Why the prisoner release reinforces the Occupied/Occupier relationship.

I don’t always agree with Jeffrey Goldberg, and I suppose that ultimately I’m not entirely in agreement with him now, but he’s raised an important point that I believe reflects a reality underlying the entire Israeli-Palestinian relationship, one that we (and in that “we,” I’m boldly including President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry) should bear in mind as peace negotiations move forward.

On Monday, Goldberg wrote that:

The government of Benjamin Netanyahu would sooner release murderers from prison than stop building apartments on the West Bank. In traditional Zionist thought…possession of all the biblical heartland wasn’t understood to be a moral and spiritual necessity, if such possession would undermine the safety of Israelis or the moral and political standing of Israel itself.

For members of Netanyahu’s party and his broader coalition, however, the possession of these biblical lands is paramount. They have become idol worshippers, and their idol is land. How else to explain what just happened: An Israeli government decided to venerate land over justice, and over life itself.

Yes, I agree with this. I agree that Israel’s right has forged a Golden Calf out of the occupied territories, and that it is willing to sacrifice (or overlook the sacrifice of) real human lives to the cult of that idol. I also agree that there is something essentially anti-Zionist about the entire process.

But I think that there is, in fact, an additional way, an even more essential way, to explain what just happened. Netanyahu’s actions—and those of 65 years of Israeli officialdom—also reflect something much less poetic, much less Biblical, much more banal, and fundamentally much more human.

When Israel releases Palestinian prisoners, the subtext is entirely of a piece with the subtext of the whole occupation infrastructure: We control your lives. We decide who may go where, and when. We build walls, we issue permits, we arrest, we release. Your lives—down to and including your very bodies—are under our control.

On the other hand, the subtext to freezing apartment building on the West Bank is “Palestinians are allowed to help shape Israel’s future as well as their own.” Adjusting the settlement enterprise, in any way, is an acknowledgement that Palestinians have a right to say something about it in the first place, and that’s something Israeli officials are not predisposed to acknowledge.

There are a number of reasons for this, not least that acknowledging Palestinian rights threatens Israel’s hold on the West Bank. Given that Israel’s government has long done all it can to deepen the occupation, the notion that Netanyahu will loosen that grip easily is a little fanciful (witness all the hard work Kerry has put in, and still the settlements grind on). And of course, as resonant as the prisoner release is for Palestinians, as emotionally challenging as it is for Israelis, sending a few dozen people back home (murderers or no) doesn’t actually change or threaten the occupation.

But beyond that, there’s all that subtext. Official Israel has almost never been able to acknowledge that Palestinians have a right to an independent opinion on any of this. The entire relationship has always been predicated on the presumption that Israel is in the right, the Palestinians are in the wrong, and only Israel may set the parameters of discussion and the region’s future.

Consider the language that official Israel so often uses: The government will or will not “allow” the establishment of a Palestinian state, it will “grant” the Palestinians this concession or that. Veteran negotiator Uri Savir discussed this very issue in his book about the Oslo Accords, The Process:

The bureaucrats and officers who ruled the Palestinians had been asked to pass on their powers to their ‘wards.’… We had been engaged in dehumanization for so long that we really thought ourselves ‘more equal’… [Those bureaucrats and officers] tended to begin by saying ‘We have decided to allow you…’.

Israelis and Palestinians like to believe ourselves special and our conflict unique, but bottom line, this is classic Subject/Other, Occupied/Occupier behavior.

When men tell women how they may be women; when white Americans define citizenship for black Americans; when the US forcibly transferred Native American children to white schools and Japanese Americans to internment camps; when Israel threw a fit because Palestinians had the gall to use the word “state” before Israel had said they could—in all such cases, people in positions of power tell those with less power who they are and what they may do. The Subject strips the Object of agency, and then reacts very badly when the Object reclaims that which has been taken.

Releasing Palestinian prisoners reminds the Palestinian people who’s boss; freezing settlements gives them part in the project at hand. The first comes to Israel very easily—as for the latter, we’ll have to see what Secretary Kerry can do.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.


Why Blast When You Can—And Do—Build?


Maaleh Adumim.

As a long-time observer of Israeli government policy vis-à-vis the Palestinian people, I don’t understand why Israel’s leaders feel they must loudly trumpet their opposition to Palestinian statehood and/or basic rights. On any given day, we get to hear that virtually anything Palestinians do or say is The! Worst! Thing! Ever! (and, of course, woe betide any who might venture the opinion that, hey, maybe not).

I say this because, as per the usual, the hyperbole surrounding yesterday’s statehood vote at the United Nations General Assembly was a thing to behold: Palestinian President Abbas’s decision to go to the U.N. was “pure diplomatic terror”! His speech was “venomous”! Members of Knesset try to burn the Palestinian flag!

Yet if we’re to be brutally frank, bluster and threats are entirely unnecessary. Israel doesn’t need to convince the world of its position or to take extreme measures to make sure that Palestine’s nascent statehood dies in the cradle. All Israel needs to do is stay its decades-long course and keep sending out bulldozers.

Witness the report that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s morning-after response to the statehood vote is 3000 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as expedited work in the E-1 “envelope,” a development project intended to geographically join Jerusalem to the settlement of Maaleh Adumim and thus cut the West Bank in half. And thus destroy territorial contiguity for any Palestinian state. And thus drive a final nail in the coffin of the notion of two-state peace.

Though impressive in scope, there is, in fact, nothing new in these plans—indeed, even though Netanyahu committed to President Obama upon taking office that he would not build in E-1, that piece of it can’t be considered a breach with the past either. After all, Israel is forever promising the U.S. one thing and then doing quite another, in particular with regard to the settlements.

Remember the 2003 George W. Bush-backed Road Map to Peace? Here’s what Israel agreed to there, signing its name alongside that of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia:

Government of Israel immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001; consistent with the Mitchell Report, GOI freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).

Yeah. Not so much.

And remember the vaunted/vilified ten-month “settlement freeze” of 2009? In response to pressure from the Obama administration, Netanyahu announced a ten-month moratorium on building in the West Bank (though very pointedly not in the legal fiction that is East Jerusalem) in November; on January 1, 2010, Haaretzreported that

Despite the construction freeze, dozens of settlements in the West Bank are experiencing a building boom… According to data collected by Dror Etkes of Yesh Din, and by Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, construction is being carried out in more than 50 settlements and in two other industrial zones.

All this building was made possible largely by the fact that while the White House was wrangling with Netanyahu earlier in the year, construction crews were furiously pouring foundations—because any construction already underway was allowed to continue under the “freeze.”

And just in case anyone’s harboring any doubts about what might happen after Israel’s upcoming elections—the results of the recent Likud primaries should serve as a bracing corrective.

Yesterday’s UNGA vote was a historic moment, and who can tell but some lasting, tangible good may come of it. I don’t know how individual Palestinians are feeling about their nation having achieved “non-member observer state” status. Honestly, if it were me, I imagine I might have wept last night, and possibly thrown a party.

But I’m not Palestinian, and from where I sit, the vote hardly matters. Unless and until the international community, and at its head the President of the United States, should decide to hold Israel to international law and its own signed commitments, a right-wing led Israel will continue to take daily unilateral action to change the facts on the ground so that a viable Palestinian state becomes a literal impossibility.

No heartrending hasbara necessary.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.