Upon returning from her visit to the West Bank last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked, ““For Israel to get the kind of strong support it is looking for vis-à-vis Iran, it can’t stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts. They go hand in hand.”
Clinton’s visit to the West Bank may have helped shape this statement, and may help shape the policy of the United States toward Israel and Palestine under the Obama administration. Is this in fact a sign that the US will once again take a balanced role in peace negotiations? After eight years of unilateral support for Israel, it is time to reevaluate whether that support is actually doing more harm than good. With a possible Iranian conflict looming on the horizon, important steps toward diplomatic resolutions need to be taken.
There are many good reasons to support Israel, of course, and given our current national interest in the Middle East, support for Israel certainly makes sense. It is a democracy in a sea of totalitarianism; a generally secular nation hedged in by theocracies. In its short time as a modern state, the Israelis have proven time and time again that they are a country of innovators. They have breathed life into the desert by developing remarkable irrigation technologies, and have built up an impressive tech industry. Of course, their basic right to exist stems from none of these things. Whatever one’s feelings regarding the division of the British Mandate, Israel is now an autonomous state and has a right to its security and continued existence.
Colonialism shaped Israel and it shapes the conflict today. The divvying up of the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire gave rise to nationalist and religious extremism and to modern terror. Jihad, in its current iteration, is little more than post-colonial backlash made radioactive by the more virulent strains of Islam. Similarly, false borders penciled in across Africa have led time and again to civil war, racial and tribal conflicts, and genocide. Years of South African apartheid have left deep racial scars in that nation’s cultural framework. Millions of dead, and decades of near-perpetual war mark the partition of India and Pakistan. Above it all looms the specter of nuclear terror. This is the enduring legacy of the West’s colonial heritage: a widespread loss of self-determination across the the third world. Israel sits at the nexus of this post-colonial, postmodern conflict.
The irony of the modernized, prosperous state of Israel is its extension of colonialism to present day Palestine. Hilltop settlements, Jewish-only roads – these are not the symbols of a free and open society, but of a colonial power. While Hamas denies as a matter of principle the Jewish state’s right to exist, Israel maintains a much less vocal, yet much more tangible denial of Palestinian rights. The Hamas charter is widely and rightly criticized for its inclusion of a “destruction of Israel” clause, a policy which makes it excessively difficult for Western governments to negotiate with the militant organization, or to trust that any negotiations will bear any lasting fruit. Israel, on the other hand, practices what Hamas only preaches. By expanding settlements in the West Bank, and effectively implementing a West Bank apartheid system, Israel is actively denying Palestine its right to exist.
The current state of affairs has become untenable, as have all colonial projects in the past. Either a separate Palestinian state must be recognized or Israel will be forced to embrace full-fledged apartheid, leading either to the eventual overthrow of Jewish rule by an increasing, and increasingly hostile, Arab population, or to the systematic reduction of the Arab population by the Israelis. Neither of these situations, of course, would be acceptable to the Israeli people. Utopian notions of a sort of Israeli federalism are just that – Utopian and impractical.
At a ceremony for fallen Israeli soldiers on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “Our existence as a nation and country depends on our unity.” Netanyahu and his Likud party, however, remain ambivalent to a two-state solution. Like the Hamas charter or the vitriolic blustering of the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this is ultimately counterproductive and self defeating. It can lead only to an escalation in the militarization of Israel and the continued impoverishment – both economical and psychological – of the Palestinians. Peace through unity can only be achieved if that unity extends to both sides of the barrier. Since Hamas is unlikely to take that step, it may be that in the end, Israel must continue toward peace unilaterally.
Denying a people their right to self-determination is the same as denying their right to exist. If we are to condemn Hamas for it – and we should – then we must also condemn Israel. This does not mean that we should withdraw our support of Israel, or that Israel must give up its very valid and necessary security measures. The continued expansion of settlements should be viewed instead as a direct security threat to Israel proper. A critique of the settlements should not be confused with a critique of the nation itself, nor should a critique of Israeli policy be conflated with condemnation of the Israeli people.
After 61 years of conflict, both the Israelis and the Palestinians have a right to security and self-determination. “The Obama administration will be vigorously engaged in efforts to forge a lasting peace between Israel, Palestinians and all of the Arab neighbors,” Secratary Clinton said in a statement to the press. The role of America should not be the unequivocal support of either party, but rather as the broker of some practical, sustainable peace. Whether the Obama administration is up to the task will be seen in the coming months, but the track record of the president’s predecessors suggests that cynicism might be the order of the day.