There are many Zionist myths we would do well to dispel, but perhaps none of them is more directly damaging to building a movement in effective solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination than the myth that liberal Zionism is on their side. (A very useful book debunking this myth has been written recently, of which I coauthored a summative review.) The Zionist left in Israel, and liberal Zionism more broadly, speaks in the language of universalism: democracy, rights, and even justice. However, rather than challenging Israel’s unjust and illegal policies and practices, “liberal” Zionists end up defining the limitations to how Israel is challenged, if not themselves implementing policies that maintain the consistent repression of the Palestinian people. Liberal Zionism plays the role of the Trojan horse that effortlessly enters the camp; it’s important that the Palestine solidarity movement learn to recognize it as a warning sign of the legions advancing behind it.
As the book mentioned above attests, the history of the state of Israel is loaded with examples of how the Zionist left and its liberal counterparts around the world (most significantly the U.S. government) have informed and shaped unjust Israeli policies by playing this role of the Trojan horse. I will mention only two of the most recent and significant.
The first example is the Oslo Accords. Palestinian protest against Israeli repression, including extrajudicial killings, mass detentions, house demolitions and deportations, culminated in 1987 with the first intifada. The Zionist left was in political power in Israel when the “conflict” was “resolved” with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Palestinian rejection of the Oslo Accords is now quite common knowledge due to the end of that agreement in 2000, when the second intifada erupted in protest against the increase of those same repressive conditions. During their implementation, every aspect of living under occupation – such as Israeli settlement building, the enclosure of the Gaza Strip, lack of access to water, electricity and freedom of movement – worsened rather than being alleviated. And notably, when the second intifada erupted out of this suffocating and oppressive “peace,” it burst the liberal bubble. Those who had joined the ranks of the Zionist left fled, many now swelling the ranks of the right, which has since easily adopted its rhetoric.
The second example of Zionist left policies advancing Israeli violence and suppression is Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza strip. In the wake of the first intifada, during the “peace” of the Oslo Accords, Gaza was completely enclosed and became the outdoor prison (and most densely populated place in the world) that it is today. Israel’s unilateral withdrawal, promoted as a way to support Palestinian autonomy, was eagerly supported by the Zionist left. What it did, however, was to create an isolated Palestinian enclave that could be blockaded, attacked with white phosphorus, and starved of food, water and electricity. It created a testing ground for control and occupation by armed drones which now provide the lucrative export of goods and services for Israel’s arms industry. And it created the enclosed space in which 1.7 million people are entrapped, terrorized and killed by 160 airstrikes in just one night of Israel’s current assault.
The pattern of Zionist left support for policies that maintain and advance Israeli state building through repression and violence repeats over and over. While the current circumstances are different in their specifics, the same kind of danger lies ahead.
The Trojan horse returns – mapping the current battle ground
A state that perpetrates collective punishment and incites the racist violence that we see in Israel today is hard pressed to defend its democratic claims. Israel explains its violence as retaliation. What it consistently fails to explain is its ethnic cleansing of most of the indigenous population and then preventing it from returning. Or its more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinian people in all areas of life, including their rights to political participation, access to land, education, state budget resources, and criminal procedures. The most formidable challenge to false claims of democracy is the success of the Palestinian people to be heard despite the impunity of the Israeli state to attempt to silence them. The Palestinian will simply has not capitulated as Israeli strategists hoped and expected it would by now.
The level of state violence Israel currently reigns on the Palestinian people occurs in the context of additional challenges to its legitimacy at the diplomatic level and from the civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. On the diplomatic front, during negotiation efforts, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority leveraged nonmember observer-state status won at the United Nations in 2012 by joining 15 international bodies. This new status also enables the Palestinian Authority to go to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and charge Israel with war crimes, an option of which Israel is well aware. In June, after seven years of division and rivalry, the two main Palestinian factions had joined to create a Palestinian unity government, a major blow to the division of Palestinians that Israel both orchestrates and encourages to great benefit. Likewise, the success of the Palestinian civil society call for BDS continues to gain significant ground with states, corporations, unions and associations around the world, creating both political and economic pressure on Israel.
With all of these gains made in the face of outrageous odds, we can count on liberal Zionist interventions to support Israel in maintaining power. An excellent example was offered by the founder of the Center for Middle East Peace in Washington, D.C., S. Daniel Abraham. In mid-January as “peace negotiations” began to falter, he warned in a Ha’aretz article against undermining negotiations with settlement expansion in light of the Palestinian gains made above:
If Israel continues with its policy of settlement expansion and is viewed as not being forthcoming with the Palestinians, Israel’s friends will then be hard pressed to counter the treacherous international efforts to isolate it. Unfortunately, economic and legal sanctions against Israel and Israelis will become prevalent. Ultimately, Israel will find itself on the defendant’s seat in international tribunals. The delegitimization campaign against it will worsen. Isolation will grow. Friends will become few. Even though Israel won’t be solely responsible, it will still have to face this difficult reality.
