Opinion

America needs to wake up to the danger of grand apartheid in Israel

This is the real lesson of the Israeli election

Tuesday's election in Israel delivered a familiar result: another victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud Party walloped the leftist Zionist Union.

Still, the election was a strange one for Israel. It's rare enough for the Israeli prime minister to give a speech before the U.S. Congress; it's rarer to do it with the object of undermining a major American diplomatic initiative as part of a triple-backflip election maneuver to distract from your nation's wretched economy.

But that's exactly what Benjamin Netanyahu did. Falling behind the center-left Zionist Union in the polls over the last several days, he turned hard right, announcing an explicit rejection of a Palestinian state. As voting approached, he sank to gutter racism in an attempt to stoke the ultra-conservative vote, warning on his Facebook page that "Arab voters are going to the polls in droves. Left-wing organizations are bringing them in buses."

The hidden upside of this rancid politicking is that Netanyahu did both America and Israel a favor by clarifying in plain words what was already the de facto reality in Israel and the occupied territories. And if America and Israel had any sense at all, they'd seize this opportunity to stop heading down the road to grand apartheid.

In South Africa, grand apartheid was the system of major racial separation that forced blacks out of the most developed parts of the nation (as opposed to petty apartheid, which consisted of smaller measures like a ban against interracial marriage). The keystone of grand apartheid were the bantustans, which were small, usually geographically non-contiguous "homelands" for each black tribe. With several fake nations set aside for blacks, the white government could pretend like it was doing "separate but equal" while stealing all the best land and mercilessly exploiting a politically powerless black working class.

I know that any invocation of the A-word inevitably sets off a storm of controversy. But the facts are these: Gaza and the West Bank have been dominated by Israel since 1967, and Palestinians who live there have few rights. They already live Israelis' worst nightmares. It's not democracy, to say the least.

Netanyahu openly says that there will never be a Palestinian state or an end to the occupation so long as he is prime minister. If that's not grand apartheid then the words have no meaning. As former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak once said, "If there is one state, it will have to be either binational or undemocratic. ... if this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state."

Netanyahu's recent comments are not only revealing, but they could put America in quite a bind. Jonathan Chait summarizes the situation as a serious danger for the U.S.–Israel relationship:

If Netanyahu prevails, the nature of Israel's diplomatic alliance with the United States will have to change — the U.S. cannot continue to extend its U.N. veto to a country whose government has formally disavowed negotiations. [New York]

Chait is not nearly cynical enough, at least in the short term. Short of Israel declaring war on the U.S., there is almost nothing Israel could do to be kicked out of American good graces.

Now, in the long run, Chait is probably right. America's bipartisan support of Israel rests on good lobbying and general unconcern among the broader population. But Netanyahu has been allying Israel increasingly openly with Republicans. First it was trying to swing the election for Romney, now it's trying to dynamite a potential U.S.-Iran rapprochement in a bid to get U.S. conservatives to start a war with Iran.

All this has begun to poison Israel's reputation among Democrats. An open embrace of grand apartheid policy would only accelerate this process, and politically empower the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which will look prescient. If supporting Israel becomes coded as Republican-only policy, it will be the end of the special relationship.

The unquestioning, knee-jerk support America has granted Israel has not turned out well for either nation. It has only enabled the most reactionary trends in Israeli politics. Netanyahu's body blows against the alliance, regardless of why he meant to do it, are a good opportunity to remember the obvious: Maintaining indefinite control over a subject population with no voting rights is a losing proposition, historically speaking.

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