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Slouching towards Bethlehem, the ethnocentric state cannot hold

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Ghaleb Cachalia is an MP in the National Assembly and the DA spokesperson on Public Enterprises. He serves on the Ethics Committee in Parliament.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most intractable on Earth, and it will continue like that while the government of Benjamin Netanyahu clings to the notion of an ethnocentric state. Israel has lost its way and is crying out for wise counsel from those who have brought peace to similarly troubled lands.

The current impasse and escalation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas follow a breakdown in what earlier appeared to have been a breakthrough. Israel had previously promised to ameliorate conditions in Gaza by easing access to Qatari funds, fuel and humanitarian aid, an expansion of the zone in the Mediterranean in which Gaza fishermen operate, and easing the movement of people in and out of the densely populated and blockaded territorial strip.

But according to The New York Times, “on the eve of Ramadan, the monthlong Muslim holiday of daylong fasting and nighttime feasts, Israel tightened its chokehold on Gaza. It said it would cut off the supply of all fuel to the territory through Israel”. Hamas cites this as the reason for its attacks and says that calm can be restored if the tenets of the previous understanding are implemented.

It cannot, however, escape observation that this escalation follows hard on Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party’s victory on 11 April 2019 in the Israeli elections, which gave Netanyahu an unprecedented fifth term of office, on an avowedly nationalist, expansionist, populist, ethnocentric and exclusionary ticket.

These events, along with the steady hardening of views of all concerned, appear to continue to diminish any semblance of hope for an accommodation based on a two-state solution.

This is no bolt from the blue; it was always on the cards, nudged along by Netanyahu in his successive previous four terms in office. It was brought home to me when I visited Israel/Palestine in December 2018. I was also made aware of the need for a truly just solution to the problems that continue to plague the small but volatile land. Despite the current escalation and, against all odds, I believe it is possible.

During my eight-day visit as part of a multi-party parliamentary delegation, we travelled across the length and breadth of Israel/Palestine. We met with representatives of the region in business, government, administration, politics, security and religion. We visited historical sights and were taken through a version of history. It was informative, exhilarating, depressing and confusing.

It was also a culinary delight. The love for good food is deeply ingrained in the peoples of Israel/Palestine. It brought to mind the cookbook, Jerusalem, in which Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli, and Sami Tamimi, his Palestinian counterpart, write tellingly about hummus, and how the inhabitants never tire from arguments about the absolute, the one and only, most fantastic hummusia.

A hummusia, like the English chippy, is a celebrated local treasure. And, as Ottolenghi and Tamimi write, “it carries much stronger sentiments. The hummusia fetish is so powerful that even the best of friends may easily turn against each other if they suddenly find themselves on opposite hummus camps… it is also a source of identity – personal or national – which can easily turn into an issue of confused identity”.

In many ways, it’s a prescient story…

On my return, I attempted to make sense of my experiences. I read around the subject and did much thinking. What follows is the product of that journey, in the wake of another election, the result of which is destined to fuel further discord. In the end, against all odds, it posits a conclusion that I think is achievable. It needs will, courage, release, and a desire to embrace rather than repulse. It’s hard, but it’s doable.

After my return to South Africa’s compartmentalised culinary shores, I read about the death of Amos Oz. His daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, wrote, in honour of her dead father, about the the hope that there will be true peace here between democratic Israel, a state of the Jews and of all its citizens, a state of law and social justice, a state in which the language of Torah will flourish, as well as Jewish and Hebrew culture, and with them Arab and world culture.

Oz is regarded as one of “Israels most prolific writers and respected intellectuals”, according to his New York Times obituary. He was from 1967 onwards a prominent advocate of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He is described as one of the first Israelis to advocate a two-state solution after the Six Day War. In a 1967 article, “Land of our Forefathers”, in the Labour newspaper Davar, he wrote, even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation”.

In 1978, he was one of the founders of Peace Now and opposed to Israeli settlement activity. He was among the first to praise the Oslo Accords and talks with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). In his eloquent speeches and essays, he frequently attacked the non-Zionist left, and always emphasised his Zionist identity.

