This Palestinian situation is tragic, in part, because there is no clear path to liberation, and the devastation of oppressive circumstances have gone on decade after decade with no end in view.Preliminary Observations
In this period when the centenary of the genocidal victimization of the Armenian people in 1915 is being so widely observed and discussed, it seems especially appropriate to call attention to the comparable victimization of the Palestinian people. This second story of prolonged collective victimization also received its jump start almost a century ago with the issuance by the British Foreign Office of the Balfour Declaration supporting the Zionist movement project of establishing a Jewish national home in historic Palestine. The most striking difference between these two experiences of severe historical wrongs is that the Armenian people are seeking acknowledgement and apology for what was done to their ancestors a century ago, and possibly seeking reparations, while the Palestinian people may sometime in the future have the opportunity to seek similar redress for the past but now their urgent focus is upon liberation from present daily structures of acute oppression. This Palestinian situation is tragic, in part, because there is no clear path to liberation, and the devastation of oppressive circumstances have gone on decade after decade with no end in view.
The political puzzle of the Israel/Palestine conflict continues to frustrate American policymakers despite their lengthy diplomatic engagement in the search for a peaceful future that satisfies both peoples. There are significant changes, of course, that have occurred as time unwinds. Perhaps, the most crucial change has involved the gradual extension of Israeli control over virtually the whole of historic Palestine with American acquiescence. This coincides with a growing and more vivid awareness around the world of how much suffering and humiliation the Palestinian people have endured over the course of the last century, and the degree to which this frozen situation can be blamed on the unlimited willingness of the United States to deploy its geopolitical muscle on Israel’s behalf.
My approach to the Palestinian struggle reflects four points of departure: first, regarding the long suffering of the Palestinian people as having become the primary international moral challenge of our time, which does not deny that there are other equally serious moral challenges, but none is so implicated in wider global patterns of past injustice or as salient in the political consciousness of the peoples of the world; secondly, believing that international law and morality should be allowed to provide essential guidance in determining the contours of a just and sustainable peace between these two long embattled peoples; thirdly, emphasizing the decisive liberating role of nonviolent civil society militancy in finding a solution for the conflict, achieving liberation from below by the mobilization of people, not the action governments as offering the most promising present scenario for ending the Palestinian ordeal; and fourthly, approaching the struggle for Palestine as matter of human wellbeing without privileging a particular ethnicity, nationality, and religion, that is, from a sense of shared humanity rather than from adversary perspectives of Jewish and Palestinian exclusivity.
The Palestinian struggle is about far more than the ‘end to occupation,’ although the concreteness of the Israeli occupation of Palestine lends itself to visualization, as would Israeli withdrawal, and this partly explains why so many liberal activists equate peace with ending the occupation. Yet conceiving the conflict in this territorial manner is profoundly misleading. It ignores the depth and complexity of what is at stake for both Jews and Palestinians, but especially for Palestinians. I consider the Palestinian national struggle within its broader scope and less distinct parameters as a persisting struggle to achieve the right of self-determination. Self-determination is the solemn promise of common Article 1 in the two international human rights covenants made to all peoples in the world, in effect, a legal, moral, cultural, and frequently a political entitlement to determine collective destiny so long as the equal right of other peoples is not encroached upon. These 1966 covenants set forth the content of international human rights law in their most authoritative treaty form. The extended inability to realize this right is the core tragedy of the Palestinian people, informing the hardships and humiliations of daily life.
In some respects, even describing the Palestinian goal in the language of self-determination is too restrictive, and by itself, not very clarifying. Ultimately the preconditions and contours of a just and sustainable peace is what should concern us most. It is an outcome that controversially also addresses the overlapping and conflicting right of self-determination enjoyed by those of Jewish identity who are now long enough resident in Israel to possess their own legitimate basis for claiming self-determination. The key strategy of accommodation is to find the best formula for reconciling these basic competing claims of self-determination, and to reject as unacceptable contentions of their fundamental incompatibility or their resolution by force of arms. It is important at this stage to recognize that Israeli unilateralism and Zionist maximalism are making it increasingly difficult for the affected parties to find such a formula, much less give it life.
When considering the content of this underlying right of self-determination additional substantive concerns are disclosed, above all the fate of the several million Palestinian refugees many living for more than 50 years in miserable refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. If Palestinian goals or the requirements of peace are confined to the territorial language of ending the occupation, the plight of Palestinian refugees tends to be left in limbo or at best consigned to the periphery of peacemaking that implicitly denies any right of repatriation and leaves the refugee communities without adequate representation.
There are other challenges facing peacemakers, as well. Edward Said, and other sensitive commentators on the interminable Palestinian ordeal have repeatedly observed that one catastrophic dispossession, that of the Palestinians in 1948, in no way justifies seeking a second dispossession, this time of Jews. In effect, the illegitimacies of the past that have victimized the Palestinians and produced the present intolerable state of affairs, must be put to one side in peacemaking contexts, and the future framed by reference to how Palestinians and Jews can best live together when account is taken of all the circumstances of past and present, including the allocation of rights by the application of international law. This injunction of mutuality should not be interpreted as a readiness to forget the past, or to minimize its relevance. Rather it is an insistence that replicating past wrongs by superimposing on all of historic Palestine a new power structure that excludes or subjugates Jews is not ethically acceptable or politically feasible as goals of conceiving Palestinian empowerment. Said did insist, however, that grave past injustices endured by the Palestinians, especially the massive dispossessions of 1948 and again in 1967, must be confronted and acknowledged by Israel before any sustainable progress toward peace and reconciliation is possible. Similarly, there is no way of reconciling the contending claims of self-determination if Zionism clings to its demand of ‘a Jewish state’ and an exclusive unlimited right of return for Jews only.
