A Decisive Vote for Apartheid

“Israel votes for disengagement and final borders” and “Israelis abandon the dream of Greater Israel” were the main themes in the spin that characterized mainstream, even some progressive, media coverage of the Israeli parliamentary elections which took place on March 28. In reality, the election results revealed that a consensus has emerged among Israeli Jews, not only against the basic requirements of justice and genuine peace, as that was always the case, but also in support of a more aggressive form of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and cementing Zionist apartheid.

In the 2006 Knesset elections, Israelis have indeed overwhelmingly voted for “disengagement,” not from the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), but only from the Palestinians — whether in Israel, in the OPT or in exile. Palestinian lands are clearly precluded from this disengagement. An objective examination of the election results and the political platforms of the parties represented in the new Israeli parliament will show that the celebration of the “shift to peace and realism” by Western and Israeli media pundits alike is not only unwarranted but quite deceptive as well. If anything, an avid adoption of the right’s agenda has taken place.

Before exposing the spin, readers must be cautioned that “right,” “left” and “center” are relative terms; they have substantially different meaning in the Israeli political context than in any comparable parliamentary system, including the Palestinian Legislative Council. With the exception of the Palestinian dominated political parties, all Israeli parties represented in the seventeenth Knesset converge on the three fundamental No’s of Zionism: No to the return of Palestinian refugees who were uprooted by Israel during the Nakba (catastrophe of dispossession and expulsion around 1948); No to a complete end of the occupation and colonization of the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel in 1967; No to full equality — in the law as well as in government policies — between Israel’s Jewish citizens and its Palestinian citizens, the remaining indigenous population of the land.

Some may argue that the “ultra-dovish” Jewish-Israeli party, Meretz, has dissented from the consensus on the second clause, when it supported “ending the occupation.” In fact, Meretz has never accepted a complete return to the internationally recognized borders of 1967, which put East Jerusalem with its Old City on the Palestinian side. It has always argued for keeping parts of the OPT under Israeli control, not to mention that its consistent position against Palestinian refugee rights and full equality in Israel makes the xenophobic right parties in Europe sound quite liberal in comparison.

Just recently, Meretz’s leader, Yossi Beilin, wrote to Avigdor Lieberman — seen by some analysts as the new leader of the “fascist” right in Israel — admiring him for being “very intelligent, a successful politician, an excellent man of action, and a smart Jew,” further praising him for “guiding us to a situation in which the Jewish people, too, will indeed finally have a Jewish state of its own.” Lieberman has called for ethnically cleansing Israel of half a million of its Palestinian citizens by “adjusting its borders” to leave them out, denying them citizenship and any pertinent rights. It is worth noting that most of the land belonging to this target group has already been confiscated by the state over decades. Opportunistic politicking notwithstanding, Meretz was squarely rebuffed by Israeli voters, winning only 5 seats in last week’s elections, compared to its already paltry 6 seats in the 2003 elections.

In sharp contrast to the steady fall of the “left,”, Lieberman’s ultra-right party, Israel Our Home, whose main constituency is among the Russian-speaking immigrants, won an astounding 11 seats on a platform which explicitly calls for denying Israeli citizens “the right to live in the state on the grounds of religion and race,” as the Israeli commentator Akiva Eldar writes.[1] Although other extremist parties that sat in the Knesset, like Rehavam Ze’evi’s Moledet, have in the past advocated a similarly fascist agenda, this is the first time in Israel’s history that any such party is embraced as part of the mainstream. “Lieberman’s acceptance into the heart of the consensus,” cautions Eldar, “is evidence [] of the moral degradation of Jewish Israeli society.”

A recent study of Israeli racism [2] confirms this “moral degradation.” More than two thirds of Israeli Jews stated they would not live in the same building with Palestinian citizens of Israel, while 63% agreed with the statement that “Arabs are a security and demographic threat to the state.” Forty percent believed “the state needs to support the emigration of Arab citizens.” This general shift of Israeli public opinion to extreme right positions well explains the remarkable rise of Lieberman.

But one does not have to be Lieberman to be a racist, as Ha’aretz writer Gideon Levy notes.[3] “The ‘peace’ proposed by Ehud Olmert is no less racist,” he argues, adding: “Lieberman wants to distance them from our borders, Olmert and his ilk want to distance them from our consciousness. Nobody is speaking about peace with them, nobody really wants it. Only one ambition unites everyone – to get rid of them, one way or another. Transfer or wall, ‘disengagement’ or ‘convergence’ – the point is that they should get out of our sight.”

Olmert’s Kadima party, whose 29 Knesset seats make it Israel’s principal party, was given a reasonably strong mandate by the Israeli electorate to “disengage” or “separate” from the Palestinians, both popular Israeli — and increasingly Western — euphemisms for separating Palestinians from their best lands and water resources, incarcerating the former in Bantustans not very different from South Africa’s, while maintaining Israeli control over the latter. Hailed in the leading Western newspapers as a force for peace, Kadima’s program not only categorically rejects the internationally sanctioned rights of Palestinian refugees but also calls for the permanent annexation of the largest Jewish colonies, all illegal according to international law, as well as the vast Jordan Valley portion of the West Bank. Such a plan, more or less endorsed by the Bush Administration, effectively blocks any realistic prospects for a “viable” Palestinian state — let alone a truly sovereign state within the 1967 borders, in accordance with UN resolutions. It is therefore a recipe for further conflict and bloodshed, not peace. Hardly a “center” party, by any fair standard.

The good news in this election, one may stubbornly argue, is that Labor, the stalwart crucible of the Israeli left, gained in this election, raising hope for a “center-left” coalition that seeks a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians. It is true that, unlike Likud, Labor has largely maintained its presence on the Israeli political map, but, in the 2003 elections, Labor and its ally, One Nation (led then by Amir Peretz, Labor’s current leader), won 22 seats. In the current elections, Labor went down to 19. Regardless, Labor’s platform is the true cause of concern, not its number of seats.

