From “only democracy in the Middle East” to only apartheid regime in the Western world

by Yaniv Reich on January 10, 2010

For decades, the idea that a resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict ought to be imposed was considered taboo, or at least politically fanciful due to the United States’ ever-ready UN Security Council veto. This diplomatic impediment has protected Israel from the need to accept, for example, a multinational peacekeeping force to prevent suicide attacks and/or further Jewish colonization of the occupied territories. Israel has always refused discussion of such a peace effort, and so the US has obliged its dear ally.

Patience, however, is growing thin. Despite one of the quietest years in terms of terrorism since Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians find the occupation entrenching itself—endlessly—on the land on which they are to establish, ostensibly, their state. The segregation wall steals their land and separates farmer from farm. Settler pogroms have become more frequent, and more violent. Today there are nearly three times the number of settlers living in occupied Palestine than there were at the beginning of the ill-fated Oslo “peace process”. A system of institutionalized discrimination and violent repression of Palestinian civic and political life has become the norm.

In this climate, an increasing number of publications (e.g. the Financial Times, The Economist) and politicians (e.g. Olmert, Sharon) have belatedly realized the nature of the apartheid regime in place. Former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert said Israel would become an apartheid state if the number of Palestinians grew to be larger than the number of Jews (Note: (1) Apartheid has nothing to do with relative population sizes; (2) Israel therefore has all the institutional machinery of apartheid, even if the numbers were a bit off in Olmert’s judgement).

A powerful essay was recently written for The Nation by another important figure in the Jewish community, Henry Siegman, who has called Israel for what it is—a new form of apartheid.

Siegman is not some minor journalist. He was executive director of the American Jewish Congress for 16 years (1978—1994) and former head of the Synagogue Council of America. An ordained Orthodox Rabbi, he has served as Senior Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and is currently director of the US/Middle East Project as well as visiting professor at the University of London (SOAS). In short, Siegman has been a decorated and distinguished public intellectual in the Jewish world for decades.

He writes:

Israel’s relentless drive to establish “facts on the ground” in the occupied West Bank, a drive that continues in violation of even the limited settlement freeze to which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu committed himself, seems finally to have succeeded in locking in the irreversibility of its colonial project. As a result of that “achievement,” one that successive Israeli governments have long sought in order to preclude the possibility of a two-state solution, Israel has crossed the threshold from “the only democracy in the Middle East” to the only apartheid regime in the Western world.

There is no ambiguity in his words.

Siegman argues further that no Israeli government will voluntarily give up the settlements that successive governments have so carefully cultivated:

Israel has lived “without a solution,” not because of uncertainty or neglect but as a matter of deliberate policy, clandestinely driving settlement expansion to the point of irreversibility while pretending to search for “a Palestinian partner for peace.”

Reluctantly, Siegman concludes that the US must not ignore developments on the ground, “which can be reversed only through outside intervention.”

While he leaves vague the precise form of this outside pressure, it should be interpreted first and foremost as a call for the US to stand up with conviction against the apartheid system it funds and protects diplomatically.

Siegman’s arguments apply equally strongly to the surging campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.

If the US government will not exert the necessary pressure, isn’t the task of working nonviolently toward equal rights really up to us?

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