JUNE 10TH, 2022
Nothing should better qualify me to write about world affairs at the moment – and Western meddling in Ukraine – than the fact that I have intimately followed the twists and turns of Israeli politics for two decades.
We will turn to the wider picture in a moment. But before that, let us consider developments in Israel, as its “historic,” year-old government – which included for the very first time a party representing a section of Israel’s minority of Palestinian citizens – teeters on the brink of collapse.
Crisis struck, as everyone knew it would sooner or later, because the Israeli parliament had to vote on a major issue relating to the occupation: renewing a temporary law that for decades has regularly extended Israel’s legal system outside its territory, applying it to Jewish settlers living on stolen Palestinian land in the West Bank.
That law lies at the heart of an Israeli political system that the world’s leading human rights groups, both in Israel and abroad, now belatedly admit has always constituted apartheid.
The law ensures that Jewish settlers living in the West Bank in violation of international law receive rights different from, and far superior to, those of the Palestinians that are ruled over by Israel’s occupying military authorities.
The law enshrines the principle of Jim Crow-style inequality, creating two different systems of law in the West Bank: one for Jewish settlers and another for Palestinians. But it does more.
Those superior rights, and their enforcement by Israel’s army, have for decades allowed Jewish settlers to rampage against Palestinian rural communities with absolute impunity and steal their land – to the point that Palestinians are now confined to tiny, choked slivers of their own homeland.
In international law, that process is called “forcible transfer,” or what we would think of as ethnic cleansing.
It’s a major reason that the settlements are a war crime – a fact that the International Criminal Court in the Hague is finding it very hard to ignore.
Israel’s leading politicians and generals would all be tried for war crimes if we lived in a fair, and sane, world.
So what happened when this law came before the parliament for a vote on its renewal?
The “historic” government, supposedly a rainbow coalition of leftwing and rightwing Jewish parties joined by a religiously conservative Palestinian party, split on entirely predictable ethnic lines.
Members of the Palestinian party either voted against the law or absented themselves from the vote.
All the Jewish parties in the government voted for it.
The law failed – and the government is now in trouble – because the rightwing Likud Party of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined the Palestinian parties in voting against the law, in the hope of bringing the government down, even though his legislators are completely committed to the apartheid system it upholds.
What is most significant about the vote is that it has revealed something far uglier about Israel’s Jewish tribalism than most Westerners appreciate.
It shows that all of Israel’s Jewish parties – even the “nice ones” that are termed leftwing or liberal – are in essence racist.
Most Westerners understand Zionism to be split into two broad camps: the right, including the far-right, and the liberal-left camp.
Today this so-called liberal-left camp is tiny and represented by the Israeli Labour and Meretz parties.
Israel’s Labour Party is considered so respectable that Britain’s Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, publicly celebrated the recent restoration of ties after the Israeli party severed connections during the term of Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.
But note this. Not only have the Labour and Meretz parties been sitting for a year in a government led by Naftali Bennett, whose party represents the illegal settlements, they have just voted for the very apartheid law that ensures the settlers get superior rights over Palestinians, including the right to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from their land.
In the case of the Israeli Labour Party, that is hardly surprising.
Labour founded the first settlements and, apart from a brief period in the late 1990s when it paid lip service to a peace process, always backed to the hilt the apartheid system that enabled the settlements to expand.
None of that ever troubled Britain’s Labour Party, apart from when it was led by Corbyn, a genuinely dedicated anti-racist.
But by contrast to Labour, Meretz is an avowedly anti-occupation party.
That was the very reason it was founded in the early 1990s. Opposition to the occupation and the settlements is supposedly hardwired into its DNA.
So how did it vote for the very apartheid law underpinning the settlements?
The naïve, or mischievous, will tell you Meretz had no choice because the alternative was Bennett’s government losing the vote – which in fact happened anyway – and reviving the chances of Netanyahu returning to power. Meretz’s hands were supposedly tied.
This argument – of pragmatic necessity – is one we often hear when groups professing to believe one thing act in ways that damage the very thing they say they hold dear.
But Israeli commentator Gideon Levy makes a very telling point that applies far beyond this particular Israeli case.
He notes that Meretz would never have been seen to vote for the apartheid law – whatever the consequences – if the issue had been about transgressing the rights of Israel’s LGBTQ community rather than transgressing Palestinian rights.
