[Prefatory Note: The text below is a modified version of remarks made at the opening plenary session of the “1st Global Conference on Israeli Apartheid: Dimensions, Repercussions and the Means to Combat It,” 29-30 November 2019, Istanbul. The conference was held under the joint auspices of the Global Organization against Racial Discrimination & Segregation and the Union of NGOs of the Islamic World, with opening statements by the respective presidents of the two organizations, Rima Khalaf (who was the director of ESCWA at the time the apartheid study, “Israeli Practices toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” was commissioned by ESCWA in 2016, and written by Professor Virginia Tilley and myself) and by Ali Kurt. The conference was loosely structured around the theme of updating our report since its release on March 15, 2017. The Conference Program is appended at the end of my remarks. The undertaking of the conference was also to launch a new NGO as named above, and formally established in Geneva, headed by Rima Khalaf, and devoted to opposing racism worldwide, with priority given to opposing Israel/Palestine apartheid.]
Our experience with the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) as authorts of the Report owes so much to the courage, dedication, and vision of Rima Khalaf, and this conference is itself a testimonial to the leadership she exhibited. She had the audacity to treat the UN as if it were what it was meant to be– an independent body representing the peoples of the world that seeks truth, respects law, and promotes peace and justice. In the age of Trump to act honorably in this manner is obviously ‘politically incorrect,’ that is, daring to act in the most admirable possible way from the perspective of human interests.
The firestorm that greeted the release of our report, what might be described as a ‘HalleyStorm’ exceeded the hostile pushback we expected after the report was formally released by ESCWA. I thought such an academic study would go largely unnoticed except by the most ardent Zionist watchdogs, especially since the text was preceded by a very visible disclaimer distancing the UN and ESCWA from our analysis and recommendations. By overreacting our high-profile attackers at the UN seemed to miscalculate, or maybe putting it better, contented themselves with scoring points in the short game, while giving away many more points in the long game that will ultimately determine the outcome of the Palestinian struggle for basic rights.
The attention given at UN Headquarters in New York City by the defamatory attacks launched by Ambassadors Halley & Danon greatly increased interest in our report, especially in civil society circles. What has happened in the two plus years since the ESCWA release in March 2017 has been to normalize the use of ‘apartheid’ to describe the Israeli/Palestine relationship, and governing structure, particularly in civil society circles. More than this, the apartheid discourse has influentially eroded, if not altogether superseded, the emphasis on ‘ending occupation’ as the clarion call of those seeking a sustainable and just peace for Israel and Palestine. In illuminating contrast, the report exerted little influence on the inter-governmental or formal UN discourse, which continued the zombie practice of dwelling on the occupation and placing hopes and bets on the two-state solution. I think there exists a growing consensus among pro-Palestinian activists that ending Israel apartheid as doctrine and practice now constitutes the one and only path to a sustainable peace. Of course, total ethnic cleansing or genocide is an outcome too distasteful to contemplate, leading to what should be termed an ‘unjust peace’ or ‘imposed peace’ and certainly not ‘a peaceful solution.’ Unfortunately, it has historical resonance whenever the context is one of settler colonialism. Resistance encountered in several settler colonial settings including the United States, Canada, and Australia resulted in the suppression, marginalization, and dispossession of the native people, and on occasion by genocidal means.
Conceptually and existentially our report revealed the links between allegations and findings relating to apartheid as a criminalized form of racism in international criminal law to a sinister politics of fragmentation and dispersal by which Israel has victimized and subjugated the Palestinian people in a variety of ways. What made this linkage of fragmentation and apartheid so important was that it was an inclusive way of understanding the scope of the distinctiveness of Israeli apartheid, embracing refugees, exiles, minority, and occupied Palestine in a single indivisible framework of victimization by way of racist domination of one ethnicity over another. This meant that if apartheid, as thus understood, were to be credibly dismantled, it would have to give equal status to Palestinians formerly marginalized or ignored by the long prevailing peace formula of expectations arising from an emphasis on the ‘land for peace’ slogan. In this manner our study privileges ‘people’ as distinguished from ‘territory’ as the core of the challenge of finding that elusive path leading to sustainable and just peace, as distinguished from the geopolitically manipulated Oslo peace process, which could never have achieved, even if an agreement had somehow emerged, more than a ceasefire disguised by being proclaimed by the negotiating parties as a permanent solution, or even worse, as ‘the deal of the century.’
