A New Path For Israel?
by John Spritzler
November 16, 2008
Hours after resigning as prime minister of Israel on September 21, 2008, Ehud Olmert gave an interview to the Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth (excerpted in the New York Review of Books), in which he seems to have made a 180 degree turnaround from his former views. Olmert said,
"We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, meaning a withdrawal from nearly all, if not all, of the [occupied] territories. Some percentage of these territories would remain in our hands, but we must give the Palestinians the same percentage [of territory elsewhere]without this, there will be no peace." In answer to the interviewer asking, "Including Jerusalem?" Olmert replied, "Including Jerusalem with, I’d imagine, special arrangements made for the Temple Mount and the holy/historical sites."
This is, at least verbally, a very different Ehud Olmert from the one who, in March of 2008, declared that even despite the fact that, as Al Jazeera’s report put it, "Washington has been especially critical of Israeli plans to build hundreds of new homes in [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Har Homa," he would do so. Al Jazeera reported,
"The Israeli prime minister said his government would continue to build hundreds of new apartments in Har Homa in east Jerusalem. ‘There will be places where there will be construction, or additions to construction, because these places will remain in Israel’s hands,’ Olmert said during a visit to Israel by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, on Monday.’This includes, first and foremost, Jerusalem,’ he said. ‘We are building in Jerusalem because everyone knows that there is no chance the State of Israel will give up neighbourhoods like Har Homa, as you know. It’s an inseparable part of Jerusalem.’"
The "new" Olmert made news again as recently as November 13, 2008, when Haaretz headlined, "Olmert decries ‘deliberate and insufferable’ discrimination against Arabs." The article reported that,
"Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday decried the ‘deliberate and insufferable’ discrimination against Arabs at the hands of the Israeli establishment, during an appearance before a Knesset panel in Jerusalem. The gap between the proportion of Arab citizens in Israel and their inclusion in the state’s civil service positions ‘arouses concern and unrest,’ the premier told a parliamentary commission of inquiry examining the issue."
The "new" Olmert may have begun to emerge, however, as early as May of 2007, when the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a report of Olmert’s speech at the "Israeli Democracy Institute" headlined, "PM Olmert to Israeli Arabs: ‘Equality is not just a slogan.’" Olmert said,
"I will not try to hide the fact that in the State of Israel there is discrimination….
"Lastly, the Government has made many decisions that will assist in reducing gaps among the Arab population, including increasing the number of non-Jews in the civil service, investing millions of shekels in encouraging employment in peripheral areas in both the north and south, constructing new classrooms and declaring all non-Jewish communities as A industrial development areas. This year, we will finance the activities of a special Arab sector fund that will enable investments in 40 companies. All of the foregoing is being done in order to convert equality from a slogan into reality."
What’s Going On?
An indication that Olmert’s surprising statements reflect something more than just his personal views is this November 11, 2008 Inter Press Service report:
"The Israeli government has begun to actively promote voluntary army service for Israeli Arabs. The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, is meanwhile considering plans to make civil service compulsory for all Israeli citizens, including Israeli Arabs."
There are other reasons to suspect that the "new" Olmert may reflect more than just one man’s changed opinion. The fact that Jimmy Carter wrote his book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, calling Israel’s occupation of the West Bank "apartheid," the fact that two ultra-establishment academics–Harvard’s Stephen Walt and the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer– challenged the idea that America’s virtually unconditional support of the Israeli government was in America’s "national interest," and the fact that President-elect Obama is reportedly going to pursue a "peace plan" involving Israel withdrawing to pre-1967 borders all suggest that the American as well as Israeli elite are considering a "course correction" in policy related to the Israel/Palestine conflict.
What might this "course correction" entail? Apparently, it would mean actually implementing the two-state solution, instead of just using its "Roadmap to Peace" rhetoric to cover up perpetual Israeli occupation of the West Bank and control of Gaza. The "new" Olmert apparently would let the Palestinian state include all of the Gaza Strip and all of the West Bank after some swapping of land acre-for-acre between the West Bank and Israeli along the border.
But–and this is crucial for understanding what is going on–the "new" Olmert, along with Jimmy Carter and Walt and Mearsheimer and Obama, conspicuously avoid talking about the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to their country (that is now called Israel.) They oppose the right of return. The New York Times reported in March of 2007, that
"Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in interviews published Friday that Israel would not allow a single Palestinian refugee to return to what is now Israel, and that the country bore no responsibility for the refugees because their plight resulted from an attack by Arab nations on Israel when it was a fledgling state…He said the return of even one Palestinian refugee to Israel was ‘out of the question.’"
