Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once said that there were no Palestinians. All she had to do was look out the window to see an Arab or two, but her point was less factual than political in that she was denying that there had ever been any national identity for Palestinian Arabs, suggesting that arriving European Jews were doing little more than filling a political vacuum by returning to where their ancestors had in ancient times founded a state. It was a convenient national creation myth. Without a political consciousness and identity, a very Marxist concept, the Palestinians could not claim to recover something that, at least per Meir, they had never had. Meir’s view provided a suitable interpretation of recent history for the newly minted Israelis but it meant nothing less than a "nakba" or catastrophe for the surviving Palestinians.
Meir notwithstanding, many would argue that the time for creation of a viable Palestinian state has at last arrived, but that would assume that what takes place in Ramallah is not really dictated by politicians in Washington and Tel Aviv. Washington is involved in Israel-Palestine whether it should or wants to be there or not. It now has a president who is impatient and wants the deadlock to end but Tel Aviv is not cooperating. Israel has the most right wing government in its history presiding over a system of exploitative colonial rule that would be rightly called both racist and imperialist anywhere else in the world. That it is largely given a free pass is a tribute to the Israel Lobby’s effectiveness at silencing most criticism through its network of friends in the media and in political circles in both the United States in Europe. And that silence might become even more pervasive. The de facto conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism in hate crime legislation has already been used to attack critics of Israel in Canada and Australia. As such laws become more commonplace, it might soon mean that any and all criticism of Israel will become illegal in many countries.
Washington might well buck that trend by insisting that Israel conform to the standards of the rest of the world in terms of human rights and acceptance of international law, but that is in practice difficult to achieve. As long as Israel’s numerous friends in congress and the press provide it with political cover and media cooperation, Tel Aviv will continue to behave recklessly towards its own Arabs and its neighbors with impunity. The sense of Israeli exceptionalism and entitlement that drive the process, which has been noted and challenged even by many liberal Israelis and diaspora Jews, is without a doubt racist in origin.
There is also a central fantasy in Israeli life regarding what is needed to keep the country safe. A series of Israeli governments has been engaged in a holding action while making life miserable for the Palestinians under the assumption that they will presumably someday just decide to give up and go away. Current Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu continues that charade, claiming that he wants peace with the Palestinians while simultaneously tightening the screws. Netanyahu should be aware that there is the old saying that people should be judged by what they do and not by what they say. Even while he is providing a narrative that he thinks will pass as credible with the international audience that is judging him, the facts on the ground tell a different story, one of oppression and sometimes unimaginable cruelty. Judging by actions, there should be little ambiguity about what the Israelis are doing and intend to keep doing to the Palestinians. In violation of international law and precedent, the West Bank and Gaza are being treated as conquered territories subject to the whim of the Israeli government even when there is no evident security threat or reason for creating a level of misery that might well be unparalleled anywhere else in the world. And it is not just critics of Israel who are noticing. Even Senator John Kerry, chairman of the senate foreign relations committee, returning from a February 2009 visit to Gaza, was shocked by the suffering and devastation caused by the Israeli invasion.
The politics of increasing misery is not new. Israel has long had an unspoken policy of making life hopeless for the Arabs in its midst and over which it rules to force them to leave for economic reasons. This policy has not been completely successful, with the Arab population inside Israel proper sustaining itself due to its high birth rate in spite of a large rate of emigration. Most hard hit has been the Arab Christian population, which has declined by more than a half in the past forty years, largely due to Israeli government harassment. The birthplace of Christianity in the Middle East will relatively soon be without indigenous Christians, driven out both by Israeli policies and the United States having unleashed local bigotry in places like Iraq. Ironically, Axis of Evil Syria is one of the few places in the Middle East where Christians can practice their religion with relative freedom.
Around Arab East Jerusalem, Israel continues to tighten its grip. Arab homes are demolished to create parks that only Jews will be able to use and settlements continue to be expanded to close Jerusalem completely off from the West Bank. Israeli Jews can buy houses in any part of the city, but East Jerusalem’s Arabs cannot and most West Bank Arabs can no longer even visit the city due to the network of military roads, the massive security wall, and movement restrictions. Israel’s friends like Reverend John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are engaged in a sustained campaign to pressure the Obama Administration to stop its criticism of the settlements, sometimes arguing that the settlements problem will solve itself in a broader peace agreement. Their argument is false and deliberately so, intended only to buy yet more time for the Netanyahu government to continue to delay taking any steps at all. The settlements are the kernel of the problem in that they are creating facts on the ground that will be extremely difficult to resolve. Witness the turmoil resulting from the uprooting of only 8,500 Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005. Removing more than forty times that many from the West Bank will be immeasurably more difficult, if it can be done at all, and adding to the numbers and the infrastructure that supports it only insures that a population shift will never take place, precisely what Netanyahu and his supporters intend.
And then there is Gaza. The Israeli attack on Gaza in January was perhaps one of the most foolish military operations of all time. It killed mostly civilians, devastated infrastructure, and demonstrated once and for all that the Israeli Defense Forces constitute one of the most undisciplined bodies of soldiers the world has ever seen, driven in part by racist rabbis who encouraged the troops to kill their Arab enemies without mercy. Since that time, Israel has done everything it can to stop the Gazans from rebuilding their shattered lives. Billions of dollars in aid has been committed to help Gaza, but Israel has effectively blockaded the strip both from land and sea, refusing to permit the transit of building materials and even food and medicine. The experience of former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who was seized in July together with other human rights campaigners on a vessel bringing in medical supplies from Cyprus and put in jail for a week, is not unique and was hardly reported in the US mainstream media. Sometimes the level of Israeli intimidation against innocent people seems astonishing and driven by no rational purpose. International bodies have documented how the Israeli government unilaterally bans fishing by Gazan boats and uses helicopter gunships to attack fisherman caught at sea. In the most recent incident in mid-July, several fishing boats were badly damaged by machine gun and missile fire though no one was killed.
The irony is that Israelis might intend for the Palestinians to disappear, but they are also acutely aware that the demographics are not running that way. Within ten years there will be a mostly Muslim Arab majority between Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Israel can then survive only by abandoning any pretense of democracy and creating a complete police state with its Jewish citizens ruling over Arabs like a helot class or it can, alternatively, ethnically cleanse all the Christians and Muslims from its territory and make the Jewish religion the only basis for Israeli citizenship. The United States and the rest of the world know perfectly well that the course that the Israeli government is on is both suicidal and unsustainable, but will they really do anything about it? Barack Obama seems serious at the moment — but when AIPAC and the Israeli Lobby really start serious pushback will he be able to take the heat? Every president before him has decided that pressuring the Israelis is not a game that can be won, but just maybe Obama might be made of sterner stuff.