And he offers his analysis (my emphasis is added):
My many years of involvement in the peace process teach me that the approaching decision is unlike previous ones. This is a watershed moment after which Israel will face a completely different situation – one which will be governed by new realities much less favorable than those Israel faces today. If Kerry’s mission fails, Israel will miss a historic window of opportunity to achieve an agreement that is optimal from its viewpoint. In the future, Israel may be forced to accept a bad agreement or live without an agreement, thereby compromising its Jewish or democratic character….
Abraham’s comments came after the move made by Israel in November 2013, during the negotiation process, to push forward plans for nearly 20,000 new settlement units – at which the United States was likewise dismayed. Based on their liberal Zionist stances, these players similarly saw Israel as undermining an opportunity for reaching an “agreement that would be optimal from its viewpoint” and were trying to save Israel from itself.
Attempts to preserve Israel’s economic and political power are not expressions of support for Palestinian rights or self-determination. Demonstrations against the same negotiations had occurred on the streets of Ramallah demanding that they not be pursued. Initially, every Palestinian political party except Fatah had rejected the talks. Unable to participate in the same way, Palestinian refugees living in diaspora gathered on the Internet to voice their rejection of the negotiations via petition. In their statement in solidarity with the California prisoner’s hunger strike, just after the negotiations were announced, the Palestinian Youth Movement asked that we “refuse all options that detract from the fundamental right to resist and fight for decent living for our families and people.”
If the negotiations brokered by Kerry had ‘ended the conflict,’ it would also have made those voices once again virtually inaudible to the international community. This silence is crucial to those who would deny the Palestinian people the right to return to the land they or their families were removed from during the expulsion of 750,000 people in 1948. Beyond the basic moral need to right this wrong, there are grievous material needs to address: some of those people are now currently trapped in the Gaza Strip, others are still in refugee camps throughout the region, and still others are now surviving the unimaginable circumstances of being ethnically cleansed from Syrian camps.
There are numerous other reasons that Palestinian people would be opposed to the negotiations: Control over the borders of what would become a Palestinian state is not something Israel is willing to cede. Jerusalem has been virtually surrounded by settlements. The West Bank has been divided by those same settlements, shrunk by the wall, carved up into enclaves and its water taken. This fragmented and dispersed people would become part of a Palestinian ‘economy’ even further reliant on Israel than it is now. Extensive planning has gone into a Palestinian Economic Initiative that outlines the trademark neoliberal ‘structural reforms’ of an outward-facing economy – in this case, outward toward Israel first. As with previous “peace” strategies, what would be gained from this plan is a new form of subjugation of the Palestinian people, the suppression of the Palestinian struggle, and without their call to hear, the withering of the Palestine solidarity movement.
And where does the Zionist right land on all this? Amos Yadlin, head the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a former chief of Military Intelligence, also thought that the Israeli push for settlements during negotiations was a set up for “losing the blame game.” He did not expect Palestinian acceptance of the negotiation agreements or a third intifada, because he assessed they would think neither to be in their interests. However, he agreed with the assessment of what he called a “diplomatic intifada” which could include a claim made in the ICC and more BDS successes. His suggestion, made at the end of January, 2014, is a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, essentially enforcing a “two-state solution” in which it retains complete control.
[If the Palestinians] are unlikely to approve an agreement that will end the conflict, forfeit Palestinian claims of a “right of return,” and take into consideration Israel’s security demands – then Israel should get the US, France, Germany and England behind the idea of unilateral Israeli steps toward a two-state solution.
The seemingly disparate propositions of the Zionist left and right converge and reinforce each other in this crucial way: they both deny Palestinian demands and basic rights in order to maintain a Jewish exclusionary state by creating alongside it a Palestinian auxiliary state-let. If Israel has a “partner” that will capitulate to these requirements, “peace” is a viable strategy. Otherwise, it will beat back and diabolize Palestinian resistance, weaken or destroy the new Palestinian unity government, and when they can claim “no partner,” unilaterally impose the same outcome.
Maps are more useful if we read the keys
The project of building, maintaining and expanding an exclusive Jewish state in Palestine through exclusion, subjugation and expulsion of the Palestinian people has been unrelenting. The specific strategies employed in this process by the Zionist left (and right, although their outright violence has been more consistent) have evolved over time in response to conditions created by the determination of the Palestinian people to resist it. Identifying these strategies, understanding the impact they have, and challenging them accordingly makes solidarity efforts more useful.
