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Calling time on Israel’s rejection of Palestinian statehood

The former deputy mayor of Jerusalem had a stark warning for his American audience. Using official figures, Meron Benvenisti showed how the Israeli government had “proceeded methodically and effectively toward de facto annexation of the West Bank.” In terms of the West Bank’s “part in a solution” with the Palestinians, said Benvenisti, the time is “five minutes to midnight.”

Sounds pertinent? In fact, that speech was given 34 years ago, in 1982. According to a report of Benvenisti’s remarks, the Israeli government at the time (under Menachem Begin) aimed “to have 100,000 settlers in the West Bank as soon as possible”, a “critical mass” so large “that no Israeli government thereafter could agree to withdraw from the territory.”

More than three decades later, the population of Israel’s illegal settlements across the West Bank has grown to around 400,000. Add the colonies in East Jerusalem, and the total figure reaches approximately 600,000. So if it was ‘five minutes to midnight’ in 1982, what time is it now?

The problem, to stretch the metaphor, is that a lot of people seem to have stopped watches. It’s not as if Benvenisti’s 1982 speech was a unique, isolated warning; the following year, The New York Times reported how Palestinians feared that “time for compromise is running out in the face of the extensive settlement construction [by Israel].”

That same article, incidentally, cited the infamous remarks by the then-outgoing Israeli army chief, Rafael Eytan, who told the Knesset: “When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged roaches in a bottle.’”

Jump forward to 1999, and The New York Times was writing that while “there will almost certainly be a Palestinian state… it will be a state of a peculiar kind.” Why? Because “Jewish settlements in the West Bank are a fundamental obstacle to the creation of a normal state for the Palestinians.” The words echo Yitzhak Rabin’s vision for a “[Palestinian] entity which is less than a state.”

Seven years ago, one commentator in The Guardian wrote how “it’s hard to see Israeli control of the area of the pre-1967 state, the West Bank and Gaza as constituting anything other than one, de facto state.” In 2012, there was “mounting international alarm” that Israeli settlement expansion “was killing off any prospect of a future peace agreement with the Palestinians.”

This is just a snapshot; examples abound, going back more than 30 years, of concerns that Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank was endangering the viability of a Palestinian state. Yet in terms of rhetoric, the time remains stuck at five minutes to midnight. Judging by their actual actions, Western governments aren’t in any sort of hurry at all.

Today, we have an Israeli government made up of explicit, or implicit, rejectionists of Palestinian statehood. A year ago, Benjamin Netanyahu declared: “We won’t divide Jerusalem, we won’t make concessions, we won’t withdraw from land.” Last October, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told an audience in Washington D.C.: “There is not and never will be a Palestinian State.”

Earlier this week, Shaked declared that “she is crafting a plan with the attorney general to apply Israeli law in the West Bank”, an escalation, of “a trend in recent years to apply Israeli law in the West Bank, both via rulings and military orders.” Naftali Bennett, the head of Shaked’s party Jewish Home, has explicitly stated that the annexation of the West Bank is an incremental “process.”

Settlement construction, and expansion, continues apace. But why be surprised? When Netanyahu was elected as prime minister for the first time in 1996, CNN reported how the Likud leader had “promised to slow the peace process, build new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, block creation of a Palestinian state.”

The savvier Israeli politicians, and certainly the pro-Israel lobby groups active in Western capitals, are desperate to maintain the illusion that a Palestinian state is still possible. This serves two purposes: to stave off serious consideration of alternatives that would threaten Israel as a ‘Jewish state’, and to ward off the possibility of serious pressure being applied on the Israeli government.

To keep the game going while Israel’s grip on the West Bank tightens, various concepts have been developed, such as the ‘settlement blocs’. Or the idea that outside the (illegal) Separation Wall, as if it were a serious border, there are only – ‘only’ – some 100,000 settlers to remove.

Perhaps the international community is crossing its fingers and hoping that some coalition of so-called moderates or centrists, will win an election. But that won’t mean an end to the settlements; the opposition Zionist Camp’s manifesto for the 2015 election was a blueprint for a Palestinian Bantustan, not a state.

Now, Isaac Herzog’s Labor party has officially kicked plans for a Palestinian ‘state’ into the long grass. The Labor party, don’t forget, has its own long history of furthering the colonisation of the West Bank; in the first three months of Ehud Barak’s premiership in 1999, the government authorized new settlement construction “at a pace exceeding that of [Netanyahu’s previous administration].”

According to the then-Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy, most of those new homes were for West Bank settlements near Jerusalem, adding that these sites “certainly have to undergo a beefing-up process if the government intends to safeguard Jerusalem in the [diplomatic] negotiations.” A textbook case of how facts on the ground become the new ‘consensus’.

Next month, Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip will enter its 50th year. Every single Israeli government over the last half a century has overseen a growth in the settler population, and a consolidation of an apartheid system. When will policy-makers in the West finally call time on Israel’s rejection of Palestinian statehood?

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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