Virginia Tilley: Apartheid Israel

By Virginia Tilley
Johannesburg, South Africa

On November 27, Ehud Olmert responded to frantic international pressure and US hand signals by delivering what was billed as a "landmark" policy speech. The BBC has raised a faint cheer for the "new mood" it seems to signal. But the occasion, an annual memorial for Ben Gurion, was appropriate: in silky language, Mr. Olmert baldly reiterated the same terms and conditions that have blocked all progress toward Middle East peace for years.

Talks with the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Olmert declared, will begin only after a newly elected Palestinian government "renounces violence", recognizes Israel\’s right to exist as a Jewish state, abandons the right of return on behalf of the entire Palestinian people, and agrees that the large urban Israeli settlements that now dismember the West Bank will be permanently annexed to Israel.

After this abject betrayal of all Palestinian national aspirations and social needs, Mr. Olmert said, Israel will then open "negotiations" with the new government (unless Israel doesn\’t like that government), "significantly diminish the number of roadblocks" (how many does Israel consider "significant"?), "improve the operation of the border crossings to the Gaza Strip" (what does "improve" mean?), and release Palestinian VAT funds that Israel is illegally withholding.

In this dubious context, what about progress toward a regional peace agreement? Of the Arab states\’ 2002 peace initiative, which offered Israel a full peace upon its withdrawal from the West Bank, Mr. Olmert says that "some parts" are "positive" but responds only with diplomatese: "I intend to invest efforts in order to advance the connection with those States". Well then, how about talks with the Palestinians? He hopes the Arab states will "strengthen their support of direct bilateral negotiations between us and the Palestinians." But the Palestinian Authority and Fatah have been scraping their knees asking for bilateral talks with Israel, so this is meaningless – unless it means that the Arab states should pressure the Palestinians to capitulate to the model he is proposing, which even Arab quisling governments cannot successfully do.

Israel will also "assist" the new Palestinian government "in formulating a plan for the economic rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip and areas in Judea and Samaria," which might sound promising until we consider that "assist in formulating a plan" does not mean Israel will assist in implementing any plan. But "areas in Judea and Samaria" is especially ominous wording. First, "Judea and Samaria" are biblical-era terms for the West Bank used by Israelis to conceptualize the West Bank as an intrinsic part of Israel. Using them in diplomatic language regarding peace negotiations signals that Mr. Olmert is now so secure in this notion that he is willing to deploy it casually as a political given. Second, Israel will evacuate only "areas" (plural) of the West Bank. Later, Mr Olmert again uses the plural form when he says that Israel "will agree to the evacuation of many territories and communities which were established therein". To everyone else, the West Bank is one territory. Now carved up by Israeli settlements, it is several territories only if those settlements remain.

In other words, we are back to Olmert\’s old Convergence Plan, already combusted on the altar of Lebanon. The entire speech was a stale reiteration of the same old hogwash.

Israel-Palestine sits at the eye of the Middle East blood-bath that now rightly obsesses world security debates. No serious analyst of Middle East politics believes that regional stability, and therefore world stability, is remotely obtainable without resolving this conflict. Yet the best Israel can offer are talks for which no legitimate Palestinian government can conceivably qualify, which cannot achieve anything, and that, given the prerequisites, cannot even be launched in the first place. Instead of the serious emergency summit we so urgently need, we have a tableau of foolery: Mr. Olmert scraping to save his hollow leadership; a compliant media bleating again about "hope"; Mr. Abbas shuffling and grinning.

The bankruptcy of Mr. Olmert\’s speech did accomplish one useful task: it highlighted and capped the current state of world paralysis. In fact, no one knows what to do. Daily in the West Bank, land is taken, people are confined, jobs are ruined or lost, families are divided, hopes are crushed. Daily in Gaza, conditions are far worse, as close to a million people face starvation while mortars, bulldozers, and tanks grind up people\’s lives. Anguished cries from Beit Hanoun ­ "why? why?" – receive no answer from Israel or anyone else. As one commentator noted, no one notices Gaza as long as the Palestinians\’ daily death toll remains in the single digits. We leave the Palestinians only the job of dying more dramatically to get any attention at all.

Flailing for direction, some eyes still turn mechanically to the US hegemon: e.g., Zahi Khouri (San Diego Union-Tribute), who insists that "America alone has the influence" to do something. But the "do-something" mantra cannot be sensibly directed toward the Bush administration now that it has openly urged Israel to smash Lebanon and Gaza both. The spotlight turns to the Democrats, but what hope is there for a party that takes every chance to pronounce on Israel\’s outrages by ritually enthusing over Israel\’s "right to defend itself"? Kathleen and Bill Christison have put it flatly: "The Democrats don\’t care". Indeed, the Bush administration\’s only response to meltdown in Palestine and Iraq is to argue for bombing Iran, on the idiot notion that this trauma will trigger regime change and solve the Palestinian problem by cutting off its regional support networks. Hence the whole world remains hostage to the absurd neocon and Zionist fantasy that Hizbullah and Hamas oppose Israel only because they are paid to do it.

