Israel and Palestine in the Age of Trump

Yair Wallach on Seth Anziska

Seth Anziska. Preventing Palestine A Political History from Camp David to Oslo. Princeton University Press, 2-18. pp.464. $35.00.

In early June 2018, in an interview to the BBC in London, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed relaxed and upbeat. Sitting in a room overlooking the river Thames, he celebrated the newfound cooperation between Israel and Arab states, hinting at Israel’s strengthening relationship with Gulf states. When asked about relations with the Palestinians, Netanyahu was less enthusiastic. He blamed Palestinian leadership for refusing negotiations. Prompted to spell out his vision for a peaceful resolution of the century-old Israel-Palestine conflict, he proposed a model in which “they’ll have all the rights to govern themselves, and none of the powers to threaten us […] we would have the overriding security responsibility.” Would this be a Palestinian state? Netanyahu deflected: “state minus, autonomy plus – I don’t care how you call it.” He dismissed the notion that the West Bank was Occupied Palestinian territory. “Who says it’s their land?” As for the relevance of international law, Netanyahu scoffed “I don’t buy current fads.”

For readers of Seth Anziska’s Preventing Palestine, these comments would sound very familiar. They echo closely Israeli rhetoric that is forty years old. In the late 1970s, Israeli officials from the Likud government, in diplomatic discussions with their US counterparts, used almost identical language. They denied that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were occupied and claimed that Israel was there by historical right. They rejected the applicability of international law and insisted that UN security resolution 242, calling for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, did not apply in the West Bank and Gaza. They ruled out Palestinian self-determination and statehood. They used security as an argument to explain why Palestinian sovereignty was not on offer. Instead, they spoke about vague “self-rule.” While keen to reach peace agreements with neighbouring Arab states, this did not include the Palestinians. Israel was to stay in the occupied territories for good.

Preventing Palestine is a diplomatic history of negotiations over Palestinian rights for self-determination, from Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential election campaign to the unfulfilled promise of the 1990s Oslo Accords. Over twenty years of negotiations failed to lead to Palestinian statehood, while cementing Israeli control over the occupied territories. The real contribution of the book is by focusing on the 1970s concept of Palestinian “Autonomy” as the principle that structured three decades of negotiations and thus prevented Palestinian statehood. The Autonomy framework was put forward by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in his negotiations with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and was formalised in the US-sponsored Camp David Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt. The Camp David Autonomy blueprint has long been dismissed as an irrelevant footnote in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Conventional wisdom has viewed the Autonomy plan as no more than a temporary Israeli manoeuvre, with no real significance. Pressured by Egypt to address Palestinian self-determination, Israel proposed a Palestinian “functional” administration of civil affairs, initially for a five-year transitional phase, but with no real prospects of sovereignty after that initial phase ended. The plan was rejected outright by Palestinians, and the discussions never involved their representatives. The Autonomy talks stalled and then they discontinued. The Autonomy was a dead end, so went the conventional narrative.

Preventing Palestine offers a provocative and powerful challenge to this account. The feat of the book is taking a marginal footnote and making it into a primary lens. The Autonomy becomes the explanatory principle through which Israeli policies could be read. Anziska’s persuasive narrative suggests that the “autonomy” was much more than a temporary manoeuvre in Israeli-Egyptian talks. True, Menachem Begin’s Camp David proposals never got off the drawing board and were primarily a mechanism of deflection. But the principles Israel put forward in Camp David articulated in crisp terms its policy parameters on the Palestinian question: no Palestinian statehood, no recognition of historical Palestinian rights, no recognition of refugee rights, and no limits on Israeli settlement in the West Bank. All this amounted to a de-facto incorporation of the Palestinian occupied territories into the sphere of Israeli state control, leaving Palestinians with minimal self-rule. These principles, argues Anziska, were later embodied in the 1993 Oslo Accords. Many understood the Oslo Declaration of Principles as a framework leading towards a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, alongside Israel. But the accords, borrowing from the Camp David blueprint, only promised a five-year transition period of Palestinian self-rule, and no clarity beyond that. If we read the agreement through the Autonomy logic, it is less than surprising that Oslo never materialised in a Palestinian state. The Oslo accords did not spell out statehood as the end goal of the transition period; they did not put an end to Israeli settlement construction. In the wake of the Oslo’s collapse, the provisional arrangements for Palestinian autonomy under Israeli domination became permanent.

