Moving Israel Backwards
Neve Gordon, who teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, is a visiting scholar in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. This article is reprinted with permission from the April 10, 2006, edition of The Nation.
Israelis will be going to the polls March 28 with the hope of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. The new political party Kadima, which means "forward" in Hebrew, promised as much and is expected to win the day, while the country's long-established ruling parties, Labor and Likud, will lose their traditional place at the helm.
Although the refreshing social-justice discourse introduced by Labor's new leader, the Moroccan-born union advocate Amir Peretz, did inject energy into the shattered party, he failed to garner the support many had hoped for. His position regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been rightly criticized as incoherent, and it also appears that many of Labor's longtime Ashkenazi voters have deserted the party ranks because they are unwilling to be led by a Mizrahi Jew .
Likud's situation is even worse. Following the creation of Kadima it lost about half its cohort and has been increasingly characterized as an extremist party that represents the settlers' uncompromising ideology. Moreover, during his tenure as finance minister, party leader Benjamin Netanyahu introduced unpopular Thatcherite policies that pushed hundreds of thousands of Israelis under the poverty line.
Kadima's meteoric ascent in the polls stems, in part, from a pervasive yearning for a centrist party that will solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the party has very little to say about the country's other ills, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's bold declaration that Kadima will unilaterally determine Israel's international borders is one of the secrets behind its all-but-certain electoral victory.
Kadima's line is straightforward. It claims that there is a contradiction between Israel's geographic and demographic aspirations: As the settlement project deepened its hold on the occupied territories, the very idea of Israel as a Jewish state, where Jews are the majority, has been undermined. In other words, the fact that the majority of people living between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea are not Jewish underscores the impossibility of achieving the vision of a Greater Israel while maintaining a Jewish state.
The party's idea is to unilaterally redraw the borders between Israel and the Palestinian territories and thus to alter radically the region's demographic and geographic reality. Last summer's Gaza pullout constituted the plan's first stage. In a recent interview for Ha'aretz, Olmert outlined the next stage, explaining that Ariel Sharon's so-called security barrier will become Israel's political border. But what in fact does the conversion of the security barrier into a political border imply?
Demographically, the barrier will surround 48 Jewish settlements from the east, so that 171,000 of the West Bank's settlers will be incorporated into Israel's expanded state. The wall being built in East Jerusalem is meant to reinforce the 1967 annexation of this part of the city, and to consolidate further the 184,000 settlers living there. In this way the government will not have to evacuate 87 percent of the settlers now living in the West Bank, and Jews will have a clear majority within Israel's unilaterally determined borders. The price Israel will have to pay for such a solution is the evacuation of 52,000 settlers.
Geographically, however, the barrier qua political border (including Israel's plan to maintain control of the Jordan Valley) does not resemble either of the traditional visions for peace: the two-state solution or the binational polity.
An examination of the barrier's route reveals that the future Palestinian "state" will be divided into three, if not five, areas (including Gaza). Each area will be closed off almost entirely from the others, while Israel will effectively continue to control all the borders so as to enforce a hermetic closure whenever it wishes. What is new about Kadima's vision is not the attempt to create isolated enclaves in the occupied territories but rather the effort to transform these into quasi-independent entities that will ostensibly constitute a Palestinian state.
The brilliance of Kadima's political plan is that it solves Israel's demographic problem and presents its solution as the two-state option, while eliding the fact that Israel will continue to control the Palestinians, whose living conditions will be even further limited in terms of resources, mobility and decision-making. The methods of control, though, will have to be more remote and technologically sophisticated, using biometrics, video cameras, robots and surveillance aircraft.
The Palestinians, in turn, will no doubt employ all means at their disposal to resist Israel's attempt to transform the West Bank and Gaza into remotely-controlled bantustans. Consequently, one should not be surprised if Olmert's plan is met by more of the intifada's Qassam rockets, this time launched not just from Gaza but from the West Bank toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The ultimate irony is that Kadima's political vision actually puts the peace process into reverse. On the one hand, it is trying to persuade the public that it can make the Palestinian problem disappear by reintroducing the age-old Zionist trope of an "iron wall." On the other hand, it has abandoned all forms of dialogue and negotiation, which Israeli leaders since the early 1990s understood to be the only way to reach a solution with the Palestinians. Kadima is accordingly an oxymoron. While the party's name means "forward," its political program will effectively take Israelis several steps backward.
Copyright © 2006 The Nation