But indeed, few still ask or expect the US to act on Israel-Palestine. Getting the imperium\’s shredded talons out of Iraq will be hard enough.

As for Europe, its moral bankruptcy is emblemized by the UK official who admitted that Israel\’s blasting a sleeping eighteen-member Palestinian family into fragments was "hard to defend." (One wonders what she might have said if a Palestinian rocket barrage had smashed eighteen Israeli Jewish citizens to bloody fragments in their beds. "Hard to defend" seems unlikely.)

Still, some things are happening. The Palestinians are slowly winning the propaganda war, at terrible cost. Israel\’s stunning crimes in Lebanon and Gaza have turned the tide: Israel has never been such an international pariah in all its years. The Arab states finally ended the financial boycott of the Hamas government that they should be ashamed before their families and clans that they ever deployed in the first place. The heroic new international boycott movement, finally standing up to shrieking Zionist slander and charges of anti-Semitism, expands rapidly through cyber-space and into serious and principled activism. Hopeful eyes turn to Ireland\’s victories and bold statements from Canada.

But direction is lacking, and that lack is dangerous. "End the occupation" is an empty call as Israeli city-settlements drape ever more broadly over the West Bank. Solidarity movements focus mainly on negative goals – trying to stop Israel from bombing helpless Palestinian civilians or bulldozing their houses. Lacking positive goals, activists remain in reaction mode and exhaust themselves battling Israel\’s defenders in the "letters" columns of newspapers. Worn-out editors eventually close their forums to these wars, leaving activists fuming to each other in cyberspace.

We know the agents of this debacle: the complicit US government and the brilliant Zionist lobbying machine; dithering Europeans; legless Arab states; a rhetorically heated but intimidated and divided global South. But to sort out what to do, we need to consider how we got here.

First, let\’s finally face it: The two-state carrot, dangled before the diplomatic donkey for the past fifteen years, has led us straight to this debacle.

The Oslo and Road Map processes were not only fruitless. They were deceptions. Preying on collective hopes for a Palestinian state, Israel never actually agreed to one. The Oslo Accords, which Israel signed, never mentioned a Palestinian state. The Road Map explicitly called for one, but Israel signed onto it only with fourteen "reservations", the first of which precluded any Palestinian state. Before it would lift a finger toward its own obligations, Israel required the PA to ensure complete cessation of all Palestinian resistance, collect and turn over all "illegal" weapons, stop all smuggling of arms (how?), "dismantle" Hamas and the other militant groups "and their infrastructure" (how?), submit all Palestinian resistance fighters to arrest, detention, and interrogation, support a system of laws that ensures their continuing arrest, detention, and interrogation, cease "incitement" (what is that?) and "educate for peace" (again vague – instil an ethos of surrender in Palestinian youth?). Complete success in all these measures was required to proceed even within the Road Map\’s three stages. Moreover, the Palestinians must give up the right of return and any claim on Jerusalem.

Since no rational observer can consider these conditions workable, they clearly signified Israel\’s intention not to comply with the Road Map. That a wilfully gullible world has pretended that this sham was meaningful, and therefore placed a moral and legal onus on the Palestinians to fulfil their obligations to the Road Map, is only more shame.

No wonder Israel bombed Lebanon to smithereens. Its leadership was fatuous with victory.

Second, Israel\’s sovereignty in Mandate Palestine has moved into a new stage. Israel has long controlled the airspace, sea, ports and border controls, economy, land, water, infrastructure, and the social management of the entire territory\’s population. But Israel has also become sovereign in Max Weber\’s famous sense: "a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." Of course, Israel\’s claim to a monopoly on violence is not "successful" as long as the Palestinians continue to resist it. And certainly Israel\’s brutal methods are not considered "legitimate" by the Palestinians or by anyone with moral sensibilities the world over. But consider: the international community has endorsed Israel\’s insistence that Hamas and all Palestinians are required to "abandon terror" and "recognize Israel". These conditions signal that continuing Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation is now considered illegitimate.

This shift is immensely important. The right of a population to resist occupation is enshrined in the UN Charter. Resistance to occupation becomes illegitimate only if and when the occupier is recognized as the legitimate sovereign. Of course, the international community has not admitted openly that Israel is sovereign in all of Mandate Palestine, because that would wreck the already-shaky collective pretence that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are territories from which Israel can be expected to withdraw someday. But denying Palestinians the right to resist occupation demonstrates that Israel\’s occupation itself has been tacitly redefined.

Israel\’s own model is not occupation. The word "occupation" rarely appears in Israeli government parlance. (Ariel Sharon used it once or twice, but it caused an enormous stir, and it appears now only in the formula "Israel ended its occupation of Gaza", patently untrue in any case.) Israel\’s model regarding the West Bank is openly one of sovereignty. Jewish-Israeli settlers potter about peacefully in their gardens in the West Bank because they know it is "Israel". The big settlements around Jerusalem, which divide the West Bank in half, are called "neighbourhoods". Israeli government maps of the country still do not show the green line. The West Bank, as we know it, is not there for Israel.

