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The Grand Collaboration

Israel boycotters and the right-wing settlers are unwittingly working toward the same end

Shaul Magid
January 06, 2021
Original photos: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images; Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images
Original photos: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images; Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images
Original photos: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images; Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images
Original photos: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images; Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images

Some of us who teach about Israel used to teach “The Arab-Israeli Conflict.” But that term has long become obsolete. Now we teach the “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” But that, too, may be on the verge of obsolescence. We are headed toward a vision of Greater Israel that confirms the greatest hopes of the settlers, as it ratifies everything left-wing anti-occupation activists, like those in the BDS movement, have been saying all along. For this shift in on-the-ground reality, we can thank Donald Trump, feckless Arab heads of state, and the new rules for labeling foods imported from the West Bank.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I want to begin with the decoupling of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the Israeli-Palestinian one. Then, I consider the success of anti-normalization and normalization in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) and settler movements, respectively—two movements that, ironically, have together made the term “occupation” obsolete. And we’ll end with a bleak assessment of the prospects for a liberal, two-state Zionism.

The conflict, or as Israelis ironically call it, the mazav, the situation, was always two conflicts, really: the regional conflict between Israel and the Arab world, and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Before 1967, the world only saw the first one. But after 1967, both were viewed as intertwined; for most of that post-1967 history, the two overlapping conflicts were viewed as two pieces of the same puzzle. In that puzzle, the road to Jerusalem always ran along the road to Ramallah, and the very notion of “conflict” included what the Palestinians said was an “occupation,” referring to lands Israel conquered after the Six-Day War that included the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Depending on who you were, that territory was either “liberated,” “illegal,” or “disputed.”

In fact, the two Camp David accords each dealt with one aspect of these two parts—the largely successful Israeli/Egyptian Peace Treaty in Camp David I, in 1979, and the more precarious and largely unsuccessful attempt to resolve the Palestinian conflict in Camp David II, in 2000. After 20 years, it is worth asking how much of this is relevant anymore. Or, more pointedly, have things developed such that the two parts of the conflict—Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian—are no longer operative? What I mean is that “conflict” here implies unresolved issues that hold the potential for resolution. In the case of the Arab-Israeli situation, it appears the unresolved issues are being ironed out. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian situation it appears the unresolved issues are being undermined by the dominance of one narrative and the erasure of the other.

These days have seen historic movement in regard to Israel’s normalization with some of its Arab neighbors. First, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Next, Sudan. And more recently, Benjamin Netanyahu’s alleged meeting with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. On the face of it, this is good news. Any act of normalization between sovereign nations is good. But there seems to be an ulterior motive that has been endemic to Netanyahu’s vision for some time: Circumventing the Palestinians by engaging Arab neighbors suggests “peace” and normalization could come without a direct resolution to the Palestinian issue. Or, in other words, the Arab-Israeli conflict could be resolved without ending the “occupation” through a Palestinian state. Thus far, some Arab countries have been willing to play along because of U.S. incentives, and because they have more serious concerns, like fending off an Iranian threat. However, decoupling the Arab-Israeli conflict from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dangerous if you believe that the “occupation” is both immoral and unjust, even setting aside its illegality.

This decoupling is dangerous precisely because it might work. If Israel is able to normalize its relations with enough Arab countries, reversing the Arab League’s rejection of Israel in 1967, the “occupation” as such will disappear as an impediment to peace. Many argue it already has. Then Israel is left with its “democracy” problem, which, as we know, most of the Arab countries do not care much about. But it is worth recalling the famous words of Abraham Shalom, who headed the Shin Bet from 1981-86: “Israel only has tactics and not strategy.” That is, it is always playing the short game. So Israel is pursuing “normalization” with the Arab world, which in principle is a good thing, while also “normalizing” the occupation in such a way that it essentially becomes irrelevant.

As long as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were linked, for Israel to get what it wants, like normalization with its Arab neighbors, it had to compromise on what it already had, like an ongoing, oppressive occupation of Palestinian lands. But the Trump administration has created conditions whereby Israel can get what it wants with its Arab neighbors, without compromising what it has in regard to the Palestinians. For those who dwell solely in the world of realpolitik, this is a full monty. For those of us who see this in moral (or one might even say religious) terms, this is a recipe for disaster.

Why? Because such a plan, if successful, would enable Israel to achieve its goal by circumventing any moral responsibility toward those who undemocratically live in its democracy. That is, undermining Israel’s democracy.

BDS and the settler movement are ostensibly at loggerheads, but as I will show they are actually working in tandem. BDS calls on the world to boycott Israel. Its reasons are varied. For some, it is because all of Israel is occupied, thus delegitimizing Israel regardless of the 1967 “occupation.” For others, a boycott is a tactic to force Israel to end the occupation and grant the Palestinians the same rights of self-determination the Jews there claim for themselves. For my purposes, I engage only the latter form of BDS, as the former leaves little Israel can do to meet its demands. (Some will say only the first kind of BDS really exists, but I reject that as a convenient way to avoid confronting the second kind.)

