this deadly farce to continue without offering an alternative is dangerous in the extreme – as the longer Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians continues, the more unstable and prone to wider conflagrations the Middle East will become. The devastating war in Lebanon last summer, the horrific collapse of civil society in US-occupied Iraq, and the growing threat of a wider war involving Iran and Syria, are all stark warnings of what lies ahead if Israel and its neo-conservative apologists in Washington are permitted to “stay the course”.

Despite all the similarities between South Africa in the waning years of Apartheid and Israel-Palestine today, there is a still a profound difference – one which makes the crisis in the Holy Land so much the worse. While the course of history has drawn Palestinians and Israeli Jews irreversibly together in the same land, neither community has yet produced a major political movement devoted to reconciling them according to a non-discriminatory, democratic framework. To understand why this is the case, it is necessary to review the political forces that have shaped both Palestinian and Israeli identity.

At the time the Palestinians first confronted Zionism, their Arab consciousness had been freshly galvanized by the struggle against Ottoman Turkish rule. Furthermore, the establishment of Israel – as a direct consequence of the broader post-World War I betrayal of the Arabs by Britain and France – was initially seen in the Arab world simply as another instrument of Western interference and obstruction of Arab unity. As a result, the Palestinian struggle in its formative years followed the model of Algerian resistance to French colonialism far more closely than the South African struggle against Apartheid – as it failed to make a clear distinction, at least in its methods, between the government of Israel and its Jewish citizens.

As events compelled the Palestinian leadership to moderate its stance toward Israel, a calculated decision was made by Yasir Arafat and his supporters to compromise the territorial extent of Palestinian national aspirations – rather than redefine their nationalism itself to embrace Jewish Israelis as compatriots. The success of this strategy, which culminated in the Algiers Declaration of 1988, inevitably depended on three external elements: the willingness of Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, the willingness of the United States to restrain Israel’s territorial ambitions, and the faithfulness of Arab governments in supporting Palestinian self-determination (on both the regional and international stages).

But none of these things worked out to the benefit of the Palestinians. Arab unity suffered a body blow with the first Gulf War, the United States emerged as an uncontested global superpower, the pro-Israel lobby maintained its stultifying influence on US Middle East policy, and Israel’s unwillingness to relinquish Palestinian land – especially East Jerusalem – remained undiminished. As a result, the Oslo “peace process” collapsed after seven lean years with Palestinian economic conditions, political climate, and territorial viability in worse shape than ever.

Needless to say, the advent of the fanatically pro-Zionist Bush Administration, the banality of their sham “War on Terrorism”, the destruction of Iraq, the growing disunity in the Palestinian Authority, and Israel’s limitless unilateralism and kleptomania, have only made the situation many times worse still since that time.

As to the character of Israel’s nationalism, it’s dreadful obsession with demography and “security” can be explained largely by the fact that its sponsors in the West have never compelled it to shake off what Tony Judt aptly describes as an adolescent mentality. There has, for far too long, been a built-in bias in discourse on the conflict that assumes the unassailable nature of both Israel’s right to “feel secure” and to maintain a “Jewish identity” – both of which the Israelis are usually left to define as they please. Palestinian rights are thus supposed to be curtailed to the point that they do not conflict with these exalted prerogatives – and not simply as a consequence of negotiations, but as a precondition necessary for serious negotiations to even start! This racist double standard, which violates the most fundamental precepts of international law, has been the jagged reef on which Oslo and the “Roadmap”, alike, have foundered – to the detriment of Palestinians, Israelis, and the rest of the human species.

It can safely be said that Israel and its American sponsors will not alter their designs for the Middle East out of the kindness of their hearts. As was the case in South Africa, a clear vision for the future based on equality will have to be articulated first by the oppressed before the oppressors respond in kind. And it may be that Israel’s own Palestinian citizens, more than one-fifth of the state’s population, are in the best possible position to begin this process.

Recently, the High Follow-Up Committee – the leading representative body of Palestinians inside Israel – put forth their vision for a future Israel in which Jews and Arabs would enjoy equal rights as individuals, and where discriminatory practices pertaining to land ownership and immigration (or return of refugees) would be abolished. At the same time, their proposal recognized the need for both communities to have their own voice in matters of education, religion, and culture. The essence of this vision is the transformation of Israel from an exclusively “Jewish state” into a bi-national democracy – resembling, in a general sense, Canada or Belgium.

Although the Committee’s work has been focused on securing the rights of Arabs inside the Green Line – who, contrary to Jimmy Carter’s own assertions, have long languished as third-class citizens – there is no reason why this model for Jewish-Palestinian coexistence could not be extended to Gaza and the West Bank. Though the crisis confronting the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is far more severe, their plight ultimately originates from the same problem: Israel’s desire to rule the Holy Land, while excluding its native population as much as possible – or, in other words, as much as Uncle Sam will countenance.

Before concluding here, a word of caution seems appropriate: although it is wrong to single-mindedly pursue the foundering “two-state solution” while dismissing the one-state idea out of hand, it would be equally neglectful to do the opposite. The establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel – in accordance with UN resolutions and the Arab League initiative of 2002 – would be a worthwhile achievement, and would in no way hinder the overall struggle for equality and refugee rights. There is always the possibility that wiser American diplomats will carry the day, and allow the international consensus to come to fruition. But regardless of what happens in Washington, neither a two-state or a one-state solution is possible in the Holy Land unless it its based on the recognition that Palestinians and Jews share the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

-Roger H. Lieberman is a graduate of Rutgers University with a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science.

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out