A consensus of credentialled opinion has formed that Israel, in its treatment of Palestinians, is operating a system of apartheid, as defined by the UN Convention of 1973. In its degree of unanimity and strong evidential basis, it should be seen as closely analogous to the consensus on human-induced climate change, and it imposes an equally clear responsibility – on the international community, on governments, but also on all significant institutions and organizations – to take effective remedial action. As in the face of evidence on anthropogenic global heating, however, political reactions have shown a pronounced denialist tendency.
Impunity for Israel, for its well-documented war crimes and, with the apartheid diagnosis, crimes against humanity, is embedded in an extractivist geopolitical and security system, which is now rapidly eroding. The findings of climate science over the need to avoid catastrophic temperature rise, and of specialist monitoring groups over Palestinian rights, both reflect and reinforce a shift of discourse, which is undercutting denialist tendencies in both fields. The challenge is to form and project new concepts of security, for the future well-being of all peoples in the historic land of Palestine, and indeed humanity itself.
“Israel is America’s unsinkable battleship in the Middle East”. The quote, attributed to Caspar Weinberger when he was US Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan, encapsulates a strategic assessment of a world based on hydrocarbon economics. The 1970s ‘oil shock’, as Gulf countries turned off the taps in protest at Washington’s support for Israel in the so-called Ramadan or Yom Kippur war, established control over access to oil as a key strategic precursor to global dominance.
The response was swift. ‘Dollar diplomacy’, disbursed through the International Monetary Fund, ‘turned’ Egypt from Moscow’s sphere of influence, via the Camp David Accords: the first acknowledgment by an Arab country of Israel’s right to exist. Ties to Saudi Arabia were tightened through the multi-billion British Al Yamamah arms deal, an ongoing transfer of technology and expertise without which any attempt to project military force – into Yemen, for instance – would remain a mirage.
Later, the final act in the fall of Soviet communism served paradoxically to focus still more US attention on the region. Saddam Hussein made a grab for Kuwait’s oil reserves to add to his own, whereupon the administration of Texas oil magnate George Bush assembled a multilateral coalition to eject his forces, thus establishing the Pentagon as the enforcement arm of the international community. Success in ‘Operation Desert Storm’ was heralded in Defense Planning Guidance, the Pentagon memo leaked to the New York Times a year later, as a key indicator of strategic priorities in the period ahead: maintain leadership, and contain potential rival hegemons, in the key regions of “Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia”, and a new US-dominated world order could emerge.
Last month’s picture of foreign ministers from Morocco, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, joining hands and smiling for the camera with their Israeli, Egyptian, and US counterparts at a meeting in the Negev/Naqab, seemed to confirm the new era ushered in by the so-called ‘Abraham Accords’. Gains in trade and commerce (including, as ever, arms deals) have trumped (and Trumped) previous reservations over the treatment of Palestinians.
But it represents a political configuration that is both more fragile than it might seem, at the moment of its iteration, and in long-term decline. One immediate caveat came when the UAE abruptly canceled plans to join Israel’s so-called ‘Independence Day fly-by’, in protest over military incursions into Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque. And every upsurge in violence, as with the further bombing of Gaza last week, costs the Zionist political project more legitimacy. A new opinion poll commissioned by the Australia-Palestine Advocacy Network shows majority public support for an independent Palestinian state, and for the present International Criminal Court investigation into Israeli war crimes – despite Canberra’s positioning of denialism on both these issues.
Since the last major military attack on Gaza last May, several reports have detailed the oppressive character of laws, practices, and behaviors that deny Palestinian rights of free movement and assembly and the enjoyment of home and family life. The most influential of these, Amnesty International, traces the system of discrimination back to the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948. Since then, it says,
“Israel has pursued an explicit policy of establishing and maintaining a Jewish demographic hegemony” (from the Executive Summary on p 7). Later, it elaborates: “Since its creation, the Israeli state has enforced massive and cruel land seizures to dispossess and exclude Palestinians from their land and homes”, thus rendering them “a group with perpetual lesser rights” (p 14).
