Jonathan Cook: Israels dead end
- Israel's dead end
This paper was presented in the 2008 Haifa Conference for the
right of return and the democratic secular state in Palestine.
Historically, the principles of separation and transfer have been
both antagonistic and complementary in Zionist thinking, reflected
in competing and reinforcing visions of Israel-Palestine's future as
either an ethnically cleansed state (Ben Gurion) or as an apartheid
state (Jabotinsky). Since Oslo, however, the proponents of
separation, most notably Ehud Barak and the Labor party, have
confidently incorporated transfer by stealth into their ostensible
programme of unilateral separation. Today, ethnic cleansing is being
carried out in Gaza under the cover of Sharon's policy of
disengagement and in the West Bank behind the mammoth wall. But can
a programme of ethnic cleansing be successfully masked this way?
Israel's dead end
In 1895, Theodor Herzl, Zionism's chief prophet, confided in his
diary that he did not favour sharing Palestine with the natives.
Better, he wrote, to "try to spirit the penniless [Palestinian]
population across the border by denying it any employment in our own
country... Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the
poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly."
He was proposing a programme of Palestinian emigration enforced
through a policy of strict separation between Jewish immigrants and
the indigenous population. In simple terms, he hoped that, once
Zionist organisations had bought up large areas of Palestine and
owned the main sectors of the economy, Palestinians could be made to
leave by denying them rights to work the land or labour in the
Jewish-run economy. His vision was one of transfer, or ethnic
cleansing, through ethnic separation.
Herzl was suggesting that two possible Zionist solutions to the
problem of a Palestinian majority living in Palestine -- separation
and transfer -- were not necessarily alternatives but rather could
be mutually reinforcing. Not only that: he believed, if they were
used together, the process of ethnic cleansing could be made to
appear voluntary, the choice of the victims. It may be that this was
both his most enduring legacy and his major innovation to settler
In recent years, with the Palestinian population under Israeli rule
about to reach parity with the Jewish population, the threat of a
Palestinian majority has loomed large again for the Zionists. Not
surprisingly, debates about which of these two Zionist solutions to
pursue, separation or transfer, have resurfaced.
Today these solutions are ostensibly promoted by two ideological
camps loosely associated with Israel's centre-left (Labour and
Kadima) and right (Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu). The modern political
arguments between them turn on differing visions of the nature of a
Jewish state originally put forward by Labour and Revisionist
To make sense of current political debates, and events, taking place
inside Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza, let us first examine
the history of these two principles in Zionist thinking.
During the early waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine, the
dominant Labour Zionist movement and its leader David Ben Gurion
advanced policies much in line with Herzl's goal. In particular,
they promoted the twin principles of "Redemption of the Land"
and "Hebrew Labour", which took as their premise the idea that Jews
needed to separate themselves from the native population in working
the land and employing only other Jews. By being entirely self-
reliant in Palestine, Jews could both "cure" themselves of their
tainted Diaspora natures and deprive the Palestinians of the
opportunity to subsist in their own homeland.
At the forefront of this drive was the Zionist trade union
federation, the Histadrut, which denied membership to Palestinians
and, for many years after the establishment of the Jewish state,
even to the remnants of the Palestinian population who became
But if separation was the official policy of Labour Zionism, behind
the scenes Ben Gurion and his officials increasingly appreciated
that it would not be enough in itself to achieve their goal of a
pure ethnic state. Land sales remained low, at about six per cent of
the territory, and the Jewish-owned parts of the economy relied on
cheap Palestinian labour.
Instead, the Labour Zionists secretly began working on a programme
of ethnic cleansing. After 1937 and Britain's Peel Report proposing
partition of Palestine, Ben Gurion was more open about transfer,
recognising that a Jewish state would be impossible unless most of
the indigenous population was cleared from within its borders.
Israel's new historians have acknowledged Ben Gurion's commitment to
transfer. As Benny Morris notes, for example, Ben Gurion "understood
that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab
minority in its midst". The Israeli leadership therefore developed a
plan for ethnic cleansing under cover of war, compiling detailed
dossiers on the communities that needed to be driven out and then
passing on the order, in Plan Dalet, to commanders in the field.
During the 1948 war the new state of Israel was emptied of at least
80 per cent of its indigenous population.