I am not aware of any "change of heart" by Olmert on the right of return question.
Jimmy Carter’s position on the right of return is, as he expressed it in his book’s section on the Geneva Initiative that he helped write, that there should be a "limited right of return of Palestinians." To put this word "limited" in its true perspective, imagine the outrage that would be hurled at Carter by world leaders and pundits if Carter had suggested that there should be a "limited right of return" to Germany of Jews who left Germany to flee from the Nazis!
The two-state solution described by people like Olmert and Carter, however, will thus maintain the fundamental apartheid reality of Israel/Palestine, in other words the substantial separation of Jews from non-Jews that resulted from the ethnic cleansing in 1948 (and more in 1967) of most of the non-Jews from Israel. It will formalize this apartheid reality by declaring that, in a region of the world where Jews and non-Jews share a common source of water and are thoroughly intertwined economically and in close proximity geographically, nonetheless there will be two separate states, one for the Jews and one for the Palestinians, a "Jewish" state and a "Palestinian" state. Furthermore, while the "Jewish" state of Israel will be a regional super-power with nuclear weapons and the United States as its ally, consider what the Palestinian state will be. It will have no military comparable to Israel’s and it will, like the nominally "independent" Gaza Strip that is essentially a prison run by Israel today, have no more control over its borders and other key elements of sovereignty than Israel chooses to grant it. The apartheid that Olmert envisions is about two separate and very unequal states.
Why Would Olmert Talk About Ending Discrimination Against Non-Jews?
In this sense of maintaining apartheid, there is nothing new going on. Even the talk about abolishing discrimination against non-Jews inside of Israel fits right into the apartheid "Jewish state" paradigm as it was formulated way back in 1948 in the "Declaration of the State of Israel." This document asserts that Israel is a "Jewish state" in which the sovereign authority is "the Jewish people" and not all of its citizens. But it also asserts that Arabs shall have "complete equality of social and political rights" and "full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its [Israel’s] provisional and permanent institutions." Israel’s founding leaders believed that if the norms of equality and democracy seemed to prevail inside of Israel, that this would divert attention from the enormous ethnic cleansing of non-Jews that was the very basis of the Jewish state, and enable Israel to enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Thus Israel’s leaders continue to insist that Israel is a "Jewish democracy," as if denying the right of more than 4 million non-Jews to even return to and live in their country (Israel), never mind vote in it, is democratic.
It is important to put Olmert’s talk about ending discrimination against non-Jews in perspective. Eliminating discrimination against an ethnic or racial group is not the same thing as improving the lives of most members of that racial or ethnic group. Consider, for example, what happened to black people in the United States after overt de jure racial discrimination in the South was entirely abolished and de facto discrimination in the North was greatly reduced in the 1960s. Since then, as a result, a small number of blacks have indeed benefitted. There are some very rich American blacks now. Some blacks are CEOs of corporations, top TV newscasters and a Supreme Court Justice. Blacks hold top government positions such as governor of Massachusetts and Secretary of State and even the presidency-elect. But from 1970 to 2000 the number of blacks in prison increased eightfold, from 133,226 to one million people. From 1970 to 1989 black median family income declined from 61% to 56% of white median family income.
"The white elite was allowed to move its corporate assets to London and a small black elite made up of around 300 families became super rich. Unemployment reached 40 percent and by every measure (life expectancy, morbidity, access to food, water, etc.) the living conditions of the poor rapidly worsened…
"On May 16, 2000, Michael Makabane was shot dead at point-blank range during a peaceful protest against the exclusion of poor students from the University of Durban-Westville. That campus had been considered a hotbed of militant resistance to apartheid. While police repression had been brutal no students had ever been killed during the apartheid era. The local paper, now under black editorship, called for tougher action against protesting students…
"Over a million people had been disconnected from water because they couldn’t pay; 40,000 children were dying from diarrhea caused by dirty water each year. Cholera returned with a vengeance, infecting over 100,000 people in Kwa-Zulu Natal alone. People starved in rural areas, throngs of street-kids descended on every town to beg and prostitute themselves, petty-crimes soared, and the jails reached 170% capacity."
