FENCED IN ALL ROUND: Sharon’s master plan
From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)
Baruch Kimmerling | Le Monde Diplomatique | June 2004
The current Israeli policy of ‘politicide’ goes back to the 1948 war: it describes the process intended eventually to dissolve the Palestinian people as a social, political and economic identity.
ARIEL Sharon’s political troubles began some years ago when a grassroots movement inside Israel demanded that a “wall of separation” be built around major urban centres. Supporters of this hoped it would prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel. Settlers and most of the Israeli far right opposed the wall because it created an implicit border that would in effect re-partition Palestine and leave many settlements outside its boundaries. Many feared it would also mean the end of the Greater Israel ideology.
Most of the parliament, the Likud central committee and even Sharon’s cabinet opposed the plan. Supporters of the wall – which had been under construction since spring 2002 – were motivated less by ideology than by anxiety about Palestinian suicide bombings that the Israeli army seemed unable to prevent. And Sharon soon realised the advantages of separation or disengagement, and integrated it into his master-plan for crushing the Palestinians. To bypass the opposition, he called for a referendum among members of the ruling Likud party, an unprecedented gambit in Israeli political culture. But his plan failed: on 2 May it was defeated by a margin of 60%.
This split between Sharon and his core constituency is not surprising. Labour Zionism (Sharon’s school of Zionism) is the rival of romantic revisionist Zionism, the Likud’s historical forebear. The vision of the revisionist Zionists was the establishment of a Jewish state within the borders of Greater Israel (including what today is Jordan), without specifying how this aim should be achieved or how to deal with the Arab inhabitants of the country and region.
The revisionists’ basic assumption was that the Jewish people had an incontestable historical and moral right over the entire ancestral land, which right was to be self-implemented. For three decades this secular messianic movement – which was and still is detached from any political and social reality – found natural allies in the national religious movements and later also in messianic orthodox circles.
The approach of Labour Zionism to Jewish nation-building in Palestine was completely different. They believed less in rights and more in incrementally established facts on the ground; they also took into consideration the changing local and international balance of power between Arabs and Jews. The basic tactic was to acquire by purchase – and later by fighting – the maximum amount of territory with the minimum number of Arab inhabitants. Labour Zionism has no fixed or sacred borders: the amount of territory under Jewish control is flexible, subject to a complex combination of territorial, political, social and demographic considerations. This pragmatic approach was one of the main reasons for the incredible success of the Zionist project, which at the start had seemed to be against all the odds.
Though the distinction between these two basic approaches may have blurred over the past four decades, it is still a vital one. After the 1967 war Israel and its society became entangled in a deepening existential crisis, caused by basic internal contradictions that accompanied the absorption of the occupied Palestinian territories and their population. This had created an unprecedented economic boom and increased social mobility – obscuring the crisis even as it fed it. Opening the borders of the West Bank and Gaza Strip flooded the Israeli market with cheap Palestinian labour and opened up the Palestinian (and indirectly Arab) market to Israeli products.
So began the era of Jewish colonisation. But prosperity depended on the continuing good behaviour and cooperation of the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and their willingness to accept Israel’s policy of including them in the Israeli economy but excluding them from other spheres. For almost a generation the Palestinians accepted these colonial rules, benefiting from relative prosperity but totally deprived of human and civil rights; they began to protest about this in 1973. They had no right to self-determination, to the use of collective symbols, or even to the display of any ethnic or national identity. Both societies became addicted to this deeply asymmetric situation and grew increasingly interdependent. (Most Israelis and Palestinians who grew up in this anomalous situation see it as quite natural and find it hard to imagine other kinds of relationships.)
This system started to crack only after the first Palestinian uprising, which began in December 1987. It was completely destroyed with the second intifada. The Oslo accords of 1993 had perpetuated the economic status quo, pacifying the Palestinian population by giving them the satisfaction of future self-determination. (Even though, after the first intifada, Israel adapted its political economy by importing foreign guest workers.)
Besides its economic interest in the occupied territories, Israel had had to deal with a new complication after the 1967 war: the desire of Israeli society, both left and right, to annex the historic heartland of the Jewish people in the West Bank without acquiring its Arab residents. Formal annexation would have meant that Israel would no longer have a Jewish majority: demographic changes would destroy the Jewish identity of the state, even if Palestinians were not granted full citizenship.
This contradiction created an inbuilt crisis. It meant that Israel was unable to make the major political decisions necessary not just to resolve the conflict, but also to address economic reconstruction, education, welfare, state-synagogue relations, democratisation and the demilitarisation of society. As time passed, the crisis became more explicit: contradictory interests became aligned with political parties and were absorbed into personal and collective identities.
In 1977, when the rightwing nationalist bloc headed by the Likud came to power, people expected immediate annexation of the entire West Bank and the Gaza Strip, regarded as part of the Land of Israel. After all, annexation the territories had been the reason that Sharon, on leaving the army in 1973, had urged medium and small rightwing and centrist parties to unite behind the veteran revisionist leader, Menachem Begin. Yet only the Syrian Golan Heights were annexed, in December 1981.
