online 20.01.16

talking politics

Apartheid by consent

by Yacov Ben Efrat

For some time now Prime Minister Netanyahu has been conducting an ongoing dialogue with his military on the future of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The background is clear: first, the latest outbreak of the “Stabbing Intifada” shows that PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is losing his grip on the Palestinian street; second, the total diplomatic stagnation reflects Netanyahu's position that a Palestinian state will not be established on his watch. These two factors make the collapse of the PA a real possibility. But Netanyahu does not want the PA to disappear, and the PA, for its part, is committed to full security coordination with Israel. Abbas himself acknowledged that this coordination is a “sacred” Palestinian national necessity. In light of the political stalemate, the PLO Central Committee and key Palestinian spokespersons are threatening to "return the keys" to Israel. In his last speech, however, Abu Mazen reiterated that the PA is here to stay as long as he heads it.

We have lived with this perplexing political reality named the PA for two decades. It was created by none other than former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and resulted in his murder. The irony is that Netanyahu, who opposed the process at the time, is doing everything today to keep the current reality alive. Many on the Left use the term "apartheid" to describe the prevailing regime in the occupied territories. This designation has contributed to the delegitimizing of the Occupation, putting international pressure on Israel to end it. Common to both Israel and South Africa's apartheid regime is the year 1948: It was then that Israel declared its independence and was recognized by the UN, and it was then that the South African government declared a policy of racial segregation between whites, blacks, and the colored.

Within the 1949 armistice lines, Israel has maintained its Jewish majority through ethnic cleansing and by destroying Palestinian villages, but it has avoided legislating racist laws, making do with institutionalized discrimination against its Arab citizens. And what about the West Bank? The essential difference between the apartheid regime of South Africa and the existing regime in the West Bank is its political character. While South Africa's regime acted without the consent of the legitimate black leadership, the present form of the occupying regime in the West Bank, now 22 years old, is part of an agreement between the PLO and Israel within the framework of the Oslo Accords. At the time when the South African apartheid regime was dismantled by international pressure, and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Yasser Arafat signed a peace treaty with Israel, leaving ultimate sovereignty over the territories in Israel's hands. Although there is no sign of an Israeli withdrawal that would end the Occupation, countries led by the United States, as well as most of the Israeli Left, continue to support the Oslo agreement as long as the PA is committed to it. This enables a failed Palestinian leadership to preserve an arrangement that gnaws away at the future of all Palestinians and damages the prestige of the Israeli Left.

For Palestinians the term “apartheid” does not exist. They call it “Occupation,” since the Oslo Accords did not fundamentally change their situation and they continue to live under Israel's military boot. In fact, until Oslo, a regime of direct military rule existed in the West Bank and Gaza, when the territories were under military control in the guise of a "Civil Administration." The Oslo Accords created a unique entity: a government with a legal system but without sovereignty over its own territory, without its own currency, and with a police force subject to “security coordination” with the occupier. The Oslo Accords failed to deal with three main issues: the future of the settlements, the future of Jerusalem, and the refugees. There is also no reference to a Palestinian state. Israel recognized the Palestinian Authority, but not an independent state. At the time, however, the agreement received overwhelming Palestinian support, and it is still backed today by both the Right and the Left in Israel.

Therefore the Palestinians do not equate Israel with apartheid and have not participated in calls for an economic boycott. The PA's security coordination with Israel and its almost total economic dependence on it make demands for a boycott absurd. Moreover, the European countries that are being called on to make the boycott are the main financial backers of the PA, which could not survive a single day without their money - nor without the security cooperation.

The Occupation, then, is not just the result of exclusive Israeli military control. It also continues because the PA took upon itself the administrative and police duties in the territories – all made possible with generous economic backing from Europe and the US. The regime that many call "apartheid," which enables settlers to expand their hold on the West Bank, is grounded in an agreement that is acceptable to both sides.

The paradox is that since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the Israeli Right has strengthened. Palestinians, because of their loss of confidence in the peace process and the ongoing expansion of the settlements, have been radicalized, especially since the Israeli Left lost power. Since the Netanyahu regime is not likely to end the Occupation any time soon, many Israeli leftists have declared that we live in one country composed of two regimes: full apartheid in the West Bank and apartheid “light” in parts of Israel (not to mention Gaza, where Israel controls the air, the sea, and all that goes out and comes in). The comparison with South Africa fails, however, because the Israeli Right refrains from annexing the West Bank (by imposing Israeli law there) and because Abbas assures the world that the PA is here to stay.

It follows that the accusation "Apartheid!" will just have to wait. We are dealing with a complex political reality in which both political entities whitewash the Occupation due to overlapping interests. Both sides understand that no end to it is on the horizon. However, revelations from Netanyahu's cabinet meetings show that the Oslo Accords, which benefit both the PA and the Israeli Right, are eroding with the passage of time. The Stabbing Intifada, the divisive struggle between Fatah and Hamas, the split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and Abbas's advancing age presage the end of an era. The IDF, which is responsible for security, is looking to the political echelon for answers.

Despite the grim situation, no Palestinian has picked up the political gauntlet to compete for the leadership of the PA or Hamas. The Arab Spring has gone over the heads of the younger Palestinian generation. It chose not to challenge the PA, which perpetuates the Occupation, hence not to follow in the footsteps of its counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. The Occupation profits from the indifference and inaction of this younger generation, which accepts the PA and Hamas as if they were decreed from heaven. It fears oppression from both these regimes, which extend a net of terror in the West Bank and Gaza. The younger generation makes do with blaming all its troubles on the Occupation, shunning Israel and Israelis, and thus fulfilling its "national" duty.

Given the lack of alternative leadership, a PA collapse would bring chaos. This is the scenario that keeps Netanyahu and the Israeli Right awake at night. The alternative to the PA is not an apartheid regime but a power vacuum. Netanyahu tries to combine the Occupation and the PA, building up the settlements while buying off the Palestinians with “economic peace." The PA will not survive his experiments, and when it falls, the two societies will be confronted with impossible political hurdles.

Instead of despairing at the situation and turning to Europe for help, it is necessary for all opponents of the Occupation (who are many) to prepare for the impending challenge. If the PA collapses, it will not fall alone. It will fall together with Israel's fundamentalist right-wing, which is fed by the illusion that it is possible to maintain the Occupation without having to govern the Palestinians. The collapse of the PA will also bring the collapse of what many call apartheid, and then Israeli society will face a tough choice: either settlements or peace, either the return of direct military rule with all that this implies or a negotiated settlement with the Palestinian people in recognition of its national rights.