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Israel and the contradictions of Zionism

Nick Clark explains how the state of Israel must brutally repress Palestinians to exist, but how this now risks upsetting its imperialist masters
Issue 2851
Prime minister of Israel Binyamin Netanyahu

Prime minister of Israel Binyamin Netanyahu wants to push Palestinians off all their land (Picture: Wikicommons/ Foreign Office)

Israel is a ­society in turmoil. On one hand, it has a government that is “marching towards the future” as its national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir put it last week. But on the other hand, that government heads a state riven with a crisis. It’s so deep that, according to one side, it threatens Israel’s very identity as a Jewish and “democratic” state.

On the surface, the crisis is about the government’s ­proposed changes to the legal and political system. It sees the power of the supreme court to overturn government votes as a hindrance to its ambitions in the West Bank, and wants to remove this.

That would make it much easier to “legalise” settlement outposts in the Palestinian West Bank for instance—and to build many more. But for sections of the Israeli state, that would also destroy the mechanism that gives the occupation the cloak of legal and democratic legitimacy.

And in doing so, it puts Israel at odds with the US—on who it depends, and in whose interests it has always acted. The US arms and funds Israel. But it needs to ­maintain the fiction that Israel is a democracy and that it is committed to Palestinian statehood.

For some supporters of Palestinians, there’s a question as to whether it would be better for one side to win out against the other—with the likes of Ben-Gvir defeated. There’s also a bigger ­question as to whether Israel’s apartheid state can survive this crisis. After all, the contradictions that led to the crisis were built into Israel’s very foundations.

Israel’s founders were ­motivated by horrific antisemitic persecution in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to establish an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine. That goal was a political project known as Zionism. But its realisation could only mean carving out a state on land that was already inhabited.

From the outset, the Zionist activists who sought to colonise Palestine used violence to drive out Arabs, with racist myths to deny their right to the land. The leaders of the Zionist movement also knew that to establish a state they’d need the support of a major imperial power. Chaim Weizmann, one of the leaders of the Zionist movement, courted the British government with the offer of helping to police the Arab ­population in Palestine.

Britain was keen to occupy Palestine after the First World War. But at the same time Britain also needed to appease Arab political leaders—and stave off rebellion by Palestinian people. It had to promise that the British Empire and Zionism wouldn’t threaten their own rights and ambitions of statehood.

The result was a ­contradiction, embodied in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. In this, Britain promised “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” But it also said, “Nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Inevitably it meant Palestinians—who the declaration did not promise any such state—would lose their land and homes.

In the following decades, the Zionist movement acted as an arm of the British Empire in Palestine. Its official militia the Haganah joined with British soldiers in oppressing the Arab population—and in putting down an Arab revolt in 1936. But increasingly, the Zionists found their ambitions of establishing a state in Palestine restrained by the needs of British imperialism.  

The official Zionist leadership denounced British attempts to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine as a betrayal. By 1948 Britain had to quit Palestine, drawing up a partition plan that granted most of the land to a new Israeli state.  Even then, the Zionists rejected those borders, and sought to capture as much land as possible through force and a programme of ethnic cleansing.

There are parallels with Israel’s crisis today. Just as then, Zionism’s ambitions have come into conflict with the needs of the imperial power it depends on. Everything about the Israeli state, society and politics is shaped by its complete integration into the US’s imperial order. From the moment it was founded, Israel’s leaders saw their future in a role as the US’s chief enforcer in the Middle East. They proved Israel capable of this in the Six Day War of 1967.

This began Israel’s ­occupation of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. It also defeated the armies of Arab nationalist governments that challenged US interests in the Middle East. The US rewarded Israel with far more billions of dollars of military aid than it has given to any other ally. It sees Israel as so integral to its own interests that it has a law making governments legally required to maintain Israel’s military supremacy in the Middle East.

This money went directly and indirectly into the arms and high tech industries central to Israel’s economy today. Israel exports these back to the US and around the world. Yet there are still ­fundamental tensions. Today, Israel’s Jewish ­citizens live on land stolen from Palestinians, in a society that privileges them over Palestinians.

The Palestinian fight for ­freedom and self-determination is a threat to that. That’s why, as Israel has tightened its grip on Palestine, Israeli politics has drifted continually rightwards. It cannot countenance allowing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which would mean giving up at least some of the West Bank where half a million of its citizens live.

But it knows that allowing Palestinians equal, democratic rights in a single state would negate its existence as an ­exclusively Jewish state. No major political force in Israel can now say it will give up the settlements, or cede control of the West Bank, east Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip. Parties that champion brute force to hold onto the ­settlements have come to ­dominate Israeli politics.

Yet the US uses the “two state solution”—the promise of a future Palestinian statelet—to appease Palestinian leaders and the rulers of its other Arab allies. This has caused some ­antagonism between Israel and the US for several years. But no government has so clearly stated its aim to break from the US’s strategy as this one. 

In 2017, Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Jewish Home Party, wrote a “decisive plan” for Israel. Zionism and Palestinian national liberation could not co‑exist, he said. One would have to surrender to the other “willingly or by force.” Israel would have to declare its permanent ownership of all Palestinian land with new cities and settlements “deep inside” the West Bank.

Palestinians would have the “option” of either accepting life in an Israeli society that denies them equal rights, being paid to leave—or being killed if they keep fighting. All of this, Smotrich accepts, is a “deviation from accepted principles” of how states should behave.

In this vision Israel would no longer take instructions from the US or the “international community”. Instead, the rest of the world would have to accept the new situation. Smotrich is now Israel’s finance minister, and appears confident that things appear to be going broadly to plan.

The US has still been able to rein the government in. Its criticism, along with backlash among significant sections of the Israeli state and society, forced prime minister Netanyahu to pause the judicial reforms. But it can’t resolve the roots of the crisis, or the internal ­contradiction in Zionism.

Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and increasingly Netanyahu reflect the need of Zionism to seize all Palestinian land. The opposition, and large sections of the Israeli state, embody its need to submit to the demands of US imperialism. Increasingly the two are at odds—and the crisis could yet end in a bloody confrontation.

The only way to overcome the crisis is a state that both breaks from US imperialism, and accepts Palestinians as citizens with democratic rights. But neither side will willingly accept that—and will unite around the Israeli state against Palestinians. Far from offering Palestinians protection, the opposition is committed to maintaining the occupation.

They obeyed when Netanyahu called up army reservists—who had refused to sign on for duty in protest at the judicial reforms—to crush Palestinian resistance last week. Instead, they argue that the loss of Israel’s “democracy” will threaten its “security”—­undermining its ability to police the occupation.

So even in the depth of its most existential crisis, Palestinian liberation can’t come from within Israel. The racist state has to be split apart by resistance, and the imperialist order it relies on broken by revolt across the Middle East.

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