I am a longtime follower of American politics with an avid interest in the modern Middle East, and yet I can’t think of anything worse than when these two interests of mine converge. There are few things more disheartening than listening to American politicians, pundits, journalists, and policymakers opining on the Middle East’s people and its problems. The views expressed reveal such a breadth of ignorance, zealotry, arrogance, and casual cruelty that it can sometimes boggle the mind. Men and women who no doubt conduct their personal lives with great compassion casually write off the lives of thousands of people as essentially meaningless, little more than chess pieces for them to play with. And so you have the spectacle of an American Congressman casually arguing for the bombing of Islamic holy
sites as a “deterrent”. Or a Cabinet Secretary nonchalantly referring to the deaths of hundreds of Arab civilians as the “birth pangs” of renewal that the region needs.
But the potent mix of malice, ignorance, and stupidity that characterizes American discourse on the Middle East is never greater than when discussing the fate of the Palestinians. The recent debate over Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest remarks is a case in point. If you’re unaware, a little over a week ago the Israeli Prime Minister’s ruling Likud party was trailing in the polls just ahead of a general election. In an attempt to secure more votes from Israeli conservatives, Netanyahu went on a racist rant, denouncing the vast left wing conspiracy that has Arab citizens of Israel “streaming to the polls in droves.” (The Obama administration called the comments “divisive.” That’s a clever euphemism. It’s a rule in Washington that one is not allowed to acknowledge the existence, much less the depth, of Israeli racism. Doing so might raise questions about the “special relationship” and the billions of dollars in American aid that accompanies it.) In an excellent illustration of the mood of the Israeli public, Netanyahu’s tactic worked brilliantly. Support for his Likud party surged in the election’s final days, ending in a resounding victory.
Now, let’s put aside for a moment what this means about the role that anti-Arab racism plays in Israeli politics and life in general. Let’s also not concern ourselves with why pundits and politicians who are so troubled by bigotry elsewhere don’t seem to be at all concerned with the rampant racism evinced by their favorite politicians. Instead, let’s talk about the other part of Netanyahu’s statements, the part that has actually caused significant friction with the Obama Administration: Netanyahu’s rejection of the Two State Solution.
* * *
The Two State Solution has been around for a very long time, which is really a damn shame. It was horribly flawed in its infancy and has only deteriorated with age. Building a European colonial enterprise on land where millions of Arabs were living was always a questionable idea. The logic of Zionism required not just that this colony be constructed, but that it be dominated by European settlers. This was a recipe for humanitarian disaster, and disaster is exactly what we got.
The consequences of the Zionist project were obvious long before the Two State Solution was passed in 1947 as the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, and the men who founded Israel were very much aware of them. Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first Foreign Minister and second Prime Minister, explained this in a letter in 1914: “We have forgotten that we have not come to an empty land to inherit it, but we have come to conquer a country from a people inhabiting it, that governs it by virtue of its language and savage culture.” His views were echoed by early Zionist leader and soldier Vladimir Jabotinsky in 1923:
“Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized…That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of ‘Palestine’ into the ‘Land of Israel.’”
The drive of Zionists to build a Jewish State in the Middle East was simply incompatible with the demographic realities of Palestine in 1947. When the UN passed the Partition Plan, two thirds of the 1.9 million people living in British Mandate Palestine were Palestinian Arabs. The new state of Israel, which was granted 56% of the lands of the British Mandate, would be built on territory whose population was around 45% Palestinian. This created a conundrum. The proposed Jewish State was not nearly Jewish enough. This problem was ameliorated through the expulsion and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs.
The events of 1948 were a direct consequence of the basic logic of Zionism paired with the UN’s awful Partition Plan. In order to found a European colonial state on land where millions of Arabs lived, an ethnic cleansing of the native population was necessary. Over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs lost their homes in the expulsions of 1948. Their empty villages were then systematically destroyed by the new Israeli state and replaced by new structures for Jewish settlers. In 1969, Moshe Dayan, the Israeli Minister of Defense, discussed the aftermath of the expulsions of 1948:
“Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because these geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahalal arose in the place of Mahlul, Gvat in the place of Jibta, Sarid in the place of Haneifa, and Kfar-Yehoshua in the place of Tel-Shaman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”
In the war that accompanied this ethnic cleansing, the proposed Palestinian State contracted from 43% of the land of the British Mandate to 22%. This is the West Bank and Gaza. Yet despite its clear and obvious failure, rhetorical support for the Two State Solution remained strong.
