While we are still in the throes of yet another failed round of negotiations, this may be a good time to look around and reacquaint ourselves with what is at stake here for for our nation and our citizens if the conflict is not settled and the occupation does not come to an end. That’s because when listening to the public discourse, it appears that our main aim in the negotiations is to continue with the negotiations, the longer the better, mainly to satisfy the US and possibly Ms. Livni and her party in the coalition. There is no indication and no pundit suggests that Israel is there to reach an agreement that would effectively dismantle a governing coalition crafted precisely not to reach an agreement.
While these pointless negotiations are going on, the public at large is vaguely interested but not really involved. Been there, done that, who really cares? And it’s understandable, after all, there is no terror, there is no intifada, the occupation is between 20 and 60 miles away, for all we care it could be on the moon.
Well, it’s not on the moon, it has been literally next door now for 47 years, give or take a few month, it has become an integral part of Israel’s political environment and it is beginning to take its toll on Israel to a degree that the country has not encountered before and is only vaguely becoming aware of. This toll is largely hidden from the public eye, a public which by and large remains apathetic mainly because it more concerned about making a living in a cut-throat economy. Nevertheless, here and there people are beginning to understand that we are looking at a political reality changing for the worse, and the rate of change is increasing by the day.
Let’s start with the trivial. Israel remains the only nation in the world without a clearly defined border with its neighbors (see here). The absence of recognized borders has a severe impact on quite a few citizens who remain in uncertainty with regard to the permanency of their residence. As long as there is no fixed border, a minimum of 120,000 citizens have to take into consideration that a future peace agreement may displace them back into Israel proper, behind the Green Line at any time. That is, at this time, the best estimate for the number of settlers that may have to be evacuated under a reasonable future agreement.
A Fading Democracy and Two Legal Systems
The occupation incessantly burdens Israel’s with the need to maintain its democratic character facing an ongoing challenge of tangible threats in the close and distant neighborhood. The fact that in the occupied part of the land under Israel’s control (the West Bank) there is no democracy by definition (the sovereign is the commander of the Central Command of the IDF) has an ever increasing impact of the rest of the country. A military occupation that is being maintained over between 2 and 4.5 M Palestinians (depending who you count and who you believe) and this condition is considered acceptable for 47(!) years, through aquiescence, by the Israeli public, means that democracy is not only constantly challenged it is also fading.
Police brutality that is an almost daily occurence in the West-Bank where it is practiced against Palestinians (often) and against Jews (rarely) has been coopted, seamlessly, into Israel proper and is thriving there, basically unhindered, making legitimate public protests more difficult every day. Attempts are being made to coopt administrative detentions (which are used in the territories, both against Palestinians and against Jewish radicals) into Israel proper as well. The government’s attitudes and measures against refugees and illegal migrants have their origins in the way Palestinians are treated in the territories. The protests by Beduins against their forced resettlement within Israel are being dispersed with the same methods applied by the same border policemen who remove Palestinians forcefully from their dwellings in the Jordan Valley and other parts of the territories.
While this is happening, liberal and left wing NGOs are being persecuted by legal means to try and prevent foreign nations from funding activities that could be considered “against the government”. Arab NGOs and public institutions inside Israel proper may now find themselves breaking the law when supporting events in memory of the Nakba (the displacement of Palestinian residents from Israeli territory in the wake of the War of Independence). The Ministry of Education is bringing the Israeli school system and the Universities in line ideologically to make sure that children and students are on message. Zionism and patriotism is in, democracy less so, criticism is out and citizenship education in the school system is being curtailed.
The country is maintaining two distinct legal systems, a civil one in Israel where the law is generally enforced and a military one in the territories where it is enforced only spuriously, against Jews and Palestinians alike. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers have served in the territories ever since the 1967 war and have been exposed to this duality, taking home with them that keeping the law is optional and depends on the circumstances. No surprise then that violence and corruption in Israel has been increasing and the government itself, being at the source of the problem, is the biggest perpetrator infringing on the law liberally in all spheres of public activities.
The media, usual a guardian of democracy have become highly concentrated and are, to a large degree, supportive of government activities especially when they are directed against Palestinians. Coverage of the situation in the territories is severely limited and highly selective. It would be difficult for people to become aware of the fact that almost 60 Palestinians, including children, have been killed by Israeli security forces since the beginning of this round of the negotiations with the Palestinians Authority.
This situation is, of course not caused by the occupation but the selective and pro-government reporting legitimized throughout when covering the occupation has been extended to other issues as well and has a severe impact on the political process, keeping the public in the dark over what really is going on.
