Is it time to question Israel’s right to existence?

15 Jul

This is not some sort of Ahmadinejad-style rant. This blog is not going to advocate driving anyone into the sea. It is hugely aware of the sensitivity and symbolism associated with the Jewish peoples having a ‘homeland’ – especially after the history of persecution they have experienced. It is also aware that recognition of Israel has long been a totemic precondition for Israeli participation in negotiations with its enemies.

At the same time though, it is impossible not to be aware that the existence of Israel – as currently constituted – means misery, death, humiliation, and poverty for many others. As discussed in a previous blogpost, Israel is structurally given to conflict. The veneration of militarism in its political culture, a rising right-wing, a cowed peace movement, a massive military subvention from the US and a political economy of conflict all mean that Israel finds it much easier to maintain its ‘war’ with Palestinians than to investigate serious and meaningful peace.

Just by existing, Israel costs lives

This leads to the arresting question that serves as the title of this blog piece: Is it time to ask about Israel’s right to exist? The question is posed on the assumption that just by ticking over, just by existing, Israel depends on the misery and death of others. It sees its security in existential, zero-sum terms. As a result, it imprisons thousands of Palestinians, and subjects the Palestinian population to systematised degradations worthy of any apartheid system. Every few years it bashes Gaza. Every few years it invades Lebanon. Every few months it annexes more Palestinian territory. It is a system predicated on an exclusive binary worldview in which one group of people are privileged over others purely on the basis of their perceived ethnic origin. It is able to act as the regional bully because of the diplomatic, economic and protection given to it by other states.

The simple equation is that the existence of Israel costs many lives, and spells misery for many more. Is there another way?

Israel, like other states, has a right to exist. But it is worth asking if it has a right to exist in its current formulation? The current formulation is deeply dysfunctional – not only for the obvious victims of Israeli state violence, but also for many Israelis too, and for the wider world. The right to statehood should not be a carte blanche for the unfettered use of power politics. It should come with (and often does in the letter of the law) responsibilities to those within its territories, and those in the neighbourhood too. Israel has very clearly failed, and is systemically programmed to fail, this responsibility test. In its current formulation it cannot be a good neighbour. And it is not going to change any time soon meaning that we will see other upsurges in conflict in coming years, along with the permanent grinding down of Palestinians.

A rough neighbourhood

Of course, we cannot see Israel in isolation of its neighbours, and the wider international system that underpins Israel’s war system. Israel exists in a rough neighbourhood. Egypt is a military dictatorship (something that suits Israel). Lebanon is a sectarian tinderbox. Jordan’s squalid monarchy cares for little other than its own survival. Syria’s continued civil war defies description. And that is only Israel’s near neighbours. The wider region is full of regimes that are strangers to human rights, democracy and tolerance. So any response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must also address the region. Large-scale map-redrawing exercises have a poor history; indeed much of the current configuration and woes of the Middle East stem from just such an exercise. And map-redrawing begs all sorts of questions: By whom? On what basis? Is it permanent? What if demographics change?

Any response to the Israeli war system must realise that this is a deeply dysfunctional region with vested interests in Tel Aviv, Cairo, Damascus and Amman supportive of more of the same. Meaningful change would mean big losers among the kleptocrats, clientelists and militarists in these capitals. But given that none of them are interested in democracy, emancipation and listening to people then they should not be taken seriously. Their legitimacy comes from might.

What can be done?

If the existence of Israel in its current formulation is the problem, what can be done about it? An initial answer is to say ‘Very little’. Israel holds all the cards. The costs of standing up against Israel are high, especially as it plays the ‘anti-Semitism’ card as a default, and uses violence first and doesn’t bother to ask questions later. But sometimes the activities of people, institutions and states are unacceptable. Israel’s behaviour has been, and is, unacceptable. There is a substantial transnational, and growing, civil society campaign against Israel’s bullying behaviour towards Palestinians and its neighbours. The failure of this movement, however, has been to convince those states that constitute ‘the international community’ to overcome their support for Israel. If ‘the international community’ (a self-appointed group of western states and the international organisations they dominate) identifies Israel as part of the problem then something will be done about it. As a result, it seems that the BDS and other anti-Israeli apartheid protest movements need to refocus their efforts not on Israel but on their own governments. Israel is largely immune from what it likes to dismiss as ‘the haters’. Israel’s unpunished 2010 murder of peace activists sailing towards Gaza tells us all we need to know about its attitude towards civil society. But western governments are not quite as immune, especially European governments. By attempting to mainstream the Israeli-Palestinian issue in European national politics, governments and the EU would be forced to take the issue seriously. An upsurge in interest every few years when there is yet another crisis is not enough. The problem is structural and requires a long-term, permanent response. Otherwise it will just repeat itself every few years.

The movement against South Africa’s apartheid did, eventually, gain popularity and took root in almost every aspect of life in the UK, Ireland and other European countries. Banking, shopping, holiday destinations, popular music and sport all became embroiled in the apartheid controversy. People talked about apartheid in streets, workplaces and students’ unions. The anti-apartheid movement was peaceful and legitimate. It is worth repeating that: peaceful and legitimate. So many foreign policy responses reinforce Israel’s war system and derive their legitimacy from an inter-state stitch-up rather than popular endorsement.

A reinvigorated Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions strategy and a host of other peaceful acts can have an effect on western governments’ support for Israel. In an age of social media and fast paced consumer and market intelligence, the economic effects of boycotts will probably be reasonably minimal. The bigger effect would be in preventive action by companies as they react swiftly to protect their market share. And as we know western governments and political parties listen to the corporate world. For real change to happen in the relationship between Israel and Palestine, action has to occur in towns and cities across Europe. It has to be reflected in how we shop, consume, save, invest and interact with our politicians and institutions. Governments under sustained public pressure do act (sometimes).

Otherwise, we are condemned to see Israel bash Gaza in 2016, 2019, 2021, 2024 …..


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