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Israel’s Choice


Jerusalem: Returning to Israel after an extended absence can be a disturbing experience. On the way back from the airport to my Jerusalem apartment, I noticed new posters tacked onto utility poles and bridges along the highway. They read: Transfer= Peace and Security. The meaning was unambiguous: Israel must expel the 3 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories–and perhaps even its own Palestinian citizens–in order to achieve peace and security.

While racist slogans have become pervasive in Israel, it was this particular message–the notion of expulsion as a political solution–that unhinged me. One does not need to be a Holocaust survivor to recognize the phrase’s lethal implications. The slogan, however, does not merely underscore the moral bankruptcy of certain elements in Israeli society; it also helps uncover some of the inherent contradictions underlying Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.

From the extreme right (those behind the posters) to the radical left, Israelis agree on at least two points: The current crisis must be dealt with, and land is the major issue around which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict revolves. After more than two years of armed conflict, which has left close to 2,500 people dead–including 300 Palestinian and eighty Israeli children–most Israelis see the situation as hopeless, a view that is, ironically, shared by many Palestinians.

Israeli hopelessness does not stem merely from the Sharon government’s preference for military action over diplomacy (which despite its ruthlessness has not stabilized the situation), but also from the fact that public discourse has been colonized by military calculations, which undercut the possibility of even envisioning a positive change. The current absence of a political horizon helps explain why no one greeted the government’s announcement of early elections with any enthusiasm.

Most Israelis appear to understand that the doctrine advanced by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin and adopted by Sharon is no longer tenable, namely that the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty while the Palestinian population would be given some form of autonomy without receiving full citizenship. The Israeli left has rejected this solution for pragmatic and ethical reasons, recognizing that in Israel’s effort to maintain control over the territories it has become an apartheid regime.

Israel has introduced a segregated road system in the territories, transforming all major arteries into roads for Jews only. Palestinian villages and towns have consequently been turned into islands, hindering the population’s access to medical facilities, work and education. (According to UNICEF, close to a quarter-million Palestinian children cannot reach schools.) Not surprisingly, the Palestinian economy has also collapsed–a recent Israeli military report states that between 60 and 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Israelis on the left and right now realize that the conflict cannot be resolved under the current conditions, regardless of the amount of military force Israel employs. A new government will be expected to come up with new ideas. Although the situation is complex, there will be only three options from which to choose if we are to break the current impasse.

The first is the two-state solution. Even if the Labor Party’s new leader, former Gen. Amram Mitzna, ends up forming the next government, which is highly unlikely, it is not clear that he will have the courage to radically alter the Oslo format. This option, however, will be viable only if Israel implements a full withdrawal to the 1967 borders and dismantles all Jewish settlements, which now contain almost 400,000 people. While this may appear to be an impossible endeavor, one should keep in mind that when France finally ceded control of Algeria, it managed to evacuate a much larger number of French citizens.

The second option is the one proffered by the extreme right: the expulsion of all the Palestinians from their lands, forcefully transferring them to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria or Egypt. This idea, which until recently had been marginalized, is gaining broader support among the powers that be. Polls indicate that the National Union, a right-wing party advocating expulsion, is expected to receive 10 percent of the vote in the upcoming elections, and its members are not the only ones who are promoting this solution.

The third option is for Israel to annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip, bestowing full citizenship on the Palestinian population, and thus turning itself into a binational state rather than a Jewish one. This solution, which had been perceived by Palestinians as a betrayal of the struggle for self-determination, has recently gained legitimacy within the Palestinian establishment. While the binational option is, in a sense, the most democratic of the three, within Israel it is still considered an abomination not only by the right but also by Labor and the liberal Meretz.

If Israel’s next leader is to overcome the current crisis, he will have to decide whether to abandon the notion of a Jewish state, employ a policy used by the darkest regimes (not least the Third Reich) or dismantle the settlements and bring the Jewish settlers back home. Each of these options negates certain elements of the Zionist project, suggesting that the settlements constitute a contradiction; they are now destroying the very project that initiated and upheld them. They have come back to turn the Zionist dream into a nightmare.

Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University and is a contributor to The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal of Dissent (New Press 2002). He can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

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