‘Back the Palestinians’ UN bid’ the right wing Reut Institute tells Bibi–I agree

What does it mean when a highly influential, government-friendly think thank offers the most cogent, well-informed and well-argued advice to the Netanyahu coalition as to how it should respond to the Palestinians’ UN bid and the advice appears to be rejected? The Reut Institute, which defines its aim as ‘provid[ing] real-time, long-term strategic decision-support to Israeli leaders and decision-makers’, just published a paper titled: The Palestinian Declaration of Statehood: An Unparalleled Opportunity? The question mark implies a diffidence that is absent from the paper itself. The authors seem to be in no doubt that actively campaigning to get UN recognition of the Palestinian Authority as an independent state and a full member state of the UN is firmly in the Netanyahu government’s, and thereby Israel’s, best interest.

The Reut Institute came to international attention in 2010 for policy advice, enthusiastically adopted by the Israeli government, on combating the worldwide ‘delegitimization’ of Israel. The narrative associated with this term has become one of the central themes in all Israeli hasbara (‘information’, the Israeli authorities call it; ‘propaganda’ in the eyes of most observers) and in the activities defending Israel undertaken by pro-Israel organizations in the Jewish diaspora.

Reut’s advice on the Palestinians’ UN bid was first offered by its President, Gidi Grinstein, in a Haaretz op-ed in July 2011:

Israel may stand to gain several strategic advantages from the success of Palestinians’ UN motion. For example, this is the only scenario where Israel and the Palestinians can shape the permanent status of their relations, while Israel initially controls all security assets, including the air space and the external borders. Furthermore, a Palestinian state is the most promising way to dilute the refugee problem, as it will render UNWRA redundant and may change the status of refugees. Lastly, establishment of such a state will allow for direct state-to-state engagement on gradually shaping permanent status and determining permanent borders, particularly with regards to the delicate issue of swapping of populated areas adjacent to the border on both sides.

The published paper expands on these points and adds other advantages: ‘Anchoring the principle of “two states for two peoples”‘; ‘positioning Israel as an asset to its allies’; ‘lowering the prospects of confrontation between the IDF and the Palestinian population’.

Make no mistake, however; while the Reut paper takes as read the Palestinians’ rationale for pursuing the statehood declaration through the UN, its sights are firmly set on what is in the interests of the state of Israel. For example, the paper proposes that the Security Council resolution ‘would clearly refer to the “Jewish state” or “nation-state of the Jewish people” parallel to the “Arab/Palestinian state,” or, at the minimum, to the principle of “two-states-for-two-peoples”. Thus, a central and highly controversial demand now being made of the Palestinians by Israel would be achieved.

Furthermore, the paper argues:

Resumption of the political process on a ‘state-to-state basis’ [means that t]he ‘historic issues’ that emanate from 1948, or issues that are resonant for the entire Palestinian people (for example, the refugee issue or the holy sites in Jerusalem), would be negotiated only at a later stage.

But the establishment of Palestine as an independent, internationally recognised state is likely to neutralise once and for all what Israeli governments have always seen as the danger of the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state were it to recognise the right of return of the refugees as laid down in UN General Assembly resolution 194. Reut says that: ‘Palestinian refugees would be able to return to the Palestinians’ state’. Israel would no longer have any international obligation to let them return to its pre-1967 territory. In general, ‘An Israeli political initiative that accepts Palestinian statehood places the “burden of proof” on the Palestinians to meet Israel’s concerns’.

The paper concludes that Israel’s support for Palestinian membership of the UN as an independent state would spare the US from using its veto in the UNSC; it would enable Israel ‘to receive a unique and tailored security package from the US that would guarantee Israel’s capacities to confront future challenges arising from the Palestinian state and the dramatic changes in the Middle East.’

Tellingly, the Executive Summary makes no mention whatsoever of settlements. The full, 14-page, single-spaced paper refers to settlements 4 times, but only once addresses them as an issue requiring resolution: ‘Settlements, borders, Jerusalem, and security are outstanding issues according to the existing agreements, and should be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian side. Israel may benefit from the growing accountability of the Palestinian state.’ In this scenario the state of Palestine would have in its midst (outside of Jerusalem) 300,000 Jewish settlers over which it could exercise no sovereignty, its borders would remain in doubt and the balance of control of its security would remain with the Israelis. It may declare East Jerusalem as its capital, but this would prove meaningless since the Israeli government would almost certainly prevent the Palestinian Authority from operating in Jerusalem and exercising any control over its capital.

There’s so much in the Reut paper for Netanyahu to like. And who knows, perhaps he will still adopt this strategy. The Palestinians still plan to defy the Obama administration and apply to the UNSC for full UN membership. But Abbas has reportedly agreed that any vote be put on hold to allow for fresh attempts to revive peace talks. So Netanyahu would have time to change his mind.

This seems to me very unlikely, and it’s not difficult to see why the Reut paper falls short for the Israeli prime minster. (1) He would have to give an unequivocal commitment on his part to the creation of a Palestinian state, something which very many observers believe he fundamentally rejects. (2) Adopting the Reut strategy would of course make it impossible for him to annex the West Bank.

Drastic as it may seem to some, given possible international reaction, there is strong evidence that annexation is a distinct possibility. A number of commentators have suggested that this could be Netanyahu’s response to any UN approval of membership for a Palestinian state. His foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has threatened as much. There are, reportedly, more than 40 members of the Knesset who advocate such a move. The West Bank is already so fragmented and so subject to Israeli control that extending the Bantustanisation of the area would not be difficult. The anti-boycott law has already established the principle that, to all intents and purposes, Israeli law now encompasses the West Bank.

But perhaps what most clearly illustrates how annexation may be but a short step away is what is being done in Jerusalem. Study the 2009 map produced by Ir Amim (unfortunately, their updated 2011 map isn’t yet on line), which shows the existing areas of Jewish settlement outside of West Jerusalem and within the Jerusalem municipal boundary and also Israel’s future building projects that are effectively aimed at achieving contiguity of Jewish settlement from the north-west round the eastern side of the city to the south-west. To my eye, it’s practically inconceivable that this area, all of which was East Jerusalem and West Bank pre-1967, could, in any meaningful sense now constitute the capital of a Palestinian state. Yes, perhaps, if the future building projects were abandoned. But what is much more likely is that, in the event of the UN Security Council giving its backing to the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and in advance of any serious negotiations taking place, Israel will go full steam ahead to complete its ring of steel round the city.

Leaving aside the Reut Institute, those newspapers, columnists, liberal Zionist individuals and groups, left-wing Jewish organizations and so on, which support the Palestinians’ UN bid will generally respond by saying that international opinion simply won’t stand for such a move on Israel’s part. But I say this is naive, wishful thinking. For all that the world is now openly debating the Palestinians’ UN bid, and the plight of the Palestinians is on the international agenda once again at a level not seen for many years, how that concern might be translated into some serious control over Israel’s actions is utterly unclear. In the last 40-odd years the occupation and the growth of settlements has rolled inexorably on. In many respects Israel-Palestine is already one state, albeit a repressive one as far as the Palestinians are concerned. What power is going to intervene to prevent the Israeli government doing more or less what it likes?

Some argue that it will be the power of non-violent protest, of which the turn to the UN is an expression. The Palestinians are tired of and disillusioned with violence, and few expect a third intifada of such a character. But even though a senior Israeli Defence Force official admitted in 2010 that Israel was ‘not good at dealing with Gandhi’, that does not mean that the security forces will just roll over when faced with mass non-violent process. On the contrary, in situations where they are caught between Palestinian youth and the settlers, they might overreact. Assuming that the PA is still functioning and at least initially maintaining security cooperation with the Israelis, and hasn’t simply handed in its keys to the West Bank in disgust at not securing UN membership, it’s hard to see how the non-violent movement, which is anyway rather fragile, could stand in Israel’s way.

I have felt very ambivalent about the Palestinians’ UN bid – whether it succeeds or fails – because of my fears that it would rebound badly on them: their current situation could deteriorate and the realisation of their rights to meaningful self-determination could suffer a possibly irrecoverable setback. Negotiations were at a standstill so something was needed to break the logjam and some argue that this bold initiative has already achieved that. But the fact that Abbas looks as if he is being fobbed off with promises of renewed negotiations casts severe doubt on that judgement. There is already great Palestinian anger at Obama’s almost entirely one-sided speech and his hard line determination to veto the application to the Security Council if it comes to a vote – more openly one-sided, I think, than even many already sceptical observers expected. Abbas’s political career is on the line.

But while I’m not convinced that the UN bid was the best way of escaping from the current impasse, now that it’s underway I find myself in the curious position of urging Netanyahu to listen to his think tank friends and adopt the Reut strategy – as the least worst option for the Palestinians. Continuation of the status quo only means that options become more limited by the day. At least the rationale behind their advice has the benefit of being transparent. Within the framework of negotiations that would need to follow success in the Security Council and that would have to include some international oversight, and armed with the additional international leverage UN membership would give them – the ability to refer Israeli contraventions of international law to the International Criminal Court for example – the Palestinians would have an opportunity and a fighting chance to develop their own strategy for making statehood work for them.

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9/11 and the destruction of the shared understanding of antisemitism

This piece is cross-posted from openDemocracy

Even before 9/11, the redefinition of antisemitism as essentially left-wing and Islamic prejudice and discrimination against the Jewish state of Israel—‘the Jew among the nations’—was well underway. But the popularity of this reformulation of what constitutes Jew-hatred, now commonly called ‘the new antisemitism’, gained decisive momentum as a consequence of the attack on the Twin Towers and has had far-reaching implications. So much so that Bernard-Henri Levy, France’s most prominent and possibly most influential public intellectual, could, with his trademark portentousness, confidently claim in his 2008 book, The Left in Dark Times, that antisemitism of the 21st century would be ‘progressive’—meaning essentially left-wing hatred of Israel—or not exist at all. This bizarre statement symbolises the damage caused by the influence of the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, which has turned friends into enemies, helped open the door to fascism in Israeli politics and left Jews everywhere at the mercy of an idea that is ultimately self-contradictory and self-defeating.

What Levy confirmed, in a strikingly stark fashion, was that the term ‘new antisemitism’ means more than just critical discourse about Israel using antisemitic tropes. The concept contains the radical notion that to warrant the charge of antisemitism, it is sufficient to hold any view ranging from criticism of the policies of the current Israeli government to denial that Israel has the right to exist as a state, without having to subscribe to any of those things which historians have traditionally regarded as making up an antisemitic view: hatred of Jews per se, belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, belief that Jews generated communism and control capitalism, belief that Jews are racially inferior and so on. Given that the definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ is fundamentally incompatible with any definition relying on elements which historians accept make up an antisemitic view, for anyone who agrees with the definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ it’s but a short step to conclude that it replaces all previous definitions and then further to argue that no other kind of antisemitism exists.

How the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ took hold

Make no mistake, this is not an argument about semantics, but about coming to terms with changing political realities. There was never any basis in fact for Levy’s 2008 prediction that there would be no old style antisemitism in the 21st century. A cursory glance at antisemitism monitoring reports from the time prove that it was an absurd statement to make. Today, with indisputable hard evidence of the persistence of far right antisemitism in Europe, as well as the revelation of the role of Jew-hatred in the thinking of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, Levy’s rhetorical flourish looks even more ridiculous. As for the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’, it emerged as a way of explaining the reasons for the increasingly strident attacks on Zionism and Israel, which led to the country’s deteriorating international position. And it was then taken up by pro-Israel groups as a means of defending Israel and attacking its perceived enemies. The increasingly widespread acceptance of the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ since 9/11 has profoundly affected Israel’s foreign relations and the situation of diaspora Jews, especially in the major centres of Jewish population—the USA, France, the UK, Canada, Australia—but also in Western Europe generally and to some degree in the former communist countries.

Events in the year before 9/11 already appeared to lend credibility to the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’. The collapse of the Camp David negotiations in July 2000 (presented by Israel and its loyal supporters as a Palestinian betrayal), the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in the autumn and the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish manifestations at the UN Conference on Racism in Durban in August-September 2001 were all explained as evidence of a deeply rooted, extreme, irrational anti-Zionism, seen by pro-Israel loyalists as conclusive proof that Israel was now incontrovertibly the ‘Jew among the nations’. When the Twin Towers were destroyed and the Bush administration moved rapidly to frame its response as declaring ‘war on terror’, it was inevitable that Israel, under the leadership of a national unity government led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would seek to identify itself ever more closely with the US as a fellow victim of Islamist terror—indeed as the prior victim. Al Qaida’s ideology, which, in part, jointly demonised America and Israel, and also Jews in general, provided the Zionist right with even more justification for its argument that the ‘new antisemitism’ now posed the greatest threat to Jews since the Holocaust.

The far right, Israel and the battle against the ‘Islamization of Europe’

Antisemitism was thus recast as principally anti-Israel rhetoric emanating largely from Muslim sources. That rhetoric figured prominently in various forms of media in European countries with relatively large Jewish populations, like France, the UK and Germany, and was sometimes directed at Jews because of their support for Israel, but also because Jews and Israelis are often seen as one and the same. This—together with an increase in antisemitic incidents ascribed to Muslim perpetrators—led Jewish establishment leaders, while speaking the language of interfaith dialogue and the need to maintain and foster intercommunal harmony, to see the Islamist elements in Muslim communities as a direct threat to Jewish security. Some extended that fear to Muslims more generally. Despite the fact that the growing sense of Jewish belonging in Europe in the 1990s stemmed in great part from the success of multiculturalism and the positive influence of the culture of universal human rights, blame for Muslim hostility to Jews was now put down to multiculturalism’s alleged failure to integrate Muslims and the perception that rights values were being applied to all minorities except Jews. Both were seen as responsible for allowing the unrestrained attack on Israel to proceed unchecked. Add to this the fact that Israeli leaders were only too ready to redefine the Israel-Palestine conflict as a religious war, and it was but a logical step for Israel to come to be seen, in Slavoj Zizek’s words, as ‘the first line of defence against the Muslim expansion’.

Meanwhile, the far right had been undergoing a process of self-sanitisation: playing down its antisemitic past and distancing itself from Holocaust denial, and refocusing its animus towards the ‘other’ on ‘immigrants’ in general, but Muslims in particular. By the early 2000s, a new far right strategy emerged, exemplified by the National Alliance (AN) in Italy, the former neo-fascist party headed by Gianfranco Fini, who reached out to the Italian Jewish community to apologise for the party’s ‘former’ antisemitism and to express support for Israel, all against the background of a supposed shared understanding that Muslims were now the common enemy. The elected head of the Italian Jewish community rejected the NA’s approach, but some members of the community were not unsympathetic to Fini’s message and the issue became very controversial.

While some evidence emerged of Jews publicly identifying with far right groups in France and Austria, it never amounted to very much. More significant, however, was the far right’s increasingly warm pro-Israel rhetoric, which began to be looked upon favourably by the right-wing Zionist parties in Israel and their sympathisers in the Jewish diaspora. Geert Wilders, in his capacity as leader of the Dutch populist, anti-Islam Party for Freedom, visited Israel in 2008 and has been back a number of times since. Leaders of four other far right parties, the Belgian Flemish Interest, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Swedish Democrats and a new German anti-Islam party, Freedom, visited Israel in late 2010 and were warmly received by settler leaders and other far-right Zionist politicians. And yet these parties had by no means abandoned their antisemitic roots.

We saw a striking example of this phenomenon in the UK in 2009 when a far-right Polish member of the European Parliament, Michal Kaminski, whose past antisemitic views were well documented, visited the UK in his then role as Chairman of the new right-wing EP grouping of which Cameron’s Tory Party were joint founders. Strong objections to the fact that the Tories were now consorting with Kaminski and his party were raised across the political spectrum and in the Jewish community. But a number of Jewish Zionist leaders, the Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, the Israeli ambassador and non-Jewish Israel supporters feted Kaminski because of his very publicly expressed support for Israel.

It has become quite clear that, as Charles Hawley writes in Spiegelonline, ‘in the battle against what right-wing populists see as the creeping Islamization of Europe, Israel is on the front line.’ But it’s not only right-wing populists who see Israel playing this role. A melange of Jewish and non-Jewish columnists, public intellectuals, think tank specialists and mainstream politicians who would utterly reject being labelled ‘far right’—such as Melanie Phillips (Daily Mail columnist), Daniel Johnson (Standpoint Editor), Douglas Murray (Centre for Social Cohesion) and Denis MacShane (Labour MP)—express similar views and harsh criticism of the Muslim community for not tackling the extreme hostility to Jews and Israel found in its midst. This same kind of alliance can be found in America and France.

The two main parties in Israel’s governing coalition—Likud and Israel Our Home—have not only been encouraged by the range of anti-Islam forces lining up behind Israel. They have clearly seen it as giving the green light for the slew of anti-democratic bills put before the Knesset in the last few years designed to reinforce the exclusively Jewish character of the state, brand Palestinian citizens of Israel as the internal enemy if they don’t accept Israel as the Jewish state, restrict the activities of human rights groups, undermine academic freedom and curtail freedom of speech. The failure of supposedly more moderate political leaders and of the parliamentary system as a whole to turn back this mounting anti-democratic tide has led respected commentators, academics and former military and security personnel to see the growth of deeply disturbing signs of incipient fascism.

Zionism’s ambiguous relationship with antisemitism

Many Israel-supporting Jews with progressive political views now find themselves between a rock and a hard place. As supporters of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and opposed to settlements and the occupation, the last thing they would have envisaged is finding themselves in the company of the far right, whether in Europe or in Israel. And yet many such Jews are convinced that the threat of a left-wing+Islamist ‘new antisemitism’ is severe and in maintaining their Zionism or pro-Israelism are simply stuck with unsavoury allies. Some Jews have simply chosen to cut themselves loose from their traditional progressive moorings. Others who simply refuse to join the anti-Muslim bandwagon and reject the post-9/11 Clash of Civilizations-type choice—‘you’re either with us or against us’—they feel they are faced with are left high and dry. If they edge towards those dissenting Jews who have doubts about Zionism, reject the ‘new antisemitism’ thesis and refuse to put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people, they are liable to face the hatred and vilification of Zionists whose arguments contain more than a hint of ‘some antisemitic logic’. As Zizek writes: ‘their . . . figure of the Jew . . . is constructed in the same way as the European antisemites constructed the figures of the Jew—he is dangerous because he lives among us, but is not really one of us.’

