Israeli liberals III: Supporters of the occupation

Friday, March 18 2011|Roi Maor | +972 Magazine

Israeli liberals benefit from the occupation. Their support for withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories is a mirage

In my previous posts, I argued that Israeli liberals are perceived by many commentators, of diverse viewpoints, as the most important target audience for those who wish to end the occupation. Then, by outlining my view of Israeli liberals and their place in society and politics, I tried to explain why I think that they are unlikely to be opponents of the occupation. In this post, I will try to reconcile the seeming paradox between this assessment and the overwhelming liberal support for the Israeli peace camp.

The Israeli peace camp can be defined, albeit simplistically, as those who support Israel’s withdrawal from extensive swathes of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Some have come to this position by seeking justice for Palestinians. However, the dominant elements of the peace camp have presented a different argument in support of their proposals.

According to them, continued control of the Palestinians will make Israel a pariah state, along the lines of apartheid South Africa, unless it grants all Palestinians citizenship, thereby making it a bi-national or even Palestinian state. This argument plays strongly on the liberals’ values and concerns: both their desire to be accepted by the West, and their wish to avoid assimilation in the Orient.

What analysts have often missed is that this entire argument refers to International perceptions of the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, rather than the realities of the situation itself. In other words, the priority for Israel’s peace camp and liberals has always been to be perceived as lacking control of the Palestinians, and not to end that control itself. As long as appearances are maintained, the occupation is not only benign for Jewish Israeli liberals – it is actually beneficial for their goals.

First, the conflict with the Palestinians serves as distraction and a pressure valve for injustices in Israeli society. Liberals are generally more affluent than most Israelis, and as I mentioned in the previous post, wield power through non-electoral means. These privileges are shielded by a public debate which is completely obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab conflict, leaving no room for discussion of the many disparities in Israel’s society. The massive robbery of West Bank lands and resources (as well as Palestinian property inside the Green Line) has allowed elites to answer some of the Jewish underclass’ most urgent needs, without engaging in any redistribution of wealth between Jews.

Second, as long the peace camp’s charade is successful, and so far it has been, the occupation, paradoxically, elevates Israel’s international position. Without it, would a commission in Tel Aviv be an ambassador’s dream? Would foreign ministers and heads of government queue to visit the country? Would they shower Israel with precious gifts in the hope of gaining a seat at the negotiation table?

In fact, Israel is becoming increasingly better at this charade. It has been a long time since it actually had to concede any territory in order to avoid international isolation. Now, the mere existence of “peace talks” is enough to make it a global star, while settlements expand and Palestinians live in hell.

The internal “struggle” with all those fanatics and extremists does not truly imperil Israeli elites, but it does make them seem so moderate, Western and liberal by comparison. When the peace process stalls, if the Palestinians cannot be blamed, liberals can always argue that they are heroically struggling against the Jewish fanatics. In fact, they will often demand ever more international support and largesse to help their hand in this contest.

But what happens if the music stops, and the international community will no longer tolerate these shenanigans? I have argued that this prospect is receding, not advancing, but BDS activists, as well as those who fear them, obviously disagree. So let us look at that scenario: Will isolation fatally weaken the liberals, as Bernard Avishai implies, leading to the triumph of fanatics and proto-fascists? Or will it make the liberals change course, and lead a campaign to truly end the occupation, as many BDS supporters seem to believe?

I would argue that both answers are wrong. Most Israeli liberals will not abandon the occupation, even if faced with international isolation, because their fear of assimilating in the Orient is greater than their desire to be part of the West. Why would ending the occupation threaten liberal identity? I will answer this question in the next and final post of these series, where I will also offer some constructive proposals.

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