The past three weekends in Gaza, we have watched, stunned, as unarmed Palestinian protesters have been gunned down by Israeli snipers. The soldiers were given explicit orders to shoot anyone approaching the fence that separates Israel and Gaza, in violation of international law, and condemnation of Israel’s actions has been swift and widespread.
The International Criminal Court has warned Israel that it is watching how it is using lethal force against unarmed protesters for possible war crimes. And from the New York Times editorial board to international rights organizations, many have called for accountability for Israel’s actions.
Many, but not all. J Street, the liberal Zionist “pro Israel, pro peace” lobbying group, for example, failed to find fault with Israel. Instead, the group concluded that the shootings in Gaza “once again make clear the desperate need to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”
Of course the dire situation in Gaza needs to be addressed. In fact, this is why Palestinians in Gaza are protesting in the first place, to get the world to remember their plight.
Israel responded with brutal force, killing, by their own admission, 26 unarmed protesters.
In a briefing, senior Israeli army officials said most Palestinians killed in recent weeks on Gaza border were unarmed —demonstrators trying to breach/damage the border fence. Death toll per the army: 26 unarmed ppl threatening border, 6 armed w/ weapons or explosives, 1 “other.”— Daniel Estrin (@DanielEstrin) April 13, 2018
And J Street, “saddened and disturbed by renewed violence,” responded by calling on Israel to “actively pursue a two-state resolution to the underlying conflict.”
Shocking in its failure to condemn Israel, J Street’s response is also emblematic of the way in which all too often, liberal Zionists fail to call Israel out and demand accountability for human rights abuses, offering up instead their saddened feelings and calls for a two state solution.
For as is becoming increasingly clear, these are one and the same thing. And neither one translates into human rights protections for Palestinians.
The brutal and daily ebb and flow of news from Israel and Palestine is part of a bigger context that has taken shape over decades. Israel and its supporters are always quick to blame the lack of Palestinian leadership or Hamas rockets from Gaza for the plight of the Palestinians. And yet, Israel is the far stronger party, and it continues to use its position of power to maintain a system of injustice where the rights of millions of Palestinians are denied.
One of the most crucial ways Israel continues to entrench its occupation of the Palestinians is by creating realities on the ground, building more and more settlements on Palestinian territory – illegal, under international law – and then ratifying them.
Another tactic that Israel has relied upon is more counterintuitive. For Israel has long benefited from the idea that a negotiated agreement is on the horizon.
After the first intifada in the late 1980s, Israel found itself in a difficult position as it became clear that in a post-Cold War world, its denial of basic rights to the Palestinians it ruled would no longer be tolerated. Even if Israel were unable to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the optics of a solution being reachable were vital, because they allowed the Israelis to allay international concerns by creating the impression that the situation was temporary. All the while, Israel was pursuing actions on the ground that belied this impression, taking more Palestinian land and building more settlements. What made this possible, and what made what Israel was doing tolerable internationally was the notion that peace – and a two state solution – was within reach, and it was really just a matter of time.
It’s now clear that this ruse has resulted in a situation in which we are further today from a two state solution than ever before, despite decades of attempts at negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Israeli government today, dependent on settler constituencies that have grown throughout this process, is openly hostile to the objective, and the current American administration no longer insists on it, even rhetorically.
In fact, when the largest pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, recently reinstated their call for a two state solution, Likud lawmakers demanded a retraction.
“I don’t know what AIPAC is doing,” Shevach Shtern, the chairman of Likud’s National Headquarters branch, said. “Just two months ago, the internal committee of the country’s ruling party voted to apply Israeli sovereignty to Judea, Samaria and Greater Jerusalem — a 180 degree difference from the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he admitted. “A decisive majority, even 100% in my opinion, of cabinet ministers, certainly those in Likud, will stand in the way of the establishment of a Palestinian state in the heart of the country,” Shtern concluded.
This is not some marginal settler leader (though the call on AIPAC to renounce the two state solution started there). It’s the chairman of the ruling party of Israel’s Knesset.
What Shtern’s comments threw into relief was that the status quo of perpetual occupation is the preferred Israeli policy today, precisely because the political and economic costs are low and the rewards high. With an assist from President Trump, it’s safe to say that the long expired moment for the two state solution has officially been buried.
This of course puts liberal Zionists in a quandary. As liberals and as Zionists, these folks – many of whom claim to care about Palestinian rights very deeply, and criticize Israel fervently — want to believe that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. And so long as the two state solution was a viable end result of negotiations, they could believe that even if right now, Israel is oppressing millions of Palestinians, the day was coming in the somewhat near future when they would no longer be doing so. So long as the situation in which Palestinians in the West Bank were denied basic rights by Israel was temporary, liberal Zionists could hold out the hope that one day, Israel would make good and become a truly Jewish and democratic state, ending the occupation of millions.
And yet, the minute Israel’s rule over millions of Palestinians who are denied self-determination became an unending reality, this balancing act was revealed for what it truly is.
Therein lies the problem for liberal Zionists: You cannot claim to support liberal values like democracy and equality while also supporting a state that does not share those values.
I’m not saying there is a problem with desiring a Jewish state per se. If Israel were indeed created in a land without a people for a people without a land, it would be no more or less problematic than any other ethnic nationalism. The issue with Israel is that its creation and maintenance as a Jewish state necessitated – and continues to necessitate — the denial of another peoples’ rights.
Of course, many liberal Zionists truly desire a solution that includes Israel alongside a Palestinian state. And yet, believing in a two state solution in 2018 is the equivalent of believing in alchemy, which is all well and good, so long as no one is depending on you for medical assistance.
If liberal Zionists truly want to help create a situation in which Palestinians have equal rights, they need to abandon this fantasy. What we want to hear is that you will work in whatever capacity you can to change the policies of Israel’s government that oppress us. By claiming to stand for a two-state solution without calling for any actual policy shifts to hold Israel to account, liberal Zionists might be making themselves feel better, but they are not helping the situation on the ground –- as much as they may truly want to see it changed.
Given that a Palestinian state is no longer even a potential reality, the approach of liberal Zionists vis-à-vis Israel has to change to acknowledge that. For support for Israel today is support for a one state reality in which Palestinians are unequal.
To claim you “support a two-state solution” today without supporting any coercive measures to change the Israeli states’ abusive policies towards Palestinians is nothing more than hand-washing, a way to pretend to care for the victims of oppression without actually taking any action to change anything. It functions like the Israel/Palestine discourses’ version of the “thoughts and prayers” retort in the gun debate — a boilerplate, throw away utterance repeated by people in response to horrific realities they are complicit in but otherwise disinclined to actually challenge.
What liberal Zionists must understand is that that advocacy for a two-state solution without advocacy for serious pressure to hold Israel to account for the denial of Palestinian rights is merely advocacy for occupation in a different outfit. And when liberal Zionists claim to support a two-state solution, they are not doing so to take a position, but rather, to effectively avoid taking one.
Until accountability and serious pressure become part of the liberal Zionist lexicon, they are little more than agents of occupation.
It’s time for liberal Zionists to make a choice. The two state solution is no longer an option. It’s a two state disguise, and it’s time to call it what it is.
Yousef Munayyer, a political analyst and writer, is Executive Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.