VIDEO: I debate Israel-Palestine for Washington Square News

Thursday night, I participated in a debate on Israel-Palestine with the Vice President of TorchPAC, NYU’s AIPAC affiliate, for the Washington Square Newss Op Ed Live. The video is now on YouTube:


“Peace process” post mortems are premature – and that’s bad news for Palestinians

Secretary of State John Kerry made headlines this week when he told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee that Israel is partially responsible for derailing the “peace process” – clearly, a controversial position for an impartial broker.

Last week, Israel reneged on its promise to release 26 Palestinian political prisoners as part of the nine-month negotiations scheduled to end on April 29. Apparently in response, the PA leadership headed by Mahmoud Abbas submitted applications to join 15 United Nations bodies. This gesture towards full statehood, while perhaps entirely symbolic, was nonetheless criticized by the Obama and Netanyahu administrations for circumventing the framework of direct talks: As Obama’s UN Ambassador Samantha Power testified before a House panel, “deter Palestinian action…is what we do all the time, and that is what we will continue to do.”

While Kerry, too, referred to the PA’s UN gesture as “not helpful,” the straw that broke the camel’s back was, he said, Israel’s announcement of yet more Jewish-only settlement units in annexed East Jerusalem:

Unfortunately, prisoners were not released on the Saturday they were supposed to be released. And so day [one] went by, day two went by, day three went by. And then in the afternoon, when they were about to maybe get there, 700 settlement units were announced in East Jerusalem and, poof, that was sort of the moment. We find ourselves where we are.

The first thing to note is that, as far as “blaming Israel” goes, this is pretty weak sauce. The second is that Kerry, in his noble quest for Peace in the Middle East, doesn’t seem to really understand what the talks mean for Israel. The so-called peace process is, in fact, a charade that serves as cover for Israel’s policy of ramping up settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights.

The current framework for negotiations has as its goal the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel along what are known as the pre-1967 borders, with land swaps. This last part is key: Under this plan, Israel’s borders would revert back to the partition agreed to in the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and its neighbors, except for “mutually agreed” exchanges of land that a) allow large populations of Jewish settlers to be part of Israel, and b) shunt large populations of Palestinians off to the newly formed state of Palestine.

The longer negotiations drag on, the more time Israel has to demolish Palestinian homes and build settlements on the most valuable land, including the most arable land (like the West Bank’s Jordan Valley) and the land with the most natural resources. The more Israel accelerates its settlement policy in anticipation of a final deal, the more PA negotiators will call off this or that round of talks in protest, further prolonging negotiations.

Kerry’s interest in a “two-state solution” appears to me to be genuine, which is why I question whether he truly understands what’s going on or what Israel’s endgame is. I don’t know for sure, but I think Max Blumenthal is right when he pointed out, in an interview with The Real News Network last fall, that the US has the talks set up “to blame the Palestinians again [for the talks’ failure], as it did after Camp David, which…will give Israel the justification to annex Area C.”

Area C is roughly 60% of the West Bank; it contains the Jordan Valley and most of the settlements. Unlike Areas A and B, the Israeli military (IDF) exercises full control over Area C. It is the only one of the three West Bank cantons created in the 1993 Oslo Accords where Palestinian Authority police are not allowed. Netanyahu’s current Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, of the far-right Habayit Hayahudi or Jewish Home party, campaigned last year on annexing Area C. The plan resonated with Israel’s increasingly reactionary youth population, helping Jewish Home win 12 seats in the Knesset (second only to Netanyahu’s conservative Likud).

Bennett’s plan would leave Palestinians with a non-contiguous “state”, but under no plan supported by the US during these negotiations would Palestine have the sovereignty, infrastructure, or natural resources it would need to be economically viable (and thus meaningfully independent of Israel).

That’s what the Israeli government appears to want: a Palestinian Bantustan (in just 10-15% of Israel-Palestine) that can’t raise an army and doesn’t control its own borders, airspace, or water. Why does Israel need a Palestinian state at all? Because annexing all of the Occupied Territories, or even just the West Bank, would jeopardize the “Jewish and democratic” state’s Jewish voting majority. Israel would be forced to either deny voting rights to Palestinians, or else face the terrifying demographic threat of Palestinian babies.

While Israel’s Palestinian citizens can vote, they enjoy second-class citizenship across the board. The politics of Zionism are the politics of Jewish supremacy: They demand a regime of discrimination and segregation that includes over 60 discriminatory laws privileging Jews in every imaginable policy area. Israel’s apologists crow about The Middle East’s Only Democracy™, but the fact is that Israel isn’t a democracy – it’s an ethnocracy, government for and by Jews.