We understand our task at this conference to be partly one of updating our ESCWA study in light of what has transpired since March 15, 2017 and partly to draw some interpretative perspectives and policy implications that derive from the study but were not contained in it. We have submitted separate updating papers that summarize our understanding of the changes relevant to the apartheid discourse as applied to Israel. In the papers we express somewhat differing understandings on some secondary issues, although in complete agreement on the core issue of the evidence support. Yet more significant is our shared acceptance of the basic apartheid framework as indispensable for useful analysis and policy formation, which is joined to our belief that dismantling apartheid, as we have conceptualized it, is the one and only gateway to sustainable peace between these two peoples. Underneath this conviction is my somewhat counterintuitive view that Israeli Jews would also be beneficiaries of the ending apartheid in Israel just as the white South Africans were 25 years ago.
Problematics of Ethnocracy and Partition: Decoding the Zionist Project
Although not part of the original study, understanding the development of the dominant tendencies in the Zionist movement is crucial for the changing character of the relationship between Zionism and the relevance of the right of self-determination to the particular circumstances in Palestine. Of central relevance is the specific nature of Zionist opportunism when it comes to shaping policy. It changes through time, and is most basically expressed by grasping at what is available at each stage, without considering what was sought at prior stages or treating an acceptance of what was being offered in the present as the end of the road. From seeming to settle for a homeland, rather than a state in the Balfour/League formulations to the reluctant acceptance of the partition approach foisted on Palestine after World War II, to the current posture of, in effect, calling for Palestinian surrender in their own homeland, Zionism has kept raising its expectations ever closer to its underlying ambitions and its interpretation of the relevant balances of power and influence internally, regionally, and globally.
In many ways, and less often articulated, the Palestinian national movement for understandable reasons has taken what seems an opposite approach to that of the Zionist Project and later Israeli leadership. Palestinians quite reasonably rejected as unacceptable what was being offered to them at every stage of the conflict, which had they accepted it would have been seen as a political defeat. And somewhat ironically, the White House handshake between Rabin and Arafat symbolizing the mutual acceptance of the Oslo framework to resolve the conflict, which was portrayed at the time as a dramatic breakthrough leading to peace, turned out to be a disastrous tactical move by the Palestinian leadership. Oslo diplomacy allowed Israeli propagandists to portrays the Palestinian leadership as rejectionist as it seemed to be insisting on demands that were non-negotiable when what it was actually doing was trying to do was to avoid further encroachments on Palestinian land and rights, which were being continually diminished on the ground and by way of partisan brokered diplomacy. As Israelis consistently looked ahead on the basis of ever higher expectations, Palestinians looked backward in time ready to settle at a later stage for what they had rejected as a previous stage. Illustratively, when partition gave Palestinians 45% of the territory it seemed like and was treated as a totally unacceptable external fracturing of the unity of Palestine as a territorial polity and a disregard of the most elemental rights of its majority population, but later on the Palestinian leadership seemed ready to accept even 22% of Mandate Palestine as the boundaries of their greatly shrunken state. By then Israel, in contrast, was insisting on the total control of Jerusalem, a variety of security infringements on Palestinian sovereignty, including border control and permanent Palestinian demilitarization, as well, of course, as retention of the unlawful settlement blocs established on territory occupied in 1967. The Palestine Papers, document disclosing later secret direct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, involve a portrayal of this clash between Palestinian expectations then lowered even below the 22% threshold as Israeli actions and demands were no longer content with a mere 78% of the land, positing demands in various devastating ways on the Palestinian territorial remnant, including even diverting the water aquifers of the West Bank. It is worth noting that what Israel seemed to be demanding in its pre-Trump diplomacy was the Gazaization of any future Palestine entity, that is, Gaza after the Sharon disengagement plan was put into operation in 2005 that did involve the withdrawal of IDF occupation force, really their redeployment and even the dismantling of Israel settlements.
In addition to Zionist opportunism and this distorted picture of Palestinian rejectionism in relation to respective diplomatic postures, there are two other features of Zionist practice that have undermined the Palestinian pursuit of basic rights. First, the hegemonic political discourse used at any given time is calibrated by Israel to fit changing external circumstances of constraint and opportunity. In recent times, without Trump, and possibly lacking Saudi approval, for instance, it is doubtful that Israel would have moved to annex the Golan Heights or engaged in actions to treat the settlements as incorporated into Israel as a matter of law, although both moves were undoubtedly featured on the actual long-range Zionist agenda even if not realizable under present conditions. Secondly, the disclosed changing Israeli policy agenda at each stage in the evolution of the struggle never corresponded with the actual, and relatively fixed, agenda. Perhaps, very recently this dual agenda is no longer part of the Zionist tactical approach as the Netanyahu/Kushner victory scenario is being quietly and misleadingly promoted as a. strategic endgame for the struggle. This coming into the open is coupled with an insidious suggestion that Israel tighten even further the apartheid screws to compel a Palestinian surrender, or as phrased by its advocates, the unfinished Zionist business being to convince the Palestinian leadership of the reality of their ‘lost cause.’
