So what’s new? Israel’s Nationality Law

Israel’s parliament (Knesset) has this July passed its Nationality Law by sixty two votes to fifty five. In brief, it enshrines, and in effect crows about, Israel’s status as an apartheid state.

The law confirms that ‘Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it’. Note ‘exclusive’.  In addition, the Arabic language is downgraded from its co-equal status as an official language with Hebrew to a lesser ‘special status’.  By way of reminder, Israel’s Palestinian Arabs number some 1.8 million, about 20 percent of the nine million population.

The law also affirms that ‘The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment.’  Note ‘Jewish’. Note, too, ‘settlement’, which in fact refers to the construction of Jewish-only colonies built on historic Palestinian land cleared by Israel in an unrelenting programme of house demolitions, land seizures, and crop destruction in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and in (illegally annexed) East Jerusalem.

The Nationality Law speaks for itself, its motivation and intent reeking from almost every clause.  However, by way of additional confirmation, though none is really required, Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) Member Avi Dichter, a sponsor of the Nationality Law, helpfully explained that ‘We [Israel] are enshrining this important bill into a law today to prevent even the slightest thought, let alone attempt, to transform Israel to a country of all its citizen (sic).’  Israel nonetheless describes itself as a democratic state, but qualifies that self-designation by asserting it is a specifically Jewish democratic state. Thus Israel’s sense of its own legitimacy rests on an oxymoron and a significant degree of philosophical contortion.

Execrable though the Nationality Law is, it raises fundamental questions: Why was this done? Why was this done now?

Why would Netanyahu’s Israel pass a law – the Nationality Law – that signals loud and clear that it is and intends to be an apartheid state? Why do this when current laws, regulations, policy and practice have proved sufficient to the purpose of embedding structural, systemic discrimination against Palestinians and now also African asylum seekers? (I discussed aspects of the existing legal framework in an earlier article)

Why does Israel draw attention to itself, at this particular time and in this particular way?  Had Israel not passed the Nationality Law, little of substance would be different.  This suggests that passing the law was essentially a performative act, designed more to say or express something than to do something that otherwise could not be done.

The answer almost certainly lies in Natanyahu government’s assessment that the moment is now, or if not now is fast approaching, when the greater part of the Palestinian Occupied Territories can be annexed to complete the Greater Israel project, the creation of an explicitly Jewish majoritarian state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.  From this perspective, the Nationality Law is a megaphone, amplifying an already established position, a pre-emptive putting up of the barricades against any suggestion that a Greater Israel, which would have a significant Palestinian population, will be any sort of homeland for that people whose home it has been and is.

Ahramonline has an interesting perspective on this.  It suggests that, notwithstanding President Trump’s manifest support for the Netanyahu government, it has a concern that Trump may yet force Israel to accommodate at least some Palestinian demands as for example when, on the one hand, he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but added the caveat that recognition did not signify any US stance on the borders of the city, which were to be subject to negotiation. The Nationality Law can thus be conceived as a signal both to Trump and to Palestinians that any ‘demands for the right of return or for full equality in the State of Israel [are] off the table in any future negotiations…’ This, too, helps solidify the government’s majority which depends to a significant degree on right wing, orthodox and extreme orthodox religious support.

Two broad strands of development converge to suggest that the Greater Israel project is close to realisation. One is internal to Israel and includes the coming to maturity of the long-term project – either a seventy or a fifty year old project depending on one’s analysis – to both limit the Palestinian presence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and, in addition, to constrain – thwart – their capacity to act in their own legitimate interests within that territory.  Under the Oslo Agreement Israel has total control of 60% of the West Bank (Area C), and security control of 22% (Area B).  There remains 18% (Area A) under the control of the Palestinian National Authority.

However, in effect, Israel controls the entirety of the West Bank by virtue of the:

  • estimated 131 Jewish-only West Bank settlements, housing some 385,000 Israeli Jewish settlers
  • programme of house demolitions, land seizures, crop destruction
  • displacement of established Palestinian communities to degraded urbanised centres
  • Separation Wall that snakes through and around the West Bank, all supplemented by military checkpoints, permanent and temporary road closures, and a harsh, arbitrary pass system.

The second strand of developments are geopolitical in character and include: a less hostile stance from some Arab states, in part because of a shared fear of and antipathy towards Iran; an effectively self-neutered international community that in the main confines itself to ritualised expressions of reprobation but little or no substantive action no matter the horrors Israel perpetrates – the killings of unarmed children and adults along the Gaza fence spring to mind; the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the USA.

President Trump, of course, shares Israel’s (and Saudi Arabia’s) anathema to Iran.  But there is, in addition, a coincidence of interest linking Trump’s America to Israel.  It is that both Israel and Trump rely heavily on the estimated 40 million or so, mainly white, fundamentalist American Christian Zionists. They comprise the largest pro-Israel bloc [my italics] in the United States. They believe that God gave Israel to His ‘chosen people’ and that the ‘Second Coming of Christ’ will occur only when all Jews are gathered into Israel and baptised into the Christian faith.  Their mission is to get all the world’s Jews into Israel so that they can become, well, not Jews. A mission one would normally have thought would not commend itself to an avowedly Jewish State.

For Trump, the Christian Zionists constitute a significant proportion of his voter ‘base’ and they also massively fund his Presidential campaigns along with his Congressional allies. So we have a sort of malign triangulation, whereby Trump needs the Christian Zionists, and the Christian Zionists need Trump to support Israel’s Government as it implements the apartheid policies it in fact needs no encouragement to pursue. (The Christian Zionists have other priorities as well, but they are not relevant here.)

The Greater Israel project is thus close to tangible realisation. The two state ‘solution’, to which many state actors and organisations currently remain formally committed, is no longer a realisable option, putting to one side the question of whether it was ever an equitable, viable project.  As should by now be clear, discrimination and injustice will be the fault lines hewn into the foundations of a Greater Israel state.

I do not know if there is a Hand of History, but if there is, a sense of irony not to say paradox, attends her labours, for the very barrenness of the Greater Israel thesis has conjured its negation: a joint Palestinian and Jewish initiative, the One Democratic State Campaign.  Rooted in an inclusionary ethic, girded by the politics of hope the campaign is working now to create, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, a single, non-discriminatory, multi-faith state of citizens’ equal before the law, and each other.

Even as I write this, it seems a heady, dizzying, and totally unrealistic proposition. Totally unrealistic: similar to Nelson Mandela being released from prison to become President of a multi-racial South Africa? Dizzying and unrealistic: as when the Berlin Wall came down in front of our barely believing eyes?

To paraphrase Bernard Shaw: progress rest on the courage to pursue heady, dizzying, seemingly unrealistic propositions.

 

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