Leading politicians in the US and allied countries, which play the perennial role of minimizing, excusing, and obfuscating such cruelties, have rushed to disavow these reports – although notably without attempting to enter into any detailed rebuttal of their findings. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki responded to an earlier verdict from Human Rights Watch by saying, simply, it is “not the view of this administration” that Israel is practicing apartheid. (Said to be undergoing rigorous training in journalistic ethics in preparation for her new on-air role with NBC Television, the future Psaki will, let us hope, demand further justification for such statements rather than reporting them, stenographer-style, at face value).
UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s legal background should instill respect for evidence and due process, but that did not stop him from airily dismissing the voluminous in-depth research, carried out by AI, HRW, and others, into the laws applied to different groups of people, all under varying levels of (ultimately) Israeli jurisdiction, benchmarked on the standards set out in the Apartheid Convention.
Meanwhile, the current Federal Election campaign in Australia is marked by the habitual evidence-aversion that unites the major parties, on both our dual denialisms. The parliament just ending saw catastrophic fires and floods – extreme weather events made more frequent and severe by human-induced climate change – yet Labor and the Coalition are both committed to as many as 114 new coal and gas projects. And while there are welcome signs of engagement with Palestinian rights among backbenchers, neither candidate for Prime Minister has faced any questions on them.
France has generally taken a more even-handed approach to diplomacy, although the local Zionist lobby has led policy-makers by the nose in attempts to suppress pro-Palestinian advocacy and protest. Among the many reasons for regret that Left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon missed out (by a whisker) on the second round in this year’s contest for the Élysée is his opposition to the crackdown – along with his recent statement that the succession of apartheid reports point to “an undeniable reality”.
To many outsides of mainstream politics, indeed, the finding will have confirmed their existing impressions. These include fully one in four US Jews, according to a survey by the Jewish Electoral Institute. A fifth of all respondents also explicitly reject Zionism. The recent adoption of an anti-Zionist stance by Chicago’s Tzedek Synagogue clearly speaks to this growing constituency. Instead, the replacement of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories with one state for all, governed by a regime based on equal rights, is favored by this group, the survey results showed.
That was London’s preferred solution when the United Nations came to deliberate on the fate of Palestine after the British mandate, but it was stymied in favor of dividing the territory after Zionist lobbying of the Truman administration. The eventual proposal of 1947, to allot 56% to a majority-Jewish state and the other 44% to a majority-Palestinian counterpart, attained the requisite two-thirds majority of the General Assembly only after Zionist filibustering postponed the vote by three days, during which delegations were swayed through a signature combination of blackmail and bullying.
The resolution was met by an immediate Arab military response, whereupon the whole issue descended into a shooting match and bequeathed today’s unjust status quo. “States make war”, Charles Tilly observed, “as war made states”. Along the way, the State of Israel was founded on a premeditated act of large-scale ethnic cleansing: al-Nakba, which saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven from their homes, and their communities destroyed.
The modern era of nation-state formation, which inspired Tilly’s aphorism, saw other bits of the Ottoman Empire broken off – in Bulgaria, for instance, following the brutal suppression of a rebellion in 1876 and a Russian-led war that looked remarkably like a latter-day humanitarian intervention. It is in this context that Theodor Herzl came to interpret God’s promise to Abraham – “unto thy seed have I given this land” – in material, rather than spiritual terms. To the well-documented Jewish territorial connections of antiquity was added a Eurocentric, colonialist – and racist – view of modern Palestine as “a land without a people”; the precise equivalent of the British “terra nullius” in Australia.
The notion of a state where Jews can form a permanent majority and ascendancy appealed as a safeguard against the oppression that had been their lot for centuries in Christian Europe; and was, of course, given further impetus by the Holocaust. But maintaining this situation now inescapably entails serial offenses against international law and international humanitarian law, and – in light of the apartheid findings – an ongoing crime against humanity. It is too high a price, especially since those paying it, the Palestinians, were not implicated either in historical expulsions and persecution of Jews, or the Nazi atrocities. For politicians wishing to avoid engaging seriously with the issues, denialism is the sole remaining recourse.
Familiar now are the calls, from those who do engage, for Israel to change course, and for international pressure to bring this about. Michael Lynk, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, concludes in his most recent report to the Human Rights Council:
“The international community should assemble a diplomatic menu of accountability measures to bring the Israeli occupation and its practice of apartheid in the Palestinian territory to a complete end”.