Meretz, whose leader is gay, has LGBTQ rights at the top of its agenda.
Levy writes: “Two justice systems in the same territory, one for straight people and another for gay people?
Is there any circumstance in which this would happen? A single political constellation that could bring it about?”
The same could be said of Labour, even if we believe, as Starmer apparently does, that it is a leftwing party.
Its leader, Merav Michaeli, is an ardent feminist.
Would Labour, Levy writes, “ever raise its hand for apartheid laws against [Israeli] women in the West Bank?
Two separate legal systems, one for men and another for women? Never. Absolutely not.”
Levy’s point is that even for the so-called Zionist left, Palestinians are inherently inferior by virtue of the fact that they are Palestinian.
The Palestinian gay community and Palestinian women are just as affected by the Israel’s apartheid law favoring Jewish settlers as Palestinian men are.
So in voting for it, Meretz and Labour showed that they do not care about the rights of Palestinian women or members of the Palestinian LGBTQ community.
Their support for women and the gay community is dependent on the ethnicity of those belonging to these groups.
It should not need highlighting how close such a distinction on racial grounds is to the views espoused by the traditional supporters of Jim Crow in the U.S. or apartheid’s supporters in South Africa.
So what makes Meretz and Labour legislators capable of not just utter hypocrisy but such flagrant racism? The answer is Zionism.
Zionism is a form of ideological tribalism that prioritizes Jewish privilege in the legal, military and political realms.
However leftwing you consider yourself, if you subscribe to Zionism you regard your ethnic tribalism as supremely important – and for that reason alone, you are racist.
You may not be conscious of your racism, you may not wish to be racist, but by default you are.
Ultimately, when push comes to shove, when you perceive your own Jewish tribalism to be under threat from another tribalism, you will revert to type.
Your racism will come to fore, just as surely as Meretz’s just did.
But of course, there is nothing exceptional about most Israeli Jews or Israel’s Zionist supporters abroad, whether Jewish or not.
Tribalism is endemic to the way most of us view the world, and rapidly comes to the surface whenever we perceive our tribe to be in danger.
Most of us can quickly become extreme tribalists.
When tribalism relates to more trivial matters, such as supporting a sports team, it mostly manifests in less dangerous forms, such as boorish or aggressive behavior.
But if it relates to an ethnic or national group, it encourages a host of more dangerous behaviors: jingoism, racism, discrimination, segregation and warmongering.
As sensitive as Meretz is to its own tribal identities, whether the Jewish one or a solidarity with the LGBTQ community, its sensitivity to the tribal concerns of others can quickly dissolve when that other identity is presented as threatening.
Which is why Meretz, in prioritizing its Jewish identity, lacks any meaningful solidarity with Palestinians or even the Palestinian LGBTQ community.
Instead, Meretz’s opposition to the occupation and the settlements often appears more rooted in the sentiment that they are bad for Israel and its relations with the West than that they are a crime against Palestinians.
This inconsistency means we can easily be fooled about who our real allies are.
Just because we share a commitment to one thing, such as ending the occupation, it doesn’t necessarily mean we do so for the same reasons – or we attach the same importance to our commitment.
It is easy, for example, for less experienced Palestinian solidarity activists to assume when they hear Meretz politicians that the party will help advance the Palestinian cause.
But failing to understand Meretz’s tribal priorities is a recipe for constant disappointment – and futile activism on behalf of Palestinians.
The Oslo “peace” process remained credible in the West for so long only because Westerners misunderstood how it fitted with the tribal priorities of Israelis.
Most were ready to back peace in the abstract so long as it did not entail any practical loss of their tribal privileges.
Yitzhak Rabin, the West’s Israeli partner in the Oslo process, showed what such tribalism entailed in the wake of a gun rampage by a settler, Baruch Goldstein, in 1994 that killed and wounded more than 100 Palestinians at worship in the Palestinian city of Hebron.
Rather than using the murder spree as the justification to implement his commitment to remove the small colonies of extreme settlers from Hebron, Rabin put Hebron’s Palestinians under curfew for many months.
Those restrictions have never been fully lifted for many of Hebron’s Palestinians and have allowed Jewish settlers to expand their colonies ever since.