What’s at stake for Israel is nothing less than the preservation of Jewish supremacy between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And Israelis know it: A 2012 survey found one-third of Israelis support revoking the voting rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and in the event that Israel annexes the West Bank, 69% oppose voting rights for its roughly 2.7 million Palestinian residents.

The Israeli government sees direct talks as a way to buy time for its project of expansion and ethnic cleansing, while the presence of both the US and PA negotiators lends the talks legitimacy and shields Israel from international accountability. That’s what the “peace process” has always been about.

But don’t take my word for it – just ask Yitzhak Shamir, Prime Minister of Israel from 1986 to ’92, who admitted shortly after leaving office that, “I would have conducted negotiations on autonomy for 10 years and in the meantime we would have reached half a million people [in the West Bank]”. The most recent figures from Israel’s Interior Ministry put the current settler population of the West Bank and East Jerusalem at around 575,000.

The Netanyahu administration knows time is running out: Settlement construction saw a 123.7% increase in 2013. And contrary to this week’s hand-wringing over the supposed death of the “peace process”, the PA has indicated it intends to dutifully resume talks for an additional two months, as well as refrain from signing any further UN conventions. This is important because Abbas’s puppet government was careful, in choosing which agencies to join, not to apply to either the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice, which would have allowed the PA to take Israel to court for war crimes and other human rights abuses.

Malcolm X once said of the civil rights leaders who collaborated with the white liberal establishment to tame the black freedom movement, “These ‘leaders’ sell out our people for just a few crumbs of token recognition and token gains. These ‘leaders’ are satisfied with token victories and token progress because they themselves are nothing but token leaders.” Palestinian civil society, whose call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel has been attacked dutifully by Abbas, see their so-called leaders for what they are – charlatans – and they see the “peace process” for what it is – a sham.

At a recent security conference in Germany, Kerry warned that “for Israel there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. there is talk of boycotts and other kinds of things.” Kerry was referring to the growing BDS movement, echoing Israeli politicians and businesspeople who have begun pointing to the campaign (which has, as its goal, the ethical decolonization of Israel-Palestine) as a threat of what will happen should the talks fail.

Of course, seen through the prism of Israel’s plan to preserve itself as a haven of ethnic privilege, the negotiations are already a smashing success – only, it won’t be enough. Israel still has the full support of what Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has called the most pro-Israel administration in US history, but even in the belly of the beast, the tide of public opinion has already begun to turn.

Unwavering support for Israel among Americans is decreasing, including among Jewish Americans. At the same time as endless peace talks provide cover for ethnic cleansing, their seeming futility has helped BDS emerge (in the span of a few short months) as a mainstream political issue in the US. In spite of the millions the Israeli government pours into propaganda on university campuses, it’s becoming clear that, slowly but surely, Palestine solidarity activists are winning the “war on campus”.

Netanyahu and Kerry warn of efforts on the part of activists to “delegitimize” Israel, but in truth, nothing could possibly rob Israel of its legitimacy more than its own archaic policies. The full weight of US power is still on Israel’s side; time and history are not.

New anti-BDS bills reveal a pro-Israel machine in panic mode

Derided by some in the Palestinian solidarity movement as a “cult”, a radical fringe undermining the push for a so-called two-state solution, the international movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel has – since the end of 2013 – burst into the mainstream of US politics.

As I’ve discussed before on this blog, the US-brokered “peace process” is rigged: Whether or not the talks achieve their goal of “two states for two peoples”, they’re set up in a way that lets Israel continue to settle on the most valuable Palestinian land, leaving a future Palestinian state without the natural resources or infrastructure it would need to be economically viable (and therefore meaningfully independent of Israel).

The alternative to the peace process is BDS, a tactic that – as is well known – played a huge role in the eventual success of the movement against apartheid South Africa. We can’t wait for Israeli Jews to voluntarily negotiate away the first-class citizenship they enjoy in a system of segregation, discrimination, and ethnic cleansing.

The international community, as the leaders of nation-states are sometimes called, have failed to hold Israel to even a modicum of accountability. So it’s up to us – the real “international community” to heed the call of Palestinian civil society for BDS.

Through the severing of economic and cultural ties, BDS seeks to bring external pressure to bear on Israel, letting its government and its people know that their archaic regime of ethnic privilege – both in the Occupied Territories and Israel proper – comes with a hefty price tag.

