Israeli academia has a long and convoluted relationship with the country’s political challenges. Broadly speaking, the academy and academics have tried to steer clear of Israel’s conflicts, but with the rise of the global boycott movement, which targets academic institutions that collaborate with the Israeli military, this has become difficult. Now, academics drive the conversation and often supply the rationale for Israel’s extreme policies toward the Palestinians.
In an opinion piece in Haaretz (generally considered a liberal newspaper), Israeli historian Gadi Taub neatly highlights this trend and reveals how clouded the country’s mainstream thinking has become on the occupation and the Palestinian question.
For Taub, the Israeli left’s fixation with whether Israel is becoming an apartheid state is misplaced and reveals a lack of understanding of what the word means in the Israeli context. Moreover, he says that maintaining the status quo, in which Israel’s dominance over Palestinian life becomes ever more entrenched, is the least-worst option because ending the occupation would be tantamount to collective suicide and the end of Zionism.
In reaching this jumbled conclusion, Taub states that he no longer believes in a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Instead, the best thing for all parties is “autonomy” under Israeli control of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. He supports his position with a litany of well-worn Israeli arguments for not creating a Palestinian state. The distance between a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Israeli population centers is too small. Israel is an island of stability in a sea of undemocratic regimes (even though its criminally indicted prime minister is attempting to use his power to shield himself from prosecution).
All that’s left, then, is autonomy or, to put it another way, the Palestinian Authority should simply govern a handful of cities in the West Bank in perpetuity.
This is an extremely popular position right across the political spectrum. In general, Israelis feel no great pressure to end the occupation; it is not a huge financial burden on the state and since the Palestinians have already failed at nation building, full sovereignty is out of the question.
What Taub omits from his argument is that Palestinians have struggled with nation building precisely because they live under an aggressive military occupation. Nor does he mention how the Palestinian Authority’s cooperation with Israel on security has effectively made it complicit in the Israeli occupation.
But is the status quo tenable? For Taub and many Israelis, the answer is yes – not because they want peace but because they see no need for things to change. Israel’s biggest trading partner is the European Union, which, according to Taub, is falling apart thanks to leaders such as Britain’s Boris Johnson and Viktor Orban in Hungary. There is no will there to challenge Israel on its treatment of Palestinians. With Donald Trump in the White House, the status quo is assured.
In this, Taub is not entirely wrong. Neither Europe nor the United States has condemned Israeli intransigence, and even parts of the Arab world are opening up to a public relationship with Israel.
Taub is most passionate is on the subject of Zionism and its survival. For the moment, the status quo suits Israel very well. However, he writes, “If Zionism rests on the universal right to self-determination … it cannot exist at the expense of other people’s ability to exercise that same right … One is obliged to ask if what we are talking about here is an offense so abhorrent, so inhumanely odious, that one must die rather than commit it. Should we really end the occupation even if it means collective suicide for Zionism and probable death to most of its sons and daughters?”
It is a quite remarkable line of thought, evoking all the old saws about Arabs throwing the Jews into the sea and white people being slaughtered en masse after the end of Apartheid in South Africa. The fact that this constitutes debate among Israeli intellectuals demonstrates how much work needs to be done to get Israel to the negotiating table in an honest manner.
The way in which educated Israelis have embraced this ideology is reminiscent of how the white minority in South Africa justified Apartheid. That is to say, occupation, along with control and domination, is the only way.
As Israel prepares to annex large portions of the West Bank with Donald Trump’s support, we can see this thinking being turned into action. After nearly three decades of peace negotiations, the conflict continues with no end in sight and Israel is reverting, unimpeded, to the destructive colonialism that brought about the occupation in the first place.
Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact .