The recent controversy over the refusal of the Obama Administration to veto a Security Council condemnation of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank just serves to emphasize that Israel and Palestine have reached a point of no return. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the administration’s intent was to preserve the two-state option. But that option has been on life support for years, and the advent of the emphatically pro-settlement Donald Trump will pull the plug.
The early Zionists mostly hoped that a Jewish state could coexist peaceably with an Arab state in Palestine. And had the Arabs, early on, accepted that coexistence, we would not be at the place we are now. It would not even have been necessary for the Arabs to accept Israel’s legitimacy, only that it existed and would continue to exist. Instead, first the surrounding Arab states and then the Palestinians themselves fought wars dedicated to wiping Israel off the map, losing each one and seeing the map grow steadily more unfavorable to them.
As with the South African whites, the logic of the Israeli position is clear: they can have a democracy for Jews only by continuing to keep the Palestinians down.
Meanwhile, Israeli Zionism was changing, fed by an influx of Jews from Russia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the United States, people who were far less liberal and far less willing to accommodate the Palestinians. After Israel occupied the Palestinian territories in 1967, Israelis began, first cautiously, then with militant determination, to build new settlements on Palestinian land, with active support from the State of Israel. It became, in the course of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, increasingly implausible that these settlements would ever be abandoned. The question was only whether the two sides could agree on a peace settlement that would leave the Palestinians with a pitiful remnant of the state they might have had in 1948. We know now that they could not agree.
Now the Israelis have a substantial occupied population on their hands. They could simply annex the remaining Palestinian territories, but what would they do with the Palestinians? If they make them citizens, like the existing minority of Israeli Arabs, they run the long-run risk of losing the Jewish character of Israel as the Palestinian population grows faster than the Israeli.
On the other hand, if they just maintain the existing occupation, with settlements steadily infringing on Palestinian territory, then as Jimmy Carter famously said a few years ago, how will they be fundamentally different from the South African apartheid regime? The South African white minority tried to maintain a democracy for whites by systematically disenfranchising the black majority, by creating puppet black homelands where the blacks were supposedly citizens, and by extending limited political rights to the Colored and Asian populations.
Is this not essentially what the Israelis will have to do now? They already have Arab citizens of Israel whose political power is carefully circumscribed (they are never allowed to be part of a governing coalition, they do not serve in the armed forces, they are considered by definition a security risk). The non-Israeli Palestinians will be citizens of the Palestinian Authority, which as about the level of autonomy (not to speak of sovereignty) of a South African bantustan.
We have seen over the last century the clash of two nationalisms in the territory now occupied by Israel and Palestine. With a lot of help from the West, Israel won, but in the process has lost its legitimacy. As with the South African whites, the logic of the Israeli position is clear: they can have a democracy for Jews only by continuing to keep the Palestinians down. Unlike apartheid South Africa, Israel may well be able to pull it off, if it keeps getting massive subsidies from the United States. But whereas Israel was widely admired in its founding years, it will be seen in the future as an oppressive occupying power.