Such a narrative is particularly compelling in view of Israeli policies in the past decade under Prime Minister Netanyahu. The reluctant and qualified adoption of the “two state solution” in Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar Ilan speech was never translated into policy. Since 2015 his rhetoric shifted further to preclude the possibility of meaningful Palestinian sovereignty. Buoyed by the support of US Trump Administration, Israeli permanent rule over the West Bank never looked more secure, leaving Palestinians with fragmented pockets of autonomy in the West Bank and in the besieged, Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Palestinian political future looks bleak. But this outcome was not accidental: since the 1970s, the principles of Israeli policy were territorial incorporation and the containment of the Palestinian national project in limited arrangements of self-rule.

Yet this remarkable continuity also hides some important transitions and junctures. One never goes into the same river twice: Begin’s concept of Palestinian self-rule, as touted in 1978, means something quite different in 2019. Israeli policies that took form in the 1970s had different potential when applied in the 1990s and have yet different meaning today. Preventing Palestine is right to identify the underlying logic that connects 1970s Likud government, Rabin’s Oslo process, and Netanyahu’s intransigence, in curtailing the possibility of Palestinian sovereignty. And yet there are also significant differences, rooted in the changing political and spatial economy of Israel and the occupied territories, and the changing political landscape in Israel. Diplomatic history, focused as it is on statecraft and the rhetoric of geopolitics, offers us only a limited view onto the social and political processes which enabled the prevention of Palestinian statehood.

When Begin proposed Palestinian “functional” autonomy and spoke about Jewish-Arab coexistence in the occupied territories, he was speaking in a moment where the Palestinian labour market was incorporated into Israeli economy, with no checkpoints or divisions between the West Bank and Gaza and Israel proper. About half of the Palestinian workforce was employed by Israeli businesses and enterprises. Palestinian workers, waking up in Nablus and Gaza, travelled daily without restrictions to work within the Green Line, where they were crucial for labour-intensive sectors such as construction and agriculture. It was a highly unequal economy, of colonial exploitation, but one that the Likud was comfortable with. Israel/Palestine was a single country, in which movement was unrestricted. The occupation came at little cost, as Palestinian armed resistance was limited. Attacks on soldiers and settlers were infrequent. This state of affairs of pacified occupied territories and uneven economic integration was the background to Likud’s plan of a limited autonomy under permanent “benevolent” Israeli rule.

When Labour returned to power in the 1990s, such a model was no longer possible or desirable for Israel. The late 1980s Palestinian uprising of the first Intifada illustrated that the occupation was no longer cost-free, and now came with a high price in military, economic and diplomatic terms. Palestinian workers came to be seen as a risk and a liability. They were also no longer necessary to the same extent. Globalisation opened the possibility of migrant workers from other parts of the world, while Israel’s economy was shifting away from labour-intensive sectors to hi-tech, defence and information technology. Gradually yet unmistakeably, new barriers were established between Israel “proper” and the occupied territories, restricting Palestinian movement to a minimum. This was the premise of Labour’s Oslo process: that West Bank and Gaza can and should be separated from Israel, in territorial and demographic sense. It is true that the parameters of the accords resembled the Autonomy blueprint. But, unlike the Likud, Labour offered the Palestinians not only “functional” but also territorial autonomy and recognised the integrity of the Occupied Territories as a single unit. At the same time, Oslo forced a reorganisation of Israel’s political map. Rabin’s recognition of the Palestinians’ political rights – limited and half-hearted as it was – triggered an unprecedented backlash. Within a year, his coalition collapsed, and he faced a strategic choice whether to halt the peace process. He chose, instead, to lead a minority government with the support of Palestinian members of Knesset. The inclusion of Palestinians in the ruling coalition was unprecedented. Never before nor since were “Arab parties” considered legitimate members of coalition. Many believe that it was the decision to rule without a clear ethnic “Jewish majority,” which proved the final straw for the hard-right and led to Rabin’s assassination in November 1995.

The Oslo process should be seen in the wider context of the history of Zionist policies since the 1920s. Zionist/Israeli leadership has long been unwilling to recognise Arab Palestinians as a national community with established history in the country, and with legitimate rights for self-determination. As historian Dmitry Shumksy has shown, in the 1920s and 1930s the Zionist movement was willing to countenance some national rights for a large Arab minority within a future Jewish-majority state. But in the 1940s the Zionist vision shifted to a state that would be as homogenously Jewish as possible. After the 1948 establishment of Israel and its depopulation of most Arab Palestinians, the national existence of Palestinians was denied. After the 1967 war, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were considered local population, rather than a nation; they could be allowed to vote for municipal elections or to operate universities, but not to obtain sovereignty. This inability to recognise Palestinians as a nation stood at the heart of “autonomy” in the Camp David framework. Rabin certainly operated within these parameters, and the Oslo process embodied them.

