Israel-Palestine: Is a reasonable debate possible?

The question in the title is to be taken very seriously and not just as a prelude to a comforting ‘of course there is’ answer and a few helpful hints to how to engage in respectful debate. This is a debate which stretches at the  limits of debate, at all attempts at civility and respect for other points of view in debate. I am trying to find a way to discuss the issues in a way that is equally considerate of the rights and interests of all parties to the debate, while also finding that debates about Arab Palestinian and Jewish Israeli positions may at some point just not be open to rational debate, and can only be settled by pragmatic compromise at best, and violent imposition  in the less happy scenarios.

This started with a social media post on my part condemning George Galloway, a very left-socialist British politician for making remarks in response to Israeli Defence Force operations in Gaza that to my mind cross a line between criticism of the government of Israel or acts of the Israeli state into anti-Semitism, in demanding that Israeli tourists be excluded from the English city, Bradford, he represents in Parliament. I paired it with a social media message condemning the University of Illinois for withdrawing a tenure track job offer to Steven Salaita (just before the start of semester and after he had resigned from another job), evidently as a result of social media messages criticising Israel and Jewish settlers in land outside Israel’s 1967 boundaries in a quite extreme way. Both Salaita and Galloway have the right of free speech, as recognised in the United States in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. Less protection exists for free speech in the UK, I am sorry to say, if the speech is deemed racist or to be ‘hate speech’, and I have to say I am very unhappy that the police in Britain are investigating Galloway’s comments, and I will certainly condemn any attempt to prosecute him. Unfortunately if a public university in the US withdraws a job offer over a free speech issue, then the situation there is also open to improvement. I am against Salaita’s speech in the same way as I am against what Galloway said, both stepped over a line.

I won’t dwell any further on Galloway and Salaita, but will now move into some discussion of what distinguishes criticism of Israel as a state from anti-Semitism, posing as just standing up for Palestinians suffering from the actions of Israel’s armed forces, and will then move onto more general comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

First of all though I accept that not not all those who define themselves as anti-Zionist are anti-Semites, condemning all Zionism is anti-Semitic. Yes there are Jews who are proud of their identity who define themselves as anti-Zionists, but they are complicit with views discriminatory against Jews if they condemn all Zionism.

There is a stream of bi-national Zionism, that is a state shared between Jews and Arabs, which has always had some appeal to liberal and left leaning Jewish intellectuals, and which was certainly prominent amongst some of the early European migrants to Ottoman and then British Palestine, before the state of Israel was established. They were arguing for non-discrimination against the Arab population and peaceful forms of settlement. Dismissing this as just an expression of the European colonialism and racism of the time is completely wrong. The wish to create peacefully a national homeland without discrimination against the existing Arab population and to create a state for both peoples cannot reasonably be defined in this way, and the more aggressive forms of Zionism should not lead anyone to deny the existence of a form of Zionism that was not based on aggressive nationalism.

Even before the Zionist movement got going in the late nineteenth century, there was a Jewish population in Ottoman Palestine that could trace its history back to ancient Biblical times. Inevitably estimates of what per cent age of the population was Jewish before the modern Zionist movement are contentious, but I have not seen any figure less than 5 per cent. Was it inherently racist and aggressive for those people to have some corner of Palestine for a Jewish state? That is war implied in saying that all Zionism is to be condemned and adopting an anti-Zionist political posture. Was it inherently racist and aggressive to hope that Jews persecuted in Europe and elsewhere might seek a homeland with that historic population in some part of Ottoman Palestine, presuming there was no intention of pressure on the Arab population to give up land or deprive that population of full rights?

I will return to the historical issues soon and what I say will not all lean towards the Israeli side at all. Picking up on current ways of discussing Israel and Palestine, all attempts to burden all Jews everywhere with some responsibility for the most unpleasant acts of the Israeli state, and target them with demands for condemnation, or worse, are anti-Semitic. Moving to a more contentious discussion, while I accept that many who target Israeli citizens or non-state institutions for sanctions are not deliberately anti-Semitic and may again be Jews who are proud of their identity, that is a discourse which is at the very least unintentionally complicit with anti-Semitism.

