Whenever I get into a discussion about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, I often hear the following response; “Peter, your problem is that you are way too hung up with the occupation. The history of the Middle East did not begin on June 4, 1967.” There is a left-wing version of this argument—“1967 is not the problem, it’s what happened in 1948 with the Nakba.” There is a right-wing version: “Enough with 1967, the real problem is 1929 and 1936, with the Arab riots against the Jews; they have never accepted a Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael and never will.” And there is, increasingly a combined tag team left-right version (featured, for instance, in Max Blumenthal’s recent book, Goliath): ”Left and liberal Zionists who want a two state solution and criticize the settlers should spend more time looking at their own heritage; if anyone created the Israel-Palestinian problem, it was the Labor Zionists, the Ben-Gurions and the Meirs, and not the Jabotinskys and the Begins.”
There is something to be said for all of these arguments. And of course the history of Israel did not begin (a day after my Bar Mitzvah, as it happens) on June 4, 1967. And to solve the Israel-Palestinian problem in any comprehensive way we have to go back to 1948, with the creation of the state of Israel and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. And we have to go back to 1936 and 1929, with the demonstration of violent Arab hostility to the Zionist cause. And back to 1917, when the Zionist cause became allied to that of the great powers.
And, ultimately we need to go back to 1896 and the 1880s, with Herzl’s Der Judenstat
and the first Aliyah, and the basic question of the right to a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the first place. All of these questions need to be considered, tranche by tranche. But before any of these deeper issues can be addressed, Israel and the Palestinians will have to come to terms with the occupation. Resolving the occupation will certainly not be sufficient to solve the underlying conflict between Israel and Palestine, but it sure as hell will be necessary. I have long approached the occupation through two basic axioms:
Axiom 1: Israel’s relations to the territories conquered in 1967 have been that of a colonial power. All colonies are inherently unstable, and ultimately, cannot be controlled by the colonizing power. Israel’s occupation will come to an end.
You can call the occupation whatever you want (apartheid, Judea and Samaria, whatever) but let’s not fight about nomenclature. It is an indefinite military occupation that has now gone on for 47 years. The occupying forces are citizens of the sovereign power; the people they control are not. This is a definition of a classic colonial situation.
Colonies are inherently unstable because they engender little or no legitimacy. When a government is stable it is because it is has power to enforce its decisions, and that power is seen as legitimate. (We obey the law because if we don’t we will be arrested, and because, most of the time, we think legitimate authority ought to be obeyed.) If there is no legitimacy, the government power can only be enforced through the use of force, explicitly or implicitly. (And of course, in the West Bank, it is the Israeli Army, and not the Palestinian Authority that is the sovereign power.)
There are reasons why, over the last 70 years, the 150 or so colonies, trusteeships, and overseas territories in the possession of the major western powers have been whittled down to a negligible handful. They were too difficult to govern, too easy to destabilize by either violent or non-violent protests.
The fear of rebellion is the great fear of any occupying power. Force for a while can keep the colony controlled, but eventually, the economic or human cost of an occupation will grow too high and the pressure on the occupying power to withdraw (especially in democracies) will become irresistible. Israel’s colonial control of the territories it occupied in 1967 will come to an end. How and when, I am not sure. But it will happen.
Axiom 2: The most difficult colonial situation to end is when, as in the case of Israel and Palestine, the colony and the colonial power are geographically adjacent. And this is made even more difficult when the colonial power establishes extra-territorial settlements of its citizens in its colonies. In these circumstances, separating and extricating the two sides becomes almost impossible. Israel’s occupation of the territories captured in 1967 will never end.
The best thing about being a colonial power, Belgium in the Congo, Great Britain in India and Palestine, the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that however badly you mess things up, you can always just wipe your hands of the situation, get on a boat or a plane, and go home, and let the people living there figure it out and fight it out. But when the colony is next door there is no such option. They will always be neighbors, and neither side is thrilled about it.
It is not an accident that Great Britain was able to divest itself of almost all of its colonial possessions, territories, and trusteeships before it was able to seriously address the situation in Ireland. And the crux of the situation in Ireland were the Protestant settlements that England and Scotland had established in the north of Ireland in the 17th
century. Their descendants adamantly did not want to be part of a united Ireland; and those living elsewhere in Ireland, just as adamantly wanted all of Ireland to be unified. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 fashioned a workable compromise of sorts, which has held for over 15 years, but it is tenuous, and will never be entirely resolved, or entirely without tension.
The problem with next door colonizations are many; the boundary between the colony and the mother country will inevitably be disputed; the colonial power will favor its citizens over the non-citizens; there will be people of the “wrong” ethnicity, race, or religion, on the “other” side of the divisions; both sides will be convinced that the other side will use any pretext to attack the other, neither side ever will feel safe. Working to a resolution of the underlying problems will only feed these anxieties. One side will not want to live without the security of its structures of domination; the other will always feel dominated. (There is an exception; a catastrophic military loss by the dominant power; hence the expulsion of Turks and Greeks after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, or the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe after World War II. Let us hope these aren’t relevant precedents.)
Both sides will test the limits and boundaries of the agreement while they curse their fate, forever joined at the hip to their sworn enemy, forever mixed up in each other’s business. And both sides will feel themselves royally screwed in any peace settlement, having conceded far too much for a mess of pottage, whatever the terms. Next door colonizations never entirely go away, and never are finished. The best that can be hoped for is a state of perpetual chronic, mutual dissatisfaction that only occasionally flares into violence. And therefore, the occupation of 1967 will never end.
So these are my two axioms; ending the occupation is inevitable, and ending the occupation is impossible. Somewhere in between, the destinies of Israel and Palestine will be resolved.