As Bernard Avishai, who teaches political economy at Dartmouth, and is the author of The Tragedy of Zionism, The Hebrew Republic, and Promiscuous, among other books, writes in The New Yorker, “(Oz) was the gray eminence of a lost, or losing, cause: Labour Zionism, a vision that once qualified as a movement. The movement’s leaders – pre-eminently, David Ben-Gurion – incubated modern Hebrew, fought the state of Israel into being, gathered in the ‘exiles’, put Eichmann on trial, and dominated the small, largely socialist country that Israel was before it was overwhelmed by the forces of post-1967 messianism. Labour Zionism dared to return Jews not to synagogues, but to history.”

Avishai writes (and I quote freely from his article), “in recent years, Oz coined perhaps his most influential turn of phrase, which has been picked up by virtually all politicians in the peace camp and implies the solidarity of that ‘slimmer’ Israel. Namely, he said that Israelis and Palestinians must ‘divorce’, they must split ‘this small house into two little apartments’.”

Many Palestinians revere Oz’s humanism; the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, wrote a letter paying tribute to Oz. But divorce is not a neutral metaphor, and Oz made clear that he meant something quite radical by it: that the two peoples should get more or less entirely out of each other’s lives.

In effect, he was saying that the two-state solution should finally solve what the 1948 war did not. In his view, the occupation was to be condemned because it was inviting, ultimately, a demographic nightmare, an “Arab state from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the Jordan River”.

I have focused at some length on Oz, because he represents a nobler, more human face of Zionism. But as Avishai says, Oz’s version of the two-state solution may gesture towards moral reciprocity then, but as a practical matter, it chases the past.

What struck me on the trip, in all my observations and interactions with some Israelis, Palestinians, Christians and members of the Druze community, is encapsulated almost completely by Avishai:

The problem now is that, however implausible a single state is for both the Israelis and Palestinians, the idea of radical separation is impossible…roughly 14 million people live in 5,000 square miles (8,000km²) – and they share a single business ecosystem and urban infrastructure. The Israeli right is sensible to worry that lone-wolf terror attacks on Ben-Gurion Airport, four miles (6.43km) from the West Bank, would bring down the cybernetic Israeli economy for months. At the same time, Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs are right to see their future countries not as fortresses but as hubs. The million and a half Palestinian citizens of Israel – many of whom speak Hebrew as well as Arabic – are correct to argue that they should not be lumped in with ‘Arabs’, that they are a distinct minority seeking equal rights in a state that privileges, in anachronistic ways, legally designated Jews, and that Israel’s democratic left cannot regain power without them.”

Add to this, the impossibility of uniting a ward of the international community (the West Bank) and a failed state (Gaza) with an impoverished urban community (East Jerusalem) into a healthy political economy – underpinned by a political and administrative accommodation between Fatah and Hamas, beset by the problems involving the re-absorbing of refugees into a tiny slither of land, the building of a governing competency that honours all human rights, that is corruption-free, respectful of individual freedoms, and champions due process to protect personal safety – and you can begin to see the magnitude of the problem.

Perhaps, as Yossi Beilin, who helped birth the Geneva agreement, now says, “cohabitation, not divorce” is the way forward. But how does one expect anything approaching a successful negotiation when Israelis and Palestinians continue to teach each other the values of demonisation, racism, and hate?

A poll conducted five years ago by John Zogby, an internationally known pollster, author, and former adviser at the Belfer Center of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, summed the situation up: “The ground today is also less fertile than it was the first time around, having been polluted during the past 20 years by the ill-will created and the negative behaviours of both sides that sapped the confidence and trust of both Palestinians and Israelis.”

This was before Netanyahu’s brand of Jewish nationalism, utterly removed from his secularist predecessors, opposed all peace plans negotiated earlier on the grounds that they entailed territorial compromises which severely jeopardised Israel’s security.

Now neither side believes a two-state solution will happen and are therefore not motivated to fight for it – Hamas and the Israeli far-right are, however, willing to fight against it.

Is a one-state solution the answer? Hamada Jaber, chief analyst at the Palestinian Centre for Polling and Survey Research, and founder of the One State Foundation, thinks so. We met him in Ramallah, and his views were clear: Have the guts to declare a full-scale occupation and annexation (FSO) without an intermediary proxy force (the Palestinian Authority) to do your bidding, and give the Palestinians the right to vote, while you deal with the intricacies of a one-state solution.