Demands for boycotts of Israeli universities, unless they condemn the actions of the government are highly discriminatory unless part of a more general and global scheme for boycotts of academic institutions in countries where the government is doing very bad things. I would not welcome such a global scheme, which is applied strictly and consistently could have disastrous affects on international academic life, for no proven benefit, but it would have the merit of consistency. Demands to boycott Israeli universities are not part of such a plan. Since they are linked to demands for academics and university boards to take positions contrary to Israeli government polices, they look very much like attempts to control to speech of Israeli academics and tell them what opinions they are allowed to have. While public universities are by definition supported by the state, they should be treated as educational institutions not arms of state propaganda, or as on a level with armed parts of the state inflicting violence on civilians, and indeed Israeli universities are quite successful in promoting free thinking education, which it should not be forgotten benefits Israeli Arabs as well as Jews.

Demands to restrict, or end, contacts with the Israeli government or military are a different matter, but punishing the educational sector or indeed discriminating against ordinary Israeli Jews travelling outside Israel is not something to be welcomed by advocates of liberty, or by anyone concerned with equal rights for everyone. Where is the evidence that boycotts will bring any benefit to Palestinian Arabs?

The short term material effects of reducing Israeli economic activity and employment opportunities would be very negative for Palestinian Arabs, and the long term political return no more than speculative. Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are presumably going to respond that their movement is popular with Palestinians suffering from Israeli military, administrative, and economic pressure, but it is a movement committed to ‘return of refugees’, which for reasons I explain below is simply not going to happen except at some very small level in a period of much happier relations than exist now between Israelis and Palestinians. A movement committed to full return, even if it does include some Jewish supporter, is committed to unrealistic maximalism. Since it exists, I can only hope it has some effect in moderating the actions of Israeli governments, but I fear it is more likely to foster polarised reactions and with no real change to the benefit of Palestinians. Israel looks more not less nationalistic at a time when its international reputation has declined, and moments like BDS have grown. The sort of economic pressure from the major western economies, particularly America that could force change is not on offer now, or in any foreseeable future. The biggest impact would come from Israel’s neighbours becoming economically dynamic democracies with much improved individual right, eager to trade with Israel and benefit from its technological achievements. The activism of a far left minority in the west, supporting some of the most implausible and damaging maximalist Palestinian demands has rather less potential to influence Israel in the right way.  A campaign that condemned the anti-Semitism and terrorism of Hamas, as well as the not entirely pure record of Fatah on these issues, as much as the brutality of the Israeli state, might just have more influence on Israel than BDS in its present form.

Getting onto the broader issues, I have to say that whatever impression the above gives, I do not find that there was any strong original justification for an Israeli state dominating all of, or most of, the land between the eastern Mediterranean and the Jordan River. However, it is also the case that I do not find there was any strong original justification for a Palestinian state dominating the same land area.

The problem with the Zionist claims, leaving aside bi-national Zionism or a Zionist project in one corner of what was Ottoman Palestine, and concentrating on what Zionism has largely been in practice, is that the Jewish population of Ottoman Palestine, was a small per cent age of the population. The historical and religious affinities of Jews elsewhere to the land of the Biblical Jews, and the persecution they endured, might justify some concessions of land to create a state in what was Ottoman Palestine beyond the population per cent age of the time, but some large part of the Zionist movement (roughly speaking Revisionist or right-wing Zionism) was always ready to take all of Ottoman Palestine regardless of the wishes and rights of the Arab population, and some other large part (roughly speaking Theodor Herzl Zionism, which defined the mainstream of the original large scale Zionist movement) simply evaded the issue of how the majority of Ottoman Palestine could be settled without conflict emerging between Jews and Arabs, and without violating any hopes Arabs in the area might have or, might come to develop, for sovereign national existence. Given that Zionism emerged as an imitation of 19th century European nationalist movements, and the growing tendency of European peoples with some kind of collective historic identity to express that identity in state sovereignty, it is not too much to ask that the original Zionists should have been aware of the likely development of Arab nationalism, on a general scale, and in distinct pre-national parts of the Arab world (i.e. nearly all of it) under Ottoman or European colonial control.

