[Prefatory Note: An earlier version of this post was published with the title, “The Palestinian Struggle for Self-Determination: A New Phase?” in Middle East Eye, June 26, 2016. This version stresses the misappropriation of anti-Semitism as a propaganda weapon to smear pro-Palestinian activists, especially those supportive of the BDS Campaign. It also clarifies the issues of representation by explaining the formal differences between the PLO and PA, which do not seem presently consequential in my understanding; I am indebted to Uri Davis for bringing the distinction to my attention although he may not agree with my way of handling it.]
End of the Road?
There are many reasons to consider the Palestinian struggle for self-determination a lost cause. Israel exerts unchallenged paramilitary control over the Palestinian people, a political reality accentuated periodically by brutal attacks on Gaza causing massive civilian casualties and societal dislocation. Organized Palestinian armed resistance has all but disappeared, limiting anti-Israeli violence to the desperation of individual Palestinians acting on their own and risking near certain death by striking spontaneously with primitive knives at Israelis encountered on the street, especially those thought to be settlers.
Furthermore, the current internal dialogue in Israel is disinclined to view ‘peace’ as either a goal or prospect. This dialogue is increasingly limited to whether it seems better for Israel at this time to proclaim a one-state solution that purports to put the conflict to an end or goes on living with the violent uncertainties of a status quo that hovers uncomfortably between the realities of ‘annexation’ and the challenges of ‘resistance.’ Choosing this latter course means hardening the apartheid features of the occupation regime established in 1967. It has long had the appearance of a quasi-permanent arrangement that is constantly being altered to accommodate further extensions of the de facto annexations taking place within the Palestinian territorial remnant that since the occupation commenced was never more than 22% of British administered Palestine. It is no secret that the unlawful Israeli settlement archipelago is constantly expanding and Jerusalem is becoming more Judaized to solidify on the ground Israel’s claim of undivided control over the entire city.
Israel feels decreasing pressure, really no pressure at all aside from the ticking bomb of demographics, to pretend in public that it is receptive to a negotiated peace that leads to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The regional turbulence in the Middle East is also helpful to Israel as it shifts global attention temporarily away from the Palestinian plight, giving attention instead to ISIS, Syria, and waves of immigrants threatening the cohesion of the European Union and the centrist politics of its members. This gives Israel almost a free pass and Palestinian grievances have become for now a barely visible blip on the radar screens of public opinion.
Recent regional diplomacy strengthens Israeli security. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey seek normalized relationships with Israel, Egypt is again supportive of Israeli interests, and the rest of the region is preoccupied with internal strife and sectarian struggles. Even without the United States standing in the background giving unconditional security guarantees, ever larger aid packages, and serving as dutiful sentry in international institutions to block censure moves, Israel has never seemed as secure as it is now. The underlying question that will be answered in years to come is whether this impression of security is appearance or reality.
Yet even such a reassuring picture from Israel’s perspective, while accurate as far as it goes, creates misimpressions unless we consider some further elements. There exist a series of reasons for the Palestinians to believe that their struggle, however difficult, is not in vain. Although the French initiative to revive bilateral negotiations is unlikely to challenge effectively Israel’s unilateralism, it does suggest a possibly emerging European willingness to raise awkward questions about the continued viability of the United States claim to be exclusively entitled to act as the international intermediary of the conflict. The Oslo framework that has dominated international diplomacy since 1993 was fatally flawed from its inception by allowing the United States to play this brokering role despite its undisguised partisanship. How could the Palestinians ever be expected to entrust their future to such a skewed ‘peace process’ unless compelled to do so as a result of their weakness? And from such weakness and skewed diplomacy only fools and knaves would expect a sustainable peace based on the equality of the two peoples to follow.
This diplomacy was exposed for the charade it was, especially by the subversive impact of continuous Israeli unlawful settlement expansion that was dealt with by Washington with diminishing expressions of disapproval. And yet this diplomatic charade was allowed to go on because it seemed ‘the only game in town’ and it had the secondary political advantage of facilitating without endorsing Israel’s ambitions with respect to land-grabbing.
A question for the future is whether the French, or the Europeans, can at some point create a more balanced alternative diplomacy that serves both parties equally and conditions diplomatic engagement upon compliance with international law. Such a possibility seems at last to being tested, however tentatively and timidly, and even this modest challenge seems to be worrying Tel Aviv. The Netanyahu leadership is suddenly once more proposing yet another round of futile Oslo negotiations with the apparent sole purpose of undermining this French innovative gesture in case it unexpectedly gains political traction.
Realistically viewed, there is no present prospect of a political compromise achieving a sustainable peace. There needs first to be a change of leadership and political climate in Israel coupled with a more overall balance of international forces than has existed in the past. It is here we witness the beginnings of a new phase in the national struggle that the Palestinians have waged ever since the nakba occurred in 1948. Gone are the hopes of Palestinian rescue by the liberating armies of Arab neighbors or later, through organized Palestinian armed resistance. Gone also is the vain hope of a negotiated peace that delivers on the vain promise of an end to Israeli occupation and the birth of a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state within 1967 borders.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)/Palestinian Authority (PA) [PLO represents the entirety of the Palestinian people whereas the PA technically represents only those Palestinians living under occupation; as a practical matter the two entities overlap, even merge, as Mahmoud Abbas is both Chair of the PLO and President of the PA; it is possible that as some point these two Palestinian organizations will act and operate separately and even at odds with one another] continue to represent the Palestinian people in global settings, including at the UN. Many Palestinians who are living under occupation and in exile consider the PA/PLO to be both ineffectual and compromised by corruption and quasi-collaboration with the occupiers. The PA/PLO on its side, after going sheepishly along with the Oslo process for more than twenty years, has begun finally to express its disillusionment by pursuing a more independent path to reach its goals. Instead of seeking Israel’s agreement to a Palestinian state accompanied by the withdrawal of its military and police forces, the PA/PLO is relying on its own version of diplomatic unilateralism to establish Palestinian statehood as well as trying to initiate judicial action to have Israeli policies and practices declared unlawful, even criminal.
