A post by guest author KatherineMW at Ordinary Times, written on the occasion of the controversial Israeli decision to expropriate land connecting the West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion to Jerusalem, explicitly as retaliation for the murder of Israeli teenagers, promises to tell us “What the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is Really About.” Yet we are not going to get at “What the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is Really About” if our explanation for it ignores or misstates the nature of that conflict.
While seeking to establish Israeli wrongs, especially this newest one, as both undeniable and egregious, the blogger makes an assertion that one might expect to be taken as irrefutable in liberal and left internationalist circles, at least the ones that have not lined up on Vladimir Putin’s side in recent months: “The acquisition of territory by force,” she writes, “is entirely against international law, and is one of the most serious and dangerous violations that exists – the same kind that Russia is currently trying to commit in Ukraine, and receiving far more attention for.” We can initially set aside the question of “attention,” I think: The Zionist-Arab conflict in roughly its current form has been receiving attention – some would say, I think wrongly, inordinate attention – for quite some time, and whether this specific incident, which is at this point more a plan than a reality, rises to the same level as, or even belongs in the same conversation with, Russian actions in the Ukraine is dubious. It is at least arguable that the Russians and Russian-backed separatists seem to have been the ones benefiting from global distraction, for instance during the recent Gaza war. In any event, how important such loss of focus on other people’s problems may be to anyone is impossible to measure objectively: The Russian imperial-revanchist context may lead us to ask how many battalions “attention” possesses.
The more serious problem is posed by the claim that the Israeli and Russian cases are of “the same kind.” Contrary to KatherineMW’s assertion, this latest Israeli encroachment on territory occupied or claimed by Palestinians is not the same kind of “serious and dangerous violation” as the Russian incursion in Ukraine in relation to the intended founding of a new state of “Novorossiya.” The Israeli plan or its implementation might constitute a serious violation, maybe a dangerous violation, or it may be neither serious nor dangerous, but, whatever else it might be, the expansion by Israel into West Bank land that is not the property of a recognized and established nation-state would not be the same as crossing a recognized national border between two nation-states and carving out a new territory. If not necessarily with more right, but with the same approximate intention, and with thusfar greater success, the Israelis have more in common with Ukrainian nationalists than with Russian expansionists and Russian-Ukrainian separatists at this time, while the Russian attempt to construct or consolidate a newly nationalized territory where one does not presently exist happens to have more in common conceptually with the Palestinian cause than with the Israeli one.
The last observation may seem trivially abstract, but the underlying question is also the whole underlying question, the real “what” that the Zionist-Arab conflict is “about.” Israel and its supporters at base do not and, arguably, cannot authentically support or recognize as valid a Palestinian state-national claim in the full sense, though in the West only those on the Israeli and American right are typically impolite or honest enough to say so. Hamas, old-line PLO, and fellow travelers also recognize what almost no one who opposes Israeli conduct from “the middle” wishes to confront: that a true, independent Palestinian nation-state is impossible and perhaps always was impossible without the elimination of the Zionist state, likely implying mass expulsion of Israeli or formerly Israeli Jews. Simply to presume that the pessimists on both supposed “extremes” must be wrong is to place oneself outside the conflict as it is actually being prosecuted, to have decided in favor of one faction without ever hearing the case, and at the same time to place oneself on what seems to be the or a losing side.
For this reason, though members of the international community, including so called “liberal Zionists,” sing the pleasing tunes, there has never been a true “2-state solution” on offer, but only an offer of at most of one state for the Israelis and something else for the Palestinian Arabs, as I have noted many times (most recently in “Israeli Realism” and “The 1.x-State Solution“). Even the most generous offers to the Palestinian Arabs, the ones the leadership is excoriated in the West for declining, were acknowledged by honest Israelis as unacceptable. No acceptable offer could be made because the only offer acceptable to an honest Palestinian nationalist leadership is one that eventually would precipitate the destruction of the Zionist project and substitution for it of an Arab or perhaps Arab-internationalist project, a post-Israeli state as little a real state for the Jews as the de-militarized remnants of Palestine would supply a satisfactory state for the Palestinians. The impetus toward a 1-state exclusionary solution is captured, like a candid snapshot, in the absurdity of the 1947 UN Partition Plan: the “two pseudo-state” solution in pure form, depicting two obviously non-viable and unstable products of diplomatic conception – misbegotten twins of a type that only an international bureaucrat, the kind of people who once upon a time created the East Prussian corridor, could love. The proposed map suggests a broken pinwheel ready to fly apart, not a coherent state or set of them. Yet even the superficially more rational and integral, ideally or ideally-liberally more just, bi-national state would be less than a nation-state for either people. In other words it would satisfy neither set of aspirations.
In sum, and given the practical mutual exclusivity of ethno-national claims, Zionist political, legal, military, and economic strategy from the beginnings up to this week’s headlines can be interpreted as, among other things, necessarily a more or less systematic if inconsistently enunciated effort to pre-empt a Palestinian national project, to make it not just improbable, but clearly impossible except on radically diminished terms. The Israeli perspective, and the underlying but typically unacknowledged implicit position even of the so-called moderate and liberal Zionists and their friends, does not accept that a Palestinian national project has been, is, or for the foreseeable future will be realizable except possibly as a stunted imitation, like a Bonsai reduction of a nation-state.
Israel can be expected to continue to insist on its prerogatives, including independence in resources, “security control,” and further incremental “natural” expansion and interconnection of already-consolidated holdings, that, with or without international backing or permission, it will tend to deny to whatever remnant of Palestine is set aside for the Palestinian Arabs. One may, of course, choose the other side, but the framing of the conflict as one between two states, rather than between an existent state and proponents of an at most virtual or aspirational state, is to focus on a problem that, by design, has not yet come into existence and may not do so for generations if ever.