The Amazing Shrinking Palestinian National Issue

March 22, 2015
July 2, 2016
Middle East

Those witnessing the reaction to the recent Israeli general elections in the European or American press, or at least a certain and very particular segment of it, could be forgiven for thinking that something major and unprecedented had occurred Monday night. Forget for a moment that Benjamin Netanyahu, who at just under ten years served has enjoyed the second longest tenure in Israeli history, is the incumbent Prime Minister of six years. Also forget that even with the prospect, raised by opinion polls in the last week, that Netanyahu's Likud could come second behind the Zionist Union, a government without Likud was never more than a pipe-dream. A pipe-dream reliant on the impossibilities of combining Secular and Ultra-Orthodox parties, and then leaving the whole unstable mixture on an Arab List which includes among its members an MK who defended the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers this summer as a legitimate act.

Such a combination might have made sense if there were some higher purpose behind it, at least something more other than a desire on Tzipi Livni's part to continue holding office. The "Peace Process, " however,  has degenerated into an excuse for European and American Diplomats to rack up large tabs at hotel bars while going through the motions of being seen in the same room with Israeli and Palestinian representatives. No one has ever seriously attempted to deal with the reasons for the collapse of the Oslo process, the massive gulf between Palestinian expectations of what they can expect from the process(full independence, reparations of some sort, full right of return to the territory that isn't ceded outright, security responsibility combined with no consequences for failing to exercise it) and reality on the ground, which is that Israel controls the entirety of the territories in question.

That gap is if anything greater today. Israel has effectively crushed the Palestinian Intifada, limiting its domestic death toll to minimal levels, while avoiding any economic or diplomatic cost. Israel remains the fastest growing economy in the Middle East, averaging 4.7% growth in 2011 and 3.3% in 2013 despite a war in Gaza. At the same time, Israel has embarked on unprecedented security cooperation with Kenya, South Sudan, and India, as well as rumored ties with Saudi Arabia. If Israel can have close relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia without peace, along with with a booming economy, what need does it have a process with no prospect of an end goal?

As a consequence, at the very same time Palestinian positions seem to have hardened due to an assumption that fifteen years of suffering should have some reward beyond the same terms offered in 2000, any suggestion that those same terms, offered at a time of comparative Israeli weakness, should still be on offer is naturally a hard sell to Israeli voters. Some might say Israel should seize the opportunity now to make concessions from a position of strength; but what concession, and to whom, and for what?

It is hard to tell if the Israeli left understood that this reality and simply saw their program as one of going through the sort of motions to appease Barack Obama that Netanyahu through stubbornness and personal pique refused to undertake, or actually thought they stood for peace. The prominence of former security officials in the campaign points to the former explanation, which makes the prospect of any sort of government with Arab support even less conceivable. It would have been much easier to cut a deal with the Right, and use that as an excuse for any subsequent lack of progress. Equally unclear is whether Obama's anger is based on a genuine delusion, consistent with his general policy towards Iran, Egypt, and Turkey, that he is living in 2005, or personal annoyance that the Israeli voters did not feel that appeasing him was worth their time. In either case though, buying the narrative that the elections were somehow a blow to "peace" requires accepting that Obama, the Israeli left, or both, are morons, or so oblivious to reality as to make no difference. Everyone was going through the motions. More likely, this election was less a referendum on relations with the Palestinians  than with the United States and Europe. Would Israeli voters throw out a leader because Washington, or at least Barack Obama wished it, or would they chose to defiance?And it is therefore the message regarding Israel's relations with America that is the important takeaway. Netanyahu has spent the last two years arguing that Israel does not need Barack Obama or Europe, and to the anger of the White House, the Israeli electorate agreed with him.

Netanyahu's Reorientation

Many things can be said about this election, but that its results were merely the consequence of a desperate political gamble is not among them. Benjamin Netanyahu's statement that he did not believe that any Palestinian state would be created under his government must stand among the most honest campaign utterances the Israeli Prime Minister has ever made, and his declaration that the "peace process" was dead was more an observation than a policy declaration. It was also a truism no one else dared to utter. Unlike everyone else however, Netanyahu has an actual positive policy to succeed 1990s-era delusions, one he has been implementing for the past few years.

