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The State of Utopia

It is difficult to believe that three weeks ago the main news item in Israel was Netanyahu’s endorsement of the two state solution. Notwithstanding the coverage his Bar Ilan address received, within days, it had largely slipped from public consciousness. … Read More

By / July 6, 2009

It is difficult to believe that three weeks ago the main news item in Israel was Netanyahu’s endorsement of the two state solution. Notwithstanding the coverage his Bar Ilan address received, within days, it had largely slipped from public consciousness. While Obama’s Cairo speech continues to reverberate throughout the Middle East, the Israeli prime minister’s so-called acceptance of the "leftist" program has left no marks. The dismissive reception that Netanyahu received when he traveled to Europe afterwards, coupled with persistently blatant demands—even from Silvio Berlusconi—to cease all settlement construction in the Occupied Territories shows how little Netanyahu was taken seriously by Israel’s so-called best friends. Recent developments in the Mideast and, more specifically, the unfolding political crisis in Iran, could only spuriously be blamed for the Israeli public’s alleged amnesia. The actual culprit: the internal dynamics of Israeli political culture and its observation of its own deeply ingrained rituals. Benjamin Netanyahu had simply undertaken what has become a necessary exercise for every new prime minister, in particular those who trace their political roots to the Likud Party. Like Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon before him (and Rabin, Peres and Barak, the leaders of the Labor Party before them), Netanyahu was forced to renounce the vision of one big Israel between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and embrace the idea of a sovereign Palestinian state. The other components of Netanyahu’s speech are likewise highly routinized. Such a speech must reference the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, (he did that) and note the current threats to its existence (Iran). It is likewise necessary to assert that Israel has always endeavored to resolve the conflict with its neighbors, and that the blame for the failure of these endeavors lies with the other side (the Palestinians). One must also enumerate Israel’s preconditions for future negotiations—the other party should recognize Israel as a Jewish state, give up its claims over Jerusalem, withdraw its demand for the right of return for refugees and agree to a demilitarization, and begin negotiations without preconditions. Reactions to Netanyahu’s “change of heart” by members of Israel’s political establishment were also equally predictable. Whereas politicians and activists from the right clamored and protested the Prime Minister’s words as a sell-out to the Americans, a capitulation to the left, etc. etc., the Israeli center and Zionist left rooted for Netanyahu’s bold, groundbreaking move. Whereas the settlers and their allies continue to tighten their grip over the territories designated for a future Palestinian state, the Israeli center and left, now satisfied that its position is universally accepted, awaits further international pressure that would force Israel’s leader to undertake serious action. If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The empty, highly ritualistic character of the affair – the announcement of ‘new position’, followed by predictable responses, and, ultimately, an unchanged status quo on the ground – leaves little room for interpretation. These are all simply gestures, and hollow ones at that, which do nothing other than cover up a fundamental commitment to maintaining the occupation by all of Israel’s major political parties. One need only think of the settlement project to gauge how persistent and widespread this commitment truly is. In the seventeen years since Israel was first coerced (by the administration of George Bush Sr.) to acknowledge Palestinian national rights on the west bank of the Jordan, the number of Jewish settlers residing in the Occupied Territories (excluding the Golan Heights) has nearly tripled, much of it under the guise of “natural growth.” It should be recalled time and again in this context that Labor governments were at fault as much, if not more, than Likud and Kadima governments in nurturing this so-called “natural growth,” as was the international community, in its ultimate consent to this situation as well. Under these circumstances, the reaction of the Israeli left has been consistently troubling. Despite appearances, progressives are as responsible for the current state of affairs as the Israeli right. While most Israelis continue to express their support for a two state solution, only a handful of radicals on the left acknowledge that it is not a magic spell, and cannot not be realized without Israelis paying a huge price for its prosecution. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis would have to be relocated; precious resources, water in particular, would have to be ceded; the Israeli economy would stand to suffer, at least initially, great losses once it loses one of its biggest (captive) markets; and Israel would have to bear the lion’s share of the cost not only for the rebuilding of the Palestinian infrastructure and economy which, in the past decade, it has brought to a standstill, but also for the resettlement of those Palestinian refugees who would not be allowed into Israel. While most Israelis are willing to grant Palestinians a state, they are willing to do so under the illusion that if this is to happen (and most don’t believe it actually will), Israel would immediately benefit from it, while others, namely, the settlers, the Palestinians, and the international community, would underwrite the human and monetary price for it. The Israeli left is equally to blame for failing to acknowledge that the implementation of a peace agreement would not be a "peaceful parting of ways", as the Peace Now slogan once proclaimed but, will be painful,  even traumatic. Simultaneously, the Israeli left has failed to educate the Israeli public about the cost of maintaining indefinite control over the Occupied Territories, not only for Palestinians, but also for Israelis themselves. Thus, the persistence of the two state solution in Israeli politics is not a mark of political pragmatism but, rather, of continuous ideological blindness. Herein lies the effectiveness of public rituals such as Netanyahu’s two state speech. Despite the parliamentary powerlessness of the left, the Israeli public still follows its ideological lead, as Netanyahu’s growing approval rating following his Bar Ilan address shows. Widespread support accorded to the two state solution by Israelis turns it into something to which it is worth paying lip service. At the same time, affirming support for the two state solution also disingenuously promotes the false notion that peace does not require any effort or concessions either. It is in this context that we should remember Ariel Sharon’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza. The disastrous outcome of that move must be traced to Sharon and Olmert’s belief that Israel could force a resolution such that its cost for Israelis would be largely contained, limited to the 8,000 or so Jewish settlers that were relocated to Israel, and to the Palestinians who would bear the brunt of the Israeli redeployment. From an Israeli perspective, the relocation of a handful of settlers seemed like a truly meager price to pay particularly in comparison to the growing difficulties of military operations in the defense of such a small community. What the four years since the implementation of Sharon’s plan have shown us is that the cost cannot be easily contained, and that all involved continue to pay a huge price, some much more dearly than others. Due to its myriad failings, the Israeli left has once again pinned its hope on outsiders, on the international community, and on the US in particular, both to bear the cost of the resolution of the larger conflict (and thus make the bitter pill more palatable) as well as to force Israel to resume some measure of responsibility for what others will not pay on its behalf. As this pressure mounts and yields some results (for example, the pressure recently exerted by the Obama administration), and as the Israeli government is forced to announce partial limits on construction in Jewish settlements, celebratory voices are again being heard on the left. Yet, the Israeli left’s fundamentally passive attitude remains dangerously unchanged. Until Israeli progressives confront such paralyzing limitations, and do more than simply produce useful rhetoric that can be coopted to uphold the status quo, it will remain impossible to imagine an end to six decades of war with the Palestinians. That’s why it remains up to Israelis to decide whether they are truly willing to pay the price for resolving this conflict. As long as Israelis continue to think of the resolution of the conflict in utopian terms, notwithstanding the pressure that the US and the international community periodically puts on Israel to reinvigorate the peace process, the “two state solution” is going to remain an ideology, periodically pronounced in ritualized speeches, with little effect on the lives of Jews and Palestinians in the region.

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