The targets of BDS fall into three categories: the state of Israel, those Israeli institutions that refuse to speak out against their government’s policies, and companies that profit from apartheid. BDS has three core demands:

  1. That Israel end its occupation of Palestinian land conquered in 1967.
  2. That Israel end its ethnic discrimination against its Palestinian citizens.
  3. That Israel accept the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.

In December, the American Studies Association voted by a 2:1 margin to endorse the academic boycott of Israel, meaning that the organization refuses to cooperate, financially or otherwise, with Israeli academic institutions.

It’s crucial to stress that the academic boycott doesn’t target individual academics, but rather, institutions. Like universities in the United States, Israeli universities actively collaborate with the government in a wide range of areas. From engineering weapons systems and armored bulldozers to planning policy solutions to the growing threat of Palestinian birthrates, Israeli academia is complicit in their government’s crimes.

The ASA also cite Israel’s suppression of academic freedom and freedom of movement for Palestinian scholars and students as reasons for their act of solidarity. The backlash from Zionists and their allies in the US has been as incoherent as it is knee-jerk, indicating that the ASA’s vote was a tipping point for BDS as a political issue in the US.

The Israeli government spends millions every year on lobbying and hasbara (propaganda), nominally to combat Israel’s “image problem” abroad. But unfortunately for Zionists, when you have to pour 100 million shekels into propaganda, you don’t have an image problem. You have a reality problem.

Many of the major battle sites are college campuses, where faculty and students allegedly make Jewish students feel uncomfortable with their discussion of “facts” and “history”. In a political culture where criticism of Israel is often equated with anti-Semitism, the pro-Israel machine increasingly depends on the argument that support for Palestinian rights somehow violates the freedom of Jewish students to feel “safe” voicing their opinions on campus.

Now, with BDS picking up steam in the US, Israel apologists are in panic mode. After the initial wave of predictable statements by university presidents and media commentaries denouncing the boycott as an assault on academic freedom, the reaction to the ASA vote took an alarming turn with the introduction of a bill in the New York state legislature. The bill, which targets academic organizations like the ASA, would cut off state funding to any group that endorses BDS.

Not only would the bill prevent state funds from going directly to the ASA, it would also prevent a university from using state funds to cover, say, the travel and lodging expenses of a scholar attending an ASA-organized event. As Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin points out on his blog, the bill “is not about defunding the ASA so much as it is about stopping individual faculty from participating in the ASA.”

According to the logic of this proposed legislation, a boycott of institutions complicit in apartheid is an attack on academic freedom, but preventing individual academics from working with a boycotting organization is…a defense of academic freedom.

The NY bill was sidelined after fierce outcry from academics, activists, and other New Yorkers, but it was reintroduced into the State Assembly this week after undergoing an (extremely slight) revision. The substance of the bill – that state funds can’t go towards the activities of groups that support BDS – remains the same.

A similar bill has also been introduced in Maryland, and two Congresspeople from my home state of Illinois are leading the bipartisan charge on an even more extreme federal version. The ludicrously named “Protect Academic Freedom Act”, which is being pushed by former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren, cuts off funding to institutions if

the institution, any significant part of the institution, or any organization significantly funded by the institution adopts a policy or resolution, issues a statement, or otherwise formally establishes the restriction of discourse, cooperation, exchange, or any other involvement with academic institutions or scholars on the basis of the connection of such institutions or such scholars to the state of Israel.

The bill sanctions a university/department if “any significant part” of it “issues a statement” in support of BDS. Why so draconian?

The mainstream of US politics tends to see academia as a haven of left-wing sentiment, to be tolerated as long as it remains mired in ivory-tower irrelevance. Moreover, the Democratic Party and discourses around American Jewish identity have fostered an ideological environment where it’s okay for people who identify as liberals to be PEP – Progressive Except on Palestine.

But as this round of legislative attacks makes clear, the terms of the US debate on Israel-Palestine are shifting, both in the mainstream conversation and within the solidarity movement. BDS can no longer be dismissed as more-radical-than-thou navel-gazing, a utopian distraction from the long, hard, pragmatic work of politics.

On the contrary: Thanks to the ongoing work of activists – not to mention the endless photo-op that is the peace process – BDS is now the vanguard of a struggle that has never looked stronger. And Israeli apartheid’s days have never looked more numbered.

