Recognizing Palestine, BDS and the survival of Israel
This article originally appeared in the Electronic Intifada on 16 December 2014.
What is happening in European parliaments? In the last month and a half, the UK House of Commons, the Spanish, French, Portuguese and Irish parliaments have all recognized Israel’s eternal “right” to be a racist state via a much-touted recognition of an alleged Palestinian state within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the areas of Palestine Israel occupied in 1967.
These moves followed the lead of Sweden’s new center-left government which decided shortly after taking office to “recognize the State of Palestine” as part of the “two-state solution.”
As there is no Palestinian state to recognize within the 1967, or any other, borders, these political moves are engineered to undo the death of the two-state solution, the illusion of which had guaranteed Israel’s survival as a Jewish racist state for decades. These parliamentary resolutions in fact aim to impose a de facto arrangement that prevents Israel’s collapse and replacement with a state that grants equal rights to all its citizens and is not based on colonial and racial privileges.
Unlike Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who believes he can force the world to recognize a greater racist Israel that annexes the territories Israel occupied in 1967de jure, the European parliaments are insisting that they will only guarantee Israel’s survival as a racist state within Israel’s 1948 borders and on whatever extra lands within the 1967 territories the Palestinian Authority (PA) — collaborating with Israel — agrees to concede in the form of “land swaps.”
Denmark’s parliament and the European Parliament itself are the latest bodies set to consider votes guaranteeing Israel’s survival in its present form within the 1948 boundaries only. Even neutral Switzerland agreed, upon a request from the PA, to host a meeting of signatories of the Fourth Geneva Convention to discuss the 1967 Israeli occupation only. Expectedly, in addition to the Jewish settler-colony, the world’s major settler colonies — the United States, Canada, and Australia — are opposed to the meeting and will not attend.
These moves are unfolding as international support for the Palestinian-initiated boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has begun an accelerated move to the mainstream in the US and Western Europe. Academic associations calling for support for BDS include the Association for Asian American Studies, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the American Studies Association and the American Anthropological Association (which voted to defeat an anti-BDS resolution).
An exception is MESA, the Middle East Studies Association, whose members most recently voted to grant themselves the right to debate BDS, and in the process unwittingly granted the Zionists one full year to lobby and prepare to defeat a BDS resolution on which members may be asked to vote next year.
Even the Columbia University Center for Palestine Studies — which had insistently refused in April 2011 to host and sponsor a talk and book-signing by Omar Barghouti, and instead hosted a speaker on 4 April 2013 (in a closed, invitation-only event) who attacked Barghouti in an attempt to delegitimize PACBI — reversed course recently and invited Barghouti himself to deliver a lecture this month. Barghouti is a co-founder ofPACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
What do all these moves mean?
Israel’s liberal racists exposed
The context of these steps has to do with the recent conduct of the Netanyahu government whose impatience is exposing Israel’s liberal racist politicians — those who prefer a more patient approach to achieving the very same racist political goals — to embarrassment. The situation has become so untenable that ardent American liberal Zionists led by none other than Michael Walzer, emeritus professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, have felt compelled to act.
Walzer, notorious for justifying all of Israel’s conquests as “just wars,” and a group of like-minded figures calling themselves “Scholars for Israel and Palestine,” recently called on the US government to impose a travel ban on right-wing Israeli politicians who support annexation of what remains of the West Bank.
Whereas successive Israeli governments have shown an unyielding determination to strengthen Israel’s right to be a racist state over all of historic Palestine, they have done so through the ruse of the “peace process,” which they were committed to maintaining for decades to come without any resolution.
This strategy has worked very well for the last two decades with hardly a peep from the Palestinian Authority, which owes its very existence to this unending “process.” More recently, Hamas’ political leadership, especially the branch in Qatar, where the group’s leader Khaled Meshal is based, has also been looking for the best way to join this project.
But as the ongoing Netanyahu policies of visiting horrors on the Palestinian people across all of the territories Israel controls — policies that have exposed the “peace process” for the sham it always was as well as Israel’s claim to being “democratic” as a most fraudulent one — the international consensus that Israeli liberals have built over the decades to shield Israel’s ugly reality from the world has been weakened, if not threatened with collapse altogether.
Israeli liberals realize that what Netanyahu is doing is threatening their entire project and the very survival of Israel as a racist Jewish state. It is in this context that European parliaments are rushing to rescue Israel’s liberals by guaranteeing for them Israel’s survival in its racist form through recognizing a nonexistent Palestinian state “within the 1967 borders.”
