Israeli journalist Gideon Levy summed up the US president’s visit to the Middle East in July 2022 in an article entitled ‘In Jerusalem, Biden signs the Palestinians’ death certificate’. Biden, he wrote, had paid lip service to the two-state solution, but ‘not in the short term’. So what about the longer term? ‘Will the Israelis decide on their own? Will the settlers return on their own? When there are a million of them instead of 700,000, will that satisfy them?’ A phase had ended, Levy suggested, one in which the Palestinians played the West’s game, that of moderation. Now, with new US laws against the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, and distorted definitions of anti-Zionism that equate it with antisemitism, the United States and Europe are lost to the Palestinians, whose ‘fate might be the same as that of the indigenous peoples in the United States’, Levy wrote.
Will the Palestinians end up confined to reservations, reduced to performing folk dances for tourists with a taste for the exotic? Not since the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967 has their political, diplomatic and social situation seemed so desperate. The Palestinians had already experienced a time in the wilderness after Israel’s creation in 1948, the elimination of their political leadership, and the expulsion and dispersal of several hundred thousand of them to refugee camps. But in 1967-69, the fedayeen organisations surprised everyone by filling the vacuum left by the Arab countries’ defeat; a new generation took up arms, declaring the Palestinians would secure their own liberation. The rebirth of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) marked the political return of a people Israel had vowed to erase and enabled Palestine to regain its place on the political map.
Within a few years, the PLO was established in the refugee camps, especially in Jordan and Lebanon, and in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Gradually, it was recognised as the ‘sole representative of the Palestinian people’, as confirmed by Yasser Arafat’s speech to the UN General Assembly in 1974.
Its ascent continued, despite the hijacking of planes in the late 1960s, the assassination of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, and attacks on civilians inside Israel. As Jérôme Lindon, head of the Minuit publishing house set up under the Nazi occupation of France, and a fierce defender of Algerian independence, asked, ‘Why should [the Palestinians] observe the rules of modern warfare, laid down by established nations for their own benefit?’ There was a dawning recognition, even in Europe, and even officially, that ‘terrorism’ was not a sickness, but a symptom of a political impasse. In 1975 French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing allowed a PLO office to open in Paris.
Waning of the military option
But the idea that liberation could be achieved through violence gradually receded. Jordan expelled the PLO in 1970-71, and Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon forced the PLO to leave Beirut. The siege of Beirut that summer won support for the Palestinians in Europe as people watched live images of Israeli general Ariel Sharon’s indiscriminate bombardment of the city with artillery, planes and tanks. So too did the Sabra and Shatila massacres (16-18 September 1982). But it dealt a fatal blow to the military option, especially since the Arab states had renounced all ideas of confronting Israel; the most powerful of them, Egypt, had even signed a separate peace deal with Israel in 1979.
The PLO’s armed operations were especially hampered by its fighters being scattered far from Palestine’s borders, from Tunisia to Yemen. But the PLO had two things going for it: the support of the Palestinian people, which was confirmed by the first intifada (1987-93), and a growing international awareness, particularly in Europe, that without the PLO, peace was impossible, as confirmed by the European Economic Community’s Venice declaration of June 1980. This recognised the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and the need for PLO involvement in any Middle East negotiation.
The Oslo accords were not a contract between two partners with equal rights; they were an arrangement an occupier imposed on the occupied. The balance of power was highly unfavourable to the Palestinians.
Multiple factors led to the Oslo accords of September 1993: the end of the cold war and the collapse of the ‘socialist camp’; the optimism created by the resolution of various conflicts, from southern Africa to Central America; Israeli society’s exhaustion after years of intifada; and Western public opinion’s reaction to the repression of the Palestinians. The accords were signed by Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin under the aegis of US president Bill Clinton. In essence, the accords stipulated that Palestinian autonomy should lead to the creation of a Palestinian state after a five-year transitional period. Yielding to pressure from the West, the PLO abandoned the idea of a democratic state that covered the entirety of Palestine’s historical territory in which Muslims, Jews and Christians could coexist and accepted a two-state solution.
