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When Zionism splits: Israel and the warning from colonial history

The divide between the shock troops of the Zionist project to create a Jewish state and the Zionist mainstream has been swept under the carpet so many times. Today it's breaking out into the open
An Israeli arrives for a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new hard-right government in Tel Aviv on 21 January 2023 (AFP)

In his election campaign, far-right Israeli politician Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the Jewish Power party, asked a question to which the then Israeli political establishment had no answer: "Who is in charge?" 

It was a taunt which tapped into the deep well of feeling that the Jews had lost control over the Palestinians living in their state. But within weeks of Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest reincarnation as head of the most extreme government in Israel’s history, millions of  Israelis are now asking themselves a similar question: who have we got in charge?

A justice minister who plans to neutralise judicial authority and independence? A finance minister who questions the right of Russian immigrants to be considered Jewish? A national security minister whose first act was to storm Al-Aqsa Mosque?

The battle in Israel is framed as a fight for democracy against fascists. It does not, at least yet, morph into a debate about the daily cruelty and human cost of sustaining the Zionist project

In truth, the mass demonstrations are only concerned with the first of the three issues, although the issue of Russian identity is explosive enough - Bezalel Smotrich called it a Jewish time bomb

The Palestinians were once again excluded by the liberal Zionist revolt. After a few Palestinian flags appeared amongst the sea of blue and white ones in the first mass protests, the organisers rushed to renounce a Palestinian presence. Nonetheless, liberal Zionists got a taste of what it was like to be Palestinian at the hands of the new elite - the settler religious nationalist movement.

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True, the battle is framed as a fight for democracy against fascists. It does not, at least yet, morph into a debate about the daily cruelty and human cost of sustaining the Zionist project itself. But those questions do not lie far below the surface.

Read this commentary published by Yedioth Ahranoth, a centrist newspaper which has been loyal to official Israeli line about the occupation. "The inconvenient truth is that there can be no democracy along with an occupation; there can be no democracy in a country whose economic policy allows the strong to leap forward while the weak get left behind; and there can be no democracy in a place where Arabs are kept off stage."

Anyone who fails to address those issues clearly and coherently will also fail in their thoroughly justified effort to stop one part of the process The inconvenient truth is that anyone who wants to get a million people into the streets to shake the country in response to Levin’s plan can’t stammer platitudes about "shrinking the conflict" and about being "neither right nor left".

A complex relationship

Mainstream Zionism’s relationship to the settler movement has always been more complex and more nuanced than its customary portrayal as a divide between centre and extreme right. And when the centre is in charge, it's more than just looking the other way. Much more.

Settlements surged under Labor governments. To express horror at the likes of Ben Gvir being put in charge of governing the occupied West Bank is to ignore the Palestinian blood on the hands of former Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

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Last year was the bloodiest since the Second Intifada with 220 people dead including 48 children. 

To denounce attacks on "left-wing" Israeli judges is to forget that settler attacks have gone unpunished - and still go overwhelmingly under-punished in the rare event of a conviction. Until now, the relationship between liberal Zionism and Jewish terrorism has been symbiotic both before and after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

This much is clear from the testimony of successive heads of Shin Bet. When the internal security service collared terrorists in the act of laying semtex bombs in Palestinian buses which would have resulted in mass deaths, they stumbled also across plans to blow up the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Carmi Gillon, head of Shin Bet from 1994-1996, interviewed by the documentary The Gatekeepers, said: "After we exposed the Jewish Underground, Prime Minister Shamir called my unit, "the diamond in the crown". We received compliments and support from everywhere. The lobbying began on their behalf. They were put on trial. Three of them got life in prison, others different sentences. They all got out of prison very quickly. They went home as if nothing happened. They went back to their previous positions, some even to higher positions. The entire Underground was released by the Knesset. The clemency law for the Jewish Underground is signed by Yitzhak Shamir as prime minister of Israel. It wasn’t just a few members of the opposition."

For Shin Bet, Rabin’s assassination was a slow-motion car crash. It was here that Ben Gvir first emerged. He appeared on television brandishing a Cadillac hood ornament that had been stolen from Rabin's car: "We got to his car, and we'll get to him too."

A picture taken on October 6, 1995 shows late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (R) and then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres attending a Knesset (Israeli parliament) session in Jerusalem.
Late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (R) and then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres attending a Knesset session in Jerusalem on 6 October 1995 (AFP)

Yaakov Peri, head of Shin Bet from 1988-1994, said Rabin’s assassination changed his whole world: "I suddenly saw a different Israel. I wasn’t aware of the intensity of the chasms and hatred of the rifts between us. How do we see our future? What do we have in common? Why did we come here? What do we want to become? All that was self-evident and it all fell apart."

There is a sense of bitterness in all six interviews with Shin Bet heads. They don’t just feel let down by successive governments. They feel betrayed and say this openly. In 1996, when Rabin’s killer Yigal Amir was convicted, 10 percent of Israelis said that he should be released; by 2006, that support had increased to 30 percent.