Zizek sees this as ‘paradoxical’, but—unfortunately—he’s wrong. In fact, from very early on in the development of the Zionist movement, opponents of Zionism were characterised using antisemitic stereotypes. In his 1897 essay ‘Mauschel’, the founder of political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, angered by anti-Zionists, painted the weak ghetto Jew that Zionism was supposed to banish forever as the bad Jew who speaks with a Yiddish accent, a ‘scamp’, ‘a distortion of the human character, unspeakably mean and repellent’, interested only in ‘mean profit’—attributes of an unmistakably antisemitic kind. To a great degree the use of demonising language to describe Jewish opponents of Zionism largely disappeared from mainstream intra-Jewish discourse because Zionism appeared to achieve such hegemonic dominance among Jews everywhere. But as dissenting views became more prominent in the last 20-30 years, so the language used to attack dissidents became ever more strident, once again appropriating antisemitic phraseology, as in, for example, Melanie Phillips’s description of the founding signatories of Independent Jewish Voices as ‘Jews for genocide’. (The dangers of using this kind of language, because words can be ‘performative’, are intelligently spelt out by Thomas Hylland Erikson in his openDemocracy piece, ‘The net of hatred: after Utøya’.)

Zionists were not only content to make direct use of antisemitic stereotypes, they also understood full well that antisemitism helped advance the cause, even as they promoted Zionism as the solution to the scourge of antisemitism. Herzl said that ‘the antisemites are Zionism’s staunchest allies’. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, said in the 1930s that ‘le malheur of the Jews was the chance of Zionism’, and he and his followers knew all too well how to mobilize antisemitism for the achievement of their vision.

And there is another very contemporary example of how Israel and the Zionist movement are not beyond making common cause with antisemites. Millions of fundamentalist Christian Zionists in America are now among Israel’s staunchest supporters. Since 9/11 they have made funding pro-Israel propaganda groups, right-wing Zionist organizations and settlement activity, and providing political backing to the Israeli government’s hard line policies, a central plank of their foreign policy. But they do this because they believe that Christ’s Second Coming will only occur once the land of Israel is fully united. All believers will be transported to meet the Lord, while everybody else, including the Jews, will perish in the battle of Armageddon. So for Christian Zionists, Jews are merely a means to an end. However, it’s no secret that this ideology is suffused with antisemitism. But right-wing Zionists are quite happy to ignore such an awkward fact on the grounds that the support of Christian Zionists for Israel trumps their Jew-hatred.

Ten years on

Since 9/11, the growing popularization of the redefinition of antisemitism as hostility to the state of Israel has given licence to Jews and Zionists to act according to the maxim ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. The forging of links between the Israeli far right and Islamophobic far right groups in Europe, embracing the position of Israel as the front line against the Islamization of Europe, turning a blind eye to the antisemitism of Christian Zionism, entrenching the exclusivity of Jewish nationalism in Israeli law and demonising Jewish dissenters using antisemitic rhetoric have all been made possible by placing Israel at the heart of what is considered antisemitism today. But as I have tried to demonstrate, these developments draw on a deeper, even more murky ideological and political reality: Zionism’s troubling relationship with antisemitism—what Professor Idith Zertal has described as the ‘complex, disturbing affinities, and mutual, even if undesired dependence and pragmatic partnership between antisemitism and Zionism’—and the ethno-national and ethno-religious exclusivism that was part of Zionist ideology from the beginning of political Zionism.

The prevailing spirit ten years on from 9/11 seems to be to draw a line under the events, admit to the mistaken policy decisions taken then and, in Jonathan Freedland’s words, abandon the ‘careless, undiscriminating monomania’ all too eagerly adopted at the time; to acknowledge that security can never be achieved by military means alone or by curtailing civil liberties and trampling on human rights. Regrettably, Israel, encouraged by hard line Jewish and non-Jewish supporters, hasn’t learnt these lessons. Not only is it continuing along the path followed since 9/11, more inclined than ever to see the world through the distorting prism of the ‘new antisemitism’, it is conniving in worsening its own isolation by drawing the wrong conclusions from events in its region. Rather than seek a positive accommodation with the democratic forces struggling to overturn dictatorships and autocracies in the Arab world, Israel has sought to prop up military juntas on the grounds of the narrowest and ultimately mistaken interpretation of its security interests. This, argues Zvi Bar’el in Haaretz, is because Israel is now run by its own form of military junta. The diplomatic meltdown with Egypt and Turkey now facing Israel, as well as the damaging exposure Israel will experience as the Palestinian Authority’s campaign to seek support for the declaration of a Palestinian state at the United Nations comes to a head in the next two weeks, is a case of reaping what you sow. The result is likely to be increasing defensiveness, a strengthening sense of victimhood and even more reliance on an America that the Netanyahu government has made clear it does not trust. This is a high price to pay for treating the destruction of the shared understanding of what constitutes antisemitism as a victory.

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Can Israel’s mass social protest embrace the end of occupation as a key demand?

If you will, harden your heart against the sight of hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting against rampant inequality and demanding a decent society. There’s reason enough to do so: what about all the non-citizens between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river over which Israel exerts control? Don’t they also deserve a decent society, the same social justice that protesters yearn for in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa? There is no justice unless it’s justice for all.

And yet it would be particularly perverse to focus only on what is missing and not to be heartened and even inspired by this mass outpouring of pent-up frustration with the degradation of Israeli society. If this represents a genuine demand for a fully functioning liberal democracy, one that prioritises equality, fairness, protection for the weak, an end to corruption and the arbitrary use of power, would it be so far fetched to dream that the application of these principles to the Palestinians must follow as day follows night? And that the occupation – a system of institutionalised injustice and the denial of basic human rights – must soon come to an end?

This certainly seemed like a night in which it would not be cynical to say that hope triumphed over experience. And while there is still hope, dreams might be realised.

But neither hope nor dreams will prevent people waking up in the morning and wondering just how the J14 demands can be achieved or how bringing an end to the iniquities of the occupation can be integrated into the aims of this unprecedented social movement. It may style itself as a social protest rather than a political one, yet it seems inconceivable that any serious change will occur while Netanyahu remains in power and the Knesset consists of the same line-up of politicians. Removing them will require a political revolution. Whether they like it or not, the J14 leaders will have to sully themselves by entering the political fray in some form if they are to bring about meaningful change.

There are clear divisions between those who seem to want to completely overturn Israel’s neo-liberal economic system and return to what sounds like much greater central state control of services and those who prefer to preserve the free market economy, but introduce significant reforms to ensure that it serves the interests of the entire population and not just the wealthy elites. The government cannot afford to ignore this mass mobilization of opinion and the Trajtenberg Committee, set up by Netanyahu, is supposed to be coming up with a set of plans to meet the demands of the protesters. But if the protesters can’t agree on a united platform, their movement will be much weakened and the divisions will play into the hands of the government, which would surely rather see the entire process come to an end. Dynamic change just isn’t Bibi’s style.

Understandably, after such a damaging period of political stagnation and the erosion of democratic norms and values, sympathetic commentators have freely used words like ‘radicalisation’ and ‘revolution’ to emphasise that something unprecedented is taking place, that things will never be the same again. This remains to be seen.

What does seem to be the case, however, as Carlo Strenger observed, is that

No amount of propaganda can cover up that the social protests have created more unity through the demand that Israel become a decent society for all its citizens than nationalist rhetoric and legislation.

And although unity based on joint social concerns will not automatically lead to an open awareness that there can never be real social justice and economic reform while the occupation and illegal settlements remain in place, that awareness will certainly never come in a society driven by an aggressive and exclusivist nationalism. The current unity is undoubtedly imperfect – the protests seem largely to be dominated by middle-class Israeli Jews; some Palestinian citizens of Israel have participated, but not very many. But the fact that it has come about through focusing on social justice concerns that affect practically everyone at all levels of Israeli society offers a glimmer of hope that a way may still open up for the end of the occupation to take centre stage as a popular aim. For anyone who understands that social justice must apply to everyone in society must surely come to see that the way Israel treats Palestinians within the 1967 borders and in the occupied Palestinian territories is the central social justice issue facing the country.

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The Norway Killings: Jumping the Gun

The herd mentality of pundits and commentators was on display as they fell over each other to immediately blame the Norway killings on Muslim extremists. It wasn’t long before it became clear that the culprit, Anders Behring Breivik, was a blond Norwegian far right sympathiser, an Islamophobe, a Christian fundamentalist and an admirer of the English Defence League and of Geert Wilders.

Muslim extremists have indeed been responsible for atrocities in Europe, but this fact has merged with a more generalised anti-Muslim prejudice to produce a fixation with Muslims as the source of numerous negative trends afflicting Europe. We’re constantly being warned about the dangers of ‘Islamo-fascism’, a seriously flawed concept, while the European fascism that we know and love is being shortsightedly neglected.