In 1967, another Arab-Israeli war led to the conquest and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. All the land of the British Mandate was now under Israeli control, and Israel quickly moved settlers into the newly conquered territory. Nearly 50 years later, the military occupation of the Palestinian territories continues and 350 thousand Israelis live in settlements that dot the landscape of the West Bank. No one seriously believes that these settlements could be dismantled in a way that allows for the creation of a fully sovereign and viable Palestinian state, but just as immune to reality as ever, the Two State Solution still dominates the imaginations of most Western observers. (To see what I mean, look at this plan put forth by the Zionist Union, Israel’s dovish liberal party. The Palestinian state they propose would lack sovereignty over many of its affairs, be geographically discontinuous, dotted with foreign encampments, and really an all-around joke. Remember that this is the plan of Israel’s liberals, the most conciliatory of Israel’s political factions. The point is that there is no serious proposal anywhere that could create a sovereign and viable Palestinian state bordering Israel.)
* * *
The nature of the debate over the Two State Solution is made all the more absurd in light of Netanyahu’s history. He consistently denounced the Two State Solution for most of his career. As Israeli deputy foreign Minister in 1989, he advocated solving the Palestinian question through force. In a 1989 speech at Bar Ilan University shortly after the Tiananmen demonstrations in China, Netanyahu said that “Israel should have exploited the repression of the demonstrations in China, when world attention focused on that country, to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the territories.
Netanyahu came around to supporting the Two State Solution quite late and quite suddenly, after his second election to the office of Prime Minister. His supposed conversion was announced in a widely heralded speech in 2009, but the timing of Netanyahu’s change of heart should have seemed a bit odd to anyone listening. In a US National Intelligence Estimate in 1968, the CIA authors wrote this:
“If Israel continues to occupy conquered territory for an extended period, say two to three years, it will find it increasingly difficult to relinquish control. Domestic pressures to establish paramilitary settlements in occupied areas would grow, and it would be harder to turn back to the Arabs land which contained such settlements.”
By 2009, settlement building had been going on more or less continuously for over 40 years. Israeli settlers in the West Bank numbered in the hundreds of thousands. In 1948, the Two State Solution was implausible. In 1968, it was nearly impossible. In 2009, when Netanyahu began supporting it, it was dead. This is why the recent debate over Netanyahu’s actions is so ridiculous. The absurdity of it would be amusing if its consequences weren’t so devastating. Netanyahu has spent the last six years furiously building settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, enforcing a devastating economic blockade on a captive population, killing thousands of civilians in brutal military campaigns, and generally showing absolutely no regard for Palestinian life or for any possible prospects of a future Palestinian state. And the United States and the Obama Administration have been very consistent in their support for Netanyahu’s actions. Last August, as the civilian death toll from Israel’s operation in Gaza was climbing rapidly, both chambers of Congress passed unanimous resolutions in support of Israel’s actions. As Israel killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians, the House and Senate quickly passed bills to expedite the military aid Israel would need to continue the slaughter.
As long as Netanyahu kept up his rhetorical support for the Two State Solution, the United States worked to shield Israel from any costs its actions may have generated. The American administration’s deal with Netanyahu essentially was, “As long as you stick to the right campaign lines, we’ll keep supporting everything you do. We’ll keep protecting you in international forums. We’ll even keep sending you the bombs you need to keep killing Palestinians while we smile at your ludicrous claims of self-defense against a captive people.”
Then, this latest campaign began, and, in an extraordinary turn, Netanyahu finally stepped out of line. Unmoved by the thousands of civilian casualties in Gaza last summer, the Obama administration finally witnessed an Israeli leader do something that they could not abide. What was this great crime? Netanyahu said explicitly what should have been obvious to everyone for years: that his ‘support’ for the Two State Solution was nothing but rhetoric, a lie told to fool only the most gullible and most blind among us.
So here we have a real American policy laid bare. The United States is perfectly happy to subsidize the indefinite occupation of the Palestinian territories as long as they can claim that they have a solution. The actual efficacy or plausibility or possibility of such a solution is immaterial. In other words, they will gladly underwrite an occupation without end as long as they don’t have to admit that’s what they’re doing. Netanyahu may be a racist and a war criminal, but he can’t touch Obama for duplicity and cowardice.
Though the Two State Solution died a long time ago, the dream of basic civil rights for Palestinians is still alive. But until an American President can face up to the Middle East’s realities, don’t expect anything to change.