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Requiem to the Israeli Left's Apartheid Argument

The argument from the left that annexation of parts of the West Bank would make Israel an apartheid state has lost both its moral and political force, and survives mainly today as a form of virtue signaling

Gadi Taub
Gadi Taub
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A newly opened segregated West Bank highway near Jerusalem, January 10, 2019. Critics have branded the road an "apartheid" highway.
A newly opened segregated West Bank highway near Jerusalem, January 10, 2019. Critics have branded the road an "apartheid" highway.Credit: Mahmoud Illean / AP
Gadi Taub
Gadi Taub

A few months before the announcement of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan, I had the pleasure of lunching with an Israeli historian whose work has justly earned him worldwide acclaim. We dined at a fish restaurant in the old city of Acre, where waves lapped against the city’s outer wall across the street. Predictably, the conversation eventually arrived at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I said I no longer believed in a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The best that can be done for the foreseeable future, I said, is autonomy. “Autonomy in whose territory, exactly?” my interlocutor asked.

The territory is, of course, Israel’s. The crucial component of any future settlement should be, in my view, Israeli control of the Jordan Valley. It’s also central to Trump’s plan, which was still unknown back then. Israel is an island of political stability in an ocean of smoldering political lava. You can’t even speak of tectonic plates. They’ve all melted away. In this neighborhood, all principles of political order – pan-Arabism, Arab socialism, political Islam and, most crucially, nationalism – have been temporary at best. As the late, great Bernard Lewis has said, there are only four nation states in the Middle East: Israel, Egypt, Iran and Turkey. The rest, he said, are tribes with flags.

Netanyahu's 'annexation nation' is ready to strike again. Listen

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A tiny state like Israel cannot risk the possibility of this violent chaos – which will in all likelihood continue to engender waves of refugees – come too close to its borders. We cannot afford to let it spill over the mountain ridge of Judea and Samaria, which overlooks the metropolitan center of the country and its single international airport. The distance between Tel Aviv’s beaches and Samaria is, one must remember, only 9 miles (about 15 kilometers) at the country’s narrow waist.

A Gaza-style or ISIS-style regime, let alone a complete collapse of order, just a stone’s throw away from Israel’s heart is not an option. This is why control of the borders on the other side of the ridge, along the Jordan River, is absolutely vital.

On the other hand, full annexation of the whole of Judea and Samaria, aka the West Bank, is also not realistic. It will require granting full citizenship to a very large and very hostile population, turning Israel from a Jewish state into a de facto binational state. Annexation without granting citizenship is no more realistic, since Israelis are not likely to give up the democratic character of their state.

So we’re stuck with autonomy as the only alternative to direct occupation. This is not a theoretical construct. It is already taking shape, since partial autonomy has been in place since the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, in the limited area where the Palestinian Authority exercises civil control. Still, whatever shape autonomy takes, it will remain inevitably within Israel’s borders.

But if it is an autonomous entity within Israel, my interlocutor said, then it’s a form of “apartheid.” I was under the impression that, for him, this is the trump card – no pun intended – that ends the debate. As if giving the plan this label has conclusively ruled it out.

There was an awkward silence. We talked about the food, which was in fact delicious.

This will probably be a familiar dialogue to many Israelis. The “apartheid” argument is still ubiquitous in our political discourse, but it has become something of a ghost: constantly haunting our debates without having any concrete weight. In reality, it has lost both its moral and political force, and survives mainly as a form of virtue signaling denoting the boundaries of political camps.

For sure this is unpleasant news for left-wingers, but it seems that they too will eventually have to acknowledge that the colors on this particular banner have faded and there is not much one can accomplish by waving it anymore.

Activists protest against Jewish settlement activity in East Jerusalem in 2010. The placards read 'Apartheid is here' and 'Did you hear? Discrimination in East Jerusalem.'Credit: REUTERS

An autonomy, though limiting the political rights of its inhabitants, is clearly distinct from apartheid regimes. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is not so we can ask what the “apartheid” argument means – on its political-pragmatic side on the one hand, and its moral-ideological side on the other.

