A Response to Meron Benvenisti
Reuven Kaminer, 2nd February 2010, by email ‘for unlimited circulation’
On 22 January 2020 we posted Meron Benvenisti’s article The Inevitable Bi-national Regime. In this response veteran Israeli activist and campaigner Reuven Kaminer contests Benvenisti’s assumptions, analysis and conclusions. It hasn’t yet been posted on other websites, so is included here in its entirety.
Dr.Meron Benvenisti has recently published a long and detailed update of his views on the Israeli control of the occupied Palestinian territories. MB argues that the current situation must be defined as a “de-facto bi-national regime.” Moreover, MB claims that the refusal of the left to accept his theses on this vital issue is tantamount to co-responsibility for the continued suffering of the Palestinians. MB asserts that the settlements are not an impediment to peace, that Palestinian nationalism is, for all intents and purposes, a thing of the past and to insist that the regime in the territories is clearly one of occupation is an example of bad “linguistic choice.”*
MB argues that by refusing to understand that the conflict must be viewed on the basis of MB’s new paradigm, the “de- facto bi-national regime.” the left remains without a program, and even worse, bears responsibility for aiding and abetting the current state of affairs.
In order to help us overcome our outmoded views, MB updates his analysis on significant elements of the current situation regarding a) the settlements; b) the occupation; c) the Palestinian national movement. We are about to learn that the settlements are not an impediment to peace, that the occupation is over and that Palestinian nationalism is just a romantic notion from the past. This set of novel assumptions must be carefully and honestly examined. It is also very important to understand the actual political meaning and consequence of the new paradigm.
Curing the Obsession with Settlements
MB begins his treatise with a short history of the role of the settlements. In the first period, directly after 1967, the settlements were all powerful in the territories and even subjugated the IDF to their own purposes. Then in the eighties the settlements lost all significance. Thus according to MB, settlements today are only a mere museum piece:
“The age of ideology is over and erecting settlements, as well as dismantling them, has become an outdated pastime with no real impact on political developments, except as a symbol and a mobilizing device for both right and left. The attempt to mark the settlements—and the settlers—as the major impediment to peace is a convenient alibi, obfuscating the involvement of the entire Israeli body politic in maintaining and expanding the regime of coercion and discrimination in the occupied territories, and benefiting from it.”
First of all, it is the government, exercising state power then and now, which determined policy in the occupied territories. MB grossly exaggerated the state of affairs in both periods. In the post-1967 period, settlements never determined Israeli policy and today they are not irrelevant museum items. Simply said, the government uses settlements as part of its overall policy. Therefore, there is no reason to deny, as MB does, that settlements, and the settlers remain an important element in the political picture today. It is simply untrue that “settlement has no real impact on political developments.” The settlement drive strengthens the ideological right and is a mobilizing device for it and this, of course, impacts on political developments.
MB makes, as we will see, every effort to put the right and the left on the same moral plane. The right mobilizes against the Palestinians to deny their rights. The left, which considers settlements an impediment to peace might be mistaken (even though it really is not) and mobilizes against settlements, old and new. This is not a mere “mobilizing device” for the left since the left has a host of valid moral and political arguments against settlements, in addition to the fact that they are indeed an impediment to peace.
Let us follow MB’s logic. Since there is no longer any territorial dimension to the conflict, the settlements are here to stay. The settlements are not an impediment to peace, because peace, according to MB, is simply not on the agenda. Opposition by the left to settlements is, therefore, passé. This argument is really circular. MB has decided that the territories will never return to the Palestinians. So the concrete role of the settlers as the shock troops of annexation and dispossession of the Palestinians can be ignored and we are asked to refrain from condemning the settlements despite their daily racist provocations.
It should be said that even in the event of a one-state solution, the settlers will be a source of constant tension, racism and violence. The opposition of the left to settlements, yesterday, today and tomorrow, is not a “device” but an important political and moral contribution to the co-existence and the future of both peoples.
Is the left’s belief in peace and opposition to the settlements for this and other valid reasons “a mobilizing device” in the same sense that the settlements for the right are a mobilizing device. The comparison of the right and the left on this issue is odious. According to MB, the left fighting for peace is just as dangerous and immoral as the right fighting for control and domination of “Greater Israel.” Fascist thugs roam the West Bank exacting “price tags” and MB explains that the settlements are just museum pieces, a matter of no importance.
