The Silver Lining in the Post-Election Blues Ilan Pappe
Those of us who know the nature of the beast could not have been surprised by the election results in Israel. I, like many of my friends, was also relieved that a liberal Zionist government was not elected. It would have allowed the charade of the ‘peace process’ and the illusion of the two state solution to linger on, while the suffering of the Palestinians on the ground continues. As always Benjamin Netanyahu himself pointed to the inevitable conclusion when he declared the end of the two state solution – inviting us all to the long overdue funeral of an ill-conceived political solution that provided Israel with international immunity for its colonialist project in Palestine. Although Netanyahu, under American pressure, retreated slightly from his initial stance against the two-state solution, if one is to judge by his past policies, what matters most is his government’s unilateral creeping annexation of more land in the West Bank. The ill-fated Oslo accord divided the West Bank into area A (Palestinian Rule), B (joint rule) and C (Israeli rule). Given the nature of the government that was elected, annexation of area C is now no longer a question of if, but when.
A liberal Zionist government is what the Western world wished Israeli voters would have elected. Such a government would have allowed the West to forget for another few years the Palestinian plight and its connection to the upheaval in the Middle East as a whole, as well as Europe’s own multicultural challenges.
Many of the European Jews, the Ashkenazim who invented the Zionist project and implemented it in its first one hundred years, also hoped for the triumph of a liberal Zionist government that would shield them from international condemnation and allow them to hold on to the achievement of the settler colonialist state they have created.This wishful thinking was exposed when pundits on both the local and international stage unrealistically predicted a victory for Liberal Zionism. Even the exit poll of Israel’s finest statisticians was based on this same logic, which eventually led to a huge media fiasco.
It is useful to begin an initial analysis of the Israeli elections with closer attention to this fiasco. A significant portion of Likud voters belong to the second generation of Jews who came from Arab and Muslim countries. They were joined this time by settler communities in the West Bank who voted en bloc for Benjamin Netanyahu. The Arab Jews voted more for Likud than they did for Netanyahu. The settlers voted for Netanyahu at the expense of their new political home, ‘The Jewish Home’ party, so as to ensure that Likud would be the largest party in the next Knesset. Neither Arab Jews nor settlers were entirely happy with their choice – they were not so proud to wear on their sleeves their decision to vote yet again for Benjamin Netanyahu. This is why many of them did not cast the same vote in the exit poll that they did in the real election. The result was quite catastrophic to all the renowned pollsters of the Israeli Media. They missed the headline that should have been announced when the exit polls were done – a smashing victory for Likud in 2015 and a pathetic result for the liberal Zionist camp inside Israel. The more exciting news was the success of the Palestinian citizens to unite and reach a respectable parliamentary representation.
These three outcomes –an invigorated Likud, a defeated Labor party and a united Palestinian representation –can either be ignored by the international community or serve as a catalyst for new thinking on the perennial subject of Palestine. The victory of Likud despite both the social unrest in Israel and the unprecedented low standing of the Jewish state in the international community indicates clearly that there will be no change from within Israel in the near future. On the other hand, the Labor party has maximised its potential – it is not likely to do better – and hence it does not offer a viable alternative. The main reason for this is that it is not an alternative. Israel in 2015 is still a settler colonialist state, and a liberal version of this ideology cannot offer a genuine reconciliation to the native people of Palestine. Jewish voters in Israel ever since 1977 reject the paler version of Zionism in favor of the real thing. The Labor party was in power long enough for us to see that it could not offer even the most moderate Palestinian leaders any deal that would have granted them a genuine sovereignty – be it only over a fifth of their homeland. The reason is very simple: the raison d'être of a settler colonialist society is the displacement of the natives and their replacement by the settlers. At best, natives can be confined into gated enclaves; at worst, they are doomed to be expelled or destroyed.
Labor Zionism, and even its more leftist sister, MERETZ, based their more benign attitude towards the Palestine question on the same racist logic that guides the rest of the Zionist group. The supreme value is to ensure Jewish majority at all costs. The left Zionists warn again and again that if the occupation continues, the Jewish majority would disappear and Israel would be forced to be an apartheid state. This is a very bizarre line of argument for political groups that pride themselves for adhering to the values and principles of universal human and civil rights. Surely, as the Palestinians are natives, and not immigrants as most of the Jews are, their demographic growth is natural, and not an existential threat (of course genuine progressive people would also not be deterred by increase in the number of immigrants, but this is irrelevant in this case). Instead of arguing for social and economic justice, or at least a more liberal system that respects individual rights, the “progressive” Zionists focus on strategies to ensure Jewish demographic majority as the precondition for keeping Israel as a democracy. It is no wonder the public in Israel prefers a more straightforward discourse that refuses to play the charade of democracy and explicitly locates ethnic purity and supremacy at the top of the local value system.
The conclusion for the international community should be clear now. Only decolonization of the settler state can lead to reconciliation. And the only way to set off this decolonization is to employ the same means exercised against the other longstanding settler-state of the twentieth century: Apartheid South Africa. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) option never looked more valid and relevant than it does today. Hopefully, BDS, together with popular resistance on the ground, would entice at least some of the second and third generations of the Jewish settler community to help stop the Zionist colonization project. Combined pressure from the international community and from the internal resistance movement is the only way to force Israelis to reframe their relationship with all the Palestinians, including the refugees, on the basis of democratic and egalitarian values. Otherwise, Likud could rise to 40 seats in the next elections on the wave of the next inevitable Palestinian uprising.
There are two sources of hope for the emergence of new alternatives. One is the joint Arab list (a parliamentary list which combined all the Palestinian parties that in the past ran separately in national elections). It will have no impact whatsoever on the Israeli political system. In fact, like the Palestinian Authority (PA) that was established in the wake of the 1993 Oslo peace accord, the days of Palestinian representation in the Knesset may be numbered. If a joint list can have no impact, and if a disempowered PA does not satisfy even liberal Zionists, then the time has come to look for new bodies of representation and action.
The importance of the joint list lies elsewhere: it can ignite the imagination of other Palestinian communities about the possibility of unity of purpose and orientation. That Islamists and secular leftists can work together for a better future is a message that can have far-reaching implications not only for Palestine and Israel, but for Europe as well. The joint Arab list represents a group of native Palestinians who know the Israelis well, are deeply committed to democratic values, and have risen in importance among the rest of the Palestinians after years of being marginalized and almost forgotten.
The second reason for hoping that new alternatives would emerge is that despite all of its nastiness and callousness, the settler-colonial Zionist project is not the worst in history. It did not commit genocide against the local population, and its dispossession project was not completed. This does not mean, however, that the situation will not worsen, or that one should underestimate the suffering of the Palestinians. What it means is that the main impulse among Palestinians is not for retribution, but for restitution. The wish is to live a normal life – something that Zionism has denied all Palestinians ever since its arrival in Palestine in the late nineteenth century. Normal life means an end to the discriminatory apartheid policies against Palestinians in Israel, the end of the military occupation and siege of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. The quid pro quo is accepting the Jewish ethnic group that emerged in Palestine as part of a new political outfit based on principles that would be agreed upon by all concerned.
The international community can play a positive role in bringing this vision about if it adopts three basic assumptions. The first is that Zionism is still colonialism, and hence anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism but anti-colonialism. The second is that if the international community leaves behind the exceptionalism it granted Israel over the years –mainly in the realm of human rights–, it has a better chance of playing a constructive role towards safeguarding these rights in the Middle East as a whole. And finally, we should all be aware that the window of opportunity for saving innocent lives in Israel and Palestine is rapidly closing down. It is urgent to forsake old formulae for peace that did not work and start looking for more viable alternatives.