Equally familiar is the people-led campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, to add accountability measures from the grassroots. Both are important.
The Need for Positive Alternatives
To dissolve denialism, however, requires a positive alternative vision to be presented, rather than merely taking positions ‘against’ things. The odds-defying return of Australia’s coal-friendly Morrison government in 2019 was blamed, in part, on a high-profile concurrent campaign to ‘Stop Adani’ – referring to the Indian conglomerate aiming to open a massive open-cast mine in Queensland – fronted by former Green party leader, Bob Brown. Communities across the state where extractive industry wage packets underpin local economies were frightened, it was speculated, into rejecting change.
The party has, instead, approached this year’s poll with a “plan to power past coal and gas… [while] protecting coal workers and communities through the impending closure of the coal industry”. And the biggest threat to a renewed Liberal-National majority is reckoned to come from so-called ‘teal’ independents targeting key electorates with backing from Climate 200, a cross-party group funded by individual donors which emphasizes the “opportunities from decarbonization”.
Similarly, we must call for settler-colonialism to be opposed, and the division of Palestine reversed, but there must also be a positive vision to protect all people of the territory and the wider region. It is striking how often such visions, when they are articulated, involve removing borders – borders being the distinctive artifact of the modern nation-state system and the default setting, unless and until actions are taken to obviate them.
Two writers of Palestinian heritage, Jeanine Hourani and Amal Naser look forward, in a recent contribution to Overland magazine, to:
“A future that transcends the colonial construct of borders: where statelessness is no longer a lived reality; where we can drive from ‘48 Palestine to the West Bank and the West Bank to Jerusalem without crossing a checkpoint; where we can drive from the Galilee to Beirut to Damascus without crossing a border”.
Over 20 years ago, when I co-facilitated, with Johan Galtung, a Peace Journalism workshop in Amman for editors and reporters from Palestine, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt, we heard similar aspirations in answer to Galtung’s opening question:
“What does the Middle East in which you would like to live look like?”
(It was a time of renewed hope, as Labour Prime Minister Ehud Barak was forming a cabinet, amid expectations that his government would breathe new life into the US-sponsored ‘Peace Process’).
Responses by informants from across the region, gathered over many years, informed his still-relevant “TRANSCEND peace perspective for a Middle East Community”, modeled on its European antecedent. It provides for a Palestinian state
“on the June 4, 1967, borders [that is, before the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza] with small land exchanges”. Israel and Palestine would “become federations, with two Israeli cantons in Palestine and two Palestinian cantons in Israel”. The right of return would be “accepted in principle, numbers to be negotiated within the canton formula”.
Today, of course, the one area of the globe where the most extensive program of actions has been taken to obviate borders is the Schengen zone, built on EU agreements to harmonize standards, and institutionalize a high level of commonly agreed rights, in dozens of contiguous territories. It is this vision, surely, that must inspire us as the replacement for the present order, distorted as it is by a Zionist agenda that limits free movement through an extensive network of checkpoints, without formally acknowledging any limits to its territorial claims by announcing or accepting its own borders. Interim arrangements could take some form similar to the federated structure envisaged by Galtung (as, indeed, happened in Europe).
It is impossible to be ‘progressive except on Palestine’, now it is established that the present condition of the Palestinians is maintained by ongoing and serial violations up to and including the crime of apartheid. These violations are not incidental to Zionism but have been woven into it from the start, as the Amnesty International report shows. Being progressive means not only opposing what is, but also being able to show what could be. In the face of both of these dual denialisms, the contours of future, more just and sustainable arrangements are steadily becoming more visible.
As the arc of global hydrocarbon addiction turns downward, and extractivist logics weaken (hastened, we must hope, by the realization of recent weeks of just how unwise it is to depend on a supplier of fuel that may suddenly become the focus of international outrage), it will become less attractive to cozy up to repressive Gulf monarchies – and we may also observe the further weakening of US support for Zionism, which has been its main foundation since 1947. Both for powering the planet and for bringing peace to Palestine, we must be ready with alternative visions.
Jake Lynch is based at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies of the University of Sydney, after completing a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship at Coventry University, in the UK, in 2020.