Israeli soldiers take position during clashes with Palestinian youths at Rachel’s Tomb in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, 16 February 2007. (MaanImages/Magnus Johansson)
Israel’s struggle for peace is a sincere one. In fact, Israel desires to live at peace not only with its neighbours, but also and especially with its own Palestinian population, and with Palestinians whose lands its military occupies by force. Israel’s desire for peace is not only rhetorical but also substantive and deeply psychological. With few exceptions, prominent Zionist leaders since the inception of colonial Zionism have desired to establish peace with the Palestinians and other Arabs whose lands they slated for colonisation and settlement. The only thing Israel has asked for, and continues to ask for in order to end the state of war with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours, is that all recognise its right to be a racist state that discriminates by law against Palestinians and other Arabs and grants differential legal rights and privileges to its own Jewish citizens and to all other Jews anywhere. The resistance that the Palestinian people and other Arabs have launched against Israel’s right to be a racist state is what continues to stand between Israel and the peace for which it has struggled and to which it has been committed for decades. Indeed, this resistance is nothing less than the “New anti- Semitism”.
Israel is willing to do anything to convince Palestinians and other Arabs of why it needs and deserves to have the right to be racist. Even at the level of theory, and before it began to realise itself on the ground, the Zionist colonial project sought different means by which it could convince the people whose lands it wanted to steal and against whom it wanted to discriminate to accept as understandable its need to be racist. All it required was that the Palestinians “recognise its right to exist” as a racist state. Military methods were by no means the only persuasive tools available; there were others, including economic and cultural incentives. Zionism from the start offered some Palestinians financial benefits if they would accede to its demand that it should have the right to be racist. Indeed, the State of Israel still does. Many Palestinian officials in the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organisation have been offered and have accepted numerous financial incentives to recognise this crucial Israeli need. Those among the Palestinians who regrettably continue to resist are being penalised for their intransigence by economic choking and starvation, supplemented by regular bombardment and raids, as well as international isolation. These persuasive methods, Israel hopes, will finally convince a recalcitrant population to recognise the dire need of Israel to be a racist state. After all, Israeli racism only manifests in its flag, its national anthem, and a bunch of laws that are necessary to safeguard Jewish privilege, including the Law of Return (1950), the Law of Absentee Property (1950), the Law of the State’s Property (1951), the Law of Citizenship (1952), the Status Law (1952), the Israel Lands Administration Law (1960), the Construction and Building Law (1965), and the 2002 temporary law banning marriage between Israelis and Palestinians of the occupied territories.
Let us start with why Israel and Zionism need to ensure that Israel remains a racist state by law and why it deserves to have that right. The rationale is primarily threefold and is based on the following claims.
Jews are always in danger out in the wide world; only in a state that privileges them racially and religiously can they be safe from gentile oppression and can prosper. If Israel removed its racist laws and symbols and became a non-racist democratic state, Jews would cease to be a majority and would be like Diaspora Jews, a minority in a non-Jewish state. These concerns are stated clearly by Israeli leaders individually and collectively. Shimon Peres, for example, the dove of official Israel, has been worried for some time about the Palestinian demographic “danger”, as the Green Line, which separates Israel from the West Bank, is beginning to “disappear … which may lead to the linking of the futures of West Bank Palestinians with Israeli Arabs”. He hoped that the arrival of 100,000 Jews in Israel would postpone this demographic “danger” for 10 more years, as ultimately, he stressed, “demography will defeat geography”.
In December 2000, the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Centre in Israel held its first of a projected series of annual conferences dealing with the strength and security of Israel, especially with regards to maintaining Jewish demographic majority. Israel’s president and current and former prime ministers and cabinet ministers were all in attendance. One of the “Main Points” identified in the 52-page conference report is concern over the numbers needed to maintain Jewish demographic and political supremacy of Israel: “The high birth rate [of ‘Israeli Arabs’] brings into question the future of Israel as a Jewish state … The present demographic trends, should they continue, challenge the future of Israel as a Jewish state. Israel has two alternative strategies: adaptation or containment. The latter requires a long-term energetic Zionist demographic policy whose political, economic, and educational effects would guarantee the Jewish character of Israel.”
The report adds affirmatively that, “those who support the preservation of Israel’s character as … a Jewish state for the Jewish nation … constitute a majority among the Jewish population in Israel.” Of course, this means the maintenance of all the racist laws that guarantee the Jewish character of the state. Subsequent annual meetings have confirmed this commitment.
