Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Are Zionists settlers?

Zionists have traditionally seen Israeli Jews as "returned natives"--a people that has reconstituted itself as a nation and returned to its homeland after two millenia starting in the early 1880s. Arabs and their supporters have simply seen them as settlers, no different morally or even conceptually than the white settlers who have settled around the world from Europe since the early 16th century. In this post I will demonstrate that Israel has the characteristics of a modern settler society and then offer my perspective on the returned native vs. settler controversy.

In the summer of 1998 I went to Belfast to examine what was taking place there after the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement. I was fresh off a tour in the Army in Kosovo and finally had the savings for research and writing. After spending some time in the Linenhall Library's political collection reading up on the history of The Troubles--the period of Northern Ireland history from late 1968 that was then still continuing--I saw many similarities with both Israel and South Africa. I ended up writing my first book, Native vs. Settler, which examined the three conflicts in a range of categories. My book, published in 2000, joined a growing literature that had compared the three conflicts since 1989. Mine was I believe the first to compare all three conflicts on a settler/native basis.

In 2002 after my second book, Indispensable Traitors, was published, I was thinking about what to write about next. I decided to write about Israel's military politicians and I started looking for cases to compare them with. This is how I began researching antebellum America, about which I will write further in my next post. It was not until 2004 that I wrote an article, published in 2005 in The Journal of Conflict Studies in New Brunswick, Canada that I set out systematically to demonstrate that Israeli politics were settler politics. What follows is the essence of that article.

Israeli politics in 2004-05 exhibited six salient features:
1) Because of the proportional representation--list franchise system, Israeli elections result in multiple parties and all governments are coalition governments, most of them weak and unstable.
2) Israel has powerful religious parties that are more akin to the system Islamist parties found in Turkey and Indonesia than to parties found in Western Europe or North America.
3) Former senior military officers have played a major role in electoral politics since at least 1954.
4) Both the Labor Party and the Likud have paramilitary roots to their parties--both have one component party at the time of their formation (1968, 1973) with paramilitary origins.
5) Since the June 1967 Six Day War the territorial question has been the dividing line between parties of the Left and the Right, rather than economic policy. Before 1967 other aspects of the Arab question were the main dividers between the Revisionists/Herut and Mapai.
6) Israel has a legal differentiation in status between Arabs and Jews.

The first two features are the subject of most texts on Israeli politics (at least in English--I own three of them). Traits three through six are traits typical of self-governing or autonomous settler societies such as the United States, Northern Ireland, and South Africa under white rule. It is not a single one of these traits but their combination that makes it possible to speak of Israeli politics as settler politics. Although all three of the above mentioned societies had traits five and six, they either had traits three or four but not both. Thus, Israeli politics are more settlerlike than most settler societies.

Because Israel's multiparty system is so defining of the Israeli political system, comparisons should best be made with settler societies that have a similar party system. Unfortunately, however, most British settler colonies used the first-past-the-post franchise resulting in two- or three-party systems. Only Northern Ireland is a settler society that has a form of proportional representation. Its party system, however, is normally made up of five parties: two unionist British Protestant (settler), two nationalist Irish Catholic (native), and a small liberal non-sectarian party. So normally when examining settler politics in Northern Ireland one is looking at a two-party system. But when the system is put under pressure by pressure from London to reach a solution to the Irish question, a breakdown in unionist unity results. Unionist politics were multipolar from 1973 to 1978 and from the mid-1990s to 2003. Fortunately the latter period was during the peace process and resulted in a weak two-party coalition that can be usefully compared to Israeli governments.

Northern Ireland has five of the six salient features of Israeli politics. It is only missing a major role for former senior military officers. This is because Northern Ireland is a province of the United Kingdom rather than a sovereign entity. Although throughout the 19th and 20th centuries unionists from Ulster contributed greatly to the senior ranks of the British army, they did not go on to serve as politicians after Northern Ireland became autonomous starting in 1922. This is because there is no tradition of former senior officers having a second career in politics as there was in the United States in the 19th century or in South Africa among Afrikaners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To make comparisons on this very important feature of Israeli politics we will have to turn to these two societies, and that will be the subject of my next post.

Many Jews for ideological reasons, and many Arabs as well, are incapable of seeing Israeli Jews as both returned natives and settlers--they must be one or the other. About 90-95 percent of Israeli Jews are descended from at least one parent whose ancestors arrived in Palestine/Israel after 1880, most after 1917. After 1917 Palestine was administered first by the British army and then by the Colonial Office. Palestine was de facto a British settler colony with some loose supervision by the League of Nations. The Palestine mandate was run for its first two decades until 1939 primarily for the benefit of the Zionists--to encourage immigrant absorption and Jewish economic development, although adjustments were made periodically to assuage Arab resentment and resistance. During the last decade the mandate was run on a more equal basis as Britain backed away from its commitments to Zionism under the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the League of Nations mandate. This is the period that is largely used by the Zionists to create an anti-colonial mythology.

So are Israeli Jews only settlers? DNA testing has established that they have ties to the Holy Land and are related to the Palestinian population. The only other group of settlers that claims to be returned natives are a few of the Ulster-Scots of Northern Ireland who claim that they are the descendants of the ancient Picts who were driven out of Ireland by the Gaels in about 1,000 AD and then returned some six hundred years later. And this is very much a minority position among unionists raised some 350 years after the original Ulster plantation.

Arabs and anti-Zionists take two different, and contrary, positions on Israelis as returned natives. First, some say that their exile from the land resulted in the Jews losing any political rights to the land as a separate people. Among Arabs and Muslims this is made easier by the belief that Jews cannot be both a religion and a people (or nation) and so are only the former. This ignores the traditional Jewish religious position on this question. The second position is to simply deny any connection to the land. In July 2000 at Camp David Yasir Arafat denied that there had ever been a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. He claimed that the temple had been in Nablus. After all, he was an expert on Judaism. Palestinian children are taught in Palestinian schools that the Jews have no historical link with the land.

So, if the historical connection is irrelevant, why go to great lengths to deny it? This is the question that anti-Zionists must answer.  The League of Nations and the British certainly thought that it was relevant. Americans as a whole continue to believe that it is relevant.

The other question is: Are all settler societies automatically illegitimate? Zionists certainly seem to believe that this is the case, which is one of the prime motives for denouncing any talk of Zionists as settlers. Yet we find settler societies throughout the world: Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific; Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile in South America; Costa Rica in Central America; the United States and Canada in North America. In many other countries in Latin America the descendants of settlers constitute a large minority of the population as in Brazil, Paraguay, Venezuela, and Cuba. All of these countries are considered legitimate.

I believe that by engaging solely in a hasbara campaign on this issue, the Jewish Right is foregoing much valuable analysis that can be used in the struggle for peace. Maybe this is because the Right does not believe in the possibility of peace.

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