There is no such thing as “democratic Israel”

In August, I discussed with you the analysis that, whether or not US-brokered peace talks actually achieve a so-called two-state solution for Israel-Palestine, the talks are set up in a way that lets Israelis continue to settle on the most valuable land, demolishing Palestinian homes and seizing natural resources.

A two-state “solution” would let Israel preserve itself as a haven of ethnic privilege while shunting an unwanted Palestinian population off to a future Palestinian state. Due to Israel’s ongoing settlement project, this Palestinian state wouldn’t have the resources or infrastructure it would need to be economically viable, and therefore meaningfully independent of Israel.

So what exactly would be legitimized by a two-state settlement? Palestinian citizens of Israel are segregated from the Jewish population; they are denied the same rights and benefits as Jewish Israelis; and they are actively discriminated against – in Israeli government policy, and in their daily lives. The fact is that “democratic Israel” has more than 60 laws discriminating against its Palestinian citizens. It’s a different face of the same apartheid regime that rules the West Bank and Gaza.

For example, in the Israeli city of Lod, a three-meter-high wall separates Jewish and Palestinian districts, and the city government provides street lighting and trash collection only to the Jewish areas. Not only do communities throughout Israel have the right to exclude Palestinians, but whenever the Israeli Land Administration (which administers 93% of the land in Israel) leases a plot of land to a non-Jew, it must transfer an equivalent plot of land to the Jewish National Fund in order to keep the percentage of Jewish-owned land the same. The JNF continues to lease land only to Jews.

Palestinians, on the other hand, are routinely denied building permits. Racist land-planning and zoning regulations bar Palestinians from building in 87% of East Jerusalem, effectively strangling the hub of the Palestinian economy.

Education and social services are highly segregated as well: Most schools, for instance, are not bilingual, and none of Israel’s eight universities teach in Arabic. And “separate but equal” is as laughable a justification as it was in the jim crow South: Jewish schools receive five times the funding that their Palestinian counterparts get.

Palestinian citizens of Israel are also disproportionately the victims of police brutality and arbitrary detention at transportation checkpoints on the road or at airports. They are disproportionately likely to be convicted of murder, denied bail, and receive severe sentences (Like in the US, this is especially true in cases where a Palestinian is accused of killing a Jew).

If a Palestinian citizen of Israel marries someone from the Occupied Territories, Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon, their spouse isn’t entitled to citizenship or even residency—and their children will be deported at age 12. As in jim crow, the notion of “separate but equal” persists not because anyone seriously believes in it, but because it allows Jewish Israelis to ignore the uncomfortable truth of what their privilege really entails: the criminalization of Palestinian life.

So the reality of “democratic” Israel, which has no written constitution, is that the rights of Israeli citizens extend only to Jewish Israelis. Palestinians can be arrested without charge or trial, their homes demolished, and their neighborhoods put under military control.

And so it must be in a state whose leaders openly admit that ethnic cleansing is necessary to maintain its “Jewish character”: Like in the Naqab (Negev) desert, where the currently-sidelined Prawer Plan was set to displace up to 40,000 Palestinian Bedouin, or in East Jerusalem, where the Israeli government revokes the residency of Palestinians in order to maintain a 72% Jewish majority in Israel’s “undivided capital”.

Some of the discriminatory laws and policies seem less overtly racist because they’re couched in terms other than ethnicity: For instance, Israeli law requires citizens to serve in the Israeli Defense Force in order to get the same rights to employment, property, housing, education, insurance, and so on. But Palestinians, understandably, tend not to join the army that murders and terrorizes their sisters and brothers, making this a de facto policy of ethnic discrimination against Palestinians.

And, of course, while Jews across the globe with no familial ties to Israel can emigrate and enjoy full citizenship, the world’s seven million Palestinian refugees are barred from returning to their homeland.

Israel isn’t a democracy. It’s an ethnocracy, government for and by Jews, at the expense of an indigenous population. It was founded on colonial violence and settlement, and until the day that its regime of Jewish supremacy is dismantled – on both sides of Israel’s “disputed” borders – the racist settler state will continue to deny millions of Palestinians their rights and dignity.

But sooner or later, that day will come, and on that day, the Zionist project will finally join its archaic brethren on the trash heap of history. That’s why the people of the world must back the call of Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions – because “justice in Palestine” means more than just an end to the illegal occupation.

The only “solution” to apartheid and colonialism is decolonization: That includes an end to ethnic privilege within Israel, as well as the right of return for refugees. Only then can Palestinian self-determination be anything more than the mockery Israel, the US, and their Palestinian puppet regime have made of it.