But at the same time, Labour had a long tradition of economic and territorial separatism, going back to the first half of the twentieth century. The Oslo process manifested this tendency. The 1990s gradual exclusion of Palestinian workforce from the Israeli labour market pointed towards territorial separation between Israel and the Occupied territories. The strategic aims of the Oslo process, from Rabin’s government’s perspective, were to alleviate Israel of direct occupation of the Palestinians in the Occupied territories, and to boost Israel’s standing in the world, which would allow the country, and particularly its elite, to take advantage of economic globalisation. For these aims to be achieved in a manner that would consolidate Labour’s hegemony, Israel would need a stable and permanent agreement with the Palestinians. This could only have meant Palestinian statehood. While in terms of internal Israeli politics, this course of action inevitably required an alliance with Arab parties, signalling the transformation of the “Jewish State” to a civic Israeli state, in which Palestinian citizens play an equal part. The disentanglement of Israel and the Occupied territories on the one hand, and the transformation of Israel into a civic democracy on the other, were two sides of the same coin. Oslo required both of them to succeed. There is little to show that Rabin understood these consequences when he embarked on Oslo, but the process had a dynamic of its own. The challenge for such an endeavour was huge, and it quite likely would have failed even had Rabin not been assassinated, not least because the logic of Oslo – inherited from Begin’s autonomy, and the larger trajectory of Zionism – was one of denial of Palestinian legitimate rights, both as a nation and as equal citizens. The Oslo process thus embodied a contradiction between the dynamics of territorial separatism which motivated it, and the legal framework of containment and incorporation in which it was articulated.

The years since have proven again and again that Israeli policy makers are unwilling to acknowledge Palestinian rights. In the absence of Palestinian leverage, external pressure, or any real dividend to be gained from agreements with the Palestinians, Israel’s policies continue to be guided by its core instincts: settlement and annexation, the containment of Palestinian nationalism, and the denial of Palestinian sovereignty. Fifty-two years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank created a situation in which the partition of Israel/Palestine to two states is almost impossible to fathom. This is not because the settlement project is such a resounding success. Ariel Sharon’s 1970s plan for a million settlers in the West Bank by 2000 never materialised. The number of settlers today still falls far short of this target (622,000 as of 2017, including East Jerusalem). Supporters of the two-state solution highlight these “limited” numbers as proof that partition is still possible. But such a demographic consideration misses the point. Israeli control is now embedded and entrenched, far beyond questions of headcount or numbers of housing units. As the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza proved, even without a single settler within the Strip, Israel continues to dominate the life of Gazans.

Likud’s victory in the 2019 Israeli elections, and the Trump administration recognition of Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights (occupied from Syrian in 1967), pave the road towards a uniliteral annexation of parts of the West Bank. Even without such formal step, the incorporation of the occupied territories into Israel accelerates. At best, a Palestinian “state,” if it ever materialises, would constitute fragmented pockets of self-rule with no real sovereignty. But unlike in the 1970s, when the country was a single spatial and economic unit, Palestinians are now locked up in fragmented enclaves, restricted through check points, the Separation barrier and an opaque system of permits. In the 1970s, Israel did not want the Palestinians as citizens, but relied on them as workers. “Self-rule,” in the political economy of the 1970s, was by no means an equitable vision, but economic and spatial integration offered stability as well as avenues for interaction, challenge and resistance. Since the 1990s Israel is no longer dependent on Palestinian workers, and the population is far more restricted and segregated. Under such conditions, and as settlements and land grab continue, “self-rule” represents a far more unstable, violent and dangerous prospect. Perhaps the future of the West Bank’s urban centres could come to resemble the Gaza Strip, under siege for 13 years. Even worse, the extreme right wing in Israel does not shy away from calls for the expulsion of Palestinians who would not agree to a second-class status. Palestinian statehood was indeed prevented, but “autonomy” is by no means a viable path. The alternatives to these dark scenarios remain unclear.


Yair Wallach is a senior lecturer in Israeli Studies at SOAS University of London and the chair of the Centre for Jewish Studies. His research deals with modernity and its transformative dimensions in Israel/Palestine, focussing on urban space and visual culture.