Winds of change

Let’s start with the pragmatic. A whole section of the dovish Israeli left argues that this “apartheid” would spell the end of Zionism, as it would lead Israel inexorably down the path of South Africa. Sooner or later, the indignation of “the international community” will bring to bear diplomatic and economic pressure. Having forsaken the possibility for partition, we will be forced into a one-state solution with a one-person-one-vote democratic system.

This is described by some liberal visionaries as a nonnational “state of all its citizens.” In reality, though, it will likely look less like Switzerland and more like Lebanon. We will all, Palestinians and Israelis alike, go down clutching each other’s throats.

This is not an argument to be dismissed out of hand. I, for one, once thought it was not just important but actually decisive. But as time goes by, it seems that the predictions it was based on are becoming less and less likely. The winds, it seems, are blowing in the opposite direction. The European Union is weakening, and recognition of the centrality and durability of the principle of national self-determination is once again gaining ground. And though the principle of nationalism was a success on the Jewish side, it was an abject failure on the Palestinian one, where it produced less nation-building and more terror, violence and economic dependency.

Moreover, the international backdrop for all this now also includes the traumatic experience Europe has had with immigration, especially since 2015, and the refusal of large Muslim communities to integrate or relinquish their anti-Western bias.

In light of all this, the chances that a theoretically liberal, nonnational, one-state solution will be imposed on Israel and Palestine, so as to prevent “apartheid,” are growing slimmer, not larger. The future of Europe looks less like former EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (not to mention outgoing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn) and more like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (not to mention Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán). And while the increasingly anti-Semitic progressive left is losing ground, the increasingly less anti-Semitic right is gaining it. The result is that pro-Israel sentiment is becoming more politically potent, and the chances of an orchestrated campaign of international pressure against it are thus on the wane.

The same can be said of the United States. Indeed, the Trump administration took a decisive turn in Israel’s favor when it reversed the vectors for managing the conflict: Its recently unveiled peace plan stipulates that every Palestinian refusal will result in a worse offer and not, as was always the case before Trump, a better one.

True, this may change and the trend could be reversed. It is not impossible that antidemocratic liberalism will make a political comeback and overwhelm the tide of democratic populism, reining it in under the folds of the transnational EU. And in the United States, a Democratic president can take Trump’s place and it is likely that he or she would be even more hostile to Israel than Barack Obama was. But the chances of all this happening simultaneously and durably on both sides of the Atlantic are probably small.

Nonetheless, suppose this were all to happen. Would it spell the end of Zionism? I think not. If the worst comes to the worst and a one-state solution, with a one-person-one-vote system, is imposed over a territory with an Arab majority, Israel would be more likely to give up territory, even evacuate settlements, than to accept it and relinquish political self-determination. This would not be easy, but clearly it would be preferable to giving up the single greatest achievement of Jewish history in two millennia. At any rate, taking such risks that may follow the annexation of the Jordan Valley is surely safer than tempting fate in a far more dangerous way by clearing the path for the Middle East chaos to spill over the mountain ridge of Judea and Samaria.

Limited self-rule

So, for the foreseeable future – and given the fact that the Palestinians are not likely to accept Trump’s peace plan, or any other plan that does not include Israel’s demise – it seems there is no point in talking about a “solution” to the conflict. The best we can do, to borrow a term from Micah Goodman’s masterful book “Catch-67,” is to turn a lethal illness into a manageable chronic one by minimizing friction.

In practice, this would mean limited self-rule for the Palestinians within Israel’s surrounding territory. In the long run, one may hope for better: The Palestinians may abandon their hope of annihilating Israel, which would also entail giving up a “right” to “return” – i.e. to flood Israel with millions of descendants from the 1948 war refugees; or the Palestinian autonomy can become part of sovereign Jordan, in the same way that Hawaii or Alaska are part of the United States despite the absence of territorial contiguity; or demography, the tide of which is turning in favor of the Jews, will reach a point where annexation with full citizenship will be possible without excessive risk.