The  analysis of the Israeli election in the left-leaning media in both Israel and the West is based on a dated, 1970s-esque reading of Israel's place in the world, in which Israel is a fundamentally "Western" nation in the Middle East. Hence the conflict posed between a European conception of "liberal democracy", namely a focus on legal rights, justice, and equality, and the nationalist conception of a "Jewish" state that became passe on a Euro-left whose gentry members see themselves as above such mundane concerns as identity as nationality, ethnicity, and religion. They are busy with far more important identity debates over gender, sexuality, and how many points of "privilege" each grants on the oppression hierarchy, and seem genuinely shocked that anyone on the planet could think that other matters might also be of concern, or god forbid, be more important. Since identity is a product of outside coercive social forces, it can have no inherent meaning, nor can it act as a justification of state policy, ignoring the fact that artificial or not, it is real nonetheless, and has been and still is the driving force behind politics globally.

To them, the prerequisite of "liberal democracy" is a system in which ethnicity and race are irrelevant, and where religion exists to face state repression unless it is disliked by their domestic opponents, where states consist  merely of interchangeable individuals, a view often in conflict with a conception of rights which reserves them to groups. A inconsistency which was on full display in the contradiction between the Vox-driven rush to condemn the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as racist with the recent spat between Sweden and the Organization of the Islamic over the former's "Feminist" Foriegn Minister's attacks on Saudi Arabia, which has now earned her designation as "an enemy of the Prophet."

To this constituency, Israel's sins are clear. A group of European refugees, victims of repression in Europe, moved to the Middle East seizing someone else's land. Today they deny those indigenous inhabitants equal rights or a political say in their destiny. Israel is hence a "white, colonialist" project, which can resolve its circumstance by either granting independence on maximum possible terms to those inhabitants, or giving them equal rights in a binational state. As a concession to past Jewish suffering, Israel's Jewish population will then presumably be allowed to remain either within its 1967 borders, albeit with a Palestinian right of return, and conditional on good behavior, or leave and go somewhere. In this sense, the Israeli election results were a product of madness, because Israeli voters disobediently refused to chose between doors #1 and #2.

This did not make sense, because the European, and Euro-American elite reading of Israel is 40 years out of date. Israelis whose ancestors came from Europe make up only a minority of Israel's Jewish population today, though it is unclear if the Ashkenazim-dominated Israeli left has noticed this yet, a major source of their electoral traveils in recent years. Rather a majority of Israel's Jewish population is made up of Jews who lived in Arab states in 1967 or more recent Russian immigrants. To them, Israel is not some sort of liberal "European" experiment, but rather a Jewish nation-state much as Egypt or Iraq are Arab nation-states. And just as Iraq and Egypt had Jewish, not Israeli minorities, Israel does not have "Palestinians", there is no such national group, but rather an Arab minority. Just as Arab states became uncomfortable for their Jewish minorities and forced them to leave, it is only natural that those Arabs who find Israel uncomfortable leave for one of the 22 Arab states. Palestinians are therefore not a distinct national group, but a national minority, and while deserving of protection if loyal, it is only logical for Israel to resettle Jews who were expelled from Arab states by pogroms in abandoned Arab homes in Israel, while encouraging Arabs who dislike that to move to abandoned Jewish homes in Iraq, Cairo, or Algiers. That the vast majority of settlers are those expellies or their children, provides a clear explanation for why they see no moral quandary regarding Israel's claim to the West Bank, and find talk of "international law" and "Palestinian" national rights to be incomprehensible, and a product of an anti-semitic double-standard. After all, isn't this how every other nation on the planet settled its ethnic problems - Turkey/Greece, Bulgaria/Turkey, China/Vietnam, Germany/Poland, even the Baltic States with their Russian populations. Why on Earth should Israel of all nations treat a minority that already has its own countries as if Israel alone is obligated to provide them with a home at its own expense?

Netanyahu's recent achievement has been to take this outlook, already common within Israel, global.  In doing so he has recognized how the international climate has changed since the 1990s. In the 1990s of course, the general belief was in creating an international order based on law and universal values. Yet for much of the world, these values failed, democracy produced anarchy, either in terms of dysfunctional government, constant political unrest and protests, or in recent years, outright civil war. The latter has been especially true in efforts by the Obama Administration to apply those principles to the Middle East. American support for Responsibility to Protect, the brainchild of UN Ambassador Samantha Power, has been to throw Libya, Yemen, and now Syria into Civil War, while American support for democracy produced support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a rapprochement with Iran, and an alliance with an increasingly megalomaniac Erdogan in Turkey which has left most major regional powers blaming Barack Obama for ISIS.

