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2014 will be remembered as the year that Israel revealed itself to be an apartheid state

There is no doubt that 2014 will be remembered as one of the most tragic in Palestinian history. There are reasons to believe, though, that the year was also a game changer, not least because the international campaign for recognition of a Palestinian state and the simultaneous de-legitimisation of the Israeli occupation gained significant momentum.

Israel, however, will be remembered for perpetrating one of the bloodiest episodes this year in its short and violent history, as well as for taking a giant leap towards becoming an official apartheid state. Even Israel's loyal friends predicted doom and gloom. Israel could face a "bleak future," said Barack Obama in March, "one of international isolation and demographic disaster." The US president warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that "time is running out for Israel as a Jewish majority democracy."

A month later, US Secretary of State John Kerry irritated pro-Israel lobbyists by raising the spectre of apartheid again. In a private meeting at the Trilateral Commission, a non-governmental organisation of experts and officials from the US, Western Europe, Russia and Japan, he said that "Israel risks becoming an apartheid state if peace talks fail."

By the end of April, the peace talks, as predicted, did fail. Netanyahu cited the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas as the reason for the failure; Palestinians suggested that Israel was looking for an excuse to end the talks and push the issue down the regional agenda. The US administration blamed Netanyahu for wrecking the attempt to restart the peace process, although publicly it was keen to show that obstinacy and obstacles on both sides were responsible. Privately, US officials identified Israel's land grabs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank as the principal cause of the breakdown.

Keen observers will say that the 2014 peace talks failed for the same reasons that any future talks will also fail. After almost five decades of brutal military occupation, Israel is so entrenched across Palestinian territory that it is now politically irreversible. The cycle of failed peace talks is the result of a diplomatic impasse where even the bare minimum of Palestinian rights far exceeds what Israel is willing to concede. In other words, Israel wants Palestinians to continue giving up more of their rights to fulfil its insatiable demands, which now include the continuation of its occupation without any resistance of any kind.

Many of Israel's traditional supporters are losing patience. Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador, went from being an AIPAC man to blaming Israel for the peace talks debacle. He maintained his critical approach to Israel's settlement expansion, warning that it "may well drive Israel into an irreversible bi-national reality."

The spectre of an apartheid scenario is used by many of Israel's "yes men" and is usually couched in terms of a warning for the future. Ex-prime minister Ehud Barak said four years ago that Israel should "make peace with the Palestinians or face apartheid." When does a prediction for the future become a present reality?

These open-ended warnings are in reality confessions about the present; apartheid is a qualitative not a quantitative notion. It's the denial of basic rights to a whole category of people, regardless of their numerical strength, that defines apartheid. When right-wing Israelis talk about their Palestinian fellow citizens as a "demographic time-bomb", as if they have any influence over the state apparatus, they are being disingenuous; Israel has been controlling the lives of Palestinians for most of its existence without giving them any major say in how they are governed.

Despite various experiments in the management of occupied people, the apartheid aspect has remained an incontrovertible fact. Even the excessive use of the term "occupation" and the fictitious "peace process" have sanitised the extent of Israeli apartheid; such terminology served only to strengthen Israel's position while making it look as if the deplorable situation was temporary. In fact it's the exact opposite, but the pretence of a peace "process" provided Israel with a convenient cover while it turned occupation into an irreversible fact. For Israelis there is no legal or moral distinction between living in pre-1967 Israel and the illegal settlements; indeed, the latter are seen as an extension of Israeli "neighbourhoods".

This was made obvious last year when Israel enshrined in law the unification of Israel with the occupied West Bank while upholding its apartheid structure. In December 2014 a Jerusalem judge acquitted an Israeli man who broke through a West Bank checkpoint into Palestinian-controlled territory ("Area A"), ruling that it's unacceptable for an Israeli citizen to be discriminated against by virtue of his religion. Arab citizens of Israel but not Jewish citizens are allowed into "area A", which is under the sole control (in theory) of the Palestinian Authority. Of course, the ruling means nothing for the vast majority of Palestinian West Bank residents who face discrimination on a daily basis.

It is surely incongruous in a democracy that a Jewish Israeli citizen can break through a military checkpoint and be acquitted of all charges under the principle of equality whereas a Palestinian who does the same thing is more than likely to be shot and killed, with no questions asked. There is also the obvious inconsistency that Jewish Israelis alone are referred to as "the population" in the West Bank; the Palestinians there are ignored. If the Palestinians in the West Bank are not part of the "population," what are they exactly?

A commonly believed myth about Israel is that, aside from its occupation, it is just like any other Western democracy; the events of 2014 show that this is an entirely false assumption. The Jewish Nationality Bill proposed towards the end of the year will, if passed into law, finally close a long chapter in Israel's history in a debate that has raged since the creation of the state: will Israel be an exclusively Jewish state or one for all of its citizens? From first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion – who wanted to avoid the tricky issue of defining Israel's ethnic nature in black and white — until today, the debate has polarised Israeli society. The proposed bill will settle the matter once and for all with legal priority given to Jews over non-Jews. Racial discrimination was, therefore, proposed as official legal and political policy in 2014; apartheid in practice as well as principle.

This confirms the most authoritative work carried out on this topic in 1990 by Jose Linz from Yale University, who applied the term "ethnic democracy" for Israel in his comparative analysis of democratic regimes. Israel, claimed Linz, is not a liberal democracy, multicultural democracy or a republican democracy, but an "incomplete democracy"; a "low-grade democracy". The new bill asserting the state's Jewish nature throws into doubt even this notion of it being a low-grade democracy.

Those unwilling to make a special case for Israel have learnt that the fear of Israel's leaders and its determined supporters is not so much the moral turpitude of maintaining an apartheid system, but that this might be recognised internationally for what it is. The year 2014 exposed Israeli apartheid, and more and more people are recognising this. The gap between what it means to be a Jew inside Israel and what it means to be a Jew outside Israel is growing wider. Liberal Zionists are now forced to confront the key question regarding what matters most to them: liberalism or Zionism? It is Israel's misfortune that this is a question that will not be decided in its favour, for liberal Zionists, who play a critical role in promoting Israel around the globe, had their faith in the country tested like never before in 2014. Many lost it altogether during the summer bombardment of Gaza, which killed over two thousand Palestinians and displaced half a million more. Ardent Zionists spoke of the moment as a crossroads and the end of Liberal Zionism.

According to Sir Richard Ottaway, the Conservative MP, his wife's family had been instrumental in the fight for the creation of Israel: "I was a friend of Israel long before I became a Tory… [but] "I have to say to the government of Israel that if they are losing people like me, they will be losing a lot of people." Others, though increasingly troubled by mindless and counterproductive wars, are hanging on to their faith in Israel in the utterly false belief that the project will somehow redeem itself and all the death, destruction and contradictions will in the end have been worth it. Those seeking the primacy of international law and justice for the people of Palestine would beg to disagree.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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