MB’s accusation that opposition to the settlements obfuscates the fact that the “entire body politic” profits from the regime in the territories is false on two levels. Opposition to the settlements suggests, in many instances, that there are forces and interests in Israel interested in the regime of occupation. These circumstances are not obfuscated but exposed by the condemnation of the settler project. But worst of all is MB’s sudden adoption of the most dogmatic and antiquated version of Marxism (when it serves his thesis) which argues that everyone in an oppressing nation profits from the oppression and is equally interested in its perpetuation. But not everyone profits and the attempt to enslave an entire nation will always involve losses and damage to large segments of the dominant body politic and this is true also in the case of Israel. The “profit” from the occupation includes recurring wars every several years and a society drowning in a sea of military tensions. We shall return to this issue of the Israeli body-politic and the occupation.
MB claims that describing the current situation as occupation is a grievous error. He will adduce, as we shall see, a number of arguments in an attempt to prove his main thesis that we are living in a bi-national reality. He is perturbed by the fact that the left defines the situation obtaining in the Palestinian occupied territories (OPT) as occupation. It is not an occupation explains MB, and the definition proves that the left is guilty of a “bad linguistic choice.” For some reason MB assumes that an essential element of any occupation is its temporary character. MB argues that since we are faced with a new, permanent status quo, what we have in the territories loses its character as an occupation. This is not an occupation because it is not permanent. Since the left wants to see that occupation as temporary, it arbitrarily chooses to call it occupation.
MB states correctly that Israel does many things in the territories that do not conform to the proper legal definition of occupation. These include, first and foremost, annexation, formal and informal. The left and others have noticed these activities. In day to day language, it is called “creeping annexation.” The more sophisticated term is colonization. Israel is using its occupation as a forward base to annex and colonize conquered territory, to use it in contravention of international law, which considers this drive for annexation as a direct product of occupation and not as a possibility contradicting it. For his own good reasons MB seeks to convince us it is not an occupation because of these additional more permanent phenomena. But the drive for annexation, formal and informal in no way contradicts the characterization of the existing situation as an occupation. It actually confirms it. So, the left is perfectly justified in its choice of words. But MB has other arguments in his attempt to prove that it is not an occupation that we are talking about.
MB’s denial of the existence of the occupation in his new paradigm suggests that we turn our backs on the horrendous repression in the OPT. He claims that the “occupation” definition is a linguistic mistake. Perhaps, the whole idea of a “de facto bi-national regime” is a linguistic mistake that tries to conceal the fact that Israeli rule of the OPT is based first and foremost on a military occupation. The base of Israeli actions and strategy was and is a regime of violent repressive military occupation.
MB Sounds the Death Knell of Palestinian Nationalism
Perceptive observers know that Israeli manipulation and domination have succeeded in dividing the Palestinian people into five distinct groups: a) the Palestinians, citizens of Israel; b) the Palestinians in East Jerusalem; c) Palestinians on the West Bank; d) Palestinians in Gaza; e) Palestinian refugees in the Arab countries. NB claims that as a result “the Palestinian national group” has “been shattered.” The various groups have taken on “separate identities” and even exhibit separate cultural and linguistic characteristics.
At this point, we return to MB’s list of cardinal sins committed by the left. Israel likes to argue that it is endangered by an Islamo-Fascist threat. The left keeps the threat credible because it does not follow MB in dismantling Palestinian nationalism. Instead “…leftist circles and the “Peace Camp” [that]remain steadfast to the romantic notion about a cohesive Palestinian people, united in its struggle for freedom.”
MB indulges in a number of serious distortions to convince us that the Palestinians have disintegrated into an aggregate of communities. (In various points in the text, MB asserts that we are dealing with communities and not national movements. He also sees Israel as more of a collection of communities than a national grouping. Of course, it is much easier to get everyone together in a bi-national framework where there are really no nations around to disturb the process). At any rate, we have, with the help of MB, overcome romantic notions.”There is no longer any cohesive Palestinian people, united in its struggle for freedom.”