Class inequality and oppression does not require racial or ethnic discrimination. The upper class may have exactly the same ethnic/racial composition as the general population without taking away one iota from the brutality and injustice of class inequality. Indeed, when racial or ethnic discrimination has lost its legitimacy, class inequality may actually be strengthened by providing an equal opportunity to all people, regardless of their race or ethnicity, to join the upper class elite, enjoy its wealth, privilege and power, and of course help oppress the working class. The fact that the Israeli government has begun to actively promote voluntary army service for Israeli Arabs so that they may join Jewish soldiers in violently denying Palestinian refugees their right of return illustrates how "ending discrimination" and advancing the welfare of the people who are discriminated against are not always the same thing. The emergence of well-to-do blacks in the United States and South Africa has actually made it, if anything, harder for ordinary blacks to fight for real improvements, because upwardly mobile blacks seize leadership and define "progress" to be merely the opportunity for small numbers of blacks to rise in an unequal society in which most will remain at the bottom.
Olmert Sees the Handwriting on the Wall
The problem for Israel’s leaders today is that Israel’s legitimacy in the eyes of the world is wearing very thin. Too many people know that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and virtual imprisonment of the people living in the Gaza Strip are inhumane and unjustifiable. There is a limit to how long such a brutal occupation can justify itself with phony claims about protecting Jews from anti-Semites. Up to now the extreme brutality of the occupation has directed public anger at the occupation itself, as opposed to the fundamental injustice of the ethnic cleansing that is the basis of Israel being a "Jewish" state. As long as public anger is deflected this way from seeing the wrongness of Israel’s very existence as a "Jewish state," the Zionist project is not at great risk.
But people around the world are coming to see that the occupation is about defending ethnic cleansing. The more this happens, the more sense it makes for Israel’s leaders to end the occupation. And indeed, public opinion is turning against Zionism, per se, so much that 73% of voters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the absence of any focused educational campaign, voted "yes" on the Somerville Divestment Project’s ballot question in 2008 calling for the U.S. to support the "right of non-Jewish Palestinian citizens of Israel [my emphasis] to be free from laws that give more rights to people of one religion than another." That public opinion in the United States, of all places, has shifted so much that any American town would deliver such a stunning indictment of the Zionist project has given farsighted Israeli leaders like Olmert cause for concern. That 74% of Americans, according to a University of Maryland polll reported on July 1, 2008, would say that they think their government should not take Israel’s side in the Israel/Palestine conflict cannot have gone unnoticed by people like Olmert, either. Also alarming to Zionist leaders is the fact that they are losing their own Jewish base. Anti-Zionist views are taken seriously now at places that were formerly bastions of uncontested Zionist influence, like Brandeis University. When a mode of elite social control becomes widely viewed as illegitimate, shrewd elite leaders have no choice but to consider alternatives, meaning alternative ways of enforcing elite social control.
Israel’s Occupation of the West Bank Isn’t the Only Way to Skin the Cat
Why does Israel occupy the West Bank and inflict pain on the people of Gaza? It has nothing to do with protecting Jews from anti-Semites. It is all about protecting the Israeli Jewish upper class (whose 18 wealthiest families’ income is equivalent to 77% of Israel’s national budget) from ordinary Jews. The enormous and increasing social inequality inside Israel, even among just the Jews, exists because Israel is not really a "Jewish" state at all, not in the sense that ordinary Jews control the government and use it to make a better life for themselves. The Israeli government is controlled by billionaires and generals, and politicians in their service, who use it to dominate the Israeli working class, the same way an American upper class uses the American government. Michal Schwartz describes what is happening to Israelis this way in a 2005 article:
"In early 2003 a new Finance Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, claimed that catastrophe sat at the door. His response was to make Israel more attractive for the rich. The country, he said, had been spending beyond its means. The solution? Cheapen the cost of labor and cut welfare. Let the poor go to work in the jobs that would trickle down from the investments of the rich!
"Netanyahu cut into guaranteed minimum income, child allowances, old-age benefits, supplements to single parents, and unemployment compensation. Women made up 65% of those receiving this money. They weren’t parasites or charity cases, as he made them out to be. The vast majority worked, but their pay was so low that they needed the supplements in order to get through the month. They were Netanyahu’s main victims."