In sum, Israel has used the Road Map only to mask its own one-state program: retain sovereignty over all the land and exclude the native people. Israel is even being treated like a sovereign power. But here is the trick: Israel is getting away with its astoundingly brutal treatment of the Palestinians ­ and Israeli Jewish citizens sustain their impressive immunity from caring about it – only through the collective fiction that Israel is not sovereign.

Israel evades any open claim to sovereignty over all Palestine because its hands would then be tied. No government that styles itself a democracy could get away with slaughtering and terrorizing its own citizens this way or, alternatively, refusing to enfranchise parts of its territory\’s permanent population this way. Israel excuses its treatment of the Palestinians on grounds that they are, in fact, aliens. The world has accepted this formula, viewing the territory\’s native people as citizens of some other country that exists only in the future, in territory that no one can find. Israel is understood to be "at war" with this nonexistent country, represented by these aliens. (That the native people have no weapons worthy of the term "war" is an inconvenient fact very poorly veiled by nuclear Israel\’s thumping accusations that the impoverished Palestinians, with their automatic rifles and hand-painted homemade rockets, still stubbornly want to "destroy Israel".)

Political power often lies in defining the situation. Right now Palestinians are in the grip of Israel\’s definition. Israel does not claim openly to have consolidated sovereignty over all Palestine because it would then face the logical consequence: the moral and legal onus of abandoning racial exclusion and making the native people citizens. In Israel\’s dual model, the Palestinians remain aliens in their own country, who have no rights. Their politicians are legitimate only when they collaborate. Their fighters, lacking uniforms, are "illegal enemy combatants" to whom Israel owes only bullets and torture.

The way out? Change the definition to suit the facts. Right now, one state power is sovereign in Palestine and that state is Israel. It is an apartheid state because it excludes the territory\’s indigenous people from citizenship solely on the basis of ethnicity. For let us remember: The Palestinians\’ original sin – the "failing" has consigned them collectively to expulsion, dispossession, exile, and a cruel and humiliating occupation – is not bad leadership, missed opportunities, stubborn insistence on their demands, Arafat, or any of the usual shibboleths. It is that they are not Jewish.

And, just as apartheid did in southern Africa, Israel\’s fearful and zealous commitment to racial exclusion of the indigenous people is tearing the entire region apart.

What do we get from recognizing this fact? We may take clues from public indications that Ariel Sharon before his stroke and Mr. Olmert after him have been terribly anxious that we not do so. For what can Israel do if it is truly held accountable for denying its territorial population the right to vote? How can it exclude its native people from equal citizenship if they ask for it? The common defence, the need to preserve Jewish statehood, will instantly ring hollow. For Israel styles itself a western-style democracy. Yet no western democracy is presently attacking its own territory\’s population with mortar barrages and helicopter gunships solely because of their ethnic identity. No western democracy is blasting whole families to bits with mortars solely because their ethnicity is unwelcome. No western democracy is now encircling millions of people within walled cantons solely on the basis of their religion or ethnicity.

Like "White Australia" and apartheid South Africa before it, Israel is attempting to be racial state and a democratic state at the same time. No western democracy has survived the obvious contradictions of this formula: they all had to give it up. And apartheid Israel will not survive it if we call the shots as they are. Like the US, South Africa, New Zealand, and "White Australia" before it, Israel must admit its Muslim and Christian population as citizens and then grapple with the ensuing tough work of pluralist democracy like the rest of us.

This was the hard-won South African solution, where the state now represents everybody. Seventeen languages and differing historical narratives are recognized and dignified. Whites have retained their property and wealth, while black Africans are rising rapidly to join the middle and upper classes. After some early economic missteps, the government has launched new social policies and steered booming trade with the African continent that are channelling wealth and rapid growth throughout the country. The press is free and vibrant. Is South Africa still struggling for racial equality and economic justice? Sure. Is it plagued by the racial legacy of settler colonialism? Sure. But ongoing struggles for equality and mutual respect are the human condition and the noble burden of democracy. South Africa is a vigorous, growing, vital society. And there is peace.

John Dugard, the eminent South African legal scholar and UN Special Rapporteur on the Question of Palestine, wrote frankly in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that racial oppression in Israel is worse than it was in South Africa. But his assessment also offers hope. Identifying that we presently have a one-state solution – Israel\’s apartheid version – allows us to affirm a different one: a unified secular-democratic state, in which everyone is equal in dignity and rights, and where the Jewish and Palestinian national homes can share the land as they should. With that shared goal, disparate activist struggles around the world can find, at last, true direction.

-Virginia Tilley is a professor of political science, a US citizen working in South Africa, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock (University of Michigan Press and Manchester University Press, 2005). She can be reached at This article was first published in

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