The Road to Apartheid

Cape Town beach. South Africa, 1985.

Israel’s “…presence in all of Judea and Samaria — not just in the so-called settlement blocs — is an irreversible fact. Trying to stop settlement expansion is futile, and neglecting this fact in diplomatic talks will not change the reality on the ground; it only makes the negotiations more likely to fail.”

So said Dani Dayan in an op-ed in the New York Times on Thursday. Dayan is the secular chairman of the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria (the right-wing term for the West Bank), which is an umbrella group covering the municipal councils of all West Bank settlements.

Predictably, progressive groups in the United States rushed to express their outrage at Dayan’s view, and the danger it poses to the two-state solution and Israel’s future. All of that outrage is understandable, except it misses one crucial point: Dayan is right.

It’s not that the settlement project cannot be stopped and reversed. It certainly can. But it requires international pressure on Israel, especially from the United States. And that is not going to happen in any foreseeable future. And that’s why Dayan is right.

Consider the excellent and spirited rebuttal to Dayan by Lara Friedman of Americans For Peace Now. Friedman sums up her argument: “In short, the settlement enterprise is patently immoral and spectacularly unwise, from the point of view of anyone who cares about Israel and its survival as a democracy and a Jewish state.” And, of course, she’s quite correct.

But where it all falls down is in another part of Friedman’s argument. She writes: “Israel is a democracy, with one of the strongest armies in the world. If an Israeli government decides to remove settlements, it has the ability to do so. In this context, could Dayan’s words be understood as a threat, similar to the threat implicit in the settlers’ ‘Price Tag’ campaign? The goal of such a threat would be to scare and intimidate, by sending a message: don’t dare try to confront us or the price will be high.”

Yes, the Israeli military could do that, but the reality is that no Israeli leader has ever even begun to consider a massive confrontation with the settlers with the aim of removing a substantial number of them from their current habitat. Oh, there are plans for small-scale confrontations, and there has been some training of Israeli forces to deal with settlers who attack Israel Defense Forces soldiers. But there have been no preparations or training of any kind that would begin to contemplate a large-scale confrontation even to target the 160,000 or so settlers who live outside the so-called “settlement blocs,” the large, built-up towns Israel has been essentially promised by the United States they will keep in any two-state formulation.

And why are there no such plans? Quite simply, because there has never been any intention of causing the political rupture within Israel such an action would cause. As I’ve explained before, withdrawal of significant numbers of settlers involves grave political risks for any Israeli leader, and serious sacrifices, especially of water resources, for Israel as a whole. No country, not Israel or any other, takes that on for moral reasons, or even the long-term health of their own society.

Only strong political pressure makes such a thing happen. Such forces build over time, and all indications in the United States, Europe and Israel don’t just point to an absence of such forces; they indicate quite the opposite. The forces supporting an institutional apartheid from the Jordan to the Mediterranean are gathering strength while progressive forces continue to cling to formulas that have clearly failed.

The mainstream peace movements in the United States, Europe and Israel still seem to have their collective heads in the sand about this, but the settlers have won the battle. What is needed is acceptance of that reality and some new tactics to allow progressive victory in the broader war, which centers on the basic human rights of millions of innocent Palestinians and on a future where the world’s only Jewish state is a democracy rather than an apartheid bastion of bigotry.

Police enforcing segregation. Johannesburg, 1982.

Dayan actually did us all a favor, but like so many other opportunities, the timidity of the left seems likely to prevent our using this public statement as the clarion call to action it could be. Dayan’s complete disregard of Palestinian rights of any kind make clear the apartheid present that exists undeniably on the West Bank and is the future Israel as a whole is heading toward.  Yet instead of using this to spur action, it seems that there will be a lot of hand-wringing over the horrible threat the settlers are to a two-state solution that is not attainable in the foreseeable future, and how scary the settlers are.

What is lost in all of that is that the left is missing its chance to formulate a proactive, rather than a reactive strategy for dealing with the post-Oslo chapter of the sordid history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s an opportunity the right is certainly not missing. And one wonders just what it is going to take for progressive forces to recognize that we need to shift gears and address the failure, after two decades, of a system that depended on the goodwill of not only the Israeli and American governments, but also of a Fatah leadership that has proven itself venal, corrupt and incompetent.