With the recent and seeming demise of the prospects for a two-state solution through negotiations, and the Palestinian civil society call for BDS heard far and wide, it is increasingly common for the Zionist left in Israel, liberal Zionists more broadly (American Jews predominantly), most governments, and an increasing number of corporations and large non-governmental organizations (i.e. Oxfam) to claim support for Palestinian human rights while also safeguarding Zionism and a Jewish state in Palestine. This position leads to a variety of forms of support for “boycott” including “growing Jewish support for boycott” that are not actually responses to the call made by Palestinian civil society. Rather than supporting the demands put forward by those they are claiming to defend, they adopt and adapt the strategy of boycott in ways that support their own interests. But one cannot “advocate” for Palestinian rights and defend an undemocratic Jewish state at the same time; this undermines rather than creates the conditions for meaningful resolution.
That’s why it’s unhelpful, for example, to assume that any presence of boycott in the mainstream press will advance the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. There was a wave of this activity in the U.S. and Israel as negotiations were faltering this past spring.
Jonathon Cook was appropriately wary to claim there had been an increase of commentary critical on Israel in the New York Times, but noted as a milestone their publishing of Omar Barghouti’s op-ed on BDS. It is a milestone that the NYT found it advantageous to give a platform to him and the boycott movement; the discussion of boycott has become inescapable. However, it is because of the widespread, liberal interpretations of boycott against Israel that they were able to create a platform for “debate” that mirrored and magnified justification for the two-state solution under negotiation rather than the actual BDS demands:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.
Each one of the BDS demands is supported by international law, which Israel systematically breaks with impunity, regardless of how many UN resolutions are ratified along the way. It is therefore less astonishing that the NYT would title the collection of letters to the editor in response to this debate with the seemingly evenhanded question: “Is a Boycott of Israel Just?”
Likewise, the news piece on Israeli TV, reported about on the independent Israeli web magazine +972 as impressive, read much like a commercial offering the Israeli public an argument for how a two-state solution (and end of the ‘67 occupation in its current form) would be good for business and technology (because that’s where boycott is having an impact) and therefore more beneficial to the growth of the Israeli state.
Overcoming silence and misrepresentation in the media can serve as a major breakthrough in shifting the public opinion necessary to overcoming Israeli impunity. However, we must take the historic and consistent strategies of liberal Zionism into account when assessing which kind of press will shift public opinion by shedding light on the validity of Palestinian demands, and which kind of press will serve as a Trojan horse. Otherwise, we risk being deceived by yet another use of the call for “peace” – or even “Palestinian rights” – as a strategy for maintaining an exclusively Jewish and undemocratic Israeli state.
Suggestions upon sighting a Trojan horse
When the Oslo Accords were signed, any dissention from this “peace program” was quelled or judged as absurd. Critiques of the Accords, discussions about Zionism as a political project or ideology, and the colonial history and expulsion of 1948 were all taboo. The Palestine solidarity movement of the past was floundering without a publicly acknowledged raison d’être which the public could understand and rally around.
The second intifada rejected and broke this enforced silence and made incredible headway in exposing its rhetoric. A task of a Palestine solidarity movement is to not feed, and to help to deflect, any “solutions” that would undermine these accomplishments. In this moment of horrific escalation of Israeli military violence – coinciding with horrific vigilantism – genuine support for the Palestinian struggle for self-determination can be shown by joining in the rejection of Israel’s racist exclusion and repression, naming the Trojan horse when you see it, and climbing down out of it if you are inside. Here are some ideas for action:
Expose Trojan horses in the press; write letters to the editor that challenge the assumptions of support for “peace” or Palestinian rights that risk further entrenching the normalization of unequal relations between peoples in the region.
Cease support for and openly oppose diplomatic proposals or organizing campaigns or that can be used to justify a two-state solution which does not comply with Palestinian demands, including addressing the Palestinian right to return. This includes boycotts that focus on goods produced in the West Bank while not including goods produced inside of Israel.
Cease support for and openly challenge the purpose of organizing that reinforces the idea that Jewish positions on Israel/Palestine range only from the Zionist right to the Zionist left.
Join protests around the world in support of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.
Attempts to quell Palestinian resistance to injustice continue to escalate. Hopefully they will not “end” with yet another form of the same repression. International solidarity efforts can increase the odds of meaningful resolution by becoming more effective at echoing Palestinian demands. Let us not allow ourselves to be duped into supporting more of the same, even when it appears innocently dressed.