In this regard, after being blocked by the United States in the Security Council, the PLO/PA obtained a favorable vote in the General Assembly according it in 2012 the status of ‘non-member statehood.’ The PA used this upgrading to adhere as a party to some widely ratified international treaties, to gain membership in UNESCO, and even to join the International Criminal Court. A year ago the PLO/PA also gained the right to fly the Palestinian flag alongside the flags of UN members at its New York headquarters.
On one level such steps seem a bridge to nowhere as the daily rigors of the occupation have intensified, and this form of ‘statehood’ has brought the Palestinian people no behavioral relief. The PLO/PA has established ‘a ghost state’ with some of the formal trappings of international statehood, but none of the accompanying governance structures and expectations associated with genuine forms of national sovereignty. And yet, Israel backed by the United States, objects strenuously at every step taken along this path of virtuality, and is obviously infuriated, if not somewhat threatened, by PLO/PA initiatives based on international law. Israel’s concern is understandable as this PLO/PA approach amounts to a renunciation of ‘the Washington only’ door to a diplomatic solution, and formally puts Israel in the legally and morally awkward position of occupying indefinitely a state recognized by both the UN and some 130 governments around the world. In other words, as we are learning in the digital age, what is virtual can also become real.
Recourse to BDS
There are other potentially transformative developments complicating an overall assessment. Partially superseding earlier phases of the Palestinian struggle is a growing reliance on global civil society as the decisive site of engagement, and a complement to various ongoing forms of non-cooperation, defiance, and resistance on the ground. The policy focus of the global solidarity movement is upon various facets of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign (or simply BDS) that is gaining momentum around the world, and especially in the West, including on American university campuses and among mainstream churches. This recourse to militant nonviolent tactics has symbolic and substantive potential if the movement grows to alter public opinion throughout the world, including in Israel and the United States. In the end, as happened in South Africa, the Israel public and leadership just might be induced to recalculate their interests sufficiently to become open to a genuine political compromise that finally and equally safeguarded the security and rights of both peoples.
At this time, Israel is responding aggressively in a variety of rather high profile ways. Its official line is to say that its continued healthy rate of economic growth shows that BDS is having a negligible economic impact. Its governmental behavior suggests otherwise. Israeli think tanks and government officials now no longer hide their worries that BDS poses the greatest threat to Israel’s preferred future, including increasing isolation and perceptions of illegitimacy. As one sign of the priority accorded this struggle against BDS, the Israeli lobby in the United States has enlisted the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate has signed up to bea militant anti-BDS activist. At the heart of this anti-BDS campaign is what is being increasingly identified as ‘a new McCarthyism,’ the insidious effort to attach punitive consequences for those who are overtly pro-BDS.
In this vein, Israel has launched its own campaign to punish and intimidate those who support BDS, and even to criminalize advocacy. The Israeli lobby has been mobilized around this anti-BDS agenda in the United States, pushing state legislatures to pass laws that punish corporations that boycott Israel by denying them access to the domestic market or declare that BDS activism is a form of hate speech that qualifies as virulent anti-Semitism. Israel is even seeking common cause with liberal Zionist J Street in the US to work together against BDS, an NGO that it had previously derisively dismissed. Support for Israel from the Clinton presidential campaign includes two disgraceful features: an explicit commitment to do what it can to destroy BDS and a promise to upgrade the special relationship still further, openly overcoming the friction that was present during Obama presidency.
It is not new, of course, to brand critics of Israel as anti-Semites. Those of us who have tried to bear witness to Israeli wrongdoing and promote a just outcome have been attacked with increasing venom over the course of the last decade or so. The attack on pro-Palestinian members of the British Labour Party as anti-Semites is part of this Zionist pushback. What is particularly disturbing is that many Western political leaders echo these defamatory and inflammatory sentiments, including even the current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who seems to be making some feeble amends as his term nears its end. Israel has no compunctions about attacking the UN as hostile and biased, while when convenient invoking its authority to discredit critics.
This inflation of the idea of anti-Semitism to cover activities protected by free speech and in the realm of responsible debate and citizen activism is on its own a regressive maneuver that deflects attention from the virulent history and outlook of those who hate Jews as individuals and support their persecution as a people. To attenuate the meaning of anti-Semitism in this way is to make the label much less ethically clear as it is improperly used to denigrate what should be permissible and even favored as well as what is properly condemned and socially rejected. To blur this boundary is to weaken the consensus on anti-Semitism that formed throughout the world after the Holacaust.
It is notable that this latest phase of Palestinian national struggle is mainly being waged nonviolently, and in a manner that accords with the best traditions of constitutional democracy. That Israel and Zionist hardliners should be opposing BDS by an ugly smear campaign exposes Israel’s vulnerability when it comes to the legitimacy of its policies and practices, and should give the Palestinians hope that their cause is far from lost.