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Netanyahu's annexation plan is a sham. Apartheid has been decades in the making

Proposed annexation is a red herring, relieving liberal Zionists of responsibility for Israel's broader apartheid system and ongoing Palestinian suffering
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting on 14 June (Reuters)

Annexation is a sham. 

Don’t get me wrong: this doesn’t mean that Israel’s proposed annexation of the Jordan Valley won’t further dispossess Palestinians. Israel will be stealing 30 percent of the land set aside for a Palestinian state under previous, failed peace proposals, causing further suffering to Palestinians. 

But this particular annexation proposal, to which the new Israeli government agreed in its coalition deal, is a red herring - a distraction from the systemic nature of Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians. It permits liberal Zionists and the international community to focus their attention on undoing this particular evil, relieving them of responsibility for the entire apartheid system Israel has developed, both inside and outside the green line.

Religious intolerance

Statements from British Jewish leaders, US Congress members, European Union officials and human rights experts have warned of the consequences of annexation. They have targeted the soft, “moderate” underbelly of the governing coalition, Blue and White MKs, telling them how badly the world would look upon Israel if this proposal was enacted. 

But all of this liberal whining avoids a far greater evil: a Judeo-supremacist regime built on religious intolerance and ethnic cleansing.

The present Israeli regime has as much, or more, in common with Iran's Islamic republic, Saudi Arabia's Islamic protectorate, or the Afghan Taliban than it does with western democracy

The problem with the Israeli state is not one particular policy, no matter how odious. It goes back to the very foundations of the state and the thinking of its founders, foremost among them David Ben-Gurion. While there were some voices among early Zionist leaders who sought integration, or at least peaceful coexistence with their Palestinian neighbours, Ben-Gurion was a maximalist who espoused ethnic cleansing in his diaries and letters well before he founded the state. 

The sine qua non of statehood for him was a Jewish majority and Jewish superiority. “Arabs” might remain inside the new nation’s borders, but only if they acquiesced to their diminished status. 

Even then, Ben-Gurion feared the Palestinian presence so much that he and the Palmach militia organised and conducted Plan Dalet, which resulted in the Nakba - the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in conjunction with the 1948 founding of Israel.

Palestinian communities that survived the war remained under martial law for two decades, though they posed no security threat.

Boiling the frog

As an American Jew, I was raised on liberal Zionism. I was taught from an early age that Israel was a Jewish and democratic state. I was taught to be proud of the mutual coexistence of those two terms. But the religious component of Israeli identity, as it has come to be defined, precludes democracy; they cannot coexist. It took me decades to realise this.

While it would be ill-advised to attempt to eliminate or suppress religion in a truly democratic state of Israel-Palestine, religion must be separated from the political realm if this state is ever to become normalised. 

The religions of Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens will remain critical to them and their identities. If practised appropriately, they will enrich the fabric of the state without prejudicing one religious or ethnic group over another. But the present Israeli regime has as much, or more, in common with Iran’s Islamic republic, Saudi Arabia’s Islamic protectorate, or the Afghan Taliban than it does with western democracy.

Palestinians protest against Israel’s annexation plan near Ramallah on 19 June (AFP)
Palestinians protest against Israel’s annexation plan near Ramallah on 19 June (AFP)

One of the clever elements of Zionist expansionism is to pursue its goals gradually, rather than all at once. The poor frog doesn’t realise that he’s being boiled in the pot until it’s too late, because the flame raises the temperature gradually and almost imperceptibly. 

Thus, Netanyahu has already backed off his original proposal of annexing the entire Jordan Valley. He is now entertaining “annexation-lite”, absorbing the major settlement enclaves of Ariel, Maaleh Adumim and Gush Etzion, while leaving the remaining territory unannexed. This hides the fact that once these blocs become part of Israel, the surrounding territory is Palestinian in name only; whatever is left will be hemmed in by Israeli fences, roads and infrastructure. And Israel could, at a later date, annex the rest.

Silver lining

In a recent Middle East Eye webinar, Professor Rashid Khalidi described annexation as “largely a red herring”, noting that it has been ongoing since 1967 in various ways, with Israeli law already applying throughout the occupied territories. 

“We have to be thinking in broader terms than the narrow diplomatic language that’s been used. Israel has been annexing and creating a one-state reality since 1967. This [current annexation plan] is just a tiny step in the process,” Khalidi said, noting that Netanyahu’s more limited proposal regarding the three settlement enclaves amounts to a “charade”.

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“We should be talking in much more fundamental terms about the systemic structural problems that are going to have to be addressed if this problem is to be resolved on a just and equitable basis,” he said. 

If there is any silver lining in the annexation plan, it is that liberal Zionists, who once denounced the boycott movement and anyone labeling Israel as an apartheid state, have been forced to reckon with the failure of their vision. 

South African anti-apartheid campaigner Benjamin Pogrund, who has spent decades fighting the notion that Israel is an apartheid state, recently said in an interview: “If we annex the Jordan Valley and the settlement areas, we are apartheid. Full stop. There’s no question about it.”

South Africa’s bantustans “were simply a more refined form of apartheid to mask what it really was”, Pogrund added, noting that the consequences of Israel’s planned annexation “will obviously be extremely grave. Friends of ours in the world will not be able to defend us”.

Cracks and divides

Similarly, the pro-Israel German party Die Linke has also called for sanctioning Israel if it goes forward with this plan. “Should the Israeli government resolve to carry out the annexation, Die Linke will advocate for the suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement,” it said in a statement.

This EU protocol is important not only because it offers Israel tariff-free trade and privileges of member states, but also because of the status it confers on Israel, both in Europe and around the world. To lose these privileges would be an economic and political blow.

As we've seen in the past, just as tectonic plates can crack and divide, geological forces can drive them back together again

The party’s statement, as noted by journalist Ali Abunimah, comes close to abandoning a two-state solution, which is at the very heart of the liberal Zionism Die Linke upholds: “In the face of the Israeli government’s seeming rejection of a just two-state solution, in which citizens from both sides would live with equal rights, Die Linke calls for equal civil rights for Palestinians and Israelis,” the party stated.

“For Die Linke, the following principle holds everywhere and at all times: all inhabitants of every country should enjoy equal rights - irrespective of their religion, language or ethnic group.”

It’s important not to exaggerate the significance of these changes. They certainly mark a shift in the ranks of Israel’s liberal advocates. There is also no doubt about the tectonic shifts in US politics on Israel/Palestine, which have considerably widened discourse. But as we’ve seen in the past, just as tectonic plates can crack and divide, geological forces can drive them back together again.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Richard Silverstein
Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield) Photo of RS by: (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times)