You only need to read this article by Gary Younge, dating from 2008, to realise that the heirs of Hitler and Mussolini are once again flexing their muscles as they benefit from alarm over immigration, the failures and iniquities of capitalism, the greed of bankers and high unemployment. Or follow the work of Cas Mudde who warns that the new right as represented by Wilders and others are still closely attached to the ideas of the traditional far right.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

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Israel and the Anti-Boycott Law: The Wider Implications of Popular Indifference

This piece is cross-posted from openDemocracy where it was published on 19 July. A small part of it appeared in my earlier post on the anti-boycott law (13 July).
The motivation for the law is not primarily to give voice to the sentiments of the Israeli-Jewish majority, although it relies on the existence of those sentiments to achieve its goal – and that is something altogether more far-reaching.
International Jewish and non-Jewish condemnation of the anti-boycott law passed by the Israeli Knesset on 11 July, which makes it an offence for citizens to either advocate or implement an academic, consumer or cultural boycott of Israel, including Jewish settlements in the West Bank, continues to mount. But the man responsible for sponsoring and driving through the legislation, MK Zeev Elkin, chairman of the coalition and a resident of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, is unrepentant. Asked if he thought the new law would cause Israel international damage, he replied: ‘In the long run, I think not.’ Elkin and his Knesset colleagues are confidently turning their backs on domestic and international opposition to the new law, secure in the knowledge that the majority of the Israeli public supports it.
While that confidence may be misplaced, given that the law will almost certainly be challenged in the Supreme Court (although there is no guarantee that any challenge will succeed), there is no gainsaying the power now being wielded by Knesset members intent on cracking down on the very existence of dissenting voices in Israeli civil society – all the way from parents’ groups opposing the militarization of Israeli society to the appointees to the Supreme Court – and on any institutions that are less than wholeheartedly fervent in their expression of uncompromising nationalist and anti-Arab/Palestinian enthusiasm. Just how successful they are in driving the political agenda can be seen in the fact that while Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior political figures absented themselves from the vote, presumably because they were concerned about international reaction, after the event Bibi belatedly felt obliged to place himself in the vanguard of the campaign to enact the anti-boycott law by making a public statement taking credit for it: ‘Don’t be confused—I authorized the bill. If I hadn’t authorized it, it wouldn’t have gotten here.’ He rejected the idea that the law is anti-democratic: ‘What stains [Israel’s] image are those savage and irresponsible attacks on a democracy’s attempt to draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not’, he said.

The Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem, Wkicommons

 The Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem – Hope for Salvation. Wikicommons.

The furore over the new law did just about make it onto the pages of national newspapers and broadcast news bulletins in the UK and other countries, but with so little coverage of events in Israel and Palestine recently, observers may find it hard to judge what the wider implications of this current controversy may be. The fact that even right-wing organs of opinion in Israel, like the Jerusalem Post, staunch Jewish institutional defenders of Israel and its government, like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and NGO Monitor and a politically hawkish diaspora Jewish periodical, like the UK’s Jewish Chronicle and many other non-left wing voices have attacked the law for being a dangerous infringement of freedom of speech could give the impression that the Israeli Zionist right has gone too far and is about to be reined in. Or that this is some kind of aberration in a society known for the unfettered character of its public debate. Regrettably, neither of these optimistic conclusions can be justified.

‘The tail is wagging the dog’

Most Israelis are utterly opposed to a boycott of their country and would probably argue that advocates of a boycott are motivated by antisemitism. They would therefore view the aims of the law as uncontentious and would not be troubled by accusations that it undermines freedom of speech. If such freedom gives licence to people to propose measures that would lead to the destruction of the state, many Israelis would no doubt regard it as one freedom well worth curbing. But the motivation for the law is not primarily to give voice to the sentiments of the Israeli-Jewish majority, although it relies on the existence of those sentiments to achieve its goal—and that is something altogether more far-reaching. As the Labour MK, Daniel Ben Simon, put it, this law ‘binds Israel and the settlements into one piece’. In other words it constitutes a de jure annexation of the West Bank by giving legal protection to the settlements for the first time and in effect obliges Israelis to support the settlements by doing business with them. Or in Bradley Burston’s words: ‘The measure erases the legal differentiation between settlements and Israel proper, regarding targeted boycotts against goods from the settlements as actions harmful to the state of Israel itself.’

This move can hardly have come as a surprise to Israelis, Israel’s supporters in Jewish communities worldwide and those governments, particularly in the west, that are sympathetic to Israel’s definition of its existential concerns. In reality, the settlement movement has been insidiously hijacking politics and the apparatus of the state for years. And since the advent of the Netanyahu government in 2009, any limitations on this process have been greatly weakened. The prime minister may have rhetorically accepted the 2-state solution, but all his actions – or perhaps it would be better to speak of his inactions – have been designed to prevent its implementation. In the absence of any serious government peace initiatives and as a result of the government’s refusal to halt settlement building, the political initiative has been ceded decisively to the settlers and their political allies. As Yossi Vertersummed it up: ‘there is no government in Israel and no head of government. The tail is wagging the dog. Junior MKs dictate the national agenda to the government.’ It’s as if the settlement project has openly swallowed the state whole.

Sliding down the anti-democratic slope

The anti-boycott law is just one of a slew of anti-democratic, racist and repressive measures introduced mostly by Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) MKs since the 2009 general election. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) monitors these developments. At the end of July last year it produced a list of the top 14 anti-democratic Knesset bills. Some have passed into law, like the Naqba law, which prohibits the use of taxpayers’ funds to commemorate the establishment of the state of Israel as a tragedy – a direct attack on the Palestinians’ perception of their experience of 1948 – and the anti-boycott law. Others are still under, or are awaiting, consideration (and often subject to political infighting between the main right-wing parties). For example, the foreign state funding bill, which targets left-wing political organizations and human rights groups in order to curb their activities, and a bill giving the Knesset veto power over appointments of Supreme Court justices, by means of hearings for candidates in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee – a proposal that Likud MKs were already announcing, to the excitement of the Likud central committee, as their next legislative project barely 48 hours after the vote on anti-boycott bill. It’s true that Netanyahu, only hours later, publicly stated that the government would oppose this second bill and protect the Supreme Court, but his behaviour over the boycott law suggests that such commitments are distinctly flaky.

The targets of these illiberal measures – the NGO sector – are doing what they can to fight back against the attacks on their credibility and very existence. But there is no public groundswell of support for them. On the contrary, there seems to be a popular appetite for, or at least an indifference to, the undermining of individual human rights and the bolstering of the tyrannical power of the hard-line Zionist right-wing in the Knesset. Much of the comment in Israel objecting to the anti-boycott law focused very specifically on the principle of freedom of speech, almost in abstract, and showed no sympathy for the aims and objectives of the human rights NGOs or the groups defending the rights of Palestinian-Israelis. As the columnist Carlo Strenger put it:  ‘The result of Netanyahu and Lieberman’s systematic fanning of Israeli’s existential fears is tangible in Israel: polls show that Israelis are deeply pessimistic about peace; they largely do not trust Palestinians, and in the younger generation belief in democratic values is being eroded.’

Embracing isolation

In a society where there is increasing sympathy for the notion of ‘transfer’ – the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and of Palestinian citizens from Israel – as well as growing hostility to foreign workers, attacks on academic freedom, a religious right unashamedly propagating racist measures against Arabs, accentuation of the character of Israel as a specifically ‘Jewish’ state in which rights of citizenship vary according to religious or ethnic identity, the anti-boycott law will only strengthen the growing international perception that Israel’s citizenship values diverge from those in the countries with which it most likes to associate itself, especially the United States. These trends have been accentuated ever since the pro-democracy character of the Arab uprisings became clear. As Paul Pillar wrote in the National Interest: ‘Not only have the demands for popular sovereignty in Arab countries highlighted the deprivation of popular sovereignty for Palestinian Arabs; to the extent that democracy emerges in any Arab countries, it undercuts the old we’re-the-only-democracy-in-the-Middle-East argument that repeatedly gets served up to Americans.’

The situation is made even worse by the failure of right-wing Israeli politicians to understand the international climate. There is certainly hostility to Israel across the region but the prevailing Israeli mindset, reinforced by the kind of scenes we saw when the US congress lapped up every intransigent word and phrase of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech in late May, refuses to recognize that the state has anything to answer for and sees its image problem almost entirely as a matter of improving the country’s public relations. The popular mood is both sullen and self-satisfied. Carlo Strenger writes: ‘Ordinary citizens in Israel don’t trust the world; its politicians are richly rewarded for noisy declarations of undying patriotism and for defying the world.’ Israelis are understandably tired of constant wars and international vilification. On the other hand, many Israelis would agree that ‘Israel is currently experiencing one of the finest periods in its history’: low unemployment, booming tourism, radically reduced fears about security, the introduction of major reforms in transport, education and communication.