Arab nationalism grew rather later than Zionism, and the Palestinian aspect of it was definitely later. If there had been no Zionist movement, it seems likely that Palestine would have been part of a post-Ottoman Syrian or possibly Jordanian state, with no more than regional consciousness within than entity. Can we justify the emergence of an Israeli state of its current extent on the grounds that European Jews develop a Zionist movement more speedily than Arab national and in independence movements developed? That is not just a question inviting the reply ‘no’ though it might appear so. The reality is that throughout history states emerged where one people was more strongly organised than another and could imposed its will on another people, or at least a state elite could impose a statehood more suited to one group than others. The same applies to modern nationalist movements which drew on various democratic, republican, and populist ideas of self-government, or at least monarchy with popular legitimacy, for self-contained peoples, with anything that contaminated a pure self-contained identity pushed out of public recognition (or violently eliminated). If Israel’s existence in its current form in its current borders is simply based on winning out in struggles about who get to define the people who ‘own’ that land, then it is not obviously weaker in its foundations than many other states. Enthusiasts for the Israeli state often like to find some justification of pure right in the Balfour Declaration, that is the letter Arthur Balfour, British Foreign Secretary directed at the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, via Lord Rothschild:

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of the object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious’ rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

The declaration was written into the League of Nations Mandate that legitimated British occupation and administration on Palestine until 1948. However, the same people eager to take the letter and the League of Nations recognition of it, as the basis for Israel’s domination of most of what was British Palestine (and the more radical kind of Zionist thinks that what is now Jordan was promised to them, because it was included within the first borders of mandate Palestine, before a division was effected) are not so eager to mention United Nations resolutions after the 1947 resolution that envisaged an Israel state. What was envisaged, in any case, was a partition of almost 50-50 proportions between an Israeli state and a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as a bi-national enclave under UN administration, so well short of the boundaries Israel established. Of course the selective approach to League of Nations or United Nations resolutions is also practised on the Arab side. In any case, the Balfour Declaration was not the result of consultation with the Arab population of Palestine, who were placed under British administration with no regard for their opinion in the matter, and seems a poor example of a purely just foundation for a state

Of course if Israel’s existence is justified by struggle rather than pure right, then Palestinian domination would be no more or no less just if the Palestinian people had been better organised or just more lucky early on in the Zionist movement, or even before the Zionist movement. However, there was no Palestinian national movement before the Zionist movement, it was a reaction against that movement. The word Palestine was used, sometimes, during Ottoman times to refer to the parts of what was then the Province of Syria round Jerusalem, Haifa and so on, with no idea of a separate identity or people there. There was no idea of a Palestinian people until the British Mandate, which inadvertently became the hot house for two mutually hostile national movements.

The 1948 attack of several Arab states on Israel, as it existed within the boundaries defined by the 1947 UN Resolution, was not an attempt to institute a Palestinian state. The Arab Legion (that army of the Jordanian monarchy) grabbed the West Bank and the East Jerusalem, and Egypt seized Gaza. Syria certainly hoped to turn Palestine into a southern part of its own territory. Palestinians fled their homes in all Israeli controlled territory, because of a mixture of Zionist violence and incitement by Arab states who promised to arrange a rapid return. The balance between these two causes is of course hopelessly contentious, but I will at least say that no one who denies that both were a reality is engaged in reasonable discussion. The emergent Israeli army succeeded in establishing the 1967 boundaries, which are still the recognised boundaries of Israel, though in practice Israel now exists as the completely sovereign power in East Jerusalem  and a number of settlements in the West Bank.