There is actually reason for optimism on this count, given the loud protest of Arab-Israeli politicians to the part of Trump’s plan that refers to redrawing borders. This would make Israeli areas that are adjacent to the Palestinian territory, and populated almost exclusively by Arabs, part of the future Palestinian entity. Yet despite habitual and shrill anti-Israeli rhetoric, Arab Israelis would have none of this. It seems they would much rather continue living under “Zionist colonial rule” than have Palestinian political authority extended to include their geographical area. Call it a backhanded form of Israeli patriotism, but Israeli patriotism nonetheless.

All the above are practical political considerations. But in truth, the moral side of the “apartheid” argument is more dominant and is as old as the occupation itself.

Condemnation of the occupation on moral grounds has been so central to the left’s identity that one should not be surprised that left-wingers have failed to note its gradual withering. Moral arguments are only relevant where there are options to choose from. Without choice, they have no meaning. One cannot be held accountable for what one cannot change. This, alas, is what we discovered about the occupation. Israel has repeatedly tried to end it, and the Palestinians refused all and any such plans. They have been refusing them since the Peel Commission first put the idea of partition on the table in 1937. They then rejected the UN Partition Resolution of 1947, which decreed two states in British Mandatory Palestine – one Arab, one Jewish. And they have continued to reject all peace plans, Israeli and American, all the way through the Kerry-Obama plan and now the Trump plan too.

They blocked all routes to an agreement and then taught us, courtesy of Hamas, that partition by unilateral withdrawal is also not an option. What is more, it should be abundantly clear by now that a continuation of Israeli military rule over Judea and Samaria is a vital interest of the PA, since it is only the Israel Defense Forces that protects the PA’s Fatah operatives from meeting the same fate their brethren met in Gaza at the hands of Hamas in 2007.

Nevertheless, moral approbation continues on the left with great gusto as if none of this happened, and it extends from the occupation to autonomy plans – since in these plans, too, Arab inhabitants of the Palestinian territory will not be able to vote in Israeli elections. Hence the term “apartheid,” which seeks to describe autonomy as a continuation of the occupation by other means.

In this day and age, with progressives tending to bestow automatic moral rightness on the weak and to assign automatic moral blame to the strong, the left is inclined to be furious at the very suggestion that the occupied are to blame for the continued occupation. Part of this fury is based on denying Palestinian recalcitrance and rejectionism.

But the other part is actually more poignant: Some on the left believe we must end the occupation regardless of the price we’ll have to pay, since it is an evil one cannot acquiesce to. From this perspective, the infringement on Palestinian human rights is so grave that it undermines Israel’s moral foundation – to the point of voiding its very right to exist. If Zionism rests on the universal right to self-determination, the argument goes, it cannot exist at the expense of another people’s ability to exercise that same right.

I don’t know if the historian with whom I dined subscribes to this extreme view, but I think this is what many who see the “apartheid” argument as closing the case believe.

Still, one is obliged to ask if what we are talking about here is an offense so abhorrent, so inhumanly odious, that one must die rather than commit it. Should we really end the occupation even if it means collective suicide for Zionism and probable death to most of its sons and daughters (or at least to those who cannot afford to emigrate)?

Undeniably, there are crimes one should die before committing. Genocide would probably be the obvious example. But it is hard to stretch this argument to include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would seem there is not much moral weight to the idea that we should choose our own death only to save the Palestinians from the consequences of their rejectionism and their turn to murderous terrorism. There is also little point in committing suicide only to replace Israel’s military rule with a more brutal regime that will deprive the Palestinians of human rights to an even greater extent, as Hamas has done in Gaza.

The truth is that, short of attempting to justify collective suicide, the moral argument from “apartheid” has no use. As long as we refuse to die, it will not save us from having to limp along with no full solution in sight to the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire.

We will have to brace ourselves for a long stretch of political awkwardness and moral ambiguity. Which is still far better than jumping together, with our hands at each other’s throats, into the lava around us. The incantation “apartheid” will not make any of those harsh circumstances disappear.

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