An FSO, without the extension of voting rights, and the further squeezing of Palestinian social and economic rights, would temporarily appease the ultra-religious and settler right-wing elements who hold the balance of political power in Israel, but would hardly provide a long-term solution. It would also play into the hands of Palestinian extremists who would fight the occupation with everything at their disposal, aimed at the ousting of the occupier.

In the interim, the status quo remains – not the kind of status quo, imposed and observed since Ottoman times, that has governed to this day the internecine and fractious relations between Christian sects who lay claim to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (which we visited) – involving consensus for any action, respect for existing demarcations, and the keys to the church in the hands of a Muslim family.

The status quo is untenable. It is plagued by Hamas and other Gaza factions’ repeated assaults on Israel, the reaction of many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and in Israel itself, to dispossession, control, displacement, land settlement, de facto economic and social segregation, the fears of Israelis and the bellicosity of all parties.

It is threatened by the passing of the Jewish Nationality Law. Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the Knesset from the podium after the Bill was passed: “This is our country. The state of the Jews. But in recent years there have been some people who have been trying to undermine that, and by so doing, to undermine the foundations of our existence and rights. Well, today we etched into the rock of law: This is our country, this is our language, this is our national anthem and this is our flag. Long live the state of Israel!”

After the vote, Arab Knesset members tore up copies of the Bill while crying out, “Apartheid!” Ayman Odeh, the leader of the predominantly Arab Joint List, waved a black flag. Joint List Knesset member Yousef Jabareen said the Bill was not only discriminatory against Arabs, who make up 20% of Israel’s nine million population, but racist. He said, “the result of this legislation will be to perpetuate the inferior status of the Arabs in Israel”. The representative of the Druze community, hitherto utterly loyal to Israel, whom we met, echoed similar sentiments.

And this is in Israel. It’s not in the alphabetically demographic A, B and C land demarcations in the occupied West Bank, nor the land and sea blockaded Gaza strip (365km²) in which two million Palestinians live.

It’s an unholy mess.

Extensive polling and interviews conducted by Padraig O’Malley, prior to the Gaza war of 2014, indicate that 50% of Jewish Israelis and 63% of Palestinians do not believe they can coexist peacefully in two states. Fifty-eight percent of Palestinians think that Israel’s goals, in the long run, are to extend its borders and cover all the area between the Jordan River and to expel its Palestinian citizens while 59% of adolescents and 69% of young Israeli adults believe the Palestinians seek the destruction of Israel. Seventy-one percent of Jewish Israelis view the status quo as indefinite with little change; 71% of Palestinians share a similar view.

The dim picture painted by the figures has worsened in the intervening five years. And so, one group lives in fear, and continues to retaliate, extend and bolster the buffer against actual and perceived attack; the other exercises patience in the face of all unexpected and unwanted outcomes, in the hope that the justice they seek will eventually come, while elements within it engage in armed propaganda.

O’Malley acknowledges the effect of this on Israelis, “Mostly lost in the furore over Netanyahu’s ugly, race-baiting campaign tactics designed to tap into the most primal fears of Jewish Israelis is the fact that the positions he promulgated with such pugnacity accurately reflect the millions who flocked to the polls to stamp them with their approval. More than ever, the election results confirmed the depth of polarisation among Jewish Israelis.”

This is mirrored in the diaspora – especially telling in the US where various Jewish organisations and individuals are opposing the orthodoxy of the Israel lobby (the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and its satellite organisations) – where the currency being gained by a plethora of groupings critical of Israel is beginning to bite.

In many ways, this is a product of Netanyahu’s promise that, if re-elected, no Palestinian state would be established on his watch. This ostensible show of strength on the ground has led to a weakness in the air war. It’s also the product of increased media focus and transparency on what happens in that part of the Middle East. Of course, the first casualty of war is truth, and in assessing veracity, vigilance is required. It would, however, be fair to say that the pendulum across the globe is swinging in favour of narratives critical of Israel – from Haaretz to Harvard.

Narratives are subjective and selective; they arouse deep passions and allegiance. Both claim the same land – the Palestinians by virtue of historical presence; the Jews by claim to a divine ordinance and the adherence to a belief that one day they would return to the land, even though the concept of a homeland didn’t exist in Judea circa 70CE, from which they were expelled.

