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A 'Historic Error' Turns 70

As at its birth, Israel continues to wage war against Palestinians and its neighbours.

Israel approaches its 70th anniversary in much the manner it began its life: waging war. Years of covert actions and clandestine alliances with one side or the other in the ongoing battles in the Arab world have yielded to a virtual declaration of war on Iran. That war is now joined on Syrian territory, but the dangerous escalation of early May presages an explosion in the not too distant future.

The green flag for this escalation came from Washington, DC on 8 May, when United States (US) President Donald Trump, in intimate cohabitation with racists and anti-Semites of every stripe, responded to a demand the Jewish state has been making with obsessive persistence. In a speech laced with customary venality and vainglory, Trump announced that the US would withdraw from a deal that guaranteed a range of restraints on Iran’s nuclear research programmes.

The deal had been signed in July 2015, after long negotiations involving Iran, the US and five other partners. Expert opinion had recognised it as a sound agreement with credible mechanisms of enforcement. Yet the prospect of Iran breaking out of the cocoon of isolation after being found in marginal violation of certain obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was perceived in Israel as an existential threat.

Closer home, Israel has been waved on to the next phase in its war against an entire people’s history and identity. Every restraint was removed when Trump announced that the US would shift its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. That momentous shift is slated for 14 May, the anniversary of Israel’s foundation that Palestinians observe as the “Nakba” or catastrophe. Since mid-March, Palestinians have been preparing for the day, with marches towards the highly fortified fence that separates land formally annexed by Israel from the vast open-air prison of Gaza.

Over two-thirds of Gaza’s population are refugees, some of them uprooted several times over amid the death and devastation of successive Israeli assaults. The “land march” to the border fence is the Palestinian assertion of their right to reclaim lost homelands. In six weeks of protest following Friday prayers, Gazan protesters have lost 51 lives in targeted killings by Israel, which the Human Rights Watch has called “unlawful,” meriting investigation by the International Criminal Court.

That expert judgment stands in stark contrast to the insouciance of the US. In response to both the killings in Gaza and the escalation in Syria, it has said that Israel has every right to defend itself. As Israel approaches its 70-year mark, it is important to arrive at an accurate reading of the system of global legitimacy under which it functions. What possibly could be the nature of a state that assumes a right to self-defence so wide that it kills unarmed demonstrators asserting a globally recognised right to restitution, and attacks neighbouring states with impunity to appease its endless existential anxiety?

The answer has been resonating through parts of the Israeli political spectrum for a while. Around the middle of last year, Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Barak emerged out of oblivion to sound the alarm that Israel—if not already there—was on the “slippery slope” towards a state of apartheid. His alarm was not misplaced. In 2003, Avraham Burg, a pedigreed member of Israel’s Ashkenazim political elite and a former speaker of the Knesset, had warned of apartheid not as future possibility, but as an accomplished fact.

The “demographic problem” as it is called in Israeli political discourse, has been an obsessive concern since the Zionist state was founded. Israeli strategy was typically framed around large-scale population transfers to firmly entrench Jewish possession of the land. When that proved impractical beyond a point, unilateral separation was dreamt up. The “two state solution” for all practical purposes ended with Barak’s phony peace offering of 2000, but has occasionally re-emerged as a means of relieving the demographic embarrassment.

In 2008, in its last effort to restart the peace process, US President George Bush hosted both sides in Annapolis in the US. Israel was then supposedly recovering from a long spell of extreme right-wing dominance. But in the secrecy of Annapolis, Israel’s foreign minister at the time—a supposed pragmatic from the peace camp—put forward the demand that talks would only resume if the Palestinians recognised Israel in eternity, as a Jewish state. This meant that the refugees’ right of return would be extinguished and the citizenship status of Israel’s Palestinian minority plunged in uncertainty. To the Palestinians, this was an invitation to collective suicide. Condoleezza Rice, then US Secretary of State, was appalled at the assertion of the “ethnic purity of the Israeli state.” But that was only a momentary weakness. She soon responded to the undeclared US strategic imperative of ­“Israel first” and returned to the path of unswerving loyalty.

Pragmatism may have secured a marginal advantage over dogma under the Obama administration. But Trump has signalled an unequivocal return to the policy of coddling the rogue racist regime. And as Israel prepares yet again to set a match to the combustible political mix in the wider neighbourhood, the rest of the world needs to take account of the dire consequences that could follow. It is a time when the judgment of the highly awarded playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, assumes a deeper resonance: of Israel as a “historic error.”

Updated On : 17th May, 2018

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