MB “helps” us to understand this process of disintegration by describing the psycho-political mind set of the Palestinians in their various separate communities. According to MB, the various “communities” are consumed totally and exclusively about concerns for their own particular situation and welfare and could not care less about the fate of the Palestinian people. There are indeed tendencies such as these. But it is a caricature to describe the Palestinian people as five separate groups each of which is looking out for its own separate interest. MB seizes on such tendencies, inflates them into dominant processes.
MB announces that “One must therefore seek a different paradigm to describe the state of affairs more than forty years after Israel/Palestine became one geopolitical unit again, after nineteen years of partition. The term “de facto bi-national regime” is preferable to the occupier/occupied paradigm, because it describes the mutual dependence of both societies, as well as the physical, economic, symbolic and cultural ties that cannot be severed without an intolerable cost. Describing the situation as de facto
bi-national does not indicate parity between Israelis and Palestinians—on the contrary, it stresses the total dominance of the Jewish-Israeli nation, which controls a Palestinian nation that is fragmented both territorially and socially. No paradigm of military occupation can reflect the Bantustans created in the occupied territories…”
Fortunately for the critical reader, all the serious mistakes regarding the new paradigm are concentrated in the first part of this long paragraph. The basic idea of a bi-national regime requires clearly that the regime must be one of two nations, it requires some form of agreed partnership in governing and administration of the territorial entity. MB’s explanation, or rather excuse, for defining it “bi-national” is the existence of “mutual dependence”. The attempt to define the given situation in Israel and the OPT as a bi-national regime of “mutual dependence” is sheer sophistry. It is impossible by any kind of logic to say that the concept of bi-national regime is realized in the existing Israeli domination of an oppressed Palestinian people and society. Of course, there is generally always some degree of interdependence between dominant nations and the nations they oppress. If the mere existence of some degree of interdependence means that such a society is bi-national, then Israel has long been a bi-national entity with or without the territories. MB must somehow fight off the pressing relevance of the existing, satisfactory paradigm: military occupation which serves also as a base for colonialist inroads. MB clings to the bi-national regime concept where there is no bi-national regime and only a regime of one national formation, Israel. There is nothing bi-national here, but the interdependence of the slave and the slave owner.
For some strange reason, MB refuses to acknowledge the organic connection between military occupation and the development of tendencies in the ruling government to grab and keep attractive locations and to carve up the oppressed nation into smaller, easily manageable entities, or Bantustans. Nothing here contradicts occupation or the so-called “occupation paradigm.” Colonialist tendencies do not contradict the occupation but are a natural outgrowth of it. If you eliminate the military occupation, the colonialist ambitions melt away. “Incidentally,” the military occupation does indeed block the path to peace based on either a one-state or a two-state solution. And, meanwhile, the presence of military occupation subverts all talk about the existence of bi-national reality
The attempt to adduce a bi- national regime from the situation of colonialist exploitation by Israel of the Palestinians is futile. MB holds that there is no need to get rid of the occupation and colonialist exploitation because the fact that we have one geographical unit ensures for him that the irreversible process leads to bi-nationalism, i.e., bi-nationalism in government. As we have seen, he asserts without any basis that Israeli attempts to maintain colonial projects in the territories do not fit the colonialist paradigm because colonialists do not, according to MB impose permanent projects, bantustans, gross economic exploitation and the like. But the colonialist paradigm holds that is precisely colonialist things like this that flourish under occupation. Despite historical proof that many colonialist projects end up in retreat, colonialists still keep trying. The occupation cum incipient colonialism paradigm explains all the main features of reality, while MB’s de facto bi- national regime thesis ignores the most basic fact of all, i.e., the total control of both peoples is in the exclusive hands of one oppressing nation.
One of the weakest elements in MB’s claim that we live in a de facto bi-nationalist regime is his attempt to draw political conclusions on the basis of geographical and economic changes. Only one side, Israel, participates in MB’s bi-national regime. At the least, bi-nationalism has always referred to a regime built around a modicum of agreement between two national movements. The fact that the Palestinians, as a nation, refuse to assimilate into the Israeli body politic and cling to their national goals precisely in the face of all the pressures and temptations is proof that the regime is mono-nationalist – Israeli from the top to the bottom.
