Last week, Human Rights Watch detonated a report on Israel, accusing it of apartheid in its occupation of Palestinian land and people. The charge sheet by this leading human rights organisation provoked outrage in Israel and among the Jewish state’s international supporters. Nobody shrugs off the A-word.
Polemical as it may be, Israeli leaders have warned of the risk of apartheid ever since Israel conquered the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 six-day war. Founding fathers like David Ben-Gurion and warrior statesmen such as Yitzhak Rabin used the word. Ehud Barak, former prime minister and Israel’s most decorated soldier, said his country was on a slippery slope to apartheid.
In January, B’Tselem, flagship of the mostly sunken Israeli peace camp, said that threshold had already been crossed. In the crowded sliver of space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, it said that while territory is always contiguous for Jews it is a fragmented mosaic for Palestinians.
Anyone who can read a map knows this. Successive governments have relentlessly driven Jewish settlement of the West Bank and carved it into discontiguous Palestinian cantons. The biggest single expansion in settler numbers — by 50 per cent in 1994-96 — was not under the irredentist governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the current, five-term prime minister, but under Labour led by Rabin and Shimon Peres at the high watermark of the Oslo peace process, which offered land-for-peace and the vision of an eventual Palestinian state living alongside Israel. That proved a mirage.
Netanyahu, while promising to annex roughly a third of the West Bank (Israel annexed Arab East Jerusalem in 1967), has pursued a more cautious policy of incremental dispossession of the Palestinians. That, and ex-president Donald Trump’s “deal of the century”, a glorified real estate deal greenlighting an Israeli land-grab, have realistically made a viable Palestinian state impossible.
Israel has held four inconclusive elections in the past two years, which managed to ignore the Palestinian issue, except when Netanyahu resorted to strident anti-Arab rhetoric and asserted that Israel belongs only to the Jewish people — an anti-democratic dogma passed into law in 2018.
Although the population of Jews and Arabs between the Jordan river and the sea is roughly equal at about 6.8m each, this means there are three classes of citizens: Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs (about 20 per cent of Israel’s population) and Palestinians under occupation. Israel is in an inherently unstable situation because it has never been held accountable for this state of affairs, particularly by the US which provides unconditional military aid and a veto at the UN Security Council to shield its ally from condemnation.
Many states fear further spread of the irredentism virus in countries such as Russia and China, Turkey and India, which like Israel are seeking to stretch beyond their recognised borders. But the Trumpian US swelled a sense of impunity in the ever more extremist Netanyahu governments.
Is the HRW’s detailed allegation of apartheid likely to change this? Almost certainly not, though the brutal reality of the occupation is turning European opinion against Israel, and even some US Democrats are perturbed. In March, moreover, more than 200 scholars of Jewish, Holocaust and Middle Eastern affairs issued the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism that affirmed “it is not anti-Semitic, in and of itself, to compare Israel with other historical cases, including settler-colonialism or apartheid”.
More important than charged words, however, is growing emphasis on an equal rights approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Another paper last week urged the US to move on from a moribund “peace process” towards holding Israel accountable for Palestinian rights — to move from land-for-peace to equality-for-peace.
Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the US Middle East Project, this rights-based argument was lead-authored by Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister of Jordan and ambassador to Israel, and Daniel Levy, USMEP president and former peace negotiator.
Ostensibly open-minded on the end-game — including two states of Israel and Palestine or one state for two peoples — the paper urges the US to “only support an alternative solution that guarantees full equality and enfranchisement for all those residing in the territory under Israeli control; it will not endorse two separate and unequal systems”.
This chimes with what Antony Blinken, President Joe Biden’s secretary of state, recently declared: that “Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy”.
Israel-Palestine is not a Biden priority but this approach recognises the asymmetry between occupier and occupied, and that the “peace process” scaffolding props up occupation not peace.
There is no big bang in this, just a few depth charges. Israel’s impunity is under discussion. But this is also about Israel’s future, as past leaders from Ben-Gurion to Barak sensed. Netanyahu and his allies have lulled people into believing in a cost-free occupation of another people. The price for Israel disdaining their rights, from votes to vaccines, may be rising.