Jews are carriers of Western civilisation and constitute an Asian station defending both Western civilisation and economic and political interests against Oriental terrorism and barbarism. If Israel transformed itself into a non-racist state, then its Arab population would undermine the commitment to Western civilisation and its defence of the West’s economic and political interests, and might perhaps transform Jews themselves into a Levantine barbaric population. Here is how Ben Gurion once put it: “We do not want Israelis to become Arabs. We are in duty bound to fight against the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies, and preserve the authentic Jewish values as they crystallised in the [European] Diaspora.” Indeed Ben Gurion was clear on the Zionist role of defending these principles: “We are not Arabs, and others measure us by a different standard … our instruments of war are different from those of the Arabs, and only our instruments can guarantee our victory.” More recently, Israel’s ambassador to Australia, Naftali Tamir, stressed that: “We are in Asia without the characteristics of Asians. We don’t have yellow skin and slanted eyes. Asia is basically the yellow race. Australia and Israel are not — we are basically the white race.”
God has given this land to the Jews and told them to safeguard themselves against gentiles who hate them. To make Israel a non-Jewish state then would run the risk of challenging God Himself. This position is not only upheld by Jewish and Christian fundamentalists, but even by erstwhile secular Zionists (Jews and Christians alike). Ben Gurion himself understood, as does Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, that: “God promised it to us.”
Zionism and Israel are very careful not to generalise the principles that justify Israel’s need to be racist but are rather vehement in upholding it as an exceptional principle
It is important to stress that this Zionist rationale is correct on all counts if one accepts the proposition of Jewish exceptionalism. Remember that Zionism and Israel are very careful not to generalise the principles that justify Israel’s need to be racist but are rather vehement in upholding it as an exceptional principle. It is not that no other people has been oppressed historically, it is that Jews have been oppressed more. It is not that no other people’s cultural and physical existence has been threatened; it is that the Jews’ cultural and physical existence is threatened more. This quantitative equation is key to why the world, and especially Palestinians, should recognise that Israel needs and deserves to have the right to be a racist state. If the Palestinians, or anyone else, reject this, then they must be committed to the annihilation of the Jewish people physically and culturally, not to mention that they would be standing against the Judeo-Christian God.
It is true that Palestinian and Arab leaders were not easily persuaded of these special needs that Israel has; that it took decades of assiduous efforts on the part of Israel to convince them, especially through “military” means. In the last three decades they have shown signs of coming around. Though Anwar El-Sadat inaugurated that shift in 1977, it would take Yasser Arafat longer to recognise Israel’s needs. But Israel remained patient and became more innovative in its persuasive instruments, especially its military ones. When Arafat came to his senses and signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, he finally recognised Israel’s right to be racist and to legally discriminate against its own Palestinian citizens. For that belated recognition, a magnanimous Israel, still eager for peace, decided to negotiate with him. He, however, continued to resist on some issues. For Arafat had hoped that his recognition of Israel’s need to be racist inside Israel was in exchange for Israel ending its racist apartheid system in the occupied territories. That was clearly a misunderstanding on his part. Israeli leaders explained to him and to his senior peace negotiator Mahmoud Abbas in marathon discussions that lasted seven years, that Israel’s needs are not limited to imposing its racist laws inside Israel but must extend to the occupied territories as well. Surprisingly, Arafat was not content with the Bantustans the Israelis offered to carve up for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza around the Jewish colonial settlements that God had granted the Jews. The United States was brought in to persuade the malleable leader that the Bantustan solution was not a bad one. Indeed, equally honourable collaborators as Arafat had enjoyed its benefits, such as Mangosutho Gatcha Buthelezi in Apartheid South Africa. It was no shame to accept it, President Clinton insisted to Arafat at Camp David in the summer of 2000. While Abbas was convinced, Arafat remained unsure.
It is true that in 2002 Arafat came around some more and reaffirmed his recognition of Israel’s need for racist laws inside the country when he gave up the right of return of the six million exiled Palestinians who, by virtue of Israel’s racist law of return, are barred from returning to the homeland from which Israel had expelled them while Jewish citizens of any other countries obtain automatic citizenship in an Israel most of them have never before seen. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Arafat declared: “We understand Israel’s demographic concerns and understand that the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a right guaranteed under international law and United Nations Resolution 194, must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns.” He proceeded to state that he was looking to negotiate with Israel on “creative solutions to the plight of the refugees while respecting Israel’s demographic concerns”. This however, was not sufficient, as Arafat remained unpersuaded of Israel’s need to set up its racist apartheid in the occupied territories. Israel had no choice but to isolate him, keep him under house arrest, and possibly poison him at the end.
