Rightists say bring down the Wall, leftists say let’s keep it

Noted right-wingers call to demolish the separation wall. True, they are driven by a desire for annexation, but the Left finds itself in an unseemly position – defending one of the great injustices of the occupation in the name of the distant prospect of two states. 

Rightists say bring down the Wall, leftists say let's keep it

Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens yesterday told Ma’ariv he thinks the separation wall – which snakes its way around the West Bank and has been responsible for cutting tens of thousands of people from their livelihoods and from each other – should be torn down. “The wall is no longer of any use and it’s only doing Israel harm,” he told the website. “It’s obvious today that the separation wall [sic] is completely useless. It’s damaging Israel in the international arena and it causes hardship for the Palestinians in their day-to-day lives.” Arens, a noted hawk who has served as defense minister in three different Likud cabinets (Begin, Shamir and Netanyahu), attributed construction of the wall to hysteria rather than strategic thinking. “There was panic. When terror attacks occur almost every day, sometimes twice a day, and the Shin Bet comes to you and tells you it’s impossible to block terrorism without a wall, you get convinced. I was also convinced, but today it’s clear there is no connection between the wall and the cessation of attacks.”

The former defense minister instead attributed the slump in Palestinian political violence to IDF activity within Palestinian areas and the collaboration of Palestinian police forces, adding that “the wall is ugly. It’s like a scar on the face of the Land of Israel. There have been walls before and they fell down.” Finally, he said, “we should remember many Jews live beyond the wall,” and some fear the wall might someday become a political border.

In my mind, the last argument is the most important – both for Arens himself and for the settler politicians who rallied to his support. MK Yoni Chetboun of Habayit Hayehudi party (led by annexationist Naftali Bennett) argued to Ma’ariv that “the wall actually increases motivation for terrorism among the Palestinians by projecting a message of weakness, defensiveness and entrenchment.” Chetboun, who sits on the pivotal Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, credited the wall with a “short term” role in stopping waves of attacks, but said, “what Israel needs is freedom of action within the Palestinian cities, not walls and fences… in some places there’s no operational logic to the wall, and it seems the considerations driving the planners of the wall were made with political motives and with regard for the future border line.”

Orit Strock, possibly the most notorious right-wing hardliner on the Habyait Hayehudi list, said that “building the fence was a mistake that should be mended… Israel spent a fortune on a wall that, according to all the reports by the IDF and the Shin Bet, is not what prevented the terror attacks. Terrorism prevention was made possible and is still made possible today through the presence and activity of the IDF in the Arab cities of Judea and Samaria.”

There are some political subtexts here that indicate shades of opinion within the Right, and are therefore worth highlighting. Arens himself is a noted supporter of the one-state solution and has written and spoken in support of annexing the West Bank and granting full civil rights (including the right to vote) to its Palestinian residents on many occasions (this op-ed from 2010 is particularly worth a read). As a result, he has no problem referring to the barrier by the derisive and highly accurate moniker, “the separation wall.” Of the three, Arens also is the only one who explicitly refers to the hardships the wall causes to Palestinians (which, if nothing else, obviously generates a security liability in the long run) and offers some credit to the Palestinian Authority’s security forces for clamping down on Palestinian armed groups. Chetboun, the next to the right, doesn’t mention Palestinian needs or contributions, but at least refers to them by their proper name.  Strock, finally, doesn’t even recognise the Palestinians as a nation – to her, they are mere residents of “Arab” cities within [Jewish] Judea and Samaria and what’s needed is not only “freedom of action,” but actual “presence” of the IDF within those cities. In short, she is advocating a straightforward resumption of complete, direct military control over the West Bank, without even the fig leaf of the Palestinian Authority.

What all three have in common, however, is the concern that the wall might one day demarcate a political border with a Palestinian state, thus affecting the “Jews beyond the wall” (step forth, Jon Snowowitz) and the IDF’s freedom of action there. Considering that the wall, built entirely on the increasingly vacant pretext of “security,” already eats up much of the miserly territory afforded to Palestinians under the two-state solution paradigm, this reluctance to give up even the little that’s left might seem appalling to two-staters. But the comments of the left wingers quoted in the piece paint the two-state camp in Israel in an even more depressing light.

The Left clings to the wall 

MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) paid tribute to Arens’ achievements, but lamented the “wrong” motivations for his desire to bring down the wall. “It’s actually another step towards the bi-national state in which he believes. It’s not the wall that makes us look bad across the world, but the profound diplomatic deadlock caused by Netanyahu. The only thing that will bring down the wall is an agreement with the Palestinians. The wall is a terrible thing from a humanitarian point of view, but that’s not the reason why Arens wants to remove it.” Chairman of Peace Now, Yariv Oppenheimer, also chips in: “Those who want to completely dismantle the fence seek to create the reality of a single, bi-national state, either non-Jewish or non-democratic. The fence must be moved to the future border based on the 1967 lines and the land taken away from Palestinians from its construction must be returned to them.”

The wall and the entire separation paradigm (“we’re here, they’re there,” as Ehud Barak once put it ) is first and foremost a center-left construct; it’s not for nothing that the most avid champions of the wall were Barak himself and Ehud Olmert. Both progressive public figures seemed more threatened by the remote prospect of a bi-national state than concerned with anything like equality or justice, even in the short-term – otherwise there should have been no problem for them to demand both the immediate demolition of the wall and a return to two-state negotiations.

Oppenheimer’s desire to rebuild the wall on the 1967 border is particularly bizarre, considering he advocates a peace agreement with the Palestinians that would make such a gargantuan fortification superfluous, and considering such reconstruction would necessitate the confiscation of yet more land, causing further hardship.

But it is Cabel’s comments that shed the starkest light on the current condition of the center-left’s two-state project. With the rise of the annexationist Right, the Left, which should have been demanding the demolition of the wall forthwith has now come to hinge upon the wall as its last hope for preserving a nation-state through separation. The size, viability and contiguity of the Palestinian state that will result from this can go to hell, as can the immediate needs of the Palestinians who are catastrophically affected by the wall. Eventual separation is now such an urgent priority that everything and everyone else can wait – let the wall stay where it is, so long as we get two separate states in the long run.

New room for manoeuvre 

The division of opinion here indicates once again the slow redrawing of the political map in Israel: The Right is emerging as the more politically daring and flexible, ready to radically challenge the status quo and offer significant changes, up to and including enfranchisement of Palestinians and/or bi-national power-sharing, even if it is unlikely to offer or accept full individual and collective rights from the get-go. The old Left is becoming more entrenched and conservative-nationalist, determined to preserve the status quo without any profound or systemic changes.

For better or worse, it seems the agenda in the next few years will be set by Arens, Bennett and co., and if the wall is indeed brought down, it won’t be through the efforts of the mainstream Left. The more interesting question is how Palestinians will respond to this change: will they continue to ally themselves broadly with the partitionist, fading Left, which is happy to drive them into ever narrower confines (with friends like these…), or will they utilize and push to expand the much broader room for maneuver inadvertently being created by the annexationist Right.