If this combination of aggressive nationalism, a political leadership devoid of principle and led by the nose by anti-democratic parliamentary factions, a drive to silence the country’s ‘fifth column’ and disloyal ‘alien’ elements, a mounting sense of regional isolation and the celebration of the fruits of a kind of economic autarky—if all this is reminiscent of incipient or proto-fascism, it’s an observation made by many worried and loyal Israelis in recent months and years. Ha’aretz’s Burston writes about ‘learning about fascism one step at a time’. ‘I’m learning that the success of the Boycott Bill is a textbook case of the quiet appeal, the brilliant disguise, the endlessly adaptable expertise in the workings of democracy, that help explain the progress of fascism in our time. So this is what I’ve found out so far: At first, it doesn’t feel like fascism. That’s why it works.’ Last November, the Director of ACRI told me that ‘proto-fascism is becoming normal’.

Significance of the diaspora Jewish response

Finally, the response of diaspora Jewish supporters of Israel to the new law is undoubtedly significant. Despite a shift to the right in recent years, Jews are generally still on the liberal side of liberal societies. While some have become disillusioned with the culture of human rights, because they believe that bodies like the UN Human Rights Council are grossly unfair in singling out Israel for condemnation, many still care deeply about human rights, oppose the occupation and support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect very many such Jews have a bifurcated attitude on the question of boycott. They may well support, even if only by personal action, the boycott of produce from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but they are utterly opposed to boycotting universities or businesses in Israel. They argue that it would hit liberal Israelis who are themselves severely critical of the Netanyahu government. Underpinning such views is the common, unspoken feeling one senses among even very concerned Jews: a visceral shrinking back from the idea that Israeli Jews could ever deserve the treatment meted out to apartheid South Africa. For them, it was perfectly logical and principled to separate boycotting Jewish settlements in the West Bank from boycotting Israel proper. The settlements represent the Zionism that has gone astray. Pre-’67 Israel still represents the values of democracy, human rights, equality and the rule of law.

How ironic then, or even tragic, that such good friends of Israel have been consigned, at a stroke, to the category of enemies of the state. Some of them have spent years of their voluntary time supporting Israel in one way or another, donating funds to charities, investing in Israeli businesses, defending the country in political forums and working for Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation. But it’s clear that they have failed to come to terms with the fundamentally disastrous changes in Israeli society, aided and abetted by Bibi Netanyahu and epitomised by the passing of the anti-boycott legislation. It’s a nice distinction to think that the settlements are not the ‘real’ Israel. Now such Jews must face the fact that ‘the settlements have annexed the state of Israel’.

Some commentators see a glimmer of hope in the broadly negative response to the law across the mainstream political spectrum in the Jewish diaspora. I find myself feeling far less sanguine. If enlightened Jews persist in holding to this illusory image of Israel, no matter what good works they may do supporting Israeli human rights organizations, they become part of the problem and not the solution. Israeli political leaders can continue to wrap themselves in the language of Jewish peoplehood with impunity—a very important weapon in their armoury: Jews worldwide, whether they like it or not, are enlisted as transnational allies in the state’s lone stand against the forces of regional and international darkness.

It’s not the law itself that matters, it’s the history that’s produced it, the context out of which it has emerged, the trends that look set to continue irrespective of what actually happens to the law. There’s no easy way out of this morass. But at a panel discussion on the Arab uprisings and the Israel-Palestine conflict, organized by Independent Jewish Voices on 14 July at Birkbeck, University of London, Ian Black, the Guardian’s Middle East editor cut to the quick when he said there’ll never be any real change until, ‘Israel reconciles itself with the Palestinians’.

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IJV Panel on the Arab Uprisings and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

This piece is cross-posted from the Independent Jewish Voices blog

Chaired by Professor Jacqueline Rose (Queen Mary, University of London), the IJV panel event discussing the impact of the Arab Spring on developments in Israel-Palestine, which was held at Birkbeck, University of London on 14 July, provided a fascinating, incredibly well-informed, though rather depressing picture. A full hall listened intently to the three expert presentations.

Professor Avi Shlaim (Oxford University) called the uprisings a ‘major watershed in the modern history of the Middle East’ and said ‘the stagnant status quo had been irreversibly shattered’. Three assumptions had been overturned: that change can only come from outside; the Arab world is conducive to authoritarianism and alien to democracy; revolutionary change will lead to Islamist theocracy.

The Arab Spring has had an empowering effect on Palestinians. Hamas and Fatah have lost their legitimacy, although the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation accord is highly significant. Among other things, it showed that there is a Palestinian consensus on the 2-state solution, since Hamas has indirectly recognized Israel, Professor Shlaim argued.

The Palestinians are deeply disillusioned with the US and Israel, and the Palestinian Papers discredited Fatah. There’s profound disenchantment with the so-called peace process – ‘all process, no peace’ – because it has given Israel cover for its colonising agenda on the West Bank.

The US cannot act as an honest broker and the imbalance in power between Israel and the Palestinians means that they must be pushed into peace by some outside agency. The projected declaration of a Palestinian state at the UN General Assembly in September, which the GA will support, may help in this regard.

Israel is clearly a player in the Arab Spring but its response has always been negative. Israelis have never seen themselves as part of the region. Bibi said Israel can only make peace with democracies, but now that the Arabs are moving in that direction, he has changed his tune.

‘Israel is succumbing to imperial paranoia’, Professor Shlaim said. ‘Unless there is a shift in Israeli thinking, Israel will end up on the wrong side of history.’

Dr Khaled Hroub (Director, Cambridge Arab Media Project) concurred with Professor Shlaim’s analysis. He added that the stability paradigms by which events in the region had always been judged had rapidly collapsed. Stability must be based on freedom, dignity and social justice, not on the idea that the end result of revolutionary change is always defeat or that Islamism is such a threat, dictatorship is the only answer. There is a new realism in the idea that Israel’s might is unsustainable because it’s unjust.

The revolutions have brought into play new forces: the youth and the silent majority. The traditional analysis of the Israel-Palestine situation, based on examining the actions of organized actors, no longer works.

The Palestinians are trying to find an alternative strategy, but so far this hasn’t succeeded because no internal plan has emerged that secures Palestinian consensus. Nevertheless, there is a recognition that Western policies of support for Israel can be changed by the people themselves.

On the role of the media, Dr Hroub said that when Al Jazeera was launched there were hopes that this would change things, but nothing concrete happened. Instead, it has acted as a safety valve – a means for people to let off steam, but leaving power structures intact. Nevertheless, the expression of global sentiment in favour of the revolutions in Tunis and Egypt was a result of the media coverage.

Non-violence proved to be more effective than violence. And the Palestinians are now taking this option very seriously, not just theoretically but practically.

Dr Hroub concluded by pointing out that the force and influence of Arab public opinion had been introduced into the Arab-Israeli conflict for the first time. Any future Arab ruler or regime now has to take Arab public opinion into account. This will expose the whole issue of peace and democracy to wider popular scrutiny. ‘Peace plans will have to go to the people.’

Ian Black (Middle East Editor, the Guardian) explained that the Arab Spring is about Arabs first and foremost, but intimately connected to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

While it’s truly a phenomenon affecting the entire Arab region, certain countries – Libya and Yemen for example – are not so significant for the Arab Spring as a whole (which is not at all to minimise the pain and sacrifice of the people in those countries seeking freedom and democracy). What happens in Syria, however, could be decisive. It’s just important to remember that what’s happening is different in different places. Among the public there is great sympathy for and broad emotional identity with the uprisings, but not total preoccupation.

Clearly, what now happens in Jordan and Egypt has major implications for the Israel-Palestine situation. However, conservative Arab regimes are more worried about what’s happening in Iran than in Israel. This can also be seen in the fact that the Bahraini ambassador to Washington is a Jewish woman.

Ian Black said that the mood among many Palestinians reflects the sentiment that ‘If ordinary Arabs can change things, why shouldn’t Palestinians also be able to change things?’ And the specifics of the Israel-Palestine situation matter a lot – things are much worse now than ever before.

It has to be acknowledged that there is hostility to Israel across the region and that this validates the embattled Israeli mindset. ‘But’, Ian Black concluded, ‘the threat to Israel is only there because Israel hasn’t reconciled itself with the Palestinians.’

A searching question and answer session then followed. Especially moving was the contribution from an Egyptian woman who had participated in the revolution and who was anxious that the chronology of events and the key forces be clearly understood. Others also focused on the nature of the uprisings and the direction they may now take, given that events in Egypt seemed to be taking a turn for the worse.

There was also interest in the implications of the declaration of Palestinian statehood expected at the UN General Assembly in September. Dr Hroub highlighted some of the possible negative aspects, arguing that the result could be more repression on the part of Israel, which may respond by annexing much of the West Bank. And there would be no force that could challenge such actions on the ground.

Responding to another question, Professor Shlaim said that Israel was becoming an anachronistic country in the region. The world has moved on and now gives priority to human rights, international law and so on. By its actions ‘Israel is undermining its own future’, he said.

Also answering a question about the planned UN GA Palestinian state declaration, Ian Black, acknowledging that Israel’s response to the Arab Spring had shown just how depressing and intractable the situation was, suggested that ‘A dramatic gesture, like the declaration of a Palestinian state, despite all the problems associated with it, could be a galvanising one.’