It is also in this context that European governments in the last year or so have begun to speak of BDS as a possible weapon they could use to threaten the Netanyahu government if it continues in its refusal to “negotiate” with the Palestinians (the Europeans use of the threat of BDS is limited to a threat of boycotting only the products of Israeli colonial settlements in the occupied territories), that is, to maintain the illusion of an ongoing “peace process.” Herein lies the dilemma for those who support BDS.
BDS: A means or an end in itself?
The Ramallah-based PACBI has always been clear that BDS is an instrument, a means to be used to achieve strategic goals — namely an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands during and since 1967, an end to Israeli institutionalized racism inside the 1948 boundaries of Israel and the return of the Palestinian refugees to their lands and homes. In recent years, however, BDS has been transformed from a means to an end unto itself. Many of those in solidarity with the Palestinians have begun to articulate their positions as ones that support BDS as a goal rather than a means.
The recent votes by academic organizations are a case in point. While three academic organizations that voted for BDS have declared their support for the end of the 1967 occupation, only two, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) and the Association for Asian American Studies, explicitly opposed the racist policies of the state of Israel against its own Palestinian citizens.
Only NAISA’s resolution questioned Israeli racist laws and structures. The American Studies Association, by contrast, only cited the occupation of the 1967 territories, while the Modern Language Association merely censured Israel for denying Palestinian academics and students their academic freedom without condemning the occupation or Israeli state racism. MESA’s resolution did not even mention any of the goals of BDS at all.
While these resolutions are a step in the right direction, and in many cases are the result of long and fierce battles waged by members deeply committed to all Palestinian rights, they mostly fail to articulate positions that accord with all the explicit goals of BDS. Indeed, not one of these organizations mentioned the third goal of BDS, namely the right of the Palestinian refugees to return, which Israel continues to deny in defiance of UN resolutions and international law in order to safeguard a Jewish majority in the country.
As European politicians have recognized, BDS can now be used as a means to achieve ends that those who adopt it can decide on. Palestinians’ monopoly on decision-making through PACBI and the Boycott National Committee and on determining the goals of BDS is not guaranteed.
Different parties, declaring solidarity with the Palestinians, can and do dismiss PACBI altogether as only one of many international organizations that support BDS, arguing that each supporter of BDS can determine on their own whatever goals they deem fit. In short, the expanded support of BDS in the US and Europe is not necessarily an expanded support for the goals of ending Israeli racism, Israel’s occupation and the Palestinian refugees’ exile, but rather simply support for the use of BDS as a means to achieve whatever the party using it determines as the sought-after goal.
As I have written and explained since the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords, all the “solutions” offered by Western and Arab governments and Israeli and PA liberals to end the so-called “Palestinian-Israeli conflict” are premised on guaranteeing Israel’s survival as a racist Jewish state unscathed. All “solutions” that do not offer such a guarantee are dismissed a priori as impractical, unpragmatic and even anti-Semitic. The recent attempts to co-opt BDS for that very same goal are in line with this commitment.
This explains the sudden downgrading of the threat of BDS from something that is untouchable by European and American officials and liberal academics and activists — who understood its ultimate goal as one that not only refuses to guarantee the survival of Israel as a racist state, but also aims specifically to dismantle all its racist structures — to something increasingly safe to adopt by most of them, as it now can be used to secure Israel’s survival.
Palestinians and their supporters must be vigilant about this co-optation of BDS, and must recognize that with the achievement of mainstreaming also come serious risks. Unless they reaffirm that support for BDS is support for the explicit goals that PACBI had initially set, then this recent and apparent “transformation” in attitudes, which in fact is no transformation at all, will usher in a slippery slope — the end goal of which is, alas, too familiar for Palestinians to revisit yet again.
Due to the continued absence of an independent, representative and unified Palestinian liberation movement capable of articulating a coherent strategy and leading the struggle for liberation, BDS will continue, contrary to PACBI’s stated goals, to be utilized at best as a “threat” to Israel to end its 1967 occupation. This is nothing short of a smokescreen to perpetuate Israel’s other forms of colonial control over historic Palestine and the Palestinians and to preserve its institutionalized and legal racism.
Rather than call on the international community to adopt BDS without an explicit commitment to its goals, Palestinians must insist that those in solidarity with them adopt BDS as a strategy and not as a goal, in order to bring about an end to Israel’s racism and colonialism in all its forms inside and outside the 1948 boundaries.
Otherwise, BDS can and will be used to strengthen the Jewish settler-colony and the Israeli liberal project that backs it.
Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. His latest book is Islam in Liberalism (University of Chicago Press).