During a Labor Party meeting that took place not long after the June 1967 war, Golda Meir turned to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, asking: “What are we going to do with a million Arabs?”
Eshkol paused for a moment and then answered: “I get it,” he said. “You want the dowry but you don’t like the bride!”
This anecdote underscores that, from the very beginning, Israel made a clear distinction between the land it had occupied — the dowry — and the Palestinians who inhabited it — the bride. This distinction swiftly became the overarching logic informing the structure of Israel’s colonial project, while the mechanisms developed to expropriate Palestinian land and to manage the colonized inhabitants produced a series of contradictions that continue to shape the geopolitical reality between the Jordan Valley and Mediterranean Sea to this day.
Not surprisingly, the overarching contradiction is the one between geography and demography. Israel’s insatiable appetite for Palestinian land, its ongoing efforts to confine the colonized residents in enclaves, and its policy of transferring hundreds of thousands of Jews to the West Bank and East Jerusalem have rendered the two-state solution increasingly untenable. The ongoing invocation of this solution by practically all Western leaders as well as the Gulf States, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and even Hamas has become a chimera, which merely reinforces the status quo.
The status quo, however, cannot last forever. The de facto annexation of the West Bank may ultimately satisfy Israel’s territorial desires, but it has simultaneously produced a new reality that will be impossible to sustain in the long term. While this reality clearly involves the changing demographic balance, its ramifications are undoubtedly political.
Currently there are about 6.5 million Jews between the valley and the sea. Within the same territory there are 6.2 million Palestinians – both Muslim and Christian – and about 400,000 non-Arab Christians, members of other religions or people of no religion as well as over 180,000 foreign nationals, indicating that the territory over which Israel has effective control does not have a Jewish majority. All of which suggests that the drive to expand does not sit well with Zionism’s ethno-demographic reasoning and produces, in Israel’s own eyes, an existential threat.
Moreover, considering that there is only one real sovereign in the territories Israel captured in 1967 (excluding the Sinai Peninsula, which was returned to Egypt) and that within this territory two legal systems operate simultaneously — one for Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens and the other for the occupied Palestinian inhabitants — this entity should legally be characterized as an apartheid regime. It is undoubtedly different from South Africa’s apartheid, but then Italy and the U.S. are also different from each other even though both are considered liberal democracies. Apartheid clearly operates differently in diverse historical, demographic and geographical settings; yet it still retains its fundamental characteristic: a legal system of racial segregation, oppression and dispossession.
Paradoxically, the Israeli right – as opposed to liberal Zionists – recognize this reality for what it is and are therefore exhorting the political center to abandon the two-state paradigm. Their immediate objective is to transform the de facto annexation of the West Bank into a de jure one, and while their strategies about how to resolve the “Palestinian demographic threat” are currently opaque, two major ideas have been percolating in Israel.
The first is the Jordanian option, which assumes that Jordan is the real Palestinian state and accordingly suggests that the Palestinian population should be transferred to the East Bank. The second invokes former prime minister Menachem Begin’s “Palestinian autonomy” script, whereby the Palestinians continue living in enclaves within the West Bank and will be responsible for their own health care, education and other public services, like collecting garbage. This, too, has precedent: In South Africa they called it Bantustans.
Thus, without clearly saying so, the future envisioned by Israel’s current political elite is either one of widespread expulsion or the fortification of an apartheid regime.
However, the abandonment of the two-state paradigm may also have the potential of bringing about a new and long overdue debate. The one-state paradigm would allow for the avowal of history, namely the idea that the conflict did not begin in 1967 but rather at the turn of the 19th century, even before the 1948 Palestinian Nakba and Israel’s Independence. Only when history is acknowledged and confronted can the injustices of the past be genuinely addressed and a viable solution forged.
Unfortunately, instead of facing up to history, the Israeli government has introduced a spate of draconian new laws, policies and regulations while launching incitement campaigns against the Palestinian citizens of Israel and increasingly against Jewish liberals. Indeed, the governing strategies developed and deployed by Israel in the occupied areas are currently colonizing the Jewish state. The fact that the colonial leviathan is finally recoiling inward, instituting apartheid logic in the pre-1967 borders, is perhaps most obvious in the Israeli Negev, where the state has intensified its campaign against the indigenous Bedouin population.
Um al-Hiran, a village of Bedouin citizens destined to be destroyed and replaced by a Jewish settlement called Hiran, exemplifies this most clearly. Just a few kilometers away from this Bedouin village, about 30 religious families have been living in a makeshift gated community waiting patiently for the government to expel the Bedouin families from their homes. During a recent visit to this Jewish community, I saw houses scattered around a playground and a nice kindergarten with joyful paintings on the exterior wall. Needless to say, this bucolic setting was both unnerving and surrealistic considering its violent undertow. Ironically, the very people who are destined to dispossess the residents of Um Al-Hiran are West Bank settlers who have returned to Israel to colonize Bedouin land.
Surely the chickens are coming home to roost. Yet, as the settlers seize the dowry from the bride they are assisting the government in their entrenchment of its apartheid regime on the one hand, while they are simultaneously undermining the very pretense of stasis, thus sowing dragon’s teeth for the future.
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