The goal of BDS is anti-normalization—that is, preventing normal forms of recognizing Israel as long as it is engaged in an illegal and immoral occupation. In short, for BDS, Tel Aviv is like Kiryat Arba (an Israeli settlement adjacent to Hebron)—both enact and perform occupation. For its purposes, BDS erases any moral distinction between Israel and the occupation, even as it claims that the occupation is the reason for that erasure. An Israeli Jew in Tel Aviv is as culpable as one erecting a tent on a West Bank hilltop. For those in favor of anti-normalization, there is ostensibly no occupation of the West Bank that would distinguish it from Israel, which is why they boycott Israel.

The settlers, meanwhile, are engaged in a slow process of normalization; that is, they claim that the settlements are not part of some illegal “occupation” but part of Israel. Put otherwise, if for BDS there is no difference between Tel Aviv and Kiryat Arba, for the settlers there is no difference between Kiryat Arba and Tel Aviv.

The settlers’ normalization program takes many forms. The most well known of course, are political, such as the Levy Report in 2012, which claims the West Bank is not “occupied territory” and that the settlements are not illegal under international law. But there are more interesting forms of normalization at play. Resources and infrastructure have created a sense of continuity between Israel proper and the West Bank, essentially erasing the Green Line from sight. A Jew may have to slow down to breeze through a makeshift check point, but other than that it is relatively easy not know whether one is in Israel or the West Bank. And that is precisely the point.

The settlers have also been engaged in their own program of rhetorical normalization. We hear things such as, “We are not radical ideologues; we are nice folk, folk just like you. And we have the right to live wherever we want in the land of Israel. We live in a suburb.” Or, “We coexist with the Arabs. Jewish and Arab children play soccer together. We help one another in the supermarket.” Or more generally, “It is the settlers who are really fostering peace, because we are the ones living with Arabs as opposed to leftist Jews in Tel Aviv who don’t live with Arabs.”

Of course what is missing from the “normalization” rhetoric is that the Jews are citizens, while their Arab neighbors are not. The Jews live under civil law, while their neighbors live under military law. The Jews often go free after breaking the law, while their neighbors are sometimes imprisoned even if they don’t break the law. But that is precisely the point. Normalization erases inequality through the fiction of some imagined equality. “Separate but equal.” Just as BDS makes a legitimate state illegitimate because of its illegitimate occupation, the settlers make the settlements legitimate, thereby erasing any distinction between itself and the state. Kiryat Arba is like Tel Aviv.

What BDS and the settlers both do is undermine the liberal Zionist narrative, which rests on the dual notion that the state is legitimate but the occupation is not. That is, liberal Zionism needs the admixture of normality and abnormality, legality and illegality, to function in tandem. If the occupation delegitimizes the state, or the settlements are normalized, occupation either doesn’t matter or disappears. And thus the liberal narrative collapses.

The latest subversion of the liberal narrative was announced by Mike Pompeo, who engaged in his own “normalization” of the settlements by being the first United States secretary of state to visit one. In his remarks, he said that food manufactured in West Bank settlements would be labeled “Made in Israel.” This has been an issue for a long time, but such a statement by a U.S. official is noteworthy. What work is Pompeo’s statement really doing? Essentially it is doing the work of both BDS and the settlers, in that it states that Kiryat Arba is like Tel Aviv and Tel Aviv is like Kiryat Arba. Once you say that, you have not only bought into the narrative of the settlers, but also into the narrative of BDS.

So now those individuals—and I count myself among them—who do not support BDS, but who do not buy products from the settlements, can no longer distinguish between Tel Aviv and Kiryat Arba. This leaves a choice: either to buy products that might be manufactured in Kiryat Arba or not to buy products from Israel at all. In other words, the BDS/settler narrative forces the consumer into making a choice. This may be precisely the intent of both, even if toward different ends. The hope among pro-Israelists is that BDS is so distasteful and problematic for liberal Zionists that they will just cave to the normalization of the settlements. And they are probably right. But in doing so they are unwittingly also caving into the structure of the anti-normalization of BDS by accepting the normalization narrative of the settlements. This is because both reject or deny the occupation.

This shift is undermining any coherent liberal response. By decoupling the Arab-Israeli conflict from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we enable the erasure of the latter through the successful resolution of the former. Some Arab leaders are certainly culpable here as well, selling out the Palestinian cause for some war planes and financial incentives. They have succumbed to Jared Kushner’s politics of cynical capitalism; everyone has a price. By showering praise on Netanyahu or Trump or Kushner for “historic” shifts in the Arab-Israeli conflict, we unwittingly buy into its unspoken consequence: making occupation a thing of the past, not by ending it, but by ignoring it as irrelevant. Unless, of course, buses start blowing up, heaven forbid.

By praising Pompeo’s remark about “Made in Israel,” we think we are supporting a pro-Israel position. But we are also inadvertently supporting a BDS position. If what is made in Kiryat Arba is identical to what is made in Tel Aviv, there is no longer an “occupation”; there is one state from the river to the sea, which is what both the settlers and BDS want us to believe. Liberal Zionists don’t really have an answer, because the narrative upon which their position is based is being taken away from them, by the right and the left.

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.