The 1947 UN Resolution was preceded by a British plan to award 17% of Mandate Palestine to a Jewish state. Palestinian nationalists succeeded in negotiating quasi-statehood in Gaza and some parts of the West Bank in the 1990s, but the idea of a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank as well as Gaza is now essentially dead, though various people find it necessary to claim in public that a two state solution on that basis is coming. One obvious point here is that if the Palestinians had negotiated pragmatically on the basis of existing realities instead of trying to go back to some earlier situation, at various times, they would have much  more territory in a viable state. Maybe 83% per cent of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. Of course it is also the case that many Zionists would not have settled happily for 17% during the Mandate or even 50% in 1948, except as a short term expedient before establishing a state in all of, or at least the great majority of, Mandate Palestine, but at least the Palestinians would have gained some credit with the international community, and how would they now be worse off, it they had accepted those deals and tried to make them work?

The Arab states did not bring the Palestinian refugees of 1948 back to their homes and did not give them equal citizenship in the independent Arab nations either. Leaving them as symbols of Arab unity in refugee camps was a ‘solution’ which simply adds to the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most people in refugee camps were born after 1948 and increasingly so. Their numbers have grown and cannot be absorbed into their ‘home’ towns or villages, without a complete transformation of Israel’s demography. This is simply not going to happen, except though a massive military defeat of Israel, which is most unlikely anyway because Israel would use its nuclear arsenal in such a situation, and the US would probably intervene massively before that point. It is not a reasonable demand for anyone who genuinely wants a settlement. Arab states should integrate refugees and their decedents with full citizenship rights in the places where they have been based for decades. In such circumstances, some very limited ‘return’ of refugees and descendants might be negotiated, though by that time whenever it might be, I doubt any original refugees will still be alive.

The current situation is that the Palestinians have not succeeded in creating well functioning institutions in the West Bank or Gaza. No doubt some blame belongs to Israel. If any Israeli government ever genuinely hoped for a viable Palestinian state as a neighbour, the idea is certainly dead now. Palestine for the foreseeable future will only exist as a fragmented entity, increasingly hemmed in by West bank settlements and security measures, which are turning that area into an aggregate of not very well connected Palestinian zones side by side with element of Israeli sovereignty. This is not a viable long term basis for peace and stability.

The only long term solutions now are: the forcible expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza, which is not likely, but might just happen if war breaks out between Israel and neighbouring Arab states; the removal of West Bank settlements, because Israel decides that full Palestinian sovereignty is a welcome prospect, but I presume there are too many settlements too deeply embedded for that to happen now; a complete defeat of Israel by a military alliance of Arab states, but that would lead to the use of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, if not massive US intervention before that stage; gradual movement towards a binational state of Israel-Palestine. I believe that last option is the most likely long term result, but I mean long term, and I expect much polarisation, violence and suffering in the meantime. Gradual pragmatic adjustment will I believe lead both sides to see that total victory or total separation between two national entities is just not viable.

Personally I’m deeply disturbed by the Israeli treatment of Palestinian civilians now and in the past. However, dramatic gestures, boycott calls, and anti-Zionist discourse will not resolve the issue. Realistically errors and crimes on the Arab side have brought us here as much as the bad things done by Zionists, and the Zionist movement did not destroy an existing national entity. The early pacific binational Zionists were often in practice irrelevant and naive, as well as paternalistic and patronising towards Arabs, but their ideas are the only basis now for an enduring settlement. That will require some Arab equivalent, some new ways of thinking about Palestinian nationality and sovereignty, which can find precedents such as the sympathy of the Saudi monarchy at the end of World War One, for a Jewish presence in Palestine (not that the House of Saud is without great faults). Such a movement will progress at a micro-level only for decades and maybe generations, involving Israeli Arabs as well as Israeli Jews and the Palestinian of the West Bank and Gaza. At some point a critical mass on both sides will realise that exclusivist nationalism cannot win a complete victory, certainly not if the wish is to live in a democracy with individual rights and flourishing civil society.

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4 thoughts on “Israel-Palestine: Is a reasonable debate possible?

  1. I’m indifferent towards the broader BDS movement. However, as an academic, I think boycotting academic institutions in Israel is a really bad idea. I certainly won’t take part in any such idiocy.

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