Israel should be in a strong position going into 2014. In fact, the opposite is true.
Tide of world opinion is turning firmly against Israel’s occupation
It is hard to believe that 2013 didn’t see a war in Israel and Palestine. To be sure, there was a lot of fighting on the ground but there was no outbreak of war. Instead, violence materialised in subtle, more insidious ways.
The year will be remembered as the one where the status quo – Israel’s continuing military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, complete with a thin veneer of international legitimacy – fully entrenched itself. Just as Steve Jobs was renowned for his ability to “tinker” with products to ensure that the best version rises to the surface, so has Israel learnt how to tinker with its occupation to ensure that, despite all efforts, nothing fundamentally challenges Israeli control.
To protect and maintain the status quo, 2013 has been a year of diplomatic positioning, intellectual manoeuvring and emotional manipulation when it comes to Israel and Palestine.
The Palestinian Authority emerged, rather unceremoniously, as a crucial custodian of the Israeli regime in the West Bank. From the arrest of critical members of the business community, to the swift containment of virtually all non-violent protests against the occupation, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been busy this year keeping a lid on dangerous political activity that could threaten the status quo. And not so long ago there was talk that the Arab revolutions would spark an equivalent movement in Palestine. Any traces of these grassroots movements were crushed this year.
Recent statements by Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, against such grassroots calls to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel have led some to claim that the PA has embraced in deed and in spirit a collaborationist role in managing Israel’s continuing control over Palestinian life.
As this colonial situation unfolded in the West Bank, Israel moved forward with plans to completely separate Gaza from the West Bank. This long-held Israeli desire came closer to realisation in 2013, and Gaza has been all but isolated. It is a small, overcrowded island floating listlessly in the Middle East.
Of course, the year didn’t begin this way. This time last year, Gaza’s leaders were enjoying a unique high point in their control over the coastal territory. They had emerged relatively victorious after Israel’s November 2012 campaign “Pillar of Defence”; foreign capital, primarily from Qatar and Turkey, was flowing into the strip; and Cairo’s Muslim Brotherhood leaders appeared to be sympathetic neighbours.
The speed with which this situation changed, however, was an important lesson in how the colonial foundations that Israel created in Gaza, with the tacit partnership of the Egyptian military, function in practice. Virtually overnight, the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt – lifelines to the outside world – were destroyed. Anti-Palestinian sentiment spread like wildfire in Egypt, as Palestinians became the perennial scapegoat for the country’s ills.
All the while, the Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank remained publicly silent, as if what was happening in Gaza was actually taking place in some faraway island.
Given the complexities of regional geopolitics, it is a safe assumption that 2014 will not see any concrete Palestinian reconciliation. With a Palestinian body politic fractured to its core, how could one dream of a peace accord between “the Palestinians” and Israel?
Seemingly out of nowhere, the new American secretary of state John Kerry made 2013 his year to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. If you were to ask which Palestinians, you might trip on the fallacy of Mr Kerry’s attempt. No serious commentator expects Mr Kerry to broker a deal but the process is instructive to watch.
The Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, once famously noted that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians can’t be solved and therefore it was in Israel’s interest to “manage” it. The current round of talks reveal, in great detail, how the United States has adapted this position.
The waning months of 2013 have seen Mr Kerry argue passionately for the creation of Palestinian state institutions that would require time to entrench themselves. A recently revealed peace plan shows that Israeli troops would remain in parts of the West Bank, like the lush Jordan Valley, for at least 10 years. In short, the deal that Mr Kerry is pushing looks like a practical version of Mr Lieberman’s statements about the resolution of the conflict: maintain Israeli control over the West Bank in perpetuity with the thin guise of international legitimacy through the use of the Palestinian Authority as an agent.
As this decidedly colonial saga unfolded, Israel’s economy continued to grow. Indeed, its economic future has rarely looked brighter. Natural gas from massive offshore fields in the Eastern Mediterranean has started to flow for Israeli usage. If estimates are correct, Israel will soon be a major gas exporter. Undoubtedly, the facts are in Israel’s favour and with the extra financial security that the gas profits promise, one would assume that Israel is looking forward to a comfortable and prosperous 2014. The opposite is true.
The death of Nelson Mandela revealed the depths of Israel’s fears that the international community is beginning to change its narrative on Israel’s behaviour. The Israeli president, Shimon Peres, and the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, cancelled their appearances at Mandela’s memorial for flimsy reasons. They most likely did not want to draw unnecessary attention to Israel’s deep relationship with the white minority government of apartheid South Africa.
Just after Mandela’s passing, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli universities in line with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign to isolate Israel. While boycotts like this have passed in Europe, the ASA boycott is a seminal event in the US, which has prompted an avalanche of articles about whether Israel is losing traditionally strong allies in America. Indeed, the global civil society is slowly but decidedly changing its tone on Israel, and 2014 will surely bring more boycotts to the centre of the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Above all else, Israelis are afraid that they are losing their ability to control their narrative. For more years than I can recall, Israeli-Palestinian discourse was typified by the security narrative, which ordered the conflict as two groups of people fighting about security and statehood. Rights never entered the debate. While thi year was typified by the entrenchment of the status quo, it was also a year when a rights-based approach to understanding the conflict revealed itself. Never before have Palestinian films about their struggle against Israeli occupation made it to the Oscars. Never before have American newspapers had open debates about the merits of non-violent boycotts of Israeli institutions involved in occupation. The tide is turning.
For decades, the fear among Israeli policymakers was that the international community would turn on the country like it did with apartheid South Africa. Next year, I am confident, will see the beginning of that change. Ironically, it just might be the international community that saves both Israelis and Palestinians from themselves.
Joseph Dana is a correspondent for Monocle magazine and a regular contributor to The National