September 16, 2015

The Politics of Palestinian Possibility.


The landscape of the Middle East may have been fundamentally transformed when Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu renounced the possibility of a Palestinian state and was re-elected this last spring.

For he tore off the mask of civility at just the right time for the Obama administration to talk seriously of supporting a U.N. resolution declaring a Palestinian state. But Netanyahu not only challenged the goals of a decades-long U.S. led negotiating process; he has also challenged the Obama administration on its nuclear deal with Iran, one of its signature achievements. Suddenly, the American political consensus in favor of supporting Israeli interests seems to be faltering.

This has placed the movement to end the occupation of Palestine at a crossroads. The two-state solution is increasingly seen as dead, but supporters of a single democratic state with equal rights for all lack a realistic strategy to attain it in the near future. What is left is a bundle of possible goods for Palestinians that have yet to be organized into an immediately realizable political program. These goods range from self-governance to the right-of-return for Palestinians abroad; from access to the sea to the ability to work in the economically more developed state of Israel; from citizenship in Israel, with full civil and political rights, to an end to the siege of Gaza. The movement stands at a moment crackling with opportunity, between a fading compromise and a distant dream. What is lacking is a politics of the possible.

A single democratic state, with equal rights for all, in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, would provide a home for both Jews and Palestinians alike. It would declare everyone a human first and a Palestinian or Jew second. And it would end the contortions that sustain the idea of an ethno-democratic, Israeli state. But achieving a single democratic state will involve thinking and debating a whole lot more about what is to come. And it will involve not only selling the “one-state solution” to the world, but of Palestinians as partners in that state as well. World leaders have not yet bought into the idea and even activist supporters struggle to explain how it can be achieved. Nor is the current movement to end the occupation ready to achieve this end.

The members of that movement have been struggling to expose Israeli human rights abuses for years and have succeeded in bringing the plight of the Palestinians to the attention of the world. We are all critics of Israel now, and for that the movement should take a deep collective bow. But if movement members are to ride the waves of this victory to the end of the occupation and the full enfranchisement of Palestinians, the movement itself must pass into a new phase. It is a frustrated movement, many of whose members have been traumatized by a two-generation long occupation and countless wars. This frustration is often emotively expressed and shades into hatred. The hatred is directed at Israel’s strongest supporters of the occupation but also its more passive supporters and quiet opposition as well. Sometimes it even targets Jews in general.

There is a tremendous cost to be paid in the expression of these sentiments. It leads liberal American Jews and moderate progressives to mistrust Palestinians. And it keeps the Germans, and with them the European Union, from becoming supporters of the Palestinian cause. Without the support of liberal American Jews and Germans, it will be extremely difficult to pressure Israel without provoking a fight to the finish. The idea that Palestinians can somehow attain the firepower to defeat Israel once and for all is unrealistic and signals to many that Palestinians are not ready to live in peace. If the movement to end the occupation is to achieve a single democratic state, it needs to change its tone. And it needs to begin thinking more strategically.

The Fair Courts Resolution, as conceived by Mike Burch, with whom I am working closely on the project, is but one process by which the foundation for a single democratic state might be laid. It envisions a U.N. resolution that would mandate fair and equal courts in areas under Israeli control. The resolution would be enacted by Israeli courts and overseen by a U.N. appointed court with the power to set in motion a series of escalating sanctions should Israel be found noncompliant. It is a flexible solution that might start small by demanding that Israeli civil law apply simply to children. It can be scaled up with ever more stringent resolutions. And for the risk-averse, who worry the great is the enemy of the good, it is entirely compatible with a two-state solution. Fair courts would put an end to some of the worst Israeli abuses, like settler youths terrorizing local Palestinians, Israeli Defense Force extremists shooting protesters randomly, and late-night child arrests. Ordinary Israelis and their American defenders often do not know about these abuses, but fair courts would bring them to light.

Fair courts set up orderly procedures by which the most dangerous members of society are kept watch over. They end the rule of the strong in favor of the rule of law. Fair courts also lay down the rules by which all citizens are expected to interact and so set the norms of everyday interaction. This serves as a sort of social grease, which makes everyday interactions easier. Most importantly, fair courts institutionalize the principle of moral equality, which is the foundation for equal human and political rights. When the law treats people as equals, they start to see one another as such. This is in many ways the foundation of all civilized society.

But this is just one step toward unraveling the occupation and building something better. There are many others. Prosecuting war criminals through the International Criminal Court can remove the most dangerous leaders from politics while setting new political norms. Building bridges between the two peoples can create trust and increase support for an end to the occupation. But the polling of Palestinians does not always point to a one-state solution. There is still much interest in a two-state solution outside of activist circles. And the bundle of good for which Palestinians are negotiating might be divided up in entirely new and unforeseen combinations. A politics of the possible dictates that we must remain open to creative solutions.

Since we do not know what the future will bring, and since Palestinians must determine their own fates, it is important the movement to end the occupation work positively toward goals that are open-ended. But it would do well to begin talking about solutions, for a movement paralyzed by indirection is a movement that will be hard to trust. It is also important the movement shows a capacity to celebrate victories. This will signal that it knows when to quit, and it will begin drawing to the movement the sort of people who are accustomed to winning. The movement needs to set in motion a snowball effect by which each small win builds momentum for the next bigger win. The movement to end the occupation will need to become much stronger. Members need to breath deep, open up to new supporters, and begin thinking strategically.


Theo Horesh will be giving a talk on this subject, Thursday, September 17 at 7pm, behind the Trident Cafe in Boulder, Colorado. Click here for more information.


Relephant Link:

The Decline and Fall of the Israeli Occupation.


Author: Theo Horesh

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Flickr


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