The slippery slope of opting for occupation

The only thing to celebrate on the first anniversary of Russia’s war is the scale and courage of the Ukrainian resistance, which has surprised everyone, including Ukraine’s allies and maybe even the Ukrainians themselves. Through self-defence, Ukraine is achieving self-transformation.

Apropos of this new mood, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently fired several top officials who were suspected of graft and other offences. But it remains to be seen if Ukraine’s anti-corruption campaign will grow into a more radical questioning about “how things should be after the war”.

Will Ukraine simply play catch-up with the West’s liberal democracies and allow itself to be economically colonised by big Western corporations? Will it join the populist backlash to globalisation and free markets, as Poland did? Or will it take a long shot and try to resuscitate old-style social democracy?

These questions are bound up with the mixed international response to Russian aggression. To condemn Russian colonialism properly, one must be consistent and also condemn other examples of colonial subjugation, not least Israel’s oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

True, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is not the result of a military offensive or invasion. Rather, it is a legacy of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, which Arab states lost. Moreover, one always must tread carefully in discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, given how commonly it is used to foment anti-Semitism — a growing problem in the West. Tremendous care is even more necessary now, when violence by Israelis and Palestinians is surging once more.

Still, it is an undeniable fact that most West Bank Palestinians today were born under occupation, and after almost six decades have no clear prospect of ever gaining real statehood. On the contrary, they are forced to watch helplessly as their land is gradually appropriated by Israeli settlers. The Western media is full of praise for Ukraine’s “heroic resistance” but mute on the issue of West Bank Palestinians who resist a regime that is becoming ever more comparable to South Africa’s defunct apartheid system.

Now that the new Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is engaged in a de facto annexation of the West Bank, the parallel to Russia’s treatment of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin’s denial of Ukrainians’ very right to exist as a people has become harder to deny. In December 2022, the Israeli government stated explicitly that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and indisputable right to all parts of the Land of Israel”, including Judea and Samaria — that is, the West Bank.

So, how will the annexation be managed? If the West Bank simply becomes part of Israel, shouldn’t the nearly three million Palestinians who live there become Israeli citizens who can vote in Israeli elections?

Obviously, that outcome would be unacceptable to Mr Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. Yet they have only two options for preventing it. They can either expel as many Palestinians as possible from the annexed territories, or they can impose what an assessment by Just Security, an initiative based at the NYU School of Law, describes as “an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another, with the intention of maintaining this regime, otherwise known as apartheid”.

Over the past couple of months, Israel has been shaken by demonstrations against the Netanyahu government’s effort to subordinate the judiciary to its will. But the hundreds of thousands of liberal, freedom-loving Israelis who have taken to the streets have more or less ignored the plight of the Palestinians (including the Arabs who constitute 20% of Israel’s population), even though it is they who will suffer most from the new government and its illiberal reforms. Indeed, the proposed legislation has been treated as an internal Jewish affair.

A true act of protest would recognise what is really at stake. To preserve Israeli democracy and the rule of law, liberal Israelis should forge a large democratic coalition that includes representatives of the Palestinians. Yes, this would be a radical and risky move, because it would break an unwritten rule of Israeli politics — namely, that Palestinian Israelis must not decide the country’s fate.

But such radicalism may now be the only way to prevent Israel from becoming another religious-fundamentalist — even racist — state. That would be a travesty. It would be an abandonment of Jews’ deep attachment to enlightenment and the pursuit of justice — and another victory for forces devoted to darker ideals. ©2023 Project Syndicate

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