Several other Palestinian leaders were so convinced that they offered to help build the infrastructure of Israeli apartheid by providing Israel with most of the cement it needed to build its Jews-only colonies and the apartheid wall
President Abbas, however, learned well from the mistakes of his predecessor and has shown more openness to Israeli arguments about its dire need to have a racist apartheid system set up in the West Bank and Gaza and that the legitimacy of this apartheid must also be recognised by the Palestinians as a precondition for peace. Abbas was not the only Palestinian leader to be beguiled. Several other Palestinian leaders were so convinced that they offered to help build the infrastructure of Israeli apartheid by providing Israel with most of the cement it needed to build its Jews-only colonies and the apartheid wall.
The problem now was Hamas, who, while willing to recognise Israel, still refused to recognise its special needs to be racist inside the Green Line and to set up an apartheid system inside the occupied territories. This is where Saudi Arabia was brought in last month in the holy city of Mecca. Where else, pondered the Saudis, could one broker an agreement where the leadership of the victims of Israeli racism and oppression can be brought to solemnly swear that they recognise their oppressor’s special need to oppress them? Well, Hamas has been resisting the formula, which Fatah has upheld for five years, namely to “commit” to this crucial recognition. Hamas said that all it could do was “respect” past agreements that the PA had signed with Israel and which recognised its need to be racist. This, Israel and the United States insist, is insufficient and the Palestinians will continue to be isolated despite Hamas’s “respect” for Israel’s right to be racist. The condition for peace as far as Israel and the US are concerned is that both Hamas and Fatah recognise and be committed to Israel’s right to be an apartheid state inside the Green Line as well as its imposition of apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza. Short of this, there will be no deal. The ensuing summit between Condie Rice, Ehud Olmert and the exalted PA President Abbas was spent with Olmert interrogating Abbas on how much he remains committed to Israel’s need for apartheid in the occupied territories. A minor replay summit was concluded on the same basis a few days ago. Abbas had hoped that the two summits could coax Israel to finalise arrangements for the Bantustans over which he wants to rule, but Israel, understandably, felt insecure and had to ensure that Abbas himself was still committed to its right to impose apartheid first. Meanwhile, ongoing “secret” Israeli-Saudi talks have filled Israel with the hope and expectation that the Arab League’s upcoming summit in Riyadh might very well cancel the Palestinian right of return that is guaranteed by international law and affirm the inviolability of Israel’s right to be a racist state as guaranteed by international diplomacy. All of Israel’s efforts to achieve peace might finally bear fruit if the Arabs finally concede to what international mediation had already conceded to Israel before them.
It should be clear then that in this international context, all existing solutions to what is called the Palestinian-Israeli “conflict” guarantee Israel’s need to maintain its racist laws and its racist character and ensure its right to impose apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza. What Abbas and the Palestinians are allowed to negotiate on, and what the Palestinian people and other Arabs are being invited to partake of, in these projected negotiations is the political and economic (but not the geographic) character of the Bantustans that Israel is carving up for them in the West Bank, and the conditions of the siege around the Big Prison called Gaza and the smaller ones in the West Bank. Make no mistake about it, Israel will not negotiate about anything else, as to do so would be tantamount to giving up its racist rule.
As for those among us who insist that no resolution will ever be possible before Israel revokes all its racist laws and does away with all its racist symbols, thus opening the way for a non-racist future for Palestinians and Jews in a decolonised bi-national state, Israel and its apologists have a ready-made response that has redefined the meaning of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is no longer the hatred of and discrimination against Jews as a religious or ethnic group; in the age of Zionism, we are told, anti-Semitism has metamorphosed into something that is more insidious. Today, Israel and its Western defenders insist, genocidal anti-Semitism consists mainly of any attempt to take away and to refuse to uphold the absolute right of Israel to be a racist Jewish state.
The writer is associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. His latest book is The Persistence of the Palestinian Question; Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians. This commentary was originally published by Al-Ahram Weekly and is reprinted with the author’s permission.