Israel is willing to do anything to convince Palestinians and other Arabs of why it needs and deserves to have the right to be racist. Even at the level of theory, and before it began to realise itself on the ground, the Zionist colonial project sought different means by which it could convince the people whose lands it wanted to steal and against whom it wanted to discriminate to accept as understandable its need to be racist. All it required was that the Palestinians "recognize its right to exist" as a racist state. Military methods were by no means the only persuasive tools available; there were others, including economic and cultural incentives.
Let us start with why Israel and Zionism need to ensure that Israel remains a racist state by law and why it deserves to have that right. The rationale is primarily threefold and is based on the following claims.
Jews are always in danger out in the wide world; only in a state that privileges them racially and religiously can they be safe from gentile oppression and can prosper. If Israel removed its racist laws and symbols and became a non-racist democratic state, Jews would cease to be a majority and would be like Diaspora Jews, a minority in a non-Jewish state. These concerns are stated clearly by Israeli leaders individually and collectively. Shimon Peres, for example, the dove of official Israel, has been worried for some time about the Palestinian demographic "danger", as the Green Line, which separates Israel from the West Bank, is beginning to "disappear ... which may lead to the linking of the futures of West Bank Palestinians with Israeli Arabs". He hoped that the arrival of 100,000 Jews in Israel would postpone this demographic "danger" for 10 more years, as ultimately, he stressed, "demography will defeat geography".
In December 2000, the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Centre in Israel held its first of a projected series of annual conferences dealing with the strength and security of Israel, especially with regards to maintaining Jewish demographic majority. Israel's president and current and former prime ministers and cabinet ministers were all in attendance. One of the "Main Points" identified in the 52-page conference report is concern over the numbers needed to maintain Jewish demographic and political supremacy of Israel: "The high birth rate [of 'Israeli Arabs'] brings into question the future of Israel as a Jewish state ... The present demographic trends, should they continue, challenge the future of Israel as a Jewish state. Israel has two alternative strategies: adaptation or containment. The latter requires a long-term energetic Zionist demographic policy whose political, economic, and educational effects would guarantee the Jewish character of Israel." The report adds affirmatively that, "those who support the preservation of Israel's character as ... a Jewish state for the Jewish nation ... constitute a majority among the Jewish population in Israel." Of course, this means the maintenance of all the racist laws that guarantee the Jewish character of the state. Subsequent annual meetings have confirmed this commitment.
Jews are carriers of Western civilization and constitute an Asian station defending both Western civilization and economic and political interests against Oriental terrorism and barbarism. If Israel transformed itself into a non-racist state, then its Arab population would undermine the commitment to Western civilization and its defense of the West's economic and political interests, and might perhaps transform Jews themselves into a Levantine barbaric population. Here is how Ben Gurion once put it: "We do not want Israelis to become Arabs. We are in duty bound to fight against the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies, and preserve the authentic Jewish values as they crystallized in the [European] Diaspora." Indeed Ben Gurion was clear on the Zionist role of defending these principles: "We are not Arabs, and others measure us by a different standard ... our instruments of war are different from those of the Arabs, and only our instruments can guarantee our victory." More recently, Israel's ambassador to Australia, Naftali Tamir, stressed that: "We are in Asia without the characteristics of Asians. We don't have yellow skin and slanted eyes. Asia is basically the yellow race. Australia and Israel are not -- we are basically the white race."
God has given this land to the Jews and told them to safeguard themselves against gentiles who hate them. To make Israel a non-Jewish state then would run the risk of challenging God Himself. This position is not only upheld by Jewish and Christian fundamentalists, but even by erstwhile secular Zionists (Jews and Christians alike). Ben Gurion himself understood, as does Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, that: "God promised it to us."
It is true that Palestinian and Arab leaders were not easily persuaded of these special needs that Israel has; that it took decades of assiduous efforts on the part of Israel to convince them, especially through "military" means. In the last three decades they have shown signs of coming around. Though Anwar El-Sadat inaugurated that shift in 1977, it would take Yasser Arafat longer to recognize Israel's needs. But Israel remained patient and became more innovative in its persuasive instruments, especially its military ones. When Arafat came to his senses and signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, he finally recognized Israel's right to be racist and to legally discriminate against its own Palestinian citizens. For that belated recognition, a magnanimous Israel, still eager for peace, decided to negotiate with him. He, however, continued to resist on some issues. For Arafat had hoped that his recognition of Israel's need to be racist inside Israel was in exchange for Israel ending its racist apartheid system in the occupied territories. That was clearly a misunderstanding on his part. Israeli leaders explained to him and to his senior peace negotiator Mahmoud Abbas in marathon discussions that lasted seven years, that Israel's needs are not limited to imposing its racist laws inside Israel but must extend to the occupied territories as well. Surprisingly, Arafat was not content with the Bantustans the Israelis offered to carve up for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza around the Jewish colonial settlements that God had granted the Jews. The United States was brought in to persuade the malleable leader that the Bantustan solution was not a bad one. Indeed, equally honorable collaborators as Arafat had enjoyed its benefits, such as Mangosutho Gatcha Buthelezi in Apartheid South Africa. It was no shame to accept it, President Clinton insisted to Arafat at Camp David in the summer of 2000. While Abbas was convinced, Arafat remained unsure.
It is true that in 2002 Arafat came around some more and reaffirmed his recognition of Israel's need for racist laws inside the country when he gave up the right of return of the six million exiled Palestinians who, by virtue of Israel's racist law of return, are barred from returning to the homeland from which Israel had expelled them while Jewish citizens of any other countries obtain automatic citizenship in an Israel most of them have never before seen. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Arafat declared:
"We understand Israel's demographic concerns and understand that the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a right guaranteed under international law and United Nations Resolution 194, must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns." He proceeded to state that he was looking to negotiate with Israel on "creative solutions to the plight of the refugees while respecting Israel's demographic concerns".
This however, was not sufficient, as Arafat remained unpersuaded of Israel's need to set up its racist apartheid in the occupied territories. Israel had no choice but to isolate him, keep him under house arrest, and possibly poison him at the end.
It should be clear then that in this international context, all existing solutions to what is called the Palestinian-Israeli "conflict" guarantee Israel's need to maintain its racist laws and its racist character and ensure its right to impose apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza. What Abbas and the Palestinians are allowed to negotiate on, and what the Palestinian people and other Arabs are being invited to partake of, in these projected negotiations is the political and economic (but not the geographic) character of the Bantustans that Israel is carving up for them in the West Bank, and the conditions of the siege around the Big Prison called Gaza and the smaller ones in the West Bank. Make no mistake about it, Israel will not negotiate about anything else, as to do so would be tantamount to giving up its racist rule.
As for those among us who insist that no resolution will ever be possible before
Israel revokes all its racist laws and does away with all its racist symbols,
thus opening the way for a non-racist future for Palestinians and Jews in a
decolonized bi-national state, Israel and its apologists have a ready-made
response that has redefined the meaning of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is no
longer the hatred of and discrimination against Jews as a religious or ethnic
group; in the age of Zionism, we are told, anti-Semitism has metamorphosed into
something that is more insidious. Today, Israel and its Western defenders
insist, genocidal anti-Semitism consists mainly of any attempt to take away and
to refuse to uphold the absolute right of Israel to be a racist Jewish state.
* The writer is associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. His latest book is The Persistence of the Palestinian Question; Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians. This commentary was originally published by Al-Ahram Weekly and is reprinted with the author's permission.