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The Anti-Boycott Law Crosses a Line: Will Israel’s True Friends Now Wake Up?

Only a few days ago I was talking about the issue of boycotting Israel with Jewish friends at a party. All could be defined as critical friends of Israel or liberal Zionists, deeply disturbed by the intransigence of the Netanyahu government and the anti-democratic trends gaining in strength in Israeli society. No one dissented from the principle of boycotting produce from Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. But when I suggested that the idea of a more general economic and cultural boycott of Israel was gaining support and that since the situation in Israel-Palestine had become so dire, it might be one of the ways of forcing Israel to end the occupation and begin serious negotiations with the Palestinians to reach a just settlement of the conflict, my thought was met with immediate condemnation and rejection. The settlements are one thing, boycotting universities or businesses in Israel itself quite another, I was told. It would hit liberal Israelis who are themselves severely critical of the Netanyahu government. Underpinning the arguments was the common, unspoken feeling one senses among even very concerned Jews: a visceral shrinking back from the idea that Israeli Jews could ever deserve the treatment meted out to apartheid South Africa. For them, it was perfectly logical and principled to separate boycotting Jewish settlements in the West Bank from boycotting Israel proper. The settlements represent the Zionism that has gone astray. Pre-’67 Israel still represents the values of democracy, human rights, equality and the rule of law.

Well, now that the Israeli Knesset has voted 47-38 in favour of the law for the Prevention of Damage to the State through Boycott (the Anti-Boycott Law), which makes it an offence for citizens to either advocate or implement an academic, consumer or cultural boycott of Israel, including Jewish settlements in the West Bank, I wonder what these good friends of Israel feel about being consigned, at a stroke, to the category of enemies of the state? Some of them have spent years of their voluntary time supporting Israel in one way or another, donating funds to charities, investing in Israeli businesses, defending the country in political forums and working for Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation.

The settlements-supporting Arutz Sheva news service reported that ‘A ‘Panels’ Institute poll for the Knesset Channel concludes that 52 per cent of Israeli population support the new bill, and 31 per cent oppose it,’ so it can hardly be said that the parliamentarians are out of touch with public opinion. Nevertheless, voices on the right of Israeli politics were not unanimously in favour of this new attack on free speech by any means. The Jerusalem Post, platform for some of the most outspoken right-wing commentators, editorialised against the bill. Significantly, Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior figures in the coalition government absented themselves from the vote in the Knesset, suggesting that they were aware of the damage being done to Israel’s claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East by the drive to pass this bill into law and therefore not wanting to be visibly associated with the public spectacle – however much they may have supported the measure emotionally. Also, it may be a little premature for the parliamentarians of the right and the religious parties, and the supporters of the settlement movement as a whole, to be celebrating victory given that the law will almost certainly be challenged in the Israeli Supreme Court. Although there is no guarantee that it will be found unconstitutional.

But the fact is that signs of equivocation on the right are pretty meaningless since it is wrong to look at this law in isolation: it’s one more step along what is now a well-trodden path towards an increasingly illiberal, repressive, anti-democratic, ethnocratic and theocratic polity in which a hard-faced, exclusivist and racist nationalism is being allowed to characterise the entire country’s sense of itself. It’s true that the Anti-Boycott law crosses at least one line never before traversed: as the Labour Member of Knesset, Daniel Ben Simon, put it, this law ‘binds Israel and the settlements into one piece’; it constitutes a de jure annexation of the West Bank by giving legal protection to the settlements for the first time and in effect obliges Israelis to support the settlements by doing business with them. But this hardly comes as a surprise. And whatever happens to this law, there are more such measures in the pipeline.

The friends I was talking with are among the most enlightened and aware of Diaspora Jews, who are generally still on the liberal side of liberal societies. They care deeply about human rights, oppose the occupation and support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But, as their bifurcated attitude to the question of boycott shows, they have failed to come to terms with the fundamentally disastrous changes in Israeli society, aided and abetted by Bibi Netanyahu and epitomised by the passing of the anti-boycott legislation. It’s a nice distinction to think that the settlements are not the ‘real’ Israel, but in reality the settlement movement has been insidiously hijacking politics and the apparatus of the state for years. Now, the settlement project has openly swallowed the state whole, making pre-’67 Israel bow to the will and demands of the settlers and their political allies.

I’m reluctantly convinced that persisting with this illusory image of Israel makes enlightened Jews such as the friends I was talking with, no matter what good works they may do supporting Israeli human rights organizations, part of the problem and not the solution. It means that they cannot take the necessary radical and public step to say ‘enough is enough’, to acknowledge the damage being inflicted by Israel’s government not only on the Palestinian people, but also on the Jewish people. I’m not arguing that taking such a stand must be followed by support for a general boycott of Israel – that remains a tactical matter about which it is perfectly reasonable to hold differing views. There are plenty of other ways in which Diaspora Jews, who finally wake up to what Israel has become, can determinedly become part of the solution and help the country understand that the prevailing mindset, the one that can happily support the Anti-Boycott law, is leading to an unhappy end.

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Former Canadian Minister of Justice Cotler: ‘Calling Israel an Apartheid State is Not Antisemitic’

Professor Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian Minister of Justice and Chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Commission for Combatting Antisemitism, recently told Ha’aretz journalist David Sheen:

‘You can criticize an Israeli policy or action as having been not only a violation of human rights and humanitarian law but also, you could even say it was a war crime,’ the former Canadian justice minister said. ‘It may be, as I say, distasteful to see that, or witness that, but I don’t regard that as being anti-Semitic content. I think that that’s part of what is called rigorous criticism and discourse.’

‘Where you say that Israel is an apartheid state, even then – that to me is, it’s distasteful, but it’s still within the boundaries of argument’.

Cotler’s remarks seem to have been received in relative silence by the blogosphere and others who comment regularly on antisemitism. This is curious to say the least given that Cotler is probably the most significant and influential international figure in the propagation of the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’, a key example of which is calling Israel an ‘apartheid state’. That what Cotler now says is a fundamental change in his position is clear from his past articles and speeches. In an ‘Alert Paper’, New Anti-Jewishness, written for the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and published in November 2002, Cotler gave examples of ‘new antisemitism’ under 13 headings. Under the third, ‘Ideological antisemitism’, he wrote:

This finds expression not only in the ‘Zionism is Racism’ indictment – and the singling out of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and Israel’s ideological raison d’être, for discriminatory treatment – but the further criminal indictment of Israel as ‘an apartheid state,’ and the calling for the dismantling of this ‘apartheid state’ – a euphemism for Israel’s destruction.

Although he has never said that all critiques of Zionism are antisemitic, Cotler has avoided foregrounding this view. But in the Ha’aretz interview he is clearly keen to redress the balance. He says:

I think we’ve got to set up certain boundaries of where it does cross the line, because I’m one of those who believes strongly, not only in free speech, but also in rigorous debate, and discussion, and dialectic, and the like. If you say too easily that everything is anti-Semitic, then nothing is anti-Semitic, and we no longer can make distinctions . . .

I think it’s too simplistic to say that anti-Zionism, per se, is anti-Semitic. It may cross the line into being anti-Semitic where it ends up by saying, ‘Israel has no right to exist’, or ‘the Jewish people have no right to self determination’, or, that the Jewish people are not even a people.

I can imagine that many who have rightly seen the Canadian MP and law professor as the standard bearer for exposing the ‘new antisemitism’, and have lauded him for coining the phrase ‘Israel is the Jew among the nations’, will be bitterly disappointed by this change of mind. And at the moment they are keeping quiet about it.

But it comes at a very significant moment in the context of developments in the UK in relation to controversies surrounding definitions of antisemitism. Just during the last week a challenge has been mounted by the celebrity lawyer Anthony Julius, on behalf of Ronnie Fraser, against the University and Colleges Union for ‘institutional antisemitism’, following the Union’s highly controversial decision to reject the ‘working definition’ of antisemitism drawn up by the now superseded European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). More or less immediately after the vote at the annual congress of the UCU, the establishment bodies of the UK Jewish community, such as the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Zionist Federation, went into overdrive as they started a campaign to label the UCU as institutionally racist and demand that the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigate. They have received significant backing from politicians. And when the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, wrote an op-ed for the Jewish Chronicle, in which he attacked the UCU, this was taken as governmental support for the organized Jewish community’s stand. Lambasting the union for ‘boycotting visits by Israeli academics for a number of years’, Pickles argues that it’s not interested in securing freedom of speech but rather in silencing dissenting opinion. Various UCU decisions have ‘left many Jewish academics and students uneasy’.

When seen in this context, the latest resolution is in fact sending out a chilling message. It says that Jewish academics and students who perceive that they are being harassed or bullied should understand that they will be held to a different standard. It says that they should expect to be fair game for invective, and learn to live with feeling more vulnerable. Little wonder that the UCU has already seen many members of the Jewish faith, other faiths and none, vote with their feet and leave.