In physically expelling the Palestinian population, Ben Gurion
responded to the political opportunities of the day and recalibrated
the Labour Zionism of Herzl. In particular he achieved the goal of
displacement desired by Herzl while also largely persuading the
world through a campaign of propaganda that the exodus of the
refugees was mostly voluntary. In one of the most enduring Zionist
myths, convincingly rebutted by modern historians, we are still told
that the refugees left because they were told to do so by the Arab
The other camp, the Revisionists, had a far more ambivalent attitude
to the native Palestinian population. Paradoxically, given their
uncompromising claim to a Greater Israel embracing both banks of the
Jordan River (thereby including not only Palestine but also the
modern state of Jordan), they were more prepared than the Labour
Zionists to allow natives to remain where they were.
Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of Revisionism, observed in 1938 --
possibly in a rebuff to Ben Gurion's espousal of transfer --
that, "it must be hateful for any Jew to think that the rebirth of a
Jewish state should ever be linked with such an odious suggestion as
the removal of non-Jewish citizens". The Revisionists, it seems,
were resigned to the fact that the enlarged territory they desired
would inevitably include a majority of Arabs. They were therefore
less concerned with removing the natives than finding a way to make
them accept Jewish rule.
In 1923, Jabotinsky formulated his answer, one that implicitly
included the notion of separation but not necessarily transfer:
an "iron wall" of unremitting force to cow the natives into
submission. In his words, the agreement of the Palestinians to their
subjugation could be reached only "through the iron wall, that is to
say, the establishment in Palestine of a force that will in no way
be influenced by Arab pressure".
An enthusiast of British imperial rule, Jabotinsky envisioned the
future Jewish state in simple colonial terms, as a European elite
ruling over the native population.
Inside Revisionism, however, there was a shift from the idea of
separation to transfer that mirrored developments inside Labour
Zionism. This change was perhaps more opportunistic than
ideological, and was particularly apparent as the Revisionists
sensed Ben Gurion's success in forging a Jewish state through
One of Jabotinsky disciples, Menachem Begin, who would later become
a Likud prime minister, was leader in 1948 of the Irgun militia that
committed one of the worst atrocities of the war. He led his
fighters into the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin where they
massacred over 100 inhabitants, including women and children.
Savage enough though these events were, Begin and his followers
consciously inflated the death toll to more than 250 through the
pages of The New York Times. Their goal was to spread terror among
the wider Palestinian population and encourage them to flee. He
happily noted later: "Arabs throughout the country, induced to
believe wild tales of 'Irgun butchery', were seized with limitless
panic and started to flee for their lives. This mass flight soon
developed into a maddened, uncontrollable stampede."
Subsequently, other prominent figures on the right openly espoused
ethnic cleansing, including the late General Rehavam Zeevi, whose
Moledet Party campaigned in elections under the symbol of the Hebrew
character "tet", for transfer. His successor, Benny Elon, a settler
leader and rabbi, adopted a similar platform: "Only population
transfer can bring peace".
The intensity of the separation versus transfer debate subsided
after 1948 and the ethnic cleansing campaign that removed most of
the native Palestinian population from the Jewish state. The
Palestinian minority left behind -- a fifth of the population but a
group, it was widely assumed, that would soon be swamped by Jewish
immigration -- was seen as an irritation but not yet as a threat. It
was placed under a military government for nearly two decades, a
system designed to enforce separation between Palestinians and Jews
inside Israel. Such separation -- in education, employment and
residence -- exists to this day, even if in a less extreme form.
The separation-transfer debate was chiefly revived by Israel's war
on the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. With Israel's erasure of the
Green Line, and the effective erosion of the distinction between
Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories, the problem of
a Palestinian majority again loomed large for the Zionists.
Cabinet debates from 1967 show the quandary faced by the government.
Almost alone, Moshe Dayan favoured annexation of both the newly
captured territories and the Palestinian population there. Others
believed that such a move would be seen as transparently colonialist
and rapidly degenerate into an apartheid system of Jewish citizens
and Palestinian non-citizens. In their minds, Jabotinsky's solution
of an iron wall was no longer viable.
But equally, in a more media-saturated era, which at least paid lip-
service to human rights, the government could see no way to expel
the Palestinian population and annex the land, as Ben Gurion had
done earlier. Also possibly, they could see no way of persuading the
world that such expulsions should be characterised as voluntary.