It is worth observing that one of the strange features of MB’s “methodology” is to use every conceivable argument for seeing the given situation as permanent. He has taken the “irreversibility” thesis to the level of totally deterministic inevitability often ascribed incorrectly to Marxism. Very few, if any, social and political processes in our world are irreversible and inevitable. Serious social scientists today rarely fall victim to this kind of super certainty.
But other outcomes of the current conflict are conceivable. These include indefinite continuation of the present occupation and annexation, as well as a sharp revision of the current regional and international balance of forces that may lead to a two-state solution or a revolutionary transformation in the region that could lead to the complete collapse of the Zionist entity. It is ridiculous to use Israeli plans and actions, expropriation and land confiscation as well as an immense gap in economic and social conditions between Jews and Palestinians as proof that the regime is permanent. It only proves that Israel wants it to remain permanent. It may be permanent, or it may be reversed by political developments.
However, MB cannot leave us in the air. He insists that we are not dealing with possibilities. MB: “bi-nationalism is not a political or ideological program so much as a de- facto reality masquerading as a temporary state of affairs. It is a description of the current condition, not a prescription.”
Before trying to live according to MB’s hypothesis – that we already live in bi-nationalist realities, it is necessary to go over two more aspects of the problem. One aspect is the history of bi-nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose importance is enormously exaggerated by MB. The second vital and crucial aspect is the regional and international dimensions of the Palestinian problem, which MB chooses to ignore!
MB’s mini-history of the clash between advocates of partition versus support for a bi-nationalist solution of the conflict is presented as it has decisive bearing on the existing circumstances and might help us in our deliberations. But MB’s historiography is riddled with errors. The Palestinian opposition to partition in 1947-48 was not an expression of bi-nationalism. It simply argued that the Jews did not have national rights in Palestine. Begin’s autonomy plan for the Palestinians was not an example of bi-nationalism, but an attempt to reduce the Palestinian issue to the local civilian municipal level.
MB considers it necessary to include in his essay, a mini-history of partition. The impression that the reader takes away from MB’s description of the “dilemma” between either partition or bi-nationalism, from the British mandate onwards, is that he has always seen an undivided Palestine- Israel as a value. Thus, MB suggests that there is some sort of dilemma between moral choices. The implication is those, who really care about the land, reject partition as a solution. This is indeed a rather romantic approach. However, the truth is that sentiment plays a rather limited role, even in national movements, which are always adjusting their goals to changes in the relevant relations of political, military and economic power. Of course, there is very little, if anything at all, in the history of partition versus unified Palestine that has any analytical bearing on the fate of the current conflict. MB’s mini-history is presented to convince us that partition is somehow unnatural. .
Local Quasi-Stability in an Environment of Stormy Instability
MB describes the status quo as one of quasi-stability. However, even if one could argue incorrectly (in our opinion) that the situation in Palestine can be considered stable, it is a glaring mistake to disconnect the scene in Western Palestine and developments there from the realities of chronic regional and international instability.
There is no reason to refuse to recognize the dangers involved in the Israeli plans and successes in its attempt to create a new, stable status quo. However, there are many reasons to reject MB’s thesis that this process is irreversible and that a bi-national regime is firmly in place in Western Palestine. One of the main reasons is that the local “status quo” must be inherently unstable in this very unstable region and in today’s world.
The reason that enables MB and many who follow his lead to ignore the regional and international environment stems from a deep undercurrent of cynicism and despair among many people of good will. This cynicism was fed by the hypocrisy that characterizes much of the international community’s attitude to the Palestinian question. But this hypocrisy is not the main or even the dominant element on the international scene and it is a severe mistake to disregard crucial importance of the external factors affecting the Palestinian question.
The key to understanding events in the region is the fact that Israel and its colonial project has endured, and even prospered due to Israel’s special relationship with the U.S. This special relationship supported and protected the Israeli take over of the Palestinian Occupied Territories. It defends Israel and shields it from unanimous international condemnation. The US has increasingly relied on Israel to stave off threats to its hegemony in the ME, and all the way to Pakistan and Afghanistan via Iran and Iraq. The movement for peace and justice in the Middle East is up against a very powerful enemy. Israel earns US support for its rule in the territories by periodic participation in military adventures with the tacit support of the US. The basis for the seeming stability in the territories is rooted in the instability of the region.