If there was serious doubt in the past about Labor’s left credentials, now one can say with certainty that the party has none. Its dovish reputation has never really been deserved. Labor Zionism is, after all, historically responsible more than any other force in Israel for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 and 1967; for the proliferation of illegal colonies in the occupied territory; for championing the racist discourse about the Palestinians constituting a “demographic threat;” and for devising military and political strategies — including the Wall — intended to make the lives of Palestinians under occupation so miserable as to consider leaving. Labor, historically “given to evasion and denial,” as Geoffrey Wheatcroft puts it [4], played the key role in Israel’s colonial project, while simultaneously projecting a false image of democracy and enlightenment to a misinformed and largely duped Western audience.

Under Peretz, a committed union leader and a Jew belonging to the down-trodden “Sephardic” (meaning Mizrahi/Arab) community, Labor has shifted to the left, argue Israel’s apologists, in an attempt to further polish their spin. Reality on the ground was, again, at odds with such a cunningly crafted image. As soon as he was elected Labor’s new chairman, Peretz, a self-declared “man of peace,” announced [5] that he favored a “united Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital and resolutely opposed permitting Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties in Israel, both positions in contravention of international law. Furthermore, his first innovative idea in the political arena must have extinguished any naively misplaced hope for progress towards a just peace under his leadership. The “Hong Kong paradigm,” the idea of “leasing” from the Palestinians for 99 years the land on which the largest Jewish colonies were established, was to become Peretz’ creative contribution to the search for peace. Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli writer and a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, shrewdly commented on this scheme saying [6]:

“It is impossible to give any more fitting expression to the colonialist nature of the annexation of parts of the West [Bank] than the example of the takeover by the British Empire [] of parts of the hapless Chinese Empire. Indeed, the inventors of the Hong Kong paradigm identified the similarity: robber capitalism that operates under the auspices of military power against an impotent rival, the bullying takeover of land and water resources while displacing the natives, and making huge profits while exploiting patriotic sentiments and nationalist urges.”

Settlers, the main would-be benefactors of Peretz’ initiative, were depicted in many misleading media stories as the biggest losers of this vote. Actually, they scored a most significant victory. Focusing their attention on the small, remote and extremely costly to defend settlements that Kadima and Labor were ready to give up, the media curiously ignored the fact that the leading “peace” parties in the current Knesset have accepted the bulk of the colonies — housing more than 80% of the settlers and controlling most of the illegally settled land in the OPT — as an inseparable part of Israel. The largest settlements, which are most detrimental to the pursuit of a just peace with the Palestinians, have been embraced by the emerging Israeli consensus, with US blessings and sheepish European acquiescence. Aside from a minority of settlers, expected to be evacuated by a Kadima-Labor government from the midst of densely-populated Palestinian areas in the OPT, the settlers’ decades-old agenda of “legitimizing” their colonization of the most fertile lands and the largest water aquifers of the West Bank — including East Jerusalem — by annexing those lands to Israel will be largely fulfilled. Besides, the direct representative of the settlers, the National Union – National Religious Party coalition, also won 9 seats, giving it some say in deciding the fate of even the smaller settlements.

Given the above, it is little wonder that Palestinians and discerning observers around the world were not fooled by the media spin about Israel’s elections bringing us any closer to peace based on the minimal requirements of justice. Perhaps no one sums up this election better than Gideon Levy, who writes [7]:

“Contrary to appearances, the elections this week are important, because they will expose the true face of Israeli society and its hidden ambitions. More than 100 elected candidates will be sent to the Knesset on the basis of one ticket – the racism ticket. [] An absolute majority of MKs in the next Knesset do not believe in peace, nor do they even want it – just like their voters – and worse than that, don’t regard Palestinians as equal human beings. Racism has never had so many open supporters.”

The Israeli majority has chosen apartheid. And since Western governments have welcomed the result as a breakthrough for peace, Israel’s Wall and colonies can only be expected to grow more aggressively under the pretence of “consolidation” and “separation,” condemning the entire region to endless bloody conflict. It is time for the international civil society to fulfill its moral obligation by opting for sanctions and boycotts — similar to those that brought down South Africa’s apartheid — for the sake of equality, justice, real peace and security for all. Nothing else has worked.

OMAR BARGHOUTI, independent political and cultural analyst who has published essays on the rise of empire, the Palestine question and art of the oppressed. He holds a Masters degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University, and is currently a doctoral student of philosophy (ethics) at Tel Aviv University. He contributed to the published book, The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid (Verso Books, 2001). He is an advocate of the secular, democratic state solution in historic Palestine. His article “9.11 Putting the Moment on Human Terms” was chosen among the “Best of 2002” by The Guardian. He can be reached at: jenna@palnet.com


[1] Akiva Eldar, Lieberman — nyet, nyet, nyet, Ha’aretz, Macrh 13, 2006.

[2] Eli Ashkenazi and Jack Khoury, Poll: 68% of Jews would refuse to live in same building as an Arab, Ha’aretz, March 22, 2006.

[3] Gideon Levy, One Racist Nation, Ha’aretz, March 26, 2006.

[4] Geoffrey Wheatcroft, After the rhapsody, the bitter legacy of Israel and the left, The Guardian, March 24, 2006.

[5] Mazal Mualem, Gideon Alon and Zvi Zrahiya, Labor Party votes to quit PM Sharon’s government, Ha’aretz, January 1, 2006.

[6] Meron Benvenisti, The Hong Kong Trick, Ha’aretz, January 1, 2006.

[7] Levy, op cit.