‘No generous offer’
But the Oslo accords were not a contract between two partners with equal rights; they were an arrangement an occupier imposed on the occupied. The balance of power was highly unfavourable to the Palestinians. The text was vague, ambiguous and favourable to Israel; for example, it did not provide for the cessation of settlement building in lands that were designated to be returned to the Palestinians. Could these accords, even so, set in motion a dynamic that would bring peace?
The answer was no, because at every stage the occupier unilaterally imposed its wishes with US support and EU acquiescence. Only a small proportion of the Oslo obligations were met: not all Palestinian political prisoners were released; the port of Gaza was not built; provision of ‘safe passage’ between the West Bank and Gaza was delayed by five years. Rabin declared ‘no date is sacred’. Settlement building continued unabated. Israel carved up the West Bank in a Kafkaesque manner. Mounting delays exhausted the Palestinians’ patience and strengthened Hamas, which criticised Arafat for having chosen to negotiate. ‘Peace’, which should have led to independence and prosperity, mainly brought harassment and hardship.
When the Camp David summit opened in July 2000 between Israel’s prime minister Ehud Barak, Arafat and President Clinton, with the aim of resolving outstanding issues (borders, refugees, the future of the settlements, Jerusalem), the Palestinian Authority only controlled pockets of land scattered across 40% of the West Bank. The protagonists’ accounts make it clear that Israel made no ‘generous offer’ at these negotiations: it wanted to annex at least 10% of the West Bank and maintain its hold on Jerusalem, keep control of the borders, and safeguard most of its settlements. Failure was inevitable.
Yet Barak claimed it was Arafat’s fault. Inevitably, a second intifada erupted in September 2000, this time resulting in bombings, attacks and deaths. In the meantime, Barak had managed to convince the Israeli public that a peace partner no longer existed: he had revealed ‘Arafat’s true face’. Not for nothing did veteran Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery called Barak a ‘peace criminal’.
Even those who didn’t blame Arafat for the failure of the ‘peace process’ had found the perfect culprit — ‘the extremists on both sides’. But this obscures the key factor, the refusal by both Israel’s government and public to recognise the Palestinians as equals. The right of Palestinians to dignity, freedom, security and independence has been systematically subordinated to that of Israelis. This colonial mentality goes back to the origin of the Zionist movement, which many Westerners refuse to acknowledge, as demonstrated by the controversy over whether apartheid exists in Israel.
‘Nation-state of the Jewish people’
In July 2018 Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed a new basic law, ‘Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people’. Its first clause states that ‘the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,’ and therefore denied to the Palestinians. A later clause stipulates that ‘the state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation,’ thereby asserting its right to confiscate land belonging to Palestinians, whether they are in the West Bank or Jerusalem, or are Israeli citizens.
This enshrines a state of apartheid, which the International Criminal Court defines as ‘an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups’. In 2021 the Israeli human rights organisation Btselem concluded there was ‘a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea’. Two major international NGOs, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which are praised in the West for criticising China, Venezuela or Russia, reached the same view, earning vilification and accusations of antisemitism.
Beyond such condemnations, which in France reflect how a large part of the political class has moved to the pro-Israel camp since the 2000s, why do sincere, well-intentioned people, who sometimes oppose the occupation, find it hard to acknowledge something enshrined in Israeli law? They prefer to emphasise the (genuine) differences between South Africa and Israel and try to preserve an image of Israel as a sort of ‘miracle’, which ostensibly gave the ‘right of return’ to Jews exiled since the Romans destroyed the Temple in AD 70.
