In Israel, a conversation about the future of occupation is part of the occupation

While a third of the Knesset joins the pro-settlement caucus, one member of the coalition warns of a ‘South African’ future.

The Israeli political conversation has a strange sense of déjà vu these days: on Wednesday, during a panel organized by the think-tank Molad, Knesset Member Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid warned that if Israel fails to disengage from the West Bank, it will face a similar fate to that of Apartheid South Africa. “The occupation,” said Shelah, “corrupts Israeli society. It corrupts the army, corrupts Israeli justice, Israeli media, Israeli psyche and Israeli language.”

Facing Shelah at the panel were MK Yoni Chetboun from the settlers’ Jewish Home party, and MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) who called for leaving the idea of the two-state solution in the past. If changing the status quo becomes inevitable, Chetboun and Hotolevy support annexing the West Bank and gradually offering Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians over the next decade.

These sound like statements I heard growing up in Israel in the 1980s. Back then, the two sides were talking about keeping “the whole land of Israel” (“Eretz Yisrael Hashlema”) vs. those favoring “the Jordanian option” – handing the West Bank back to King Hussein – an idea which was torpedoed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir just before the First Intifada.

This was an old debate even back then. In fact, this debate began in the days following the Six-Day War. By now, almost half a century later, it’s obvious that a argument over the future of “the territories” has itself become an inherent part of the occupation. The conversation satisfies foreign observes (“the Israeli peace camp is back!”), while granting the status quo of ethnic control a feeling of a temporariness – that it will be resolved any day now.

It should therefore be remembered that Shelah, Hotovely and Chetboun are political allies within the same coalition. In fact, Shelah and Chetboun are part of the Yesh Atid-Jewish Home alliance, which is the dominant force in this government. Shelah is even his party’s Knesset chairman, meaning that his duty is to guarantee that Knesset members from Yesh Atid vote with the coalition. When he is not speaking on panels, he makes sure that the new budget – which is overwhelmingly pro-settlement – passes. In short, there is a major disconnect between the realm of talk and that of political action.

On the same day of the Molad panel, the new Knesset’s caucus for the Land of Israel (a euphemism for pro-settlement) which includes at least one third of the Israeli parliament, was launched. Two MKs from Shelah and Lapid’s Yesh Atid party attended, along with members of Likud, Israel Beitenu and naturally, Jewish Home – all calling for expansion of settlements and the continuation of Israeli control over the West Bank. A poll which showed that most of the Jewish public opposes a retreat to the 1967 borders was presented. Prime Minister Netanyahu forbade Likud ministers from attending – likely due to the embarrassment over Deputy Defense Minister Danon’s claim that the government will reject a two-state solution – so instead the Likud seniors sent congratulating letters to the settlers. The launching of this caucus is also an Israeli tradition.

The Israeli political conversation is important, because it will take an Israeli decision for the occupation to end. Yet, the debate is going around in circles, and feels more outdated with each passing day. More and more, it has an anesthetic effect on anything that has to do with concrete action against the occupation.

Israel will not leave the West Bank on its own initiative – the political interest and the internal forces are simply not there. There is no real pressure for change, not internally nor from outside forces. Israel will also not annex the West Bank, because this would undermine its own interests. A military occupation is probably the best, cheapest solution from an Israeli perspective, certainly as long as the Palestinian Authority is involved. All the rest is just talk.