Just as our speeches are old news, we too refuse to change with the times. While the region becomes more democratic, Israelis still cannot accept their share of the responsibility, choosing instead to repeat familiar clichés
By Eyal Clyne
a) Netanyahu’s speech before Congress: Just a speech, what’s the big deal?
Ha’aretz reports that following Netanyahu’s speeches to AIPAC and Congress last week, his popularity soared 13 percent among Israelis. Netanyahu said nothing new, and didn’t make any promises for change, and yet most of my fellow Israelis absolutely loved it. 46 percent went as far as reporting that it made them feel proud. This fact alone calls for explanation: why did this banal speech, repeating old arguments and policies, make so many Israelis feel that it was significant and a source of pride?
In terms of policy it was yesterday’s news.
Netanyahu said (again) that Israel is “willing” to see a Palestinian state but as always only under impossible preconditions that no reasonable Palestinian representative could ever accept. Now he claims to agree to the two-state solution, but at the same time rejects its borders. He promises (the Americans) that he will be “generous”, but at the same time he declares there will be no compromises on any issue. Just like Barak, Sharon and Olmert before him, he presented the principles of all Israeli government parties since the late 1990s. Really nothing new. While negotiations with the Palestinians are clearly not an option for it, Israel (re)turns to negotiate with the West on the terms of continuing its 44-years-old military rule. So why the great excitement?
The speech was significant less in terms of policy than in its ability to capture the essence of the collective mood in Israel today.
It was not “the speech of his life” as Israeli media repeatedly titled it, but the speech of their lives. Our lives. At this point in time our region is becoming more democratic, global action to end the occupation and siege is intensifying, and the appeal to recognize the Palestinian right to freedom is gaining momentum. Israelis fear one thing most of all: change.
In particular, any change that might affect their unshakable ability to control territory and resources. With the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in the background, protests in the occupied territories, and possible UN recognition of a State of Palestine coming up in September, Israelis are gradually becoming aware of the growing gap between their self-justifying bubble and their global image.
But they still cannot see their share of the responsibility. Instead, just like Netanyahu, they repeat familiar clichés, listening to them again and again, persuading themselves that they did and are doing nothing wrong, reciting it day and night, and finally believing it, and believing they can spread this belief to others.
Last month, the leading Israeli satire show “Eretz Nehederet” (broadcast weeks before the Middle East speeches in the United States) successfully captured the morbid atmosphere of what may be coming, by comparing the government’s stubbornness to the events leading up to the ancient tragedy of Massada:
b) ‘There are always two sides to every story; and our side is correct’
It’s not surprising, really, that most Israelis loved hearing Netanyahu’s articulation of their self-flattery. His speech to Congress was a concentrated dish compiled of all the favorite thoughts Israelis hold about themselves. A collection of every Arab contribution to the conflict, mixed with flavor enhancers of some religious-right-wing perspectives of Jewish history with an icing defining our relations with all our neighbors and Palestinians (‘the Arabs’, possibly with a handful of ‘Iran,’ ‘Islam’ and a pinch of ‘terrorism’) – served with a cold, refreshing and decisive ruling that it is all their fault. We did all we could, made no mistakes, and have nothing to apologize for. De-li-cious.
Most decisive in this recipe is not what’s in but what’s left out.
First, the fact that Israel, and Israel alone has been exerting an abusive military rule over millions of people for 44 years, and makes no promises of any deadline to end it. Thus, while we’re reminded of the ingredient of the Arab rejection of a Jewish state 63 years ago, there’s nothing in the mix about the terror of the Irgun, the unlawful destruction of hundreds of civilian villages in 1948, our military rule over Arab citizens of Israel until 1966, the massacres of Qibbiyya or Kfar Kassem, the bombing of civil airplanes, the refusal to give minefield maps to Lebanon after 18 years of occupation of South Lebanon, the ongoing violation of others’ airspace and waters, or illegally capturing and settling lands belonging to Syria and the Palestinians to this very day (and Egypt and Lebanon in the past).
