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Israel’s thought police have failed the US-sponsored peace process

In the end, the deadline came and went, and some people did not even notice. April 29, a day that had loomed on the horizon portending decisive developments for the US secretary of state John Kerry’s stricken peace process, brought neither breakthrough nor decisive failure.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been “paused”, and the US has very little to show for months of shuttle diplomacy, discussions, and proposals. On the ground, meanwhile, Israeli colonisation has continued apace. In nine months of formal talks, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government advanced construction for around 14,000 housing units in West Bank settlements.

Hours before the expiration of the April 29 deadline-that-wasn’t, Kerry was forced to release a statement not about the peace process per se, but about remarks he had made the previous Friday. Speaking at a closed forum with officials from the US, Europe, Russia and Japan, Kerry had warned that without a “two-state solution”, Israel would face a choice between “either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens” or “being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state”.

Kerry’s remarks, very similar to those made by a number of senior Israeli politicians and a host of liberal Zionist commentators, were denounced by pro-Israel groups in the US, who slammed the veteran diplomat for merely uttering the ‘A’ word.

AIPAC, the biggest and most hawkish group of the pro-Israel lobby, claimed that “any suggestion that Israel is, or is at risk of becoming, an apartheid state is offensive and inappropriate”, while the Anti-Defamation League said it was “disappointed” by Kerry’s remarks.

In his personal statement published on Monday, Kerry stressed his “commitment to Israel” and claimed that if he “could rewind the tape”, he “would have chosen a different word” to describe his “firm belief that the only way in the long term to have a Jewish state and two nations and two peoples living side by side in peace and security is through a two state solution”. (This is not the space to rehearse the arguments that Israel is already an apartheid state.)

The spectacle of a US secretary of state being castigated for merely mentioning something that might happen in the future, is a reminder that, in the words of The New Yorker journalist John Cassidy, “the one place you can’t have a reasonable discussion about Israel is Washington”.

That is nothing new, of course, but there is a sense of desperation in the nature of the Israel lobby’s increasingly paranoid and bizarre attacks.

By way of further illustration, Israel lobby group J Street failed this week to gain admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. J Street is an organisation which supports Israel as a “Jewish state” and actively fights Palestine solidarity activism – but is liberal by the standards of the American pro-Israel lobby.

Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, analyst Chemi Shalev described “the emphatic repudiation of J Street” as “a milestone in the growing polarisation and fragmentation of the organised American-Jewish community”.

He went on: “In rejecting J Street, the conference chose exclusion over inclusion, intolerance over understanding, division over agreement, a bunker mentality over open mindedness. J Street’s unequivocal rejection will be interpreted as a victory for the ascendant forces of right-wing fanaticism who are now engaged in a perpetual purge of disloyal dissenters and deviants, in their own prejudiced eyes.”

As the US-managed peace process dies on its feet, leaving a status quo of an Israeli-controlled, de facto “one state” with Palestinians subjected to an apartheid regime, Israel’s supporters are furiously trying to enforce the limits of discourse.

As Noam Sheizaf put it in +972 Magazine, “strong gatekeepers and lobby organisations police every aspect of the debate” in the US.

“By ‘police’ I mean they prevent any meaningful debate on issues, and only work on forbidden terms (apartheid, occupation and the likes) and ad hominem attacks, which, when successful, are turned into ‘guilt by association’ charges for maximum effect. The outcome is echoed by a media that is either not knowledgable or too careful or biased to challenge the rules of engagement.”

The lobby may “police” debate in the West, but in Israel itself it is not just a metaphor, with Palestinian citizens targeted by the authorities in a growing crackdown. A week ago, a Lod resident and Palestinian citizen of Israel was placed under house arrest by police because of a Facebook post criticising efforts to recruit Christian Palestinians into the Israeli army. Students demonstrating at Hebrew University this week against these renewed divide-and-conquer tactics were violently dispersed by police, and three were arrested.

Last October, a Palestinian student in Haifa spent a week in jail for social media posts critical of Israeli policies.

Meanwhile, more seriously still, the Palestinian journalist and activist, Majd Kayyal, was recently detained by the Israeli authorities as he returned from attending a writers’ conference in Beirut. Initially kept in a cell without access to a lawyer, and his very detention under a security services-imposed gag order, Kayyal is still facing the possibility of prosecution for visiting an “enemy state”.

The suppression of dissent at home and abroad speaks of a regime that has nothing meaningful to contribute by way of a viable solution – nothing to offer except entrenched colonisation, and institutionalised discrimination. It becomes a vicious circle. As more western diplomats, NGO workers and observers despair of this fanatical rejection, so the backlash against even mealy-mouthed criticism intensifies.

In the absence of a plan for a way forward, the Israeli government and its diehard apologists lash out at critics with smears and legal threats abroad, or the tools of a security state when it comes to Palestinian citizens (not to mention, of course, the thousands of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories processed through military courts and languishing in Israeli jails).

Yet while Israel and the lobby worry about perception rather than policy, others are not standing still. For mixed motives and with uncertain chance of success, Fatah and Hamas are nevertheless making progress with regards to national unity. Mahmoud Abbas, undoubtedly thinking of his legacy after years of failure, is making tentative steps towards holding Israel to account in international forums.

Abroad, meanwhile, BDS campaigns grow in number and strength, as trade unionists, faith groups and cultural workers heed the Palestinian call for boycott, and recognise Israeli policies of segregation and military brutality for what they are. As for those sitting on the fence with regards to boycott, they will likely be persuaded of the strategy’s necessity in the absence of a peace process worthy of the name, and with an intransigent Israeli government that brooks no dissent at home or abroad.

First published in The National.

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