However, the real, concrete, everyday history of the political Zionist movement since its creation in the late 19th century, acknowledging the deep differences of opinion it contained, has been confused with the West’s conquest of the world and bears its imprint. In a famous article, ‘Israel, a settler-colonial state?’, published in the review Les Temps modernes just as the 1967 war broke out, the French historian Maxime Rodinson, who was himself Jewish, called the creation of the state of Israel on Palestinian land ‘the culmination of a process that fits perfectly into the great European-American movement of expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries, whose aim was to settle new inhabitants among other peoples or to dominate them economically and politically.’ In 1902 the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, wrote to Cecil Rhodes, one of the British conquerors of southern Africa, that his plan was ‘something colonial’.
The Zionist movement’s colonial character entailed a policy of separating settlers and natives from the outset — apartheid avant la lettre. As in North America, Australia, southern Africa and Algeria, settler colonialism has always considered the original inhabitants to be illegitimate occupants who can be legitimately expelled or even massacred in the name of God or ‘civilisation’.
Of the connection between ‘the Jewish people’ and the Holy Land, which treats Zionist colonialism as a special case, Rodinson observed, ‘I will speak only for the sake of argument of the historical rights to the land of Palestine allegedly vested in all Jews, not insulting my readers by believing them seduced by this argument.’ As the Israeli scholar Ilan Pappé wryly put it, ‘Most Zionists don’t believe that God exists but they do believe that he promised them Palestine.’ Many Westerners, including non-believers, hold a similar view. Yet what court would accept the Bible as proof of ownership?
‘Tough like Afrikaners’
There are more similarities than differences between the various forms of settler colonialism. As researcher Amy Kaplan has shown, part of Americans’ sympathy for Israel lies in the similarity between the conquest of the Wild West and Jewish settlement, and between the armed Zionist settler and the brave cowboy. Even more significant is the alliance formed between Israel and South Africa under the National Party, which was in power from 1948 and took racial segregation to its limit in implementing apartheid. National Party leaders, nurtured on antisemitism and sympathy for Nazi Germany, collaborated for decades with Israel, which helped them, among other things, acquire nuclear military technology.
The nature of this unholy alliance was laid bare by the Israeli academic Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi: ‘You can hate Jews and love Israelis, because somehow Israelis aren’t Jews. Israelis are settlers and fighters, like the Afrikaners. They’re tough and resilient. They know how to dominate’. This explains why most far-right movements worldwide support Israel. They may be antisemitic, but they consider the Israelis above all as ‘white settlers’, who deserve support against the ‘Islamic threat’. It was Herzl who advocated an Israel that would be an outpost of civilisation against the barbarians, a role that has been updated in the era of the ‘war on terror’.
The period that began with the 1967 war is over. The Palestinian leadership has lost all strategic vision and much of its legitimacy. The Arab countries are turning away from Palestine (though this is less true of public opinion). The West, mobilised against ‘Islamic terrorism’, Russia and China, sees the Palestinian drama as a distraction at best, and at worst as a front in the war on terror, justifying ‘Israel’s right to self-defence’, even when it unleashes hostilities as it did in Gaza in August 2022. And the EU allows settlements to proceed without imposing even the weakest sanctions, thereby burying the two-state solution it claims to defend.
It would be pointless to deny the seriousness of the challenges the Palestinians face. Yet they have significant advantages, in addition to the support of the broadest global solidarity movement since Vietnam’s and South Africa’s liberation struggles. Despite all the attempts to force them from their land, they represent half of the population of historic Palestine and have political experience, a determination forged in exile or under occupation, and an unshakeable national consciousness confirmed by their uprising in May 2021 across the whole of historic Palestine, from Jerusalem to Gaza and Haifa to Jenin. Stubbornly, defiantly, they refuse to give in. If the purpose of war is, as Carl von Clausewitz wrote, ‘to force our enemy to do our will’, in this respect at least, Israel has failed.
*Alain Gresh is a journalist and director of Orient XXI and Afrique XXI. This article was originally published in Le Monde Diplomatique, an allied publication that has granted authorization for the republication of Mr. Gresh’s article.
Translated by George Miller