Since 1948 the main way the Israeli elite has controlled the Jewish Israeli working class has been by keeping it more frightened of Palestinians and Arabs generally than of the billionaire rulers of Israel who are driving workers down. Every atrocity against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza committed by the Israeli government foments more Palestinian anger that Israeli rulers use to keep Jews frightened. Every rocket fired by Hamas into an Israeli town helps the Israeli ruling class tighten its grip over Israeli Jews. This has been a very successful strategy of social control. To understand just how successful it has been one must imagine what Israeli workers would likely have done in its absence.
To defend themselves against the Israeli elite, Jewish workers wage very frequent strikes, often general strikes. In 2003 700,000 workers shut down ports, airports, schools, universities, the stock exchange, government offices and almost all public services. There was another general strike of 400,000 workers in July of 2007. But as militant as Jewish Israeli workers are, their leaders told "defense"-related workers to remain on the job during the strike, seriously weakening it. In 2006, one of their leaders–Amir Peretz, who had himself called general strikes in the past as the chairman of the huge Histadrut labor union, and who was the leader of the Labor Party, took command of Israel’s military as Defense Minister and orchestrated the killing of 900 Lebanese civilians–working class people with whom Israeli workers need to ally to truly win their struggles against the billionaire class. The billionaires surely do have a problem controlling Israeli workers. But it is a zillion times easier for them to do it when workers are so fearful of their non-Jewish fellows that they follow leaders who sabotage general strikes by telling "defense" workers to scab, and who kill innocent workers for the crime of not being Jewish.
This strategy for controlling the Israeli working class has been quite successful. But it has come at the expense of increasing world wide disgust at the Israeli government, because the strategy requires fomenting Arab anger at Israel with gratuitous attacks on Arabs, like the Lebanon war and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
Olmert is apparently afraid that, like apartheid in South Africa, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank may end up being unsustainable due to world outrage that could lead to sanctions against Israel. Boycotts against Israel are already starting to happen, including one by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Olmert may have calculated that the question is not whether to continue the occupation indefinitely or not, but whether to be in control–or not in control–of its dismantling when it is impossible to maintain.
Olmert and Carter seem to be considering the following plan. To regain world legitimacy, Israel will get out of the occupation business while still maintaining the essential features of apartheid in the region. It will do this by arranging for a Palestinian elite, in a Palestinian state, to take over from Israel the task of controlling Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. And it will further restore Israel’s legitimacy by removing the obvious forms of discrimination against non-Jews inside of Israel.
Already we can see the outlines of this alternative form of social control. The Boston Globe on November 15 reported, for example, how the United States and Israeli government are relying on a Palestinian elite–the Palestinian Authority–to do their dirty work for them. The Palestinian Authority is arresting members of Hamas, an organization that, unlike the Palestinian Authority, still demands the right of return for Palestinians:
"The arrests have been part of increased Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in which US-trained Palestinian troops are moving into West Bank cities, leading to some pullback by Israeli troops."
The natural extension of this is the two-state solution. What people like Olmert apparently hope to do is get the Palestinian refugees to give up on the right of return and to accept their exile to the West Bank or Gaza (and their lack of compensation for the land and other property stolen from them by the Zionists) in exchange for being ruled over by Palestinians instead of Israeli Jews. Then, Olmert and his kind hope, Israel would regain its lost legitimacy in the eyes of the world. The downside of this for both Israel’s and America’s rulers–and it would be a downside— is that there would probably be less overt violence between Israelis and Palestinians. This would result in Israeli Jewish citizens growing less frightened of Palestinians and more inclined to wage general strikes against the Israeli ruling class, as they did, for example, in 1997 when the hope for peace associated with the Oslo negotiations made them less fearful of Palestinians.
Presumably Olmert believes that other forms of conflict between Jews and Palestinians could be fomented that would accomplish the same ends that the violence of Israeli occupation does now. There is every reason to believe that the Palestinian Authority would gladly collaborate with the Israeli elite for this purpose, because the PA itself is not run democratically by ordinary Palestinians but rather by a Palestinian upper class. As Allegra Pacheco wrote for www.palestinecenter.org in March, 2000, describing the Israeli occupation’s "closure" policy in the West Bank that makes freedom of movement a privilege:
"VIP passes are issued to members of the Palestinian Authority (PA), to wealthy Palestinian business persons, and to some collaborators. This system enables this select elite to maintain political and economic control over the rest of the Palestinian population, and assures the continued prosperity of all the Palestinian monopolies. Closure also supplies cheap, unprotected Palestinian labor for the mequilladora industrial zones owned and operated by Israeli and VIP Palestinian businessmen."