We heard repeatedly of their terrorism, but nothing about our own expulsions, revenge, unlawful imprisonments or systematic oppression. Let alone an offer to compensate the injured innocent victims of the white phosphorus we admittedly used on densely populated civilian areas two and a half years ago. Now you tell me, when only the parts we’d like to hear are emphasized, who wouldn’t love the story?
c) Democratic! Democratic! Democratic!
The speech was very clear in emphasizing security, but avoided many Israeli practices that have nothing to do with security, such as the ongoing demolitions of hundreds of Palestinian homes every year, the prohibitions and discrimination in water, the confiscations of private property, the limitations on the right to education, health and employment, and the right of assembly in areas under our military rule.
Instead of mentioning that millions live under our rule with no political rights, we’d rather repeatedly elaborate the advantages of the democratic rights we “allow” our Arab citizens. We fail to mention that with regards to this minority, Israel is not democratic in the sense that Westerners think. First, everybody can vote and be voted to Israel’s parliament, but all parties must first agree to the Jewish “nature” of the state. Second, rights are not equal by law (in marriage, immigration and land ownership). Third, rights are not equal in practice (in the deliberate and well-documented institutional discrimination in education, law enforcement, housing, infrastructure, and public sector employment). Fourth, state-sanctioned racist norms and practices are on the rise (such as racist bans on housing, employment, or ‘mixed’ marriages).
When saying that Israel is a democracy, do we bear in mind that the Israeli police disperse Jewish and Arab protests using different means? No matter how violent a Jewish protest may be (settlers, ultra-orthodox, strikers etc.) the police never send in disguised gunmen to make arrests or shoot rubber or live bullets, as they often do in protests by its Arab citizens. Why not ask them if they feel it’s a democracy? Only last week, a new bill was approved, legalizing employment discrimination in the civil service against anyone who didn’t serve in the military, although Israeli governments do not draft Arab citizens.
These are a few examples of many. Granting citizenship to Arabs sounds good but is not a principle of state practice. Look at the right to housing. Out of more than 600(!) new towns, cities, villages and settlements that Israeli governments have constructed to respond to the needs of its citizens, not one was built to answer the needs of its Arab citizens, who constitute more than one fifth of its population, and who also face limitations when seeking to develop existing towns, or to reside in ‘non-Arab’ – that is –Jewish, areas.
As for Israel’s treatment of the Oslo Accords, the double standard Israelis operate here is so deep it can’t be summarized here.
Remaining blind to these facts is essential for us Israelis to maintain ourselves as historically righteous victims. So, yes. These speeches were so much fun, because they allow us to forget it all, and even receive some friendly applause.
d) Whats next? Exactly what we did last time
Brigadier: Okay, so what do you do if the Egyptians approach the post?
Reserve soldier: The same thing we did in ‘56.
Brigadier: And what did you do in ‘56?
Reserve soldier: The same thing we did in ‘48. Nothing’s better than that, surely.
Brigadier: And what did you do in ‘48?
Reserve soldier: I don’t know… 30 years… you try and remember…
(Taken from: Halfon Hill Does Not Respond, A popular Israeli movie from 1976)
So what should we expect next? If we are to believe Netanyahu, we should expect nothing. No change at all, which is exactly what we did last time, and countless times before that. No need to even consider replacing the far-right coalition partners. We have always been the masters of buying time, with any government. For 44 years we’ve been dividing our time between periods of useless negotiation with “the Arabs” and other periods of negotiation with the West. In the meantime, the military occupation goes on, and the settlements and violence too.
Just as our speeches are old news, we too refuse to change with the times. Netanyahu’s speech, along with our daily speeches, are recycled versions of Shamir’s famous policy quote: “The Arabs are the same Arabs, and the sea is the same sea”. One hand stubbornly rejects any proposal, and the other constantly passes the responsibility for it exclusively onto the other side.
Eyal Clyne is an Israeli researcher of society in Israel-Palestine. He focuses on the conflict and other Israeli political issues. Some of the posts on his Hebrew blog appear also in English and elsewhere. This piece was originally published on JNews.
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