But this relationship is symbiotic no more. Ben Gvir and Smotrich’s rise to power isn’t a freak of nature, an accident of politics. It's not Trump. Nor is it a 6 January insurrection. 

The confrontation between the shock troops of the Zionist project to create a Jewish state from the river to the sea and the Zionist mainstream, both in Israel and abroad, has been inherent and lurking in the background since the creation of the state of Israel itself. 

It's been around since Rabin, as a commander in the newly formed Israeli army, ordered his troops to open fire on a cargo ship unloading weapons for the Irgun, killing 16 fighters. A future prime minister, Menachem Begin, was carried ashore wounded. 

This split has been swept under the carpet so many times. Today it's breaking out into the open.

The Algeria model

If there is a historical parallel to the split which is cracking Zionism wide open, it is not South Africa but Algeria.

The French settlers, who were known as the pied-noirs, had been in Algeria since the 19th century. The country was treated as an extension of the mainland, rather than a colony in Africa. "Algiers is as much part of France as Provence," the saying went.

From the start, the "colons" were an integral part of the French colonial project. Marshal Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, governor-general of Algeria, proclaimed to the French National Assembly in 1840: "Wherever (in Algeria) there is fresh water and fertile land, there one must locate colons, without concerning oneself to whom these lands belong."

No one is saying, least of all me, that Israel is about to collapse as French rule did in Algeria. But the first major cracks in the Zionist project are appearing

The first post-war stirrings of Algerian requests for equal citizenship were treated with attempts at reform. Paris granted citizenship to 60,000 on what they called a "meretorious" basis, and in 1947 created a parliament with one house for the pied-noirs and another for the Algerians. However, the vote of the pied-noir was considered seven times more valuable than the vote of an Algerian.

Four years into a brutal war of independence whose death toll France - to this day - continues to undercount (Algeria says 1.5m died, while France says 400,000 from both sides were killed), the pied-noirs had the sympathy and support of the French army and security establishment.

In his book Leadership, Henry Kissinger’s chapter on General Charles De Gaulle, who he calls one of the six great leaders he interacted with during his career as a diplomat, is instructive on this era.

De Gaulle’s relationship with the colons went from a speech in which he told them "I understand you" to being the target of their terrorist campaign in France itself. By then the public mood in France had changed and France turned against the settlers. The turning point was the maiming of a four-year-old girl in a bomb blast in Paris in 1962. 

Before then, the Organisation Armee Secrete (OAS) enjoyed the support of 80 deputies in the National Assembly. 

This produced a demonstration against the OAS, which the police cracked down on killing eight. Hundreds of thousands turned out for their funerals and a ceasefire between France and the National Liberation Front (FLN) turned a three-way fight into a two-way one which the OAS was doomed to lose.

There are of course as many differences between the pied-noirs and the Jewish settlers as there are similarities. Religion did not play a defining part in the French project. There had been no industrial-scale killing of the French in Europe to justify the creation of this colony.

However, the critical point of the comparison still holds true. When the OAS turned on their own, the whole project was lost. Another point which is vital for Palestinians; neither Algerian resistance nor indeed South African resistance won militarily. They were both totally outgunned. It was staying around, persistence, refusing to give up that won the fight in both cases.

No one is saying, least of all me, that Israel is about to collapse as French rule did in Algeria. But the first major cracks in the Zionist project are appearing.

First cracks 

Ben Gvir has done more to delegitimise Israel since coming to power a few weeks ago than years of the campaigning of the BDS movement. Former bedrocks of New York Jewish support for Israel are issuing statements begging Netanyahu to change course.

Eric Goldstein, the head of North America’s largest Jewish federation, "respectfully implored" Netanyahu to make good on previous pledges that he would block laws that threatened the independence of Israel’s justice system.

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Jewish federations almost never issue such statements publicly for the simple reason that the Israeli social service sector is one of their biggest beneficiaries.

Of course, Netanyahu will do all in his power to play the international card. He did so in Jordan, declaring meaninglessly that the status quo in Al-Aqsa will not change. It already has, as the Jordanian-run custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, the Waqf, knows full well.

But in Ben Gvir and Smotrich, Netanyahu faces a different form of coalition partner. These rottweilers of the national religious right are not just part of the present, shaky political fix of a politician in Netanyahu who is well past his sell-by date. They are the shape of Israel’s future leadership.

This should be the warning signal for every Israeli Jew who does not have a European passport and does not relish the prospect of an all-out war with 1.6 billion Muslims around the world that the national religious movement appears to be hell-bent on starting.

They should think about addressing the future with the Palestinians as equals, while the conflict is still based on land and nationality, not religion. There is only a limited amount of time to do this.

Gillon said in The Gatekeepers: "The plan was to blow up the Dome of the Rock and the result would lead - even today - to total war by all Islamic states, not just Iran, Indonesia too."

If he was right 11 years ago when this interview was recorded, he is even more right today. With the national religious movement in the driving seat, Ami Ayalon’s prediction is prescient: "We win every battle but we lose the war.”

It happened in Algeria. It happened in South Africa. It will happen too in Israel.

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

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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