Julius’s letter to General Secretary Sally Hunt setting out UCU member Ronnie Fraser’s case against the UCU is written in the strongest terms. It accuses the union of breaches of the Equality Act 2010, threatens that unless a series of demands by Fraser are met – including the abrogation of the resolution rejecting the EUMC ‘working definition’ and a ‘commitment to sponsor a programme (for a minimum of ten years . . . ) educating academics concerning the dangers of anti-Semitism, with special reference to the relationship between anti-Semitism and what now passes for “anti-Zionism” ‘ – Fraser will make an Equality Act claim to the Employment Tribunal.

The letter is full of bombast and ridiculous hyperbole, and in places is just factually incorrect, but my concern here is not to analyse or critique the entire text. Rather, I simply want to draw attention to the fact that in two paragraphs listing the causes for Fraser’s complaint – i.e. the evidence of institutional antisemitism – the first item in each is the constant ‘anti-Israel boycott resolutions’, and it’s clear that the issue of boycott is a central bone of contention.

Whatever position you hold on boycotting Israel as a means of bringing pressure to bear on it to fulfil its international legal obligations, end the occupation and so on – and I have always opposed boycotting as a means of achieving this – it’s difficult to regard boycotting Israel as a priori antisemitic. Professor David Newman of Ben Gurion University, who spent two years in the UK as the Israeli universities’ official coordinator of the campaign against the academic boycott, was adamant in remarks he made before finishing this assignment that it was both wrong and counterproductive to fight the boycott proposals on the grounds that they are antisemitic. If it reaches the point where the UCU had to defend itself against charges of institutional antisemitism at a tribunal, citing Professor Newman alone would be a strong defence.

Now that Professor Cotler has so publicly concurred with David Newman, UCU have an even stronger voice to use in their defence. It wouldn’t surprise me if Julius tried to use Professor Newman’s often strong criticisms of the Israeli government and his very dovish position on Israel-Palestine peace as a way of discrediting his view on boycott, notwithstanding the incontrovertible fact that Newman is a Zionist, heart and soul. But such a tactic would be impossible to use against Professor Cotler whose record as a defender of the Israeli status quo is impeccable and whose efforts to embed the concept of the ‘delegitimization’ of Israel in the international consciousness have been long-standing and sustained.

It’s true that Cotler says: ‘It’s where you say, because it’s an apartheid state, it has to be dismantled – then you crossed the line into a racist argument, or an anti-Jewish argument. ‘ In other words, that’s when call for boycott becomes antisemitic. But there are two problems with this argument. First, it would be extremely difficult to prove that the Union as a whole, in voting for boycotting Israel, is therefore saying Israel must be dismantled. Second, even if a handful of people in the Union do believe that boycott should lead to the dismantling of the Israeli state, however far-reaching or shocking such a view might be, it also cannot a priori be deemed antisemitic. If such people were arguing that the Israeli state should be dismantled in order to construct a single secular democratic state in which Jews and Palestinians, and anyone else living in the state, were fully equal, you might charge them with extreme naivety in believing that such a goal is attainable, but it would be grossly unfair to assume that they were advocating the proposal in order to implement an antisemitic agenda of exclusion, demonisation, dehumanisation and so on.

Of course, the Julius letter carries other alleged evidence of institutional antisemitism and I am not commenting on them at this point. As I wrote in an earlier post, I’m not in a position to judge whether the UCU is entirely devoid of institutional racism or antisemitism. I have no doubt that the Union may have behaved insensitively in some way, but I confess that it seems far-fetched to me that a charge of institutional antisemitism could be made to stick. Certainly, there is something about the bullying and aggressive tone of Anthony Julius’s letter that suggests he is simply trying to humiliate the UCU, frighten it into making redress, rather than demonstrating a serious determination to take the matter to a tribunal. But I would not take this for granted for one minute.

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Black Propaganda and Violent Rhetoric: Israel is Shooting Itself in the Foot over the Gaza Flotilla

Some first rate bloggers and journalists are covering the Gaza flotilla and revealing the lengths to which the Israeli authorities are prepared to go to stop the entire enterprise in its tracks. Not being party to any additional information about what’s going on, I’ve just been following the reports of others with increasing disbelief and astonishment rather than writing about the situation myself. But the black propaganda being churned out by the Israelis has reached such a level that it’s impossible to remain merely an observer. The urge to bring it all to further public attention, in however small a way through my still very young personal blog, is too strong.

For a country that’s constantly preaching to the rest of the world about the strength of its adherence to democratic values, Israel’s attempts to frighten off journalists sailing on the boats so that they can cover events first-hand have been quite extraordinary. The most blatant was the issuing of a threat by Oren Helman, Director of the Government Press Office, in a 26 June letter printed on headed notepaper ‘From the office of the prime minister’:

As Director of the Government Press Office, I would like to make it clear to you and to the media you represent, that participation in the flotilla is an intentional violation of Israeli law and is liable to lead to participants being denied entry into the State of Israel for ten years, the impoundment of their equipment and to additional sanctions.

I implore you to avoid taking part in this provocative and dangerous event, the purpose of which is to undermine Israel’s right to defend itself and to knowingly violate Israeli law.

So much for freedom of the press – a freedom that is in Israel’s own interests since if there are ‘extremists’ aboard intent on pre-meditated acts of violence, as the Israeli authorities initially alleged, the journalists would be there to bear witness and bring such ‘facts’ to public attention. The outcry against this arbitrary and probably illegal measure was so strong that within a couple of days the injunction was withdrawn.

Meanwhile,  a video appeared on YouTube of an American gay rights activist who claimed that organizers of the flotilla had rejected his offer to mobilize a network of gay activists in support of their cause. This was clearly an attempt to smear the organizers as homophobic and as blind to the evils of the Hamas regime. But within days the video was exposed as a hoax by the Electronic Intifada, a pro-Palestinian Web site. The man in the video was identified as Omer Gershon, a Tel Aviv actor involved in marketing. As Robert Mackey explained on The Lede, the New York Times blog, on 28 June, ‘bloggers were quick to point out that people in three different Israeli government offices promoted it on Twitter soon after it was posted online.’ The Israeli press office then deleted its Twitter message and posted a new one, apologizing for having promoted ‘an apparent hoax’. It then emerged that the actor is linked with a producer, Elag Magdasi, who appears to be opposed to the flotilla campaign. His YouTube channel features a link to videos made by ‘a nonprofit Israel advocacy organization’ called Stand With Us. Mackey writes:

The Stand With Us YouTube channel currently features a new video that argues that Israel’s military ‘lawfully enforces a naval blockade on the Gaza Strip,’ which is necessary ‘to protect Israeli civilians from attacks by the terrorist organization Hamas.’

But was the Israeli government involved in the production and distribution of the video? When the Ha’aretz journalist Barak Ravid learnt of the story, the paper sent a series of questions to the prime minister’s office seeking answers. Ravid writes:

The premier’s office in response did not deny that that the government was involved in the video’s production, and admitted that government bodies had distributed the link.

The Israeli journalists Joseph Dana and Maya Guarnieri, who are in Athens and preparing to board the American boat heading for Gaza, have been chronicling the pressures that the Israeli authorities and groups doing their work for them have been bringing to bear on the Greeks to prevent the boats from leaving port. A complaint lodged with the Athens port authorities that the American boat was not seaworthy, which then triggered an examination of the vessel, proved to have come from an Israeli ‘lawfare’ group called Shurat Hadin, the Israel Law Centre. The boat, The Audacity of Hope, was meant to leave port on 23 June to rendezvous in international waters with boats coming from elsewhere, but the Greeks said it could not set sail until the inspection was complete. Shurat Hadin is known for making frivolous legal complaints against the Freedom Flotilla. It openly boasts about its anti-flotilla activity on its website.

The flotilla organizers, for their part, insist that they have no intention of harming IDF soldiers and that all the participants have signed a declaration of on-violence. But after issuing a statement that it accepted that there were no ‘extremists’ or ‘Islamist terrorists’ on the boats, the Israeli authorities suddenly reversed their position and claimed that there were two Hamas supporters among approximately 500 people sailing. In addition, Ha’aretz reported, ‘Israeli military spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich on Monday cited intelligence reports saying extremists in the flotilla have “dangerous incendiary chemicals” for use against Israeli forces.’

So it seems that the Israelis are swinging once again into a far more aggressive mode. The Israel Defence Ministry has now proposed setting up a naval court with powers to confiscate boats that attempt to breach the Gaza blockade. The defence minister, Ehud Barak, claims that the flotilla is a ‘an unnecessary provocation’, that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza and that ‘The real problem is the captivity of [soldier] Gilad Shalit and the fact that more rockets threatening southern Israel are continually being amassed there.’ Foreign Minister Lieberman said today (28 June) that the participants are ‘terror activists seeking to create provocation and looking for blood’.  ‘Unbelievable dissembling’ Mitchell Plitnick called all this in a tweet.

You would think that the Israeli authorities might have learnt a lesson from the disastrous outcome of the May 2010 flotilla when 9 people aboard the Mavi Marmara were killed by Israeli commandos when they boarded the ship. I’m sure that they either think they did or that they believed, deep down, that they had no lesson to learn. Their response to the Gaza flotilla 2 shows all the signs that both are true: one the one hand, behind the scenes pressure on the Greeks, black propaganda either generated by the Israeli government or by proxies who are tacitly or otherwise doing the government’s work for it, possibly sabotage – all in an attempt to discredit the action and even stop it before it got going; on the other hand, outright branding of the activists as terrorists, dupes of Hamas, preparations to board, impound and confiscate the boats – all as an expression of the Israeli official mindset that regards everything in the slightest bit negative that critics say or do about Israel as ‘delegitimization’.

