In my quarter century as Washington correspondent for Jewish newspapers, I frequently defended Israel against charges that it had created an apartheid system in the West Bank. But this week's election, with Benjamin Netanyahu poised to serve another term with an even more hardline coalition, means that apartheid is the path Israeli voters have chosen. The inevitable results will include even greater international isolation for the Jewish state, a boost to efforts to apply boycotts and sanctions, diminished support from American Jews and endlessly intensifying cycles of violence.
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Since the Madrid peace process began in 1991, it was possible – though sometimes with great difficulty – to argue that Israel wanted to find some route to accommodation with the Palestinians. Sure, there were huge obstacles to overcome, not the least of which was a shortsighted Palestinian leadership and a volatile, nervous electorate in Israel.
But government after government at least said the right things about the need to create a Palestinian state and to make painful compromises, even if action lagged far behind the words.
It was possible to accept journalist Gershom Gorenberg's thesis that the occupation was an "accidental empire," its endurance shaped less by determined policies than by inertia and political cowardice. It was awful to watch even progressive governments cringe before an aggressive settlers movement, but it was understandable, especially for Americans accustomed to the timidity of our own leaders in the face of aggressive extremists.
The idea of apartheid suggests the intent to make separation and unequal treatment permanent, and in the past it was possible to argue that for all the expansion of settlements, Israel was still looking for ways to end the occupation.
Frightened by the last minute rise of the Zionist Union list in polls, Netanyahu unambiguously expressed what critics have long asserted was his core ideology: no Palestinian state. No territorial concessions. None. Period.
And Israel's voters returned him to office, in what was widely reported as a resounding victory.
He was returned to power despite his attempt to shore up support on his political right by coming to Washington and undermining the relationship with Israel's most critical ally, the United States, and by giving a huge boost to Republican efforts to make support for Israel a political wedge issue instead of the bipartisan cause it has always been.
He was returned to power despite the ugly attempt to scare voters with the specter of a big turnout of Israeli Arabs.
And he was returned to power after his crystal clear rejection of Palestinian statehood and the territorial compromise that most of the world believes is the only way to ensure a peaceful future for a democratic Jewish state. There were reports this week that Netanyahu was attempting to walk those comments back, but his credibility on the issue of Palestinian statehood, never strong, is nonexistent.
In the absence of any willingness to work toward a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the future is clear: continuing occupation with no effort to find a way to end it, accelerating settlement construction and a hardening of policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank.
In other words, apartheid.
Mainstream Jewish groups go ballistic when they hear the term because of what it implies: an official policy of unfairness so profound that a fractious world unites against it with sanctions, boycotts and a pariah label for the perpetrators.
Once, it was possible to argue that Israel's policies were not the same as apartheid because their stated goal, however imperfectly pursued, was to end the occupation. No more: Bibi's reelection makes it clear that Israeli voters, more clearly aware of Netanyahu's intent than ever, have chosen the apartheid path, and will now have to live with the consequences.
American Jewish groups, key players in the coalition against South African apartheid, will resort to verbal gymnastics to argue that it's not the same. Or they will simply use the convenient ploy of pointing out all the bad decisions made by Palestinian leaders over the years. When the inevitable violence erupts and when the Palestinians, left with no other options, renew their push to condemn Israel in international bodies, they will circle the wagons to defend a Jewish state they claim is unfairly treated by a hostile world. They will ratchet up efforts to stifle even moderate dissent in the Jewish world. They'll blame the deepening divisions in the Jewish community on J Street.
Or they will say the no-statehood pledge was just politics as usual in Israel's fractious democracy, as meaningless as most other campaign promises.
And nobody outside an increasingly narrow pro-Israel tent will buy it. Because apartheid is apartheid, and that's exactly what Israeli voters chose this week as a course for their nation.
James Besser was Washington correspondent for the New York Jewish Week and other Anglo-Jewish newspapers for 24 years before his retirement in 2011.