Palestinians in Israel have used the contradiction between Zionism and democracy to reconstruct their national project

“Traitor”, “fifth column”, “terrorist sponsor” – these are just some of the words that have been used to attack and incite against Member of Knesset Haneen Zoabi, by her own Knesset colleagues. Now there are renewed attempts to disqualify her from the upcoming elections, efforts that might well succeed in the Central Elections Committee before likely heading to the Supreme Court (see this Adalah “Q&A”).

Targeting those few MKs representing Palestinian citizens who challenge Israel’s systematic discrimination is nothing new, including in recent years. As a report in The Times of Israel notes, “rejecting the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” is a position that “makes citizens ineligible to run for national office”. This latest attempted exclusion thus puts the spotlight on some of the contradictions in Israel’s claim to be both ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’. It is an identity that, when push comes to shove, always prioritises the preservation of an ethnocratic regime of privileges over a state of all its citizens (including denationalised, ‘non-citizens’, the expelled Palestinian refugees).

MK Haneen Zoabi generously contributed a foreword to my most recent book, ‘Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy’. In light of the attacks on her and other Arab parties, this foreword is published here as a standalone essay, where Zoabi lays out what she calls “the impossibility of coexistence” between “Jewish-Zionist values” and “democratic values”.
- Ben White

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Foreword to Ben White’s ‘Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy’, by MK Haneen Zoabi

In seven chapters of penetrating analysis, author Ben White asks for a shift away from the paradigm of Occupation as the lens through which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed. For White, such a shift entails a dramatic transformation in the political assumptions and axioms that have prevailed in the post-Oslo era and, more importantly, a return to the historical and moral roots of the Palestinian question.

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The argument that the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is one of a conflict with a racist settler project that was founded on notions of ethnic purity is understood implicitly by all Palestinians. We Palestinians were quick to comprehend the relationship between ourselves – as indigenous inhabitants of this land – and those who came to take our place (in every sense) without even considering a common life with or alongside us, and without acknowledging that which had gone before them.

The core issue is not a shift in paradigm so much as a return to an old paradigm, that which dominated the Palestinian national liberation movement at least ten years prior to Oslo. I am a member of the political party that has revived this ‘new/old’ paradigm, as a part of a larger Palestinian political project. The focus of this project moved from the Diaspora – previously the heart of the Palestinian national movement – to the West Bank and Gaza Strip following the First Intifada, before shifting once again to rest on a group that had been regarded as marginal to, or even outside, the Palestinian national movement: the Palestinians whom Israel didn’t expel in 1948.

The Oslo Accords were the culmination of a gradual process of decline within the Palestinian national project that began with the expulsion of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) from Lebanon in 1982, and were accompanied by a re-writing of history and redefinition of the Palestinian question. Before Oslo, the Palestinian issue was about the national liberation of the Palestinian people living in the Diaspora and in its homeland (in the 1948 and 1967 territories). It proposed a democratic solution for both Palestinians and Jews (and hence it also sought to liberate the Jews in Palestine from the racist project of which they are part).

Post-Oslo, the Palestinian question concentrated on the establishment of a state in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, and left intact the Jewish state that was constructed on the Palestinian territories occupied in 1948 and contains part of the Palestinian people. It was the result of the marriage of moderate Zionism and the lowest level of Palestinian aspirations, and according to the Oslo vision, there are no victims, no perpetrators and no acknowledgement of the legitimacy of resistance to the Occupation. It fails to view the Occupation from the perspective of values – that is, as an egregious violation of humanity and dignity that both calls for and legitimises resistance.

However, Oslo also produced its own antithesis, in the form of a political project that was to redefine the Palestinian issue – again – as one of confrontation with the Zionist project (which did not begin in 1967 and does not only concern the territories occupied in 1967 but the entire Palestinian people, and even the wider Arab region). Significantly, Oslo produced this antithetical project within the very group that it excluded: the Palestinians in Israel.

‘The paradigm of Occupation’ approached the Palestinians inside Israel as an internal Israeli matter. In response, this segment of the Palestinian people reformulated their national project in a manner that was to secure their reintegration into the Palestinian people and guarantee their place as an integral part of the Palestinian issue, both as part of the conflict and as part of the solution.

The Palestinians in Israel have been able to achieve this turnabout only by reinventing the confrontation with the Zionist project, of which they are a direct – and historically the oldest – outcome. Ironically, it was their Israeli citizenship that enabled them to do so. The Palestinians in Israel have successfully employed the contradiction between Zionism and democratic citizenship that was imposed on them to reconstruct their national project.

