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Zombie Ideas and the Presbyterian Divestment Decision


At this moment it is right to celebrate unreservedly  the outcome of the vote in Presbyterian General Assembly decreeing the divestment of $21 million worth of shares in Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard, and Caterpillar, companies long and notoriously associated with implementing Israel’s unlawful occupation policies in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza. This carries forward the momentum of the BDS Campaign and recent efforts emanating from the UN and the EU to induce governments, as well as corporations and financial institutions to become aware that it is increasingly viewed as problematic under international law to profit from dealings with Israel’s settlements and occupation security mechanisms.

It is much too soon to suggest a cascading effect from recent moves in this direction, but the mainstreaming of the divestment and boycott campaigns in a major achievement of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement that is displacing the moribund ‘peace process’ that in recent months dramatized the extent to which the Israeli Government is not interested in a favorable negotiated solution even as mediated by partisan U.S. mediation mechanisms and in relation to a weak Palestinian Authority that seems readier to offer concessions than to seek compromises that incorporate Palestinian rights under international law.

The Presbyterian decision, itself vetted by an elaborate debate and producing a text crafted to narrow the distance between supporters and opponents of divestment did not address issues of context such as Israel’s formal approval of settlement expansion, the Knesset election of a new Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin*, who favors the annexation of the entire West Bank and Jerusalem, and the collapsed negotiations between the parties prompted a year ago by the Kerry diplomatic onslaught. In this regard the Presbyterian decision includes language affirming Israel’s right to exist, encouraging inter-faith dialogue and visits to the Holy Land, distancing the divestment move from BDS, urging a ‘positive investment’ in activities that improves the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis, and endorsing the two-state solution should be understood mainly as expressions of intra-Presbyterian politics, and not be interpreted as serious substantive positions. Such an interpretation of what is significant and what is not about this outcome is reinforced by the reported feverish lobbying of pro-Israeli NGOs against the decision, including by the Anti-Defamation League and taking the form of an open letter to the Assembly signed by 1,700 rabbis from all 50 states that together constitute the United States. The most ardent backers of Israel may now pooh-pooh the decision, but this seems like sour grapes considering their all out effort made to avoid such a pro-divestment result, which is sure to have a variety of ripple effects.

 

  • Mr. Rivlin, a Likud Party member of the Knesset, is a follower of the rightest inspirational figure, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, an early Zionist leader who favored a Jewish state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine. At the same time Rivlin is a social and political liberal favoring equal rights for Jews and Palestinians, including giving Palestinians the vote and the chance to govern if they achieve electoral success. Netanyahu, also from Likud and a follower of Jabotinsky, has claimed since 2009 conditionally to support the establishment of some kind of Palestinian state, but acts as if this will never happen under his watch, and in the meantime is totally illiberal in his support for harsh rule in occupied Palestine.

 

Because it reflects false consciousness, it may not be too soon to challenge the Presbyterian text for its ‘endorsement’ of the two-state solution. It seems to me to illustrate what Paul Krugman in another context called ‘the Zombie doctrine,’ namely, the retention of an idea, thoroughly discredited by evidence and the realities of the situation, but somehow still affirmed because it serves useful political purposes. Here, it enables the church divestment move to be reconciled with signals that the Prsebyterian Church is not departing from the official consensus among Western governments and the Palestinian Authority as to how the conflict is to be finally resolved. What this overlooks is the utter disdain for such a solution that is evident in Israel’s recent behavior, as well as the situation created by a half million Israeli settlers and over 100 settlements.

Some suggest that the Palestinian Authority is equally responsible for the diplomatic breakdown because it acted like a state by signing on to some international conventions angering Israel and then establishing a technocratic interim government as part of a reconciliation agreement with Hamas that angered Israel even more. It seems clear enough that if Israel had been genuinely interested in a grand accommodation with the Palestinians it would welcome such moves as creating the political basis for a more sustainable peace. More significantly, these moves by the PA followed upon overtly provocative announcements by Israeli official sources about approving plans for major settlement expansions and were overtly linked to Israel’s failure to follow through with agreed arrangements for the release of Palestinian prisoners. Despite Kerry’s cajoling and pleading with the Israeli leadership to keep the diplomatic path open, Israel defied Washington. In this political atmosphere, to retain any credibility among the Palestinians, the PA also had to act as if there was nothing to be gained by keeping the negotiations on life support.

With all due respect to the Presbyterian drafters of the text, it is not helpful to Palestinians, Israelis, and even Americans to lengthen the half-life of the two-state solution. Zombie ideas block constructive thought and action. Israeli right-wing advocate of an Israeli one-state solution are coming out of the closet in a manner that expresses their new hopes for their preferred solution. Those who favor a just and sustainable peace should abandon the pretension that separate states are any longer feasible, if ever desirable. It has become important to derail two-state discourse, which is at best now diversionary. The only futures worth pondering under current conditions is whether there will emerge from the ruins of the present either a political community of the two peoples that becomes an Israeli governed apartheid state or somehow there arises a secular and democratic bi-national state with human rights for all ethnicities and religious identities each protected on the basis of equality.

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