It’s Jews against Jews
The onslaught on democracy in Israel through the fallout caused by the occupation has had a chilling effect on relations with and within the Jewish diaspora. While in the past Israel has largely been in the consensus of vast swaths of Jewish communities, it is distinctly becoming less so not only in the more liberal communities in the US and Europe but elsewhere as well. AIPAC, the everpresent Israel Lobby in Washington which has always had a conservative slant supporting Israel to an almost embarrassing degree has gotten competition with J-Street, it’s fledgling liberal sibling. The new kid on the block, G-d forbid, dares to express criticism of the Israeli government on key issues important to its young and liberal constituency. The discourse developing around J-street’s criticism of Israel is getting quite abrasive and attempts to sideline liberal Jews who are pro-Israel, just not in favor of the maintenance of the occupation, are becoming pervasive.
The BDS movement, where, not coincidentally, quite a few Jews are active, is creating considerable uncertainty in Jewish communities around the world. Many Jews feel unsure if to support BDS because of its main objective, opposition to the occupation, or else, to fight it because some of its supporters object to Israel’s legitimacy no matter what. The bottom line of all this is that one can certainly ask the question if an Israel that continues to maintain the occupation has become a problem for the Jews instead of being the solution.
Relations with the Arab Citizens of Israel
Another steep price that Israeli society pays for the ongoing occupation is the relationship with the Arab minority in Israel. As long as Palestinians in the West Bank are seen mostly through the sights of a rifle, the attitude towards Arab citizens of Israel inside the Green Line, Palestininas as well, is unlikely to change materially and they too will be, first and foremost be considered a liability from a security point of view and held under constant suspicion that will not be allayed until the conflict with the Palestinians is settled. This fact is supported by clear evidence of long lasting and systemic discrimination in government funding and employment opportunities.
The upshot of course is that as long as that is so and the conflict continues to simmer, they will not be integrated into the social fabric and the state is incurring a huge civic penalty. To claim that the end of the conflict would solve all the issues with the Arab minority in Israel is of course, not warranted but without a resolution of the conflict it won’t happen. Period.
It’s The Economy Stupid
Lots of articles have been written about the money that Israel is spending on the territories. The exact numbers are likely to remain confidential in order not to cause an outcry among the citizens. Suffice it to say that the recent brouhaha over the transfer of money (177 Million NIS) to the territories using the good (and uncontrolled) services of the settlement division of the Jewish Agency are indicative. The money is pouring there and it’s not surprising that the only place where young couples can nowadays buy apartments at reasonable prices is in the West Bank. Nobody should be startled then if the less well-off people, by and large, are against a withdrawal from the territories. That’s exactly where many of them see their economic future.
A recent estimate by an NGO pegs the yearly penalty of keeping the territories at about 4,200 NIS per year for each Israeli citizen, man woman and child. That, of course, is only a fraction of the actual economic cost of the occupation: What is missing is the opportunity cost of all the business lost or not done because of the occupation. It is quite clear that added business with the Arab and Muslim world (that would be another 50 or so countries) in the wake of an agreement with the Palestinians would, over a few years, more than pay back the costs of the evacuatlion of settlements. Israel does business with Turkey to the tune of more than 2 Billion USD a year. The potential of business with the Arab countries and the rest of the Muslim world (Malaysia, Indonesia) would be manyfold.
All those that make the comparison with Egypt and Jordan where the economic impact of the peace agreements with Israel (for Israel) has been minor, do not understand the importance of the Palestinian issue to the man on the street in Cairo and Amman (as opposed to their governments, who couldn’t care less). Just consider how Israelis would feel about doing business with a country where Jews are held under extremely discriminatory conditions for 47 years. Stopping the occupation and creating a Palestinian state would make a huge impact on economic relations with the Arab and Muslim world.
The recent advent of the BDS movement mentioned already in the framework of our relations with the diaspora has added another player to the international alliance against the occupation. Systematic efforts are being made to delegitimize Israel in international forums and in the economy and cause economic and political harm to Israel’s interests. It is clear that in many instances these activities are motivated not only by legitimate opposition to Israel’s human rights infractions and the occupation but by anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism but it is the occupation that facilitates these activities and gives them legitimacy, big time. If the occupation would come to an end, none of the BDS movements would be able to get the support they are generating now.
The efforts at de-legitimizing Israel are spreading, they find support easily among the uninformed and the biased, of which there are many the world over. They have the potential to severely effect Israel’s economy which is to a large extent based on foreign trade. The only way to stop them is by ending the occupation.
As noted historian Simon Schama said recently in an interview with ToI, if Israel doesn’t end the occupation, it will end Israel.
These days we are celebrating Passover, the holiday of liberty. Let’s vouch to liberate not only the Palestinians who are subject to our occupation and have been enduring it for 47 years but also ourselves who pay an increasing price for inflicting a grave injustice on another people.