Hard limits and long-observed taboos

Israeli and international peace activists demonstrate in front of the Ministry of Defense building in Tel Aviv against the Israeli shelling of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, during which at least 20 Palestinians were killed, 8 November 2006. (MaanImages/Moti Milrod)

With his book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid reaching the top of the bestseller lists, former President Jimmy Carter appears to have made a breakthrough in the ossified debate on Israel-Palestine in the United States.

In dozens of packed appearances and in the media, Carter has shattered long-observed taboos by talking about “the abominable oppression and persecution in the occupied Palestinian territories, with a rigid system of required passes and strict segregation between Palestine’s citizens and Jewish settlers in the West Bank.” It is still difficult to imagine any other senior US politician doing that.

Carter has been vilified by the pro-Israel lobbying industry in the United States with the frequent intimation that he is anti-Semitic. Yet even this furor demonstrates the hard limits which the debate still faces. In defending himself against such attacks, Carter has been careful to stress that he is only talking about the situation inside the territories occupied in 1967, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “I know that Israel is a wonderful democracy with equal treatment of all citizens whether Arab or Jew. And so I very carefully avoided talking about anything inside Israel,” he said.

Thus what even Carter acknowledges is that a debate about the racist nature of the Israeli state itself remains off-limits. An obvious question is how a “wonderful democracy” could operate a system of apartheid just a few miles away. Discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel is legally enshrined and openly discussed in Israel. It includes separate and unequal education, laws that reserve the best land for Jews only, massive discrimination in allocation of resources, exclusion of non-Jews from government office, and the “Law of Return” that encourages Jews to move to the country while indigenous Palestinians remain banned from returning home.

The US media, with a few exceptions, continue to treat these facts, uncontroversial even within Israel, as if they don’t exist. This underlines the persistent segmentation of the discussion of the conflict in the US and Europe. There is the official peace process industry, or mainstream discourse that dominates media coverage and government pronouncements resting on a number of false assumptions: the US and the “Quartet” are honest brokers; everyone agrees on the outlines of a two-state solution except for minor details; Israel has good intentions and merely awaits a Palestinian partner; Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is potentially that partner, while Hamas are outlaw extremists who must be curbed, forced to “recognize” Israel and “renounce terrorism” and so on.

Only rarely is reality allowed to intrude on this official discourse, which is what Carter did in a limited way. Sometimes bald facts also call it into question, if only momentarily, such as when Israel announced a major new settlement in the northern Jordan Valley part of the West Bank, just days after an Abbas-Olmert summit that the peace process industry had hailed as a breakthrough. A scab of distortion and spin quickly forms to cover up whatever reality may briefly have been revealed. What is remarkable about this official dialogue is that most Palestinians do not subscribe to it, with the exception of a minority who are the favored clients of the industry — at this time, Abbas and his entourage, the US-armed and EU-backed Gaza warlord Mohammad Dahlan and the rest of the class that benefited directly from Oslo.

Contrasted with the official discourse is an insurgent one that remains marginalized in the academy, among activists and in the alternative media. But it is gaining strength. Like the vast majority of Palestinians, it continues to view the Palestine situation as one of anti-colonial struggle, comparable to the long fight against South African apartheid. Yet Carter’s intervention offers the potential to connect these views; if it becomes legitimate to describe Israel’s tyranny over the occupied Palestinians as “apartheid”, it may not be long before Israel’s own internal colonialism against more than one million Palestinians faces similar examination. When Israel is no longer viewed as a “wonderful democracy”, as US politicians without exception continue to label it, then the possibility for genuine peace based on the principle that Palestine-Israel belongs to all who live in it without discrimination based on religion, ethnic or national origin may open up. This is the danger that pro-Israel groups clearly perceive and are working night and day to stop.

Ali Abunimah is the co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. This article was originally published by Bitter Lemons International on 11 January 2007.

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