The reason for this restraint was the rapid growth of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. Their numbers, added to those of Israel’s Arab citizens, would have immediately transformed the Jewish state into a bi-national entity, even if the annexed population were not granted the right to full citizenship, suffrage or access to social welfare. Today, despite of the unprecedented immigration of more than a million people (Jews and non-Jews) from the former Soviet Union, the demographic balance remains fragile: about 5 million Jews and non-Arabs against 4.5 million Palestinians, citizens and non-citizens.
Current demographic projections show that by 2020, 15.1 million people will live in historic Palestine and Jews, at 6.5 million, will be a minority. Jewish Israelis and their political culture suffer from two deeply rooted existential anxieties: the physical annihilation of the state, an issue that is frequently used, abused and emotionally manipulated by many Israeli politicians and intellectuals; and the loss of the fragile Jewish demographic majority, seen as a prelude to the physical elimination of the Jewish state. Israel therefore has faced contradictory imperatives: to possess all the Holy Land ran counter to the other patriotic necessity, to ensure a massive Jewish majority in that land. A large part of the electorate, from both Zionist schools, voted for Sharon twice, expecting him to find a proper solution to these internal contradictions and to end the second intifada.
Sharon had his own idea for solving the Palestinian problem: “politicide”, an idea that goes back to the 1948 war. Politicide is a military-political, diplomatic and psychological process that has as its ultimate goal the dissolution of the Palestinian people’s existence as a legitimate, independent social, political and economic entity. This process could also, though not necessarily, include their gradual ethnic cleansing, partial or complete, from the Land of Israel or historic Palestine. The so-called peace camp and even Yitzhak Rabin, at the end of his life, tried to solve this problem by giving up most of the territories. That is why he was assassinated. But in the elections after his death a majority of Jewish voters rejected this solution, which they saw as a deviation from Labour’s Zionist approach. Sharon’s government later opted for a reversal of the Oslo approach.
The first phase of politicide was military and started in March 2002 with Operation Defensive Shield. The objective was to dismember all the organised Palestinian security forces and, above all, to obliterate the foundations of Arafat’s regime. So Israel systematically destroyed most of the Palestinians’ infrastructure, their public institutions and ministries, including databases such as the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics.
The incursions and the sieges of the Palestinians’ towns, villages and refugee camps, and the extrajudicial executions of their military and political leadership, from all factions, had another aim: to demonstrate Israel’s military might and its readiness to use it. The Palestinians had to be shown how vulnerable and defenceless they were against any act of Israeli aggression. Arab states and the international community paid no more than lip service to the plight of the Palestinians, and that mainly to silence internal unrest. Under the protection of the United States’ current administration, with its roots close to Christian fundamentalism, Israel is seen as a moral extension of the US, enjoying the almost unconditional political and military support of the sole superpower.
During this first military stage of politicide, Sharon won immense popularity among Israeli Jews. Then, having destroyed almost all organised Palestinian resistance, he moved to the political phase of his project, the disengagement plan. Sharon is pragmatic, aware that changing international norms will not accept wide ethnic cleansing nor the transformation of Jordan into a Palestinian state, which had been his initial approach. This is why he built the wall and, more recently, announced that he would dismantle all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip plus four small isolated settlements in the West Bank.
In exchange for pulling 7,500 settlers out of Gaza, Sharon asked President George Bush, and the Likud, to support his plan to retain the major West Bank settlements, which now house about 95,000 settlers, plus East Jerusalem. Sharon has made no mystery of his intentions. The implementation of the Quartet’s road map would allow him to create a contiguous territory in the West Bank, separated by walls and fences from Israel and the settlements.
The “Palestinian state” would be formed by four or five enclaves around the cities of Gaza, Jenin, Nablus and Hebron, which at present lack any territorial contiguity. The plan to connect these enclaves by tunnels and bridges, so that the Palestinians no longer have to pass through checkpoints, would mean a strong Israeli presence in most other areas of the West Bank, much as in the Gaza Strip where Israel, after disengagement, will retain control over all ground, air and sea access.
All these conditions are designed to lower Palestinian expectations, crush their resistance, isolate them, make them submit to Israel’s conditions and eventually persuade them to emigrate en masse. But Sharon’s plan, which fits into the pragmatic Labour Zionist approach, is in no way compatible with that of the revisionists or with messianic dreams of an exclusively Jewish Greater Israel. Which is why the Likud referendum failed. Yet the majority of Israelis support Sharon’s plan and many outside Israel see the glimpse of a breakthrough toward a settlement of the conflict. Politicide is not over.
* Baruch Kimmerling is an Israeli sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of ‘The Invention and Decline of Israeliness’ (University of California Press) and with Joel S Migdal ‘Palestinians: The Making of a People’ (The Free Press and Harvard University Press)