The state of Israel controls a large amount of neighboring territory, seized in war, in which the inhabitants are divided by ethnicity, with one group, the original inhabitants of the land or refugees from ethnic cleansing, are systematically disadvantaged compared with the other. They are penned into eight distinct areas from which they have to get through checkpoints to move around. They have no right to vote for the government that controls their lives. This arrangement has now lasted a year longer than the apartheid regime in South Africa – and, unlike that regime, looks set to continue indefinitely. It also comprises a massive project of ethnic and social engineering in which the dominant ethnic group continues to settle the occupied territory in an attempt – forbidden by the Geneva Conventions – to change its demographic nature.
None of this is in dispute. But when an American secretary of state explains this in private he is forced to recant publicly. And that surreal kabuki dance is an almost perfect symbol of why US engagement with Israel-Palestine is, at this juncture, such an enormous waste of time. The US is barred from telling the truth, which makes a real negotiation impossible. The Israelis know that they will never be subject to real US pressure, because the US Congress stands ever-ready to do whatever Israel asks. And so the beat goes on.
You can, of course, debate for ever who bears the blame for the Israel-Palestine clusterfuck at any specific point in history, and for a while the Palestinians were the more serious obstacle to any kind of settlement. They bear some real responsibility for the nightmare they now live in. You can also point to various moments before and after the violent establishment of the Jewish state when something better might have been achieved, and both sides bear the blame at various junctures. The launching of the second Intifada and the assassination of Rabin, for example, were fateful moments – when extremists seized the initiative. You can also (rightly) note that the occupation of the West Bank began as a defensive maneuver, and therefore should not be regarded as some kind of naked colonial enterprise, but as a matter of self-preservation. You can also rightly note that, compared with all its neighbors, Israel’s rambunctious democracy is a beacon – if only it weren’t also the means for the permanent suppression and humiliation of an entire people, whose land and homes were taken from them by force of arms.
But what you cannot argue, it seems to me, is that continued American financial and military support for the maintenance of this mess makes any sense at all, and that continued American diplomatic engagement is in any way a rational policy. The US president simply does not have the power to force Israel to stop its illegal, immoral and foul settlement of the West Bank – because the Israel lobby controls this aspect of foreign policy through the Congress, whoever is in the White House; and so we are committed indefinitely to supporting a de facto apartheid regime in perpetuity. That support drives a stake through any attempt to repair relations with the Muslim world, and establish a better diplomatic position with which to isolate and pre-empt Islamist terror. And so we remain trapped in this nightmare – held responsible for everything Israel does (with good reason) and yet unable to stop or affect any of it. If your marriage were like this, your best bet would be a divorce. And it’s coming to the point where America needs to do the same thing with Israel.
My view is that we should therefore end any and all government aid to the Jewish state, and stop using our UN veto to protect it from appropriate international censure.
We should withdraw from any direct negotiating role between the two parties, and try and make the broader international situation more conducive to Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian moderation. At the same time, we should support Palestinian efforts to join international organizations, and be willing to be part of any international force that could police an eventual two-state solution. We should attempt to create a great power coalition, like the one pressuring Iran, to come up with a proposed territorial solution.
Is this an attack on Israel, a Jewish state many of us support in principle but find increasingly difficult in practice? I’d argue not. I’d argue that the dysfunctional relationship between Israel and the US Congress makes American attempts to be an honest broker in the dispute a farce and helps sustain the intolerable occupation indefinitely. The US alienates the Israelis and the Palestinians by this relationship, and the rest of the world increasingly sees the US as simply an obedient and very powerful poodle for the Israeli government. By disengaging, we at least free ourselves from a lose-lose position, which hobbles US foreign policy in other ways. For Israel to seek both to annex the West Bank permanently and also be allied with the West is not something the West can reciprocate indefinitely without abandoning core democratic values.
No doubt these arguments will mean I will be accused of anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism. I’m resigned to that. That too is part of the dead-end. For my part, I still believe in the dream of a free and Jewish state in the ancestral homeland, democratic and prosperous, and have nothing but profound admiration for its achievements and tenacity and acts of benevolence and entrepreneurship around the world. I just do not believe a friend allows a friend to spiral into self-destruction and the abandonment of its ethical core. I think we’ve done about all we can to help achieve a settlement through direct diplomacy – but the Obama years have proven irrefutably that, at this late stage, it’s worse than useless.
It’s time for a divorce. Which is the only thing that could make a functional relationship with Israel possible again.
(Photos: John Kerry by Alex Wong/Getty; Netanyahu and Putin by Dmitri Azarov/Kommersant via Getty Images; Two Palestinian activists sit inside an Israeli bus as it rides between a bus stop outside the West Bank Jewish settlement of Migron, near Ramallah, and a checkpoint leading to Jerusalem, on November 15, 2011. By Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty; Netanyahu and Putin by Dmitri Azarov/Kommersant via Getty Images.)