Netanyahu's brilliance has been to appeal to the new spirit of the times by recasting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not as one between two national groups, but rather as one between a national government which is stable, able to maintain order, and equally importantly, help others to do so, whether they be Kenya, India, Saudi Arabia, or Tunisia, and a disloyal, violent, secessionist movement, which is infused with links to the Muslim Brotherhood. China, Russia, and Egypt might be tempted to back Palestinian claims for rights; they will never back a secessionist movement , most certainly not with any sort of binding international action that might act as a precedent for international scrutiny of their own actions. Israel's claims vis-e-ve the Palestinians are not and cannot be a global cause, but Israel's right to maintain order within its own territories, and to settle its relationship with its minorities on its own terms is a universal cause to large portion of the world, or at least to a large portion of the world's governments. And, ultimately, whatever national or religious sympathies Egypt or Saudi Arabia may have with the Palestinians, they have no desire to see a Muslim Brotherhood-run Palestinian state affiliated with either Erdogan or ISIS(Hamas is part of the Brotherhood and has aided them in carrying out terrorist attacks within Egypt). Faced with that choice, all of Israel's neighbors would prefer an IDF controlled West Bank to one dominated by Hamas, or worse, in a Syria/Libya-style state of anarchy. Netanyahu can offer "Order"; the very term "Palestinian" has been a synonym for anarchy at least since the 1960s.

And "Order" is what is in demand these days. The overwhelming desire not just in the region, but globally is order. Whether in Putin's Russia, or in Sisi's Egypt, whether in China or India, "Order", not abstracts like "Democracy" or "Rights" are the desirable commodities, and recent evidence from Tunisia and Egypt indicates that this is not merely the reactions of  an elite, but a deep-seated popular desire. Ultimately this desire extends not just in the developing world, though it has much greater elite support, but to America and Europe as well, something that is only imperfectly disguised by the decade-in-the-past worldview of the political elite. While Obama, Kerry, and Power mouthed words about human rights and intervention against Assad, Ted Cruz denounced the prospect of America acting as "Al-Qaeda's Airforce in Syria", while an unprecedented outpouring of public opinion blocked American intervention in the summer of 2013. Polls today show almost immediate hostility to any foreign intervention, doubly-so if it is sold on humanitarian grounds. In such circumstances, Netanyahu can be reasonably certain he can outlast the present crowd of Western leaders, safe in the knowledge that they will be succeeded by those friendlier to his interests. Obama, whether succeeded by Hillary Clinton, or a Republican, will be followed by someone far less concerned about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, either because they are someone who places domestic political consequences above all other concerns(Clinton), or because they genuinely sympathize with aspects of the new worldview, as almost any Republican President would do, even if it the reasons are different as they would be for a Rand Paul and a Scott Walker. This can be seen in the increasing support for Israel in the US.

Netanyahu's public rejection of the two-state solution was hence not a question of pandering, but rather of a decision to cease pandering to an audience that he judged, with significant justification, to a constituency that it was no longer necessary or helpful to appease. Rather than a liability, it is arguable that Israel's abandonment of a "two state" paradigm which implicitly recognizes Palestinian national claims im favor of a nationalist based one which treats the conflict as one over minority power will actually function as an asset in terms of making Israel's case to a wider world. The former begs the question of why Israel has not granted Palestinians a state, enforces a burden of explaining how Israel plans to do so, and legally delegitimizes all of Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza. The latter by contrast not only justifies Israel's actions in the West Bank, but actively obligates Israel to do whatever is necessary to maintain borders within the territory over which it maintains legal sovereignty, and brands those who engage in violence to resist it as criminals under international law, even if they may be criminals acting in a cause that has merit. At best, the latter merely places the Palestinians on the level of the Irish Republican Army, obligating Israel to talk with non-violent representatives of the Arab community in exchange for an abandonment of violence, and with no obligation or expectations regarding an end-state which may involve concessions as limited as cultural and educational autonomy.

 Those on the left who feel that Israel is endangering its survival really mean that it is endangering its continued survival of a European-style state, rather than a non-Western one. But that change may well be the single wisest geopolitical move an Israeli leader has yet made, since it involves a decision to no longer fight the conflict on the enemy's moral and legal ground. Whether it will succeed or be worth the cost remains to be seen.

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