Perhaps the Israeli and Palestinian elites could copy the game book of U.S. and Mexican elites in pitting ethnic groups against each other. American rulers demanded (as a condition of NAFTA) that Mexico amend its constitution to eliminate the clause, from the days of the Mexican Revolution, that gave peasants rights to their land. Then American agri-business, with U.S. government subsidies, began flooding Mexico with artificially cheap corn, thereby driving Mexican peasants off the land. Mexico’s ruling elite, in turn, provide few jobs for these peasants, preferring that they emigrate. In this manner, two million peasants have been forced to enter the United States illegally in search of employment. American businessmen use them for cheap labor. At the same time American politicians tell American workers that "illegal Mexican immigrants" are their enemy for taking away jobs and lowering wages and sponging off of American taxpayers. This "two-state solution," i.e. Mexico for the Mexicans and America for the Americans, might not be as good a method of divide-and-rule as a shooting war, but it’s not bad, and something very similar could doubtless work with the two states of Israel and Palestine. Additionally, the scarcity of water, for example, from common aquifers for Israel and the West Bank, could be used to generate even more animosity between Jews and Palestinians. All it takes is a bit of "creative statecraft."
Dividing historic Palestine (from the River to the Sea) into a Jewish and a Palestinian state fits right in to the pattern of social control by divide-and-rule along ethnic lines that American and other elites have used in other parts of the world. The American government, for example, used NATO to break Yugoslavia up into ethnic pieces, used rainbow colored "revolutions" to break up the former Soviet Union along ethnic lines, and promoted Tibetan nationalism for decades to stir up discord within China. Britain’s rulers split Ireland into Catholic and Protestant states, leading to ethnic violence known as "The Troubles." British rulers also played a key role in splitting India into a Hindu state (India) and a Muslim state (Pakistan), resulting in massive ethnic violence and a half million deaths. Vice-President-elect Joe Biden famously called for splitting Iraq into three loosely federated ethnic states, and this may indeed be one of the unstated aims of the American invasion of Iraq, since this is exactly what a former president of the powerful elite organization, the Council on Foreign Affairs, called for. As the Asia Times reported November 27, 2003,
"Iraq is ‘artificially and fatefully made whole from three distinct ethnic and sectarian communities’, says Leslie Gelb in his November 25 New York Time article. Gelb – a former editor and columnist for the Times and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations – advocates dismembering Iraq into three parts, a Kurdish north, a Sunni center and a Shi’ite south, in what he calls the ‘Three State Solution’."
The best solution for the Palestine/Israel conflict, of course, is not this divide-and-rule, but simple justice and fairness–a one-state solution in which all of Palestine, from the River to the Sea, is a single truly democratic state in which everybody is equal before the law regardless of their religion, with the unconditional right of return for the Palestinian refugees with full compensation from the Zionist elite for the land and property that the Zionist project stole from them, just as Jews have the same unconditional rights with respect to Germany. This is not only morally right and called for by international law, but also logistically and politically feasible.
Israeli Occupation and Discrimination Aren’t the Only Problems
As bad as Israel’s occupation of the West Bank (and control of Gaza) is, and as wrong as Israeli discrimination against non-Jews inside Israel is, we would be making a big mistake if we limited our goal to abolishing these wrong things only. As Olmert seems to realize, occupation of the West Bank and discrimination inside Israel against non-Jews are not required for class oppression and inequality to function. In fact the latter can and may even need to dispense with the former in whole or in part in order to gain the legitimacy required to prevail. What a privileged and powerful elite cannot dispense with, however, is the practice of pitting people against each other, in one way or another, to control and dominate them. This is because most people don’t like to be dominated and they don’t like inequality and if left to themselves would abolish elite rule and create a society in which people worked together as equals to make a better world for all. The only realistic alternative to our being pitted against each other with lies and manipulation is a society without a privileged and powerful elite. That must be the explicit goal of those who truly have the interests of ordinary Palestinians and Israelis at heart. Otherwise the Olmerts of the world will carry the day.