Amid the usual quiet of the Christmas/New Year period, there has been little relaxation in the war of words over the Israel-Palestine conflict that was set off by UN Security Council resolution 2334. The resolution, adopted on 23 December, reaffirms the long-standing position of the international community that Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories are unlawful and an obstacle to peace, and calls for “the intensification and acceleration of international and regional diplomatic efforts and support aimed at achieving, without delay a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
This was more controversial than it would normally be because it coincides with the imminent change of government in the United States. The Obama administration, which has been repeatedly frustrated in its efforts to promote peace, declined to exercise its veto, making this the first time in several years that a resolution critical of Israel has been allowed to pass. The incoming Trump administration, however, has aligned itself with the extreme rhetoric of the Israeli government, promising a sharp change in direction after 20 January.
Much of the controversy has focused on the motives and intentions of those who promoted the resolution; it has become standard Israeli practice to accuse all of its critics of being motivated by anti-Semitism and harboring plans for the destruction of Israel. But in fact we know what Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, have been trying to achieve. They may have sometimes acted ineptly, but their clear goal has been the promotion of a two-state solution to the conflict, leading to the peaceful establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
It seems to me much more interesting to ask about the intentions of the opponents of resolution 2334. What are they trying to do? What do Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters hope to achieve? In terms of what ultimate goal do their words and actions make sense?
Part of the answer is easy: they want to kill the two-state solution. The overriding objective of Likud, Netanyahu’s party, through all the twists and turns of the last forty years, has been to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. In this it has been strikingly successful.
But it’s not as if the two-state solution is being killed off in favor of some readily available one-state solution. On the contrary, no-one has much idea of how a viable one-state solution would work, and the relatively small number who are pushing the idea come overwhelmingly from the left and the pro-Palestinian side. Their vision of a secular democratic bi-national state is equally unacceptable to Likud.
In reality, this is one of those issues where allegiances are based on tribalism rather than policy. And I don’t mean the tribes of Israel or Palestine; the tribes are those of left and right. For a complex of historical reasons, support for the Palestinians became in the 1960s and ’70s an identifiably left-wing cause, and for many people on the right, that’s all they need to know. Opposing “the left” transcends ordinary issues of freedom or justice, and requires that they line up behind Likud, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the dispute. (A similar process takes place with some sections of the left, but that would take us too far afield.)
For Netanyahu, who is first and foremost a politician (and whatever else one thinks of the man, there’s no doubt his political skills are formidable), it would not be surprising to find that he has no vision stretching much beyond the next election. But many of his supporters, both in Israel and in the west, would claim to be thinkers and people of principle. Surely they must have thought about their ultimate objective? But then, what is it?
At this point, two words of South African origin are likely to come up – one is “apartheid”, the other is “bantustan”. They represent alternative policies, but they can also be combined (as they were for a time in South Africa). One suggests a single state, with a permanent stratum of second-class citizens who suffer legal discrimination and are denied political rights; the other suggests a dependent, semi-autonomous mini-state in which a hostile population can be corralled.
But neither parallel quite works. South Africa was always a colonial society, at a time when explicit racism was much more the norm. Israel, on the other hand, was explicitly founded on the promise of equal rights for all its citizens; the promise has not always been kept, but it has never been repudiated. Constructing an openly apartheid state, by admitting that a large class of people are to be citizens but in a lesser degree, would involve a major reversal.
The bantustan option – the creation of a Palestinian state with formal independence but tightly controlled by Israel – at first seems more plausible. Netanyahu’s regular avowal that he is looking for a “partner for peace” can be interpreted that way: he wants to so demoralise the Palestinians that they will eventually produce a leadership that will accept such an outcome.
But even if that can be achieved, there’s a lot less available land in the West Bank than there was in South Africa. No Likud government has ever specified just where it expects a Palestinian semi-state to be located, and with good reason: the demands of the settlers keep increasing with every turn, and it’s hard to see how they will ever be persuaded to relinquish any part of historic Palestine.
What the settlers really want (and those who politically endorse the settlers at every opportunity must be assumed to share their goal) is for the Palestinians to just go away. Perhaps to Jordan, but at any rate to somewhere out of the way. It might be too much to say that Likud’s agenda is implicitly genocidal, but the logic of its position seems to be pushing it towards ethnic cleansing.
If that’s not where Netanyahu and his fan club want to go, now would be a good time to say so. At a time when they look like having the ear of the White House as never before, we’re entitled to know just how they see the region developing if they get things all their own way. If their agenda is less extreme than I suggest, why don’t they tell us what it is?