MB’s arguments build on a sense of despair that developed when the US dashed any hopes that it would act in accordance with international law and prevailing views regarding the illegitimacy of the occupation and other Israeli transgressions. At that point, many devoted advocates of peace who trusted US fairness began to resign themselves to the final victory of the occupation. But, the resulting despair and tendency to ignore the importance of international and regional dynamics is unjustified. It certainly is not a sufficient reason to ignore the volcanic instability of the region and its role in the international arena.
The wide gap between pious statements of support for Palestine on the official policy level almost all over the world and a sorry lack of readiness to act consistently and decisively for peace and Palestinian rights breeds cynicism. Even so, it is wrong to ignore growing international sentiment supporting the peace movement’s fight to expose the true nature of Israeli policy.
The region of the Middle East, all the way to Central Asia, is experiencing chronic instability. In fact, the whole region is suffering from a deep and abiding crisis whose main cause is shrinking US hegemony evidenced by a sharp increase in the number of countries and forces that have rejected US domination.
It is sufficient to list recent developments in Gaza where Hamas resists a siege by Israel and the US., in Lebanon where Hezballah has recently won a legitimate role in the Lebanon government, in Syria which has refused to abandon its independent policies, to Iraq living on borrowed time until the US army leaves the country, to Iran under threat of a US-Israeli invasion, to ungovernable Pakistan and Afghanistan, the graveyard of empire. In all these places, the US empire is in dire straits. Given the rise of China and the ongoing financial and social crises in the US and Europe, nothing based on US hegemony is stable and “all that is solid melts in the air.” MB who seems rather neutral about the role of the US in stabilizing Israel-Palestine chose to exclude any serious discussion of the international and regional context of the circumstances in Israel-Palestine.
Of course, it is impossible to determine ahead of time how this and other crises will develop and how they will affect Israel’s colonial project. At this point there is no need to speculate, and even quarrel about the relative advantages of the two-state or the one-state solution. What is more important than ever is to reject any analysis or theory that suggests that we disregard the vital need to further expose the criminal nature of the occupation and the settlements. There is no basis to agree that Israel’s victories in the subjugation of the Palestinians are in any sense permanent.
Where Do We Go From Here?
MB’s suggestion that we already have a “de-facto bi-national regime” appears similar to the one-state solution. But when examined closely there is no sign of any solution except the demand that we base our strategic thinking on the inevitability and the irreversibility of Israel’s successes. MB wants to lead us down a blind alley. The Palestinian masses and sizable sections of the Palestinian political echelon refuse to accept the occupation and its colonial annexations as a fait accompli. Many progressive Israelis and Palestinians and large sections of international public opinion believe that if we rate possible solutions by their probability and equitability, the two- state solution is preferable to any other option.
On the other hand, what kind of agenda will we have if we accept MB’s analysis? Is the clear strategic wisdom of concentrating our efforts to condemn the brutality and the cruelty of the occupation anachronistic? Must we sacrifice the ongoing efforts to establish the broadest possible front against Israeli refusal to recognize the national rights of the Palestinians within a solution that respects the just national rights of both peoples?
What is the practical meaning of this dogma of a “de facto bi-national regime” compounded out of disappointment and despair. MB’s thesis exaggerates the victories of the Israeli regime and its dwindling list of friends and enhances them with a permanence that is far from having been proven. At the same time it minimizes the successes of the political and moral opposition in Israel and its allies abroad in exposing the true nature of Israeli expansionism. It supposes that Israel operates in a calm, benevolent environment while in truth it passes from one militaristic panic to another. Even if the author did not have such an intention, MB’s thesis is an ode of surrender to the unbearable status quo. The victory of Israeli expansionism is neither inevitable nor irreversible. The struggle continues.
* I have worked with the first translation of Benvenisti’s Hebrew article that was available. The translation was performed by Dafna Levit and Zalman Amit and appeared on ALEF, the website of the Academic Left. I have every reason to believe that their translation is faithful. I am including the full translated text for the benefit of my readers. All quotations in my article are from their text and appear in italics.