The Palestinians were the indigenous population without interruption for 1,500 years, and when the Balfour Declaration was promulgated in 1919, Jews accounted for 9% of the population. Successive waves of immigration followed and conflict ensued. The first war is referred to by Israelis as the War of Independence, and by the Palestinians as al-Nakba, or the Catastrophe. The second war followed on the foundation of the State of Israel, and when the armistice was signed in 1949, Israel comprised 78% of mandatory Palestine. Some 750,000 Palestinians fled their homes between December 1947 and March 1949. They waited to return to their homes as mandated by UN Resolution 194. In contravention of the Geneva Convention, Israel barred their return, and like the Jews before them, they became a stateless people.

Today, Palestinians hear Israelis talk peace, but they see Israel taking more of their land. Israelis, on the other hand, believe they have actively promoted a final resolution to the conflict for many decades, while the Palestinians have repeatedly prevaricated and missed opportunities. In O’Malley’s interviews, Jewish interviewees were unable to discern any contradiction between Israel’s efforts to promote peace, and the construction of settlements of up to 50,000 in the West Bank, or the Judaisation of Jerusalem, nor the acceleration of these initiatives during Netanyahu’s terms in office.

The unending assertion of the rights to which their narratives entitle each party has resulted in ongoing deafness – hardly conducive to negotiations. At the same time, the status quo provides a more appealing scenario for Israel – a clear grip on the present versus an uncertain future that may or may not be better.

And then there’s the Masada complex – the example of Jews who killed themselves rather than let others kill them. Add to this, the inability to put the trauma of the Holocaust behind them – every challenge reinforces the collective memory. As Netanyahu says, “we won’t leave our fate in the hands of others, not even the best of our friends”.

And so to demographics. Sergio Della Pergola is Israel’s pre-eminent demographer of world Jewry. According to Della Pergola, within Israel proper, Jews constitute 79% of the population, a number that will diminish by a few percentage points by 2030. But if you include the occupied West Bank and Gaza, the present roughly 50-50 split becomes an estimated 56% Palestinian majority by 2030. Therein lies the rub.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about the quantum of Palestinian refugees who might return under one or another scenario.

Della Pergola says, “you have enough potential for conflict with a minority now large enough to break the chains of being regarded as a lurking Fifth Column, increasingly assertive in its own right.” And with regard to Palestine itself, “can you pretend that you can administer Israel as a 100% Jewish state, if 50% of the people there are non-Jewish?”

The key take-away, according to O’Malley, is that “ethnocracy cannot last’”it shouldn’t continue here, nor anywhere else for that matter. Ethnocracy basically means “government or rule by an ethnic group” or ethnos, and more precisely rule by a particular ethnos in a multi-ethnic situation where there is at least one other significant ethnic group.

In my view, democracy is preferable to ethnocracy, and indeed to most, if not all the other alternative types of rule, though some of these overlap or mingle with democracy and ethnocracy. Israel is an ethnocracy, and the Jewish Nationality Law cements this.

In the interests of a lasting peace, civility, mutual respect and dignity for all concerned, it is incumbent on the negotiators to interrogate the different forms of binational and federal models that provide protections, checks and balances. “Otherwise,” as O’Malley says, “as demographics move in one direction, old grievances harboured by Israel’s once-too-small minority will reach a critical mass where they can no longer be ignored.”

The alternative will result, lamentably, in ensuring the “integrity of the quarrel” (a phrase Winston Churchill used in 1922 to describe the political state of Northern Ireland), resulting in another generation that is taught to hate, live with fear, and kill.

It’s now up to the parties that live in the region to craft a solution. It rests in large measure on the shoulders of the youth on both sides, who will need to break free from the shackles of opposing and destructive narratives.

People who have travelled an arduous path to reach a measure of troubled consensus in Northern Ireland and South Africa, to name two, can be dragooned to counsel and assist. It can be done, and doing so will provide a beacon of humanity from the centre of what many see as the birth of a powerful civilisation, albeit, one that has lost its way.

The troubled Middle East is crying out for it, people from all quarters of the globe are crying out for it.

Will it happen? Where there’s a will, as they say, there’s a way. DM

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