In late October, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a joint meeting of the Knesset foreign Affairs and Defense Committees that “at this time we need to control all of the territory (of the West Bank) for the foreseeable future.” He echoed this during his talk at the Center for American Progress on November 10, when he insisted that, despite his stated support for a two-state solution, he saw no alternative to a permanent Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley.
These remarks fall within a particular set of parameters of discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this view, Israel is being asked to make a concession by even considering an end to its now 48-year old occupation. In this view, Palestinian liberty is not a self-evident, inalienable right, but an Israeli gift.
This view is not only that of the Israeli right, but of the majority of politicians in both Jerusalem and Washington. Netanyahu is merely following those parameters to their logical conclusion: that the occupation lives until such time as Israel feels it should end. The fact that millions of Palestinians live under military rule may disturb many Israelis, but it does not create a political imperative to change that state of affairs.
Netanyahu recognizes the absence of any international agenda for a peace process, much less any real pressure to get back onto the long and winding road toward a sustainable solution. As a result, he is pressing forward with the agenda of the Israeli right, which has long been clearly articulated by its leaders. Their view has been, unabashedly, a single Israeli state in all the territory Israel now controls, with Palestinians contained and controlled within a series of disconnected cantons.
That policy means holding the West Bank and East Jerusalem in perpetuity while denying citizenship, along with basic rights, to the Palestinian people living there. If that is the policy that Israel pursues, then it must explain to the world how it justifies a system that is unmistakably reminiscent of apartheid.
It will not be an easy case to make, and it certainly will not be a popular one. But given the fact that, at this writing, there has been no notable response to Netanyahu’s words, it might not be very hard for him to sustain the policy he seems to be proposing.
Last month, during the height of the tensions raised over the status of the Temple Mount, I met with a high-ranking official in the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem. In discussing the impasse in peace talks, he posed the following question: “As an Israeli, if I am to agree to a Palestinian state, is it not fair that I know what will be on the other side?”
It’s a reasonable question. After all, can we expect Israel to consent to an arrangement if they don’t have some assurance that it won’t lead to even more attacks? Once we unravel the context of that rhetorical question, however, we get to one of the root causes of the endless nature of this occupation.
The point the official made to me was based on the view that Israeli security demands that Palestinians prove they can be trusted with their own freedom. This is a logic that is broadly accepted. Yet it rests on certain assumptions.
The first assumption is that Palestinians are either not entitled to or have somehow forfeited the rights Americans consider fundamental and inalienable. Many of us in the West have a greater measure of freedom than most, and we generally hold to the idea that human rights, civic rights and rights of individual liberty are inalienable. True, most of us also believe that a crime can lead to an individual being forced to forfeit some of those rights, but you’d be hard pressed to find people who believe that an entire group of people can be denied their individual or collective rights because of the actions of a few members of their group.
Yet when it comes to the Palestinians, we seem to lose sight of this basic ethic. Of course, this is a situation of unsettled conflict, and in such circumstances, people are often put under martial law, or even besieged. But according to international norms, those are supposed to be temporary conditions. Indeed, the laws of military occupation (which Israel’s High Court has confirmed apply to the West Bank) exist precisely because occupation is understood to be a temporary condition, which all sides are striving to end.
Indeed, the blind eye the United States and, to a lesser extent, the European Union turn to Israel’s failure to fulfill its duties as an occupying power, in addition to the human rights issues that numerous Israeli groups have documented, are also an outgrowth of this view of the conflict. Even many who are sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight, whether out of fear of being seen as insensitive to the Jewish history of persecution or for purely political reasons, continue to treat basic Palestinian rights as subordinate to Israeli security concerns.
Israel’s argument that the territories in question are not occupied because they were not the sovereign territory of another state (in this case, Jordan) does not change the dilemma of the millions of Palestinians who exist on a daily basis without civic or national rights and whose human rights are routinely violated with impunity.
This is what needs to change before any serious progress can be made. Israeli security is of course important, but it cannot continue to serve to justify the violation of Palestinians’ basic rights. The current paradigm frames the issue as one where Israel’s security concerns are the first order of business, and in pursuing those concerns, Palestinian rights should be addressed. But the most basic ethical view demands the reverse: a framework that demands the same rights for Palestinians as for Israelis, and within pursuing that overarching goal, security for both peoples must be maximized.
If that framework is adopted, we have the potential for a solution because it demands that the occupation end, where the current one does not necessarily do that. Most of us can reluctantly accept that people live under occupation for a short time, and we hope that human rights monitors can be effective in policing the conduct of occupying powers. But there are no moral or ethical, let alone legal grounds for accepting endless occupation. If Israel truly wants to control all of the West Bank, then it must annex it all (not just the parts it wants) and grant full citizenship to all of its inhabitants. Otherwise, it must work diligently to end the occupation and establish a viable, secure and self-sufficient Palestinian state.
As tragic and outrageous as the stabbing of innocent civilians or the suicide bombings of years past or any other murder of Israelis may be, they cannot justify open-ended occupation for the millions of innocent Palestinians who had no part in any such crimes. But no outside party is enforcing this basic ground rule with Israel. It is thus no surprise that Netanyahu is advocating perpetual occupation.
This is where the attitude of the United States and its international partners must enter, and enter forcefully. Israel is a country whose populace feels itself to be under permanent siege and is led by a Prime Minister who has a long history of building his political base on a foundation of fear. Under those circumstances, it is not reasonable to expect Israel to willingly give up what it perceives as its security advantage in controlling the Palestinians.
The United States has long sided with Israel in resisting any kind of timetable for ending the occupation. This has to change. Just as there needs to be a sense of urgency about Israeli civilians being killed in the streets of Israel, there must be at least as much urgency about the Palestinian people getting the rights and freedoms that all of us are entitled to as human beings.
Netanyahu has, ironically, given the US and EU the opportunity to change the game. These bodies must respond to Bibi’s declaration of perpetual occupation by making it clear that the occupation must begin to be drawn down.
The process need not be instantaneous. An international security presence can begin to replace Israeli security forces in various parts of the West Bank as Palestinians continue to develop the infrastructure they will need for a functional government. Meanwhile, permanent borders, the status of Jerusalem and the questions of refugees, the Jewish identity of Israel and mutual economic, water and security agreements can be worked out. It amounts to a phased Israeli withdrawal, with constant security adjustments and steady increases in Palestinian freedom. Such a process, however, can only succeed with robust international participation, led by the United States,
Until now, too much of the international diplomatic framework has been centered on what is best for Israel. Yes, it is important to make the argument that the occupation is the single biggest obstacle to a normal existence for Israel; that it is diverting resources from the Israeli public; and that it is rotting Israel’s moral structure from the inside. These are powerful arguments that should help incentivize Israelis to end the occupation.
But the more crucial moral argument is that millions of Palestinians live under occupation, and have done so for more than 48 years now. As those years have progressed, the occupation has not normalized or relaxed, but has grown even more restrictive and oppressive. This is a horrible reality, and obscuring it behind attacks on Israelis is a massive injustice to the overwhelming majority of Palestinians who want nothing more than to live normal lives without fear but with hope and opportunity. That is an argument that has been sadly neglected.
As long as the moral and political questions of ending the occupation revolve so strongly about Israel’s concerns, legitimate though those may be, Netanyahu can find his justification for advocating occupation without end. And he will find an audience that will not berate him for it. Once the question is properly framed around both Israeli security and Palestinian rights and freedom, such options cannot be considered, and progress can reasonably be expected.