Israel is Approaching a 1948 Moment
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Israel is unmistakably approaching a 1948 moment. It will most likely draw back for now, but the long-term momentum has now become difficult to deny.
The reference to 1948 is not to the events ending the Palestine Mandate, but to a key step taken in a society far to the south: the formal adoption of an apartheid system in the Republic of South Africa. In recent years, the term “apartheid” has increasingly entered discussions of Israel. The term had never been absent, though when I heard it decades ago, I interpreted it as rhetorical and emotional in nature. It expressed the outrage many felt, and provoked outrage among many others.
I had no urge to take part in such debates. But over the past 20 years, the term has crept into broader usage. The former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, for instance, used it as a warning of what could be developing in the absence of a negotiated two-state solution. He provoked much anger but also prompted a defense of Israel. The country had Arab citizens; the West Bank and Gaza were occupied, but they were not Bantustans; above all, there was no intention of creating an apartheid system.
In more recent years, the discussion has moved from intentions and generalities to specific realities, and draws on “apartheid” as a legal term, one defined by a 1976 international convention as a crime against humanity. Entering the legal lexicon does not render “apartheid” a dry term; just the opposite. If official actors were to begin considering Israel guilty of apartheid, the diplomatic, political, legal, and economic implications would be far-reaching.
So, apartheid has emotional, rhetorical, legal, and prescriptive value. But does the term have any analytical usefulness? Does it help us to understand what is happening in Israel? I reluctantly have come to feel that it does, especially because of the momentum of developments. However, to understand this we need to return to the specific historical (and not merely the generic or legal) meanings of the term.
Apartheid was both a program and an evolving set of arrangements imposed by South Africa’s National Party—a resentful outsider that won power in 1948—until it agreed to negotiate with the African National Congress four decades later. But its introduction came in the already sharply racialized system of rights, privileges, control, and domination (indeed, one that allowed the party to triumph in the election). In that sense “apartheid” systematized, deepened, and labeled trends that predated it—it was a product of those practices just as much as it produced them. There was a racialized system before 1948 that might be termed apartheid in effect and in mentality. Yet after 1948, apartheid became a formal governing system that was still being developed when South Africa reached an agreement over its dismantling. Segregation, Bantustans, restrictions on movement, and variations of legal status by race were all apartheid tools.
Comparing Israel today to South Africa in the apartheid era draws attention to a variety of Israeli practices and institutions. These include gradations of citizenship and variation of rights and duties according to ethnic group for issues related to legal residence, travel rights, systems of representation, access to social benefits, and modes of governance. Yes, there are differences, but they are not always absolute: nonwhite South Africans were not deprived of all citizenship or voting rights, but these were granted in varying ways that consistently entrenched and enforced the system. The key difference in the Israeli case lies in the haziness and makeshift manner of the arrangements: there is an “occupation” that is unlikely to end, aspects of liberal democracy complicated by exclusionary and discriminatory practices, and a legal regime that largely protects existing structures while formally banning racism. If Israel resembles South Africa, it is to that country before 1948. That is not a flattering comparison. But things could go farther.
The analytical question at present is whether Israel is approaching a 1948 moment (in the South African sense), in which the leadership adopts explicit programs to systematize, deepen, entrench, and render explicit the arrangements that have arisen over the past decades. That possibility was apparent when the United States was led by Donald Trump and Israel by Benyamin Netanyahu. There was an emerging coalition for the annexation of occupied land (but not people) that would have unmistakably led in such a direction. The project receded for many reasons, but most revolved around the international costs and uncertain benefits. The status quo offered almost all of the latter but little of the former. There was no need to step over the line.
But the recent election is bringing Israel to that brink again. This time it is a powerful minority that supports annexation. It is one that would fully incorporate much of the territory of the West Bank into Israel legally, refuse to deal with Palestinian leaders or with Palestinians as a national group, and impose a set of arrangements difficult to distinguish from Bantustans for many Palestinians. It would claim to be turning a set of necessary arrangements into ones deemed virtuous—for Israeli Jews. Palestinians with Israeli citizenship would be expected to evince loyalty not simply to the state but to a set of policies that clearly differentiate between Jews and non-Jews, favoring the former. The underlying attitude seems to be that for the free development of the Jewish people to take place, it is essential that all should know that non-Jews are in Palestine on sufferance and not as of right.
But if Palestinians are expected to show cowed loyalty to the state, the coalition about to govern Israel will not. For the Likud, an important state structure (the judicial apparatus) will be restructured for partisan interests. And for the far-right parties, respect for state structures—including the entire security establishment—has never outweighed their supremacist and expansionary ambitions. Their implicit but patent position is that such structures should serve the Jewish people and deserve harsh criticism and even resistance if they obstruct settlements, prosecute Jews who attack Palestinians, or even show restraint toward non-Jews in tense or violent situations.
Such forces will certainly deepen the aspects of Israeli society and politics that have sparked increasing numbers of people to adopt the “apartheid” label. But will the far-right parties and their allies go so far as to formally discard the makeshift instruments of “occupation” and discrimination in favor of a formal embrace of annexation and a governing Jewish supremacist ideology?
They will likely see the incoming government as a golden opportunity to do so. But some immediate post-election signals suggest they may hold back for now. In part, they will be a powerful but not hegemonic voice in the new cabinet. But their hesitation also seems to stem from divisions among Jews, not fear of international consequences. Non-orthodox and LGBTQ Jews are very much targeted by the extremist rhetoric. Palestinians need to be intimidated but errant Jews—homosexuals, female rabbis, Saturday soccer players—must be condemned for what they do, but still be treated with respect. Failure to do so would not only polarize Israeli society, it would also alienate many Jews outside of Israel.
Thus, whatever reassuring post-election words the extremists can muster are directed toward such Jews. But even the reassurances pack in clear overtones of Jewish supremacism. In reaching out to such audiences, minister-in-waiting Itamar Ben Gvir pointed to recent Jewish-Palestinian tensions in mixed towns by writing that “Mothers in Beersheba [shouldn’t] be afraid to let their teenage girls [go to] the mall or walk the city’s streets; a soldier on leave in Acre shouldn’t have to take off his uniform when he comes home.”
Yossi Alpher, a prominent analyst and former security official gave what passes for an optimistic reading: “The current downward dynamic is going to play out over decades to come. This election did not end the dynamic. It contributed but it did not bring us to the bottom of the slippery slope.” But he also deployed the formerly taboo word to describe that bottom as “some sort of violent binational apartheid nightmare.”
The events of the past few years persuade me that Alpher is correct on the direction of the slope but may underestimate the speed of change. For many years, those supportive of a diplomatic process argued that time was running out for a solution—and continued to repeat the claim long after the peace process had died. It should therefore be no surprise that the Biden administration, like its predecessors, seems only able to sputter about diplomacy, though it has shown a touch more frankness. Instead of pretending there is a peace process, it has pledged instead to work to “prepare the groundwork for a renewed peace process.” But it still reacted to the Israeli elections by affirming “the commitment we have to a future two-state solution and to equal measures of security, freedom, justice, and prosperity for Israel—for Israelis and for Palestinians.”
It is doubtful that such words convince even those who utter them.
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