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Peace may be more than one conflict away

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In this weekend’s Haaretz, there is an interview, by Yotam Feldman, with Prof. Yehouda Shenhav, linked to the upcoming publication of Shenhav’s book “In the Trap of the Green Line” (Hebrew), in which he frames the debate within Israel not in terms of left and right, but in terms of 1948 versus 1967.

Interviewed at his home in Tel Aviv, Shenhav presents a historical viewpoint that sees the 1948 war as the formative event, the ground zero from which subsequent historical developments directly stemmed. Thus, he depicts the Qibya (1953) and Samu’a (1966) raids as a continuation of the "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians in the area, which began in 1948. He sees the Six-Day War as a well-planned extension of the achievements of ’48 and settlement in the territories as a direct continuation of Jewish settlement inside the Green Line. For this reason, Shenhav is averse to the popular notion among the left that Israel was "corrupted" in 1967, and that the occupation east of the Green Line defiled Israelis’ moral values.

Shenhav points out that the “re-unification” of the two parts of Palestine in 1967 actually had some positive aspects, for Palestinians and Mizrahim – reuniting people and places, expanding and reinforcing the Arabic and Middle Eastern component of Israeli society.

It was not just that Israel had already forfeited its moral values in the massacres and expulsions that took place in 1948, argues Shenhav; the occupation of the territories and the creation of a contiguous entity between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River were a happy development for many who had been adversely affected by the arbitrary separation imposed by the Green Line.

Furthermore, he associates the ’67-centred view of the conflict with the liberal Ashkenazi middle class, who fear this magnification of Israel/Palestine’s Arab identity, and disregard the needs and aspirations of Mizrahim and religious Jews, as well as Palestinians.

This is why Shenhav feels alienated from the most prominent group in Israeli academia and from Tel Aviv intellectual life, and even farther removed from them than he feels from the extreme right and West Bank settlers. This feeling was behind his involvement in the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow, a political coalition he helped found in 1996, which demanded equal rights for Mizrahi Jews. The group fought against the inequality that was the lot of Mizrahim in the Israeli economy and in the distribution of national assets, primarily land. 

Provocatively, he presents the Israeli right as more realistic and more flexible than the left, by stressing a few isolated opinions on the right, as well as the “shared” view of Israel/Palestine as an indivisible unit – obviously perceived in a very different way by the Israeli right. Altogether, he seems to give the Israeli right a lot more credit than it deserves, although the right seems rather incidental to the main target of his criticism: the liberal left.

The insight Shenhav wishes to convey through his book is that the social left in Israel – represented by Meretz, for example – is also a political right. "When [the playwright] Shmuel Hasfari tells Ari Shavit [in an interview in this magazine], ‘Green Line nationalists sounds fine to me. I am not apologetic about my country, about its borders or the Green Line, which has been recognized by the entire world,’ he’s reflecting the way in which the Zionist left is in many senses more nationalist than other parts of the public, and this nationalism is especially striking in terms of the skeleton it keeps in the closet, the question of ’48."

And the right isn’t nationalist? Rightists don’t want a strong Jewish state? 

"Not necessarily like the left. Eliaz Cohen from Kfar Etzion says that if we don’t draw the border on the Green Line, then the right of return for the Palestinians and Jews will be reciprocal: ‘Just as I have a right of return to Kfar Etzion, he says, ‘there’s no reason that Palestinians from Nablus shouldn’t have a right of return to Jaffa.’ It’s a utopia, but this is a group that is a lot more leftist than Amnon Rubinstein and Ari Shavit and Yossi Beilin and David Grossman. This is where the categories have to be overturned and recreated in a new way. 

Shenhav rightly underscores the socio-economic aspect of Israel’s settlement policies and the fact that Ashkenazi liberal Zionist solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict consistently fail to take this into account. What Shenhav seems to ignore, however, are the many reasons for “proletariat” estrangement from the left, which purports to represent their interests – much to the consternation of its mostly middle-class exponents. I have a Hebrew summary of Marxist theory, published in Palestine in the 1940s, that grapples with that very question, long before settlements or the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide had become an issue. Back to Shenhav:

"For the Zionist left, all the settlers look alike and think alike. But there are at least 250,000 people in the settlements, which are the lower classes that should have been and could be a central part of the Israeli left. These people who live in the territories, they’re the main victims of a Mapai regime and of the neoliberal economy; they were pushed there as a direct result of the structure of inequality within Israel. Making the Green Line permanent and instituting a solution in accordance with that is a threat to them, a threat that evacuation will deprive them of the welfare state they received."

Therefore, asserts Shenhav, a future accord needn’t hinge upon the evacuation of all the settlements, an idea that he describes in his book as "a fantasy of the left that denies the political reality." For now, it’s hard to envision any Palestinian partner to a solution that does not include an evacuation of the settlements, as the struggle against them currently plays a key part in the Palestinian resistance, but Shenhav is optimistic about this too. Historically speaking, he does not see any difference between settlement on either side of the Green Line; the only difference is that the Palestinians have recognized the settlement to the west of it. 

We then come to Shenhav’s proposed solutions. There is nothing particularly new in the idea of a single, federal state, but its espousal by someone like Shenhav is significant.

At the end of the book, Shenhav proposes three possible solutions to the conflict, based on the premise that it began with the war of 1948 and not 1967. He presents the model of "a state of all its citizens" comprising all of the territory and jointly run by Jews and Arabs. In the same breath, he says that this is the less preferred model, since it does not take into consideration the different interests of the two sides and creates a demographic race between them to achieve a majority. 

Shenhav’s preferred model is what he calls a demokratiya hesderit: a division of the region into smaller territories in which various religious and civic communities would live, in a loose federation of independent cantons. Even if these solutions seem quite far-fetched today, Shenhav believes that the changes of recent years have made the two-state solution even more unrealistic and argues that future solutions are continually being shaped. "It’s not like everything is on hold, still waiting for Ben-Ami to come back from Camp David with an agreement. In the meantime, the occupation and control of the territories has deepened. The control of Gaza from the outside and via humanitarian organizations is the best possible control there could be. These changes fortify the one space. We’re not living in a Jewish and democratic state, we’re living in a single space in which Israel exerts de facto sovereignty from the sea to the Jordan River, including Areas C, B and A, in Gaza and Ramallah. A situation is being created that cannot be divorced from solutions."

The English translation of the interview leaves out an important passage appearing at the very end of the Hebrew version:

But who wants to integrate into the Arab world?

Prof. Yehouda Shenhav claims that it is largely Ashkenazim who promote the idea of separation from the Palestinians. He believes that Mizrahim may find it easier to live alongside Palestinians in a single binational polity: “This is a position that Mizrahim can adopt. My father and all those around him, all members of the defence establishment, in a second, you can see them as Arabs”.

Is this relevant to the younger generation? There is hardly anyone younger than you who speaks Arabic or is connected to this culture.

“It may be a generational thing that I am a little trapped in. But our parents offered a possibility that can be reconstructed, that can become a political position. On the flip side, it is almost banal, but nonetheless true, that it has been the Ashkenazim who have promoted the idea of Israel as a European outpost. Let’s see what they say when Islam becomes a central factor in Europe”.

Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel

Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel is a teacher, translator and independent researcher based in Rome. He is a member of Rete ECO - Ebrei contro l'occupazione.

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