At a time when it appeared that the Palestinian national movement (the PLO) was abandoning the Palestinian liberation project, it was these Palestinians, citizens of Israel, who picked up the baton. After 50 years of political experiment in the context of our Israeli citizenship, the Palestinians in Israel have grasped the power that is inherent in the complicated demand for what is referred to as ‘democracy’, or full equality among citizens, part of whom belong to the ‘expelled’ people. These taken for granted demands, for the indigenous people and for ‘full citizenship’, are suffice to undermine the moral and political legitimacy of the entire Zionist project, and to relegate it to the status of a racist, colonialist venture.

The demand for a ‘state of all its citizens’ has put the Palestinians in Israel at the heart of the direct confrontation with the political rubric of ‘the Jewish state’ that epitomises the Zionist enterprise. The ‘state of all its citizens’ project has forced the ‘Jewish state’ to admit the primacy that it grants to Jewish-Zionist values over democratic values, and to recognise the impossibility of coexistence between the two.

Netanyahu may declare that Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ and announce that ‘Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights’ to the rapturous applause of uninformed members of a foreign congress. However, what he says to our face is that, ‘Israel is a Jewish state’, and there are now dozens of laws to prove it. We will not clap for him and he does not expect our applause.

After all, what is the recent ‘legislation’ pertaining to the Jewishness of the state, and the escalation of the process of Judaisation from the level of policy (see Chapter 3), if not a direct acknowledgment of the conflict between democracy and Zionism, and the privileging of the latter over the former?

This book’s strength lies not only in its content, but also in its timing. Its release comes as a political culture that has proudly and tenaciously adopted elements of fascism reaches new heights. Israel has declared – with the sanction of the Attorney General – that it will target anyone who works against the Jewish identity of the state, even if he or she does so through legal means. It is a state that pursues repressive policies that are inconsistent with its own laws (as in Olmert’s 2007 government) and then amends its laws to make them conform to its policy of political persecution (Netanyahu/Lieberman’s 2010 government).

It is the essence of this fight that Ben White has traced out in a professional, profound, and moral manner, understanding that justice remains the primary lens through which to comprehend what has happened in Palestine and to advance our political platform.

August 2011

Posted in Israel/Palestine, Israeli Government, Nakba, Occupation, One state/Two states

{ 8 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. gamal says:

    Dear MK Zoabi, I was in the audience in Cork City when you spoke, you were as impressive then, in person, as you are here in print. Leaving aside all the other issues can I just say that that part of your talk when you related how Palestinian society was ‘beheaded’, leaving only you peasants to carry on the struggle was deeply moving, if you will allow me i would like to say not at all bad for a peasant, I doubt the effendiya could match it.

  2. pabelmont says:

    Beautiful essay. I really welcome a return to concentration on the issue of Palestinian rights generally, national and human rights, embracing people living under occupation inside Israel and in the so-called occupied territories (perhaps these should be called the other occupied territories), and those living in diaspora, all exiles and many “refugees”.

    It is high time, from this perspective, for the PLO to have new international conferences and — soon — elections for a new and currently representative executive committee. It is time, as well, for this group — and all Palestinians — to discuss the mechanisms by which a proposed peace treaty might be ratified by and on behalf of all Palestinians. Such discussions would do two things: first, express Palestinians’ readiness to make peace and, second, make it clear who it is (or will be) that will do the ratification so the world can consider their interests and so the PLO/PA folks will represent them in negotiations and not forget the exiles or permit Israel to forget them.

  3. seafoid says:

    1948 Palestinians need to see some results. 50% won’t vote in the Feb elections in their stolen country according to Ha’aretz.

  4. Shmuel says:

    Thanks, Ben. Great essay (and high praise) from MK Zoabi.

    I would add that the division of the Palestinian people into ever smaller and more “manageable” bits has been part and parcel of the Zionist project from its inception to the latest and ongoing Israeli attempts to “divide and rule”.

    The way to rectify the injustices of the historical and ongoing Nakba – i.e. the destruction not only of the lives of individuals and families but of Palestinian communities and society as a whole – thus necessarily passes through the rebuilding and reinforcement of Palestinian unity. This is the way forward, to a just and lasting solution (including the liberation “of the Jews in Palestine from the racist project of which they are part”), and the role of Palestinian citizens of Israel – especially figures like MK Zoabi – is crucial.

  5. yes yes yes i love Haneen Zoabi!