And if you want to get a sense of how Israelis and some Jewish Diaspora leaders have lost all sense of reason in their talking up delegitimization as a phenomenon worse than antisemitism, read – if you can stand it – the long summary of a discussion organized by the Jerusalem Post between four prominent people before they spoke on a panel on delegitimization at the recent Israeli President’s Conference in Jerusalem. (The participants were Professor Irwin Cotler, former justice minister in the Canadian Liberal government, Professor Robert Wistrich, head of the Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University Jerusalem, Malcolm Hoenlien, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and Miri Eisen, former international media advisor to the prime minister.)

The most sensible response and the one most advantageous to the Israeli government was clearly spelt out in a Ha’aretz leader. Analysing what the government has and hasn’t learned since last year, Ha’aretz concludes:

The government seems to be as frightened of the flotilla as one would think it would be of an attack by an armed naval fleet. It is preparing to keep the ships from reaching the Gaza coast as though it were preparing to fight an enemy seeking to infringe on Israeli sovereignty.

It seems to believe that military preparation is what will save Israel’s honour:

The country is not willing to give up a display of power, thereby no doubt contributing to inflating the flotilla’s importance.

Now trying to find ways to reconcile with Turkey, Israel would do well to avoid simultaneously finding new means to engage in conflict with countries whose activists will be on the Gaza-bound ships. A less fearful country would certainly have offered even to go as far as escorting the flotilla to the Gaza coast.

From Israel, we can at least demand that it let the flotilla get through to the Gaza Strip without once again endangering the country’s position in the world.

By allowing the flotilla to dock in Gaza Israel would be showing strength, not weakness. It would be a display of confidence and soft power. There would be no violence, no deaths. And perhaps afterwards, the author Alice Walker might even write of Israel’s readiness to show some understanding and compassion, and of her hope for the possibility of a better future for Palestinians and Israelis.

Now that would do something positive for Israel’s image in the world.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

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There is a Path to Two Sovereign States, But the Gate Giving Access is Closed

Two very interesting pieces were published in the last few weeks essentially explaining why there’s now virtually no possibility of achieving a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. On the Magnes Zionist blog, the pseudonymous Jerry Haber posted ‘Some of what’s wrong with the liberal Zionist vision of the two state solution’. In the online magazine Souciant there’s Mitchell Plitnick’s ‘Goodbye to all that: post-mortem for Israel and Palestine’.

Haber argues that the liberal Zionist vision of the two-state solution ‘is not morally justifiable’ and represents what Avishai Margalit calls a ‘rotten compromise’, ‘one that result[s] in, or preserve[s], an inhuman system’. What it would do is deliver peace in the form of  ‘a Palestinian state that is only marginally better than occupation, and in which there is still a significant degree of Israeli control, hence, of dehumanization.’ But, Haber insists, ‘peace is not the endgame – dignity and self-determination are’.

Plitnick describes what he says ‘a real two-state solution would have looked like’.

Real land swaps kept to a minimum; full Palestinian control over their land, air, water and borders; trade and water sharing agreements; agreements between the countries for passage through their borders (not unknown, as from 1967 until Oslo, Palestinians went around the West Bank, Gaza and Israel proper regularly, and Israelis visited the West Bank and Gaza regularly and freely); firm international security guarantees for Israel and full peace and acknowledgment of Israeli sovereignty from Palestine and all the Arab states.

If all interested parties had articulated this specific vision eighteen years ago, writes Plitnick, ‘we would be in a very different place today, and it would have been much harder to have crushed the two-state solution, as appears to have been done’.

Instead, Israel built and built, making itself a global pariah, destroying the democracy Jews enjoyed and reversing the trend of integrating its Arab minority which, though it had been appallingly slow, had been progressing from 1949 until the end of the 20th century.

In then saying ‘two states means two independent and self-sufficient states, with all the rights and responsibilities that implies’, it seems to me that Plitnick is making the same point as Haber, that ‘dignity and self-determination’ were never on the table for the Palestinians.

The only way that two fully independent states could come about is if both sides make painful compromises, Haber argues. And what we have seen during and since Oslo, and what has been confirmed in the leaked Palestine Papers, is that when it came to the bottom line, only the Palestinians were being asked to make serious compromises. And none more serious perhaps than on the question of Palestinian refugees and the right of return.

In my view, nothing is more emblematic of what is involved in persuading the Palestinians that a solution to the conflict puts ‘dignity and self-determination’ first than Israel accepting the principle of the right of return. While it’s understandable that Israel should see that to do this would be erasing its ultimate red line, because it raises the spectre of hundreds of thousands or even millions of Palestinians returning to their homes within the Green Line and thereby dispossessing hundreds of thousands of Israelis and destroying the Jewish character of the state of Israel. But for the Palestinians to agree to a compromise that does not include acceptance of the right of return would in effect set in stone the notion that they have no historic or legal right to a state because there is no recognition that they have any rights whatsoever to the homes they had before 1948. It would be a denial of their dispossession. A denial of the naqba. Any state ‘offered’ to them would be entirely on sufferance, a ‘gift’ rather than a ‘right’ – the opposite of ‘dignity and self-determination’.

Now it’s quite widely understood that even if Israel did agree to accept the principle of the right of return, only a very small segment of Palestinian opinion would seek to seek to interpret this in a maximalist fashion and insist on the absolute actual right to return to inhabit every Palestinian home that was taken and every settlement, village, kibbutz, town etc. that was built on demolished Palestinian homes. This would be the pursuit of the principle of absolute justice, an impossible quest, as Haber argues. In reality, the Palestinian leadership would almost certainly accept a compensation arrangement and perhaps the symbolic return of some thousands or some few tens of thousands of refugees to their former homes. But what’s on offer to the Israelis to get them to understand and accept this is a purely pragmatic argument, a solution that emerges in the working out of how to get to the end point of peace. It still leaves open the possibility of failure because one side might decide that one person’s pragmatism is another person’s poison, or because fear or the exploitation of naked advantage might make one side behave in a way that is the opposite of what is expected.

So it comes back in the end to principles: principles that, if agreed to, would make it impossible for a new catastrophe of any kind being perpetrated on one side or the other. This, to me, is the nub of the problem. At its very basic, what must be avoided at all costs is any more killing, any more collective punishment, any more ethno-nationalist inspired dispossession. Particularly with children in mind – Palestinian children, Jewish-Israeli children, children of any identity who live in the region of conflict – the thought of some ‘solution’ that creates a new wholesale tragedy is unthinkable. It’s for this reason that the maximalist interpretation of the right of return – the absolute justice option – is inconceivable. The new pain and suffering it would inflict on families, on children, cannot be allowed to happen, not to mention the bloodshed that is likely to ensue if Israelis who take up arms clandestinely to oppose the implementation of any maximalist option begin to use them.

I would argue, as I have done for some years now, that the only principles that satisfy the demands of this situation are those of universal human rights. These are the only common values and principles to which all Palestinians and all Israelis can jointly subscribe. Using them as the fundamental guide will not mean that in reaching an agreement no one will experience some pain or disappointment, but it will mean that the least pain and disappointment will be experienced and that competing rights can be mediated as justly as is humanly possible. So, on the one hand, refusal to recognize the Palestinians’ right of return would contravene the principles; on the other hand, the massive displacement and dispossession of Israelis living within the pre-1967 borders would do the same. Again, on the one hand, refusal to bring a complete end to the occupation of Palestinian territory taken during the 1967 war would contravene the principles; on the other hand, if, on the basis of land swaps, the Palestinians are convinced that a Palestinian state, fully independent, self-sufficient, viable and fully sovereign could be established, not to make the land compromise would do the same.

Having made this argument I’m forced to admit that, given the current situation, what I’ve outlined is something of a castle in the air. Along with Haber and Plitnick, as things stand I see no possibility of Israelis and Palestinians reaching a point where they can agree on the ‘bad compromise’, to use Haber’s/Margalit’s term, that would bring about a two-state solution rooted in the principles of universal human rights. For all that some attempt to portray the Palestinian Authority as able to act independently, in reality what currently exists in Israel-Palestine is tantamount to a ‘one state solution’: the illiberal, repressive, Israeli-controlled one-state in which Palestinian-Israelis are treated as second-class citizens and Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are denied their human rights. We all know that prime minister Netanyahu claims to have accepted the two-state solution, but it’s also perfectly clear that he does not mean a democratic Israel protecting the rights of its Jewish and its non-Jewish citizens, existing alongside a sovereign Palestine. Instead, he and his coalition partners want a sovereign, explicitly Jewish state, separated from an assortment of powerless Palestinian bantustans, politically disjointed, lacking sovereignty and under Israeli control.

I think there is a path to a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but the gate giving access to that path is securely closed. And I fear that it may never open.

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