The contention that Israel has become an apartheid state is highly relevant to grasping the fate endured by the Palestinian people over the course of the last hundred years. Most poignantly, if the quest for Palestinian self-determination continues to fail, the outcome of the unresolved struggle will almost certainly result in the further entrenchment of existing systematic structures of ethnic discrimination. Such structures possess the key elements of the international crime of apartheid. If this is so, it means that the very arrangement relied upon to sustain public order in Palestine and Israel is itself an ongoing international crime of utmost gravity. Apartheid is designated as a crime against humanity in the Rome Statute of 2002, the treaty that regulates the operations of the International Criminal Court.
In other words, the present and the future of the Israel/Palestine relationship cannot be understood in neutral, symmetrical, and static terms of both sides more or less equally thwarting the path leading to conflict resolution and enduring the same consequences if that path remains blocked. Unfortunately, this has long been the official American rebuke to both parties. John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, and President Barack Obama, never tire of telling Israel and Palestine that each must make ‘painful concessions’ if the deadlock is to be broken and peace to be attained. Such language conveys a fundamentally distorted image of the present reality because it refuses to take account of the essential and vital difference between the situation of the oppressor and the oppressed, a difference that becomes unmistakable if you experience directly the many dimensions of everyday inequality between the two peoples. [this point is often made by Edward Said. See for instance his last interview: “My Right of Return,” (with Ari Shavit), in Gauri Viswanathan, ed., Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said (Pantheon, 2001, 443-458, esp. 445-449.]
The imagery of deadlock and equal responsibility for the unsatisfactory present reality also falsely implies a static situation that would seem detrimental to both sides. This is a false image because with the passage of time Palestine loses, and Israel gains. This is so territorially, but also to live as the oppressor is consistent in most respects with living well, while living under conditions of oppression or as refugees in to varying degrees living badly. Of course, power shifts are common, and roles can be reversed, although this does not seem likely anytime soon.
The existing Israel and Palestine interplay is constantly evolving. This understanding leads me to have a quite different overview of the present situation that I will express in a deliberately provocative way–either the future will witness a further entrenching of the Israeli apartheid state or Israel will abandon and dismantle current apartheid structures and accept a Palestinian call for peace in accord with international human rights law, and more generally, agree on steps that need to be taken to realize the Palestinian right of self-determination. As previously stated such a Palestinian realization of self-determination must not be exercised at the expense of a complementary Jewish right of self-determination. This is not meant as an indirect endorsement of Zionist goals as articulated by currently dominant Israeli forces. It is obviously difficult to adjudicate between these overlapping claims of self-determination, and doing so most likely requires help from genuinely detached third parties. Putting this more concretely, a spiritual homeland for the Jewish people in ancient Palestine would could be maintained, but not the current Jewish state with its preferential ethnically framed nationality laws, making Israel what the Jewish leader Henry Siegman perceptively identifies as an ‘ethnocracy’ rather than a ‘democracy.’
Let me acknowledge, without delving into the matter, that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the formal representatives of the Palestinian people in international venues, has been partly responsible for the confusion about these fundamental points by seeming to go along with both a territorial definition of the conflict and a solution based on the Oslo process despite it being tainted by the United States acting in the role of intermediary. The PA posits its primary goal to be the establishment of some kind of Palestinian state on the currently occupied territory of the West Bank, and indeed claims that such a state already exists, a position affirmed by the General Assembly in a resolution adopted on November 29, 2012. This also allows Israel and the United States to continue treating ‘the peace process’ as necessitating direct negotiations between the parties despite Israel’s multiple efforts to de facto annex portions of the West Bank at Palestine’s expense ever since the early 1990s. By now it should be evident that these direct negotiations have given the Palestinians zero benefits for the last 20+ years while bestowing on Israel a golden opportunity to pursue its expansionist agenda in violation of international law. The fact that Israel continues to lend rhetorical support to such a peace process sustains for many the illusion that its government favors a genuine effort to solve the conflict through diplomatic compromise. Washington does its part, going sheepishly along not only because it habitually defers to Israel, but because playing this particular diplomatic game enables the United States to continue portraying itself as patron of a process dedicated to producing peace.
Understanding Israel’s Recourse to Apartheid
At a conference at the National Press Club on April 10, 2015 in Washington devoted to assessing and depicting the Israel Lobby as it operates in the United States, the influential Haaretz columnist, Gideon Levy, painted a picture of the current Palestinian ordeal concisely with a few verbal brush strokes.
He emphatically told the audience what every follower of this ‘peace process’ should have understood long ago: “The two state solution is dead!” What does that mean? According to Levy…
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