Israel therefore declined to move decisively in either direction,
neither fully carrying out a transfer programme nor enforcing strict
separation. Instead it opted for an apartheid model that
accommodated Dayan's suggestion of a "creeping annexation" of the
occupied territories that he rightly believed would go largely
unnoticed by the West.
The separation embodied in South African apartheid differed from
Herzl's notion of separation in one important respect: in apartheid,
the "other" population was a necessary, even if much abused,
component of the political arrangement. As the exiled Palestinian
thinker Azmi Bishara has noted, in South Africa "racial segregation
was not absolute. It took place within a framework of political
unity. The racist regime saw blacks as part of the system, an
ingredient of the whole. The whites created a racist hierarchy
within the unity."
In other words, the self-reliance, or unilateralism, implicit in
Herzl's concept of separation was ignored for many years of Israel's
occupation. The Palestinian labour force was exploited by Israel
just as black workers were by South Africa. This view of the
Palestinians was formalised in the Oslo Accords, which were
predicated on the kind of separation needed to create a captive
However, Yitzhak Rabin's version of apartheid embodied by the Oslo
process, and Binyamin Netanyahu's opposition in upholding
Jabotinsky's vision of Greater Israel, both deviated from Herzl's
model of transfer through separation. This is largely why both
political currents have been subsumed within the recent but more
powerful trend towards "unilateral separation".
Not surprisingly, the policy of "unilateral separation" emerged from
among the Labour Zionists, advocated primarily by Ehud Barak.
However, it was soon adopted by many members of Likud also.
Ultimately its success derived from the conversion to its cause of
Greater Israel's arch-exponent, Ariel Sharon. He realised the chief
manifestations of unilateral separation, the West Bank wall and the
Gaza disengagement, as well as breaking up Israel's right wing to
create a new consensus party, Kadima.
In the new consensus, the transfer of Palestinians could be achieved
through imposed and absolute separation -- just as Herzl had once
hoped. After the Gaza disengagement, the next stage was promoted by
Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert. His plan for convergence, limited
withdrawals from the West Bank in which most settlers would remain
in place, has been dropped, though its infrastructure -- the
annexation wall -- continues to be built.
But how will modern Zionists convert unilateral separation into
transfer? How will Herzl's original vision of ethnic cleansing
enforced through strict ethnic separation be realised in today's
The current siege of Gaza offers the template. After disengagement,
Israel has been able to cut off at will Gazans' access to aid, food,
fuel and humanitarian services. Normality has been further eroded by
sonic booms, random Israeli air attacks, and repeated small-scale
invasions that have inflicted a large toll of casualties,
particularly among civilians.
Gaza's imprisonment has stopped being a metaphor and become a daily
reality. In fact, Gaza's condition is far worse than imprisonment:
prisoners, even of war, expect to have their humanity respected and
to be properly sheltered, cared for, fed and clothed. Gazans can no
longer rely on these staples of life.
The ultimate goal of this extreme form of separation is patently
clear: transfer. By depriving Palestinians of the basic conditions
of a normal life, it is assumed that they will eventually choose to
leave in what can once again be sold to the world as a voluntary
exodus. And if Palestinians choose to abandon their homeland, then
in Zionist thinking they have forfeited their right to it -- just as
earlier generations of Zionists believed the Palestinian refugees
had done by supposedly fleeing during the 1948 and 1967 wars.
Is this process of transfer inevitable? I think not. The success of
a modern policy of "transfer through separation" faces severe
First, it depends on continuing US global hegemony and blind support
for Israel. Such support is likely to be undermined by current
American misadventures in the Middle East, and a gradual shift in
the balance of power to China, Russia and India.
Second, it requires a Zionist worldview that departs starkly not
only from international law but also from the values upheld by most
societies and ideologies. The nature of Zionist ambitions is likely
to be ever harder to conceal, as is evident from the tide of opinion
polls showing that Western publics, if not their governments,
believe Israel to be one of the biggest threats to world peace.
And third, it assumes that the Palestinians will remain passive
during their slow eradication. The historical evidence most
certainly shows that they will not.
Jonathan Cook is a British journalist and writer based in Nazareth.
His is the author of three books, Blood and Religion: The Unmasking
of the Jewish and Democratic State (Pluto Press, 2006); Israel and
the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the
Middle East, which was recently released by Pluto; and Disappearing
Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair, which is published
later this year by Zed Books.
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