So, what then? If one is unconvinced that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs can live together in a secular democracy, and one also acknowledges that Oslo is dead, what is left? Some form of binationalism, perhaps within a federated state which permits freedom of movement for all throughout the land? A new two-state formulation that starts from scratch, abandons the assumptions of Oslo and is based on a foundation of equal rights, equal security, and protection of all human, civil and political rights for both Israelis and Palestinians (the absence of which was perhaps the most essential and basic flaw of an Oslo plan that seemed from the outset to treat such rights as sacrosanct only for Israelis)?

I suspect the answer is one of those latter two options. But neither seems to have much of an audience. Most one-staters on the progressive side seem committed to a secular democracy that makes great sense in theory, but which I think Dayan and his ilk, and their counterparts on the Palestinian side, will turn into a bloodbath in practice. Two-staters are clinging to Oslo, yet are unwilling to support political movements to create any significant pressure on Israel, whether through BDS, the United Nations or any other road that doesn’t ram into the immovable force that is Washington’s unconditional shielding of Israel, no matter the consequences to Palestinians, Israelis, US interests and Middle East stability.

And all the while, there is more than ample evidence that the right is preparing for a one-state future. In the US, we have seen the massive increase in the influence of deep pocketed rejectionists like Sheldon Adelson and Irving Moskowitz. This has manifested in the Republican National Committee adopting a one-state platform earlier this year. J Street has noticed, as they are now launching a campaign against what they call the “One-State Caucus” in Congress.

In Israel, we have seen the long-term drift rightward that now has left the Knesset bereft of any party that even half-heartedly represents the two-state solution most Israelis still support. That has left a vacuum which has been filled by the bizarre Levy Commission Report, and by Dayan and his Yesha Council.

Mainstream two-staters have made some progress in fundraising and media outreach in recent years, but they cannot match the entrenched lobby in either category. Yet, they take up the lion’s share of the resources, while resisting any substantive political pressure on Israel and clinging to the failed plans of the past.

One-staters have also increased their fundraising and, especially, their media impact. But they remain dwarfed in both realms by the two-staters. They have a plan, even if I don’t entirely agree with it. But they are at least advocating something that isn’t a proven failure yet, and, frankly, there seems to a lot more creativity, outside-the-box thinking, populism that transcends group identity and energy in this group.

The first step is obvious, yet seems almost as unthinkable as Benjamin Netanyahu waking up tomorrow  and deciding to uproot every settler beyond the Green Line. These disparate groups have to find a way to work together. To date, they have all impressed me with their ability to rationalize why they can’t work with peace groups who share some, but not all of their goals.

When we see Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street with Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace, Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada and Warren Clark of Churches for Middle East Peace all sitting down to strategize together, and when we see that replicated in Europe and in Israel and the Occupied Territories, we might be seeing the start of a progressive movement that might be able to have some real impact on this conflict.

And until then, we’re likely to see the forces of occupation, settlements, conflict and, yes, apartheid and terrorism remain triumphant.

Cape Town and Johannesburg photos courtesy of United Nations Photo. Published under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Thanks very much for this astute analysis, Mitchell.

    I heard Sarah Roy (Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University) speak at the University of Washington in May, 2007. She flatly stated then that the two state solution is dead – much to the shock of many in her audience.

    Obama has moved ever rightward on the Israel-Palestine situation in order to shore up his chances for winning reelection. I think there is no chance he will reverse his position if he does win. The results will be even worse if he does not.

  2. I went to the “infamous” One State conference at Harvard awhile ago and Mitchell is right: the one staters are trying to be creative (and humane and responsible) and are facing reality head on. Partners for Progressive Israel published a kibbutznik last week stating that the 2-state option is dead and that we need to grapple with how one state will function. Now Mitchell comes along with this spot-on piece! So the admission of where we’re really at instead of where we’d like to be is spreading just a teeny bit in the Jewish community. Mitchell is correct, however: first Israel will finish transforming itself into an apartheid state and American Jews will turn new somersaults to justify it. Then, the Bundists will turn out to be right: the most Jews will be able to hope for (and have to work for), because of their own misguidedness, is a healthy, safe minority status in yet another gentile country — Muslim Palestine.

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