The apartheid discourse seems useful in demonstrating that this kind of Israeli endgame will not finish the struggle but merely prolong it, at most, generating yet another ceasefire that is almost certain to be followed by yet another intifada, or some other expression of resurgent Palestinian resistance. The world might is currently ignoring the significance of the sustained and innovative resistance under the most difficult circumstances of the Great March of Return. Palestinians and their supporters understand this dramatic form of resistance for what it is, a decisive repudiation of ‘the lost cause’ endgame, which is itself the more discreet form of describing the victory scenario. This scenario has been given its most forthright formulation by the Zionist extremist, Daniel Pipes, which can be viewed in all its crass ugliness on the pages of his website vehicle, Middle East Forum. The essential argument put forth by Pipes is that diplomacy has been tried and failed, and now is the time to end the conflict by its coercive resolution, which means making clear that Israel has won and Palestine has lost. All that remains to be done is to make the Palestinians see this reality, and since they stubbornly refuse to do, apply force and various types of soft power aggression until they finally give into the pain, and accept their defeat by a formal acknowledgement of surrender.
I believe this context makes the apartheid diagnosis and prescription more important than ever, first to grasp the full existential scope of the Palestinian ordeal, and then to envision that despite everything that has transpired, peaceful coexistence on the basis of realizing a regime of ethnic equality remains a possibility, and indeed it is the only positive alternative to permanent conflict or further ethnic cleansing.
We know that the present arrangement of forces, regionally and geopolitically will not last forever. It currently appears extremely favorable to Israel, but if the next phase of Arab awakening brings to power leaders more receptive to the views and values of their own people, the Arab politics of accommodation and appeasement would likely be quickly repudiated, and replaced overnight by a more confrontational approach. And even the current hyper-partisan support of the United States is not assured. If the Republicans are defeated in 2020 presidential elections, the policy toward Israel is likely to revert to its earlier posture of partisanship rather than its present absurd hyper-partisanship. This means, in more concrete terms, a revival of mainstream ‘liberal Zionist’ advocacy of a two-state solution and a diplomacy based on a supposed need for mutual political compromise. It was the approach most clearly articulated and promoted in the American presidencies of Clinton and Obama. Of course, without changes within Israel this revival of liberal Zionism as the basis of American foreign policy will not reverse or diminish Israeli expectations or end the Palestinian ordeal. For this reason, whether Trumpism persists or is replaced by a more moderate presidency, the responsibility for a sustainable peace will depend on the growth and deepening of global solidarity with the Palestinian struggle in all societal settings, which include governments, the UN, and above all, civil society.
Even if we achieve a civil society consensus on this apartheid analysis, it will not be enough to produce change. We need also to act on the basis that ending Israeli apartheid is the one and only path to peace. In the present setting, it is also evident that neither diplomacy nor the UN will endorse the apartheid analysis unless pushed very hard from below, and even many segments of the Palestinian leadership and movement are reluctant to do so. In this sense, work remains on the level of ideas organization as it is crucial to achieve a higher degree of doctrinal and organizational unity than presently exists.
For action, with the notable exception of South Africa and a few other governments, this burden of action principally falls on civil society at this stage. We can hope that with an expanding movement of people more governments and the UN may be gradually led to join the effort. What the South African precedent tells us is that what seemed impossible until it happened, became possible all of a sudden because sufficient pressure had been brought to bear over time by robust resistance within and militant solidarity efforts without. Over time this combination of pressures exerted sufficient pressures on the Afrikaner leadership to bring about its tactical transformation. There was no change of heart, but a recognition that the cost of maintaining apartheid were too high, and that many of the white privileges of apartheid could be retained by negotiating the replacement of political and legal apartheid by a multi-racial constitutional order. It goes without saying that Israel is not South Africa, and that Palestinians remain disunited with respect to representation and lack the sort of inspirational leadership that proved to be so valuable in the South African anti-apartheid movement. At the same time, we should never forget that the anti-colonial flow of history remains the dominant international trend of our time, and may yet bring the Israeli elite to their senses. A genuine post-apartheid peace will benefit Jews and Palestinians alike—this is the affirmation of peace and justice that follows from the negation of apartheid.
On the basis of present analysis and past experience we know what needs to be done, and so now the main challenge needs to be met in the doing, with a vigilant eye toward ever changing circumstances of struggle, constraints as well as opportunities.