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Can Palestine exploit the rift between Israel and the West?

February 2, 2016 at 11:38 am

Late last week the French government stated that if the next round of talks between the PLO and Israel fail, it will offer formal recognition to the “State of Palestine”. Unfortunately, as we have seen time and time again, such steps are – in practice – more or less meaningless. Instead, if real change is to occur for Palestine, then a paradigm shift is required.

Under the Netanyahu government, Israel’s shift in gear to completely brazen colonialism seems to have triggered censure from all quarters. As well as the comments from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appeared to wake from his slumber and made perhaps his most forthright comments ever on this issue: “Security measures alone will not stop the violence. They cannot address the profound sense of alienation and despair driving some Palestinians – especially young people.”

Israel’s response was typically frenetic, claiming – absurdly – that the UN was a supporter of terrorism. However, given that this disagreement comes within days of another (quite nasty) spat between the Netanyahu and the Obama administration, it might seem, to some of the more optimistic among us, that the worm is beginning to turn against Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank.

However, a slight step back to take a broader view of the situation reveals a more disappointing vista. The essential aspects of this is the fact that it is only now – when Israel’s colonial project in the West Bank has dropped any pretence of seeking progress towards a two-state solution – that there is even the first signs of real resistance from the big players in the so-called international community. In other words, if we want a more honest accounting of what the West is trying to achieve in the occupied territories and why governments have grown disgruntled with Israel, we have to look at it in terms of the underlying strategy that each actor has been pursuing.


In an important article published last year in the Review of International Studies, British academic Mandy Turner argued that the best way to understand the relationship between most of the major donor countries, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) is to reinterpret what we have grown to understand as “peacebuilding” through the lens of “counter-insurgency”.

Essentially what this means is that while, for the most part, the governments of the major donor countries have been articulating the language of “peacebuilding” and “state building” in Palestine as a method of achieving long term peace their policies can also be easily reinterpreted to show a more nefarious intent. There is a significant overlap between the kinds of goals pursued by Western governments in Palestine and those they’ve pursued in Iraq, Afghanistan and – historically – in other colonial contexts.

These goals can be understood easily in terms of how the West seeks to pacify the local population and prevent further organised armed insurrection, yet without really changing the underlying hierarchical relationship. In this respect, peacebuilding/state building projects in colonial contexts (such as Palestine) – from the West’s standpoint – were never intended to give the colonised population the same rights as the colonisers, nor to disrupt the overall strategic dominance enjoyed by the dominant powers in global politics. In fact, the synergy between “state building” and imperialism has been made quite explicit by some of the champions of neo-liberal imperialism. For example, Harvard University’s Michael Ignatieff explained: “Imperialism used to be the white man’s burden. This gave it a bad reputation… Nation-building is the kind of imperialism you get in a human rights era.”

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Western strategy in Palestine

Of course, it is quite easy to see how these strategies have been transposed to Palestine (though as Laleh Khalili explains, the historical connectedness is surprisingly deep). In Turner’s words, the role of the Western powers has “complimented and meshed with the structures of domination and repression created by Israel.”

Moreover, there have been countless critical analyses of how the Oslo peace process has failed, many of which cite the deep structural inequality between the two sides, or the fact that the PA leadership has been duped into playing the role of Israel’s lackey. Others work on the fact that – with Western support – the PA has effectively been building a police state in the West Bank.

Clearly, though, this approach is not just about supporting Israel’s strategic superiority and strengthening the grip of Palestinian security forces; there is also an important element of salesmanship that plays a role. In other words, a successful counter-insurgency depends on the ability for the dominant parties to win the hearts and minds of the colonised populace. As the now infamous US Military’s Counter Insurgency Field Manual makes clear: “‘Hearts’ means persuading people that their best interests are served by [counter-insurgency] success. ‘Minds’ means convincing them that the force can protect them and that resisting it is pointless.”

In practice then, in Palestine, this has meant selling the notion that a better, longer, life may be possible by accepting the dominance of Israel and the PA (with the-always-just-over-the-horizon prospect of a two-state solution) and that resistance will be dealt with mercilessly. One could also say that, according to the goals of counter-insurgency, it is better to live on ones knees than to die on one’s feet.

So what’s going wrong?

Clearly this kind of strategy pursued by the West is deplorable. It makes a mockery of any notion of genuine Palestinian democracy and it effectively has the continuation and promotion of inequality – based on ethnic identity – built-in from the start. But noting its dearth of moral justification and understanding why it is that is that there is division between the West and Israel over it, are very different things. Indeed, as stated above, if one steps back from the process to take a wider view, then it is possible to see that the current rift between Israel and the West is actually less profound than it might first appear.

In short, while optimists might see recent diplomatic squabbles between Israel and the West as a good sign for Palestine – in the sense that it would seem to demonstrate that there is a limit to which Israel’s allies will accept its control over the Palestinians – they should not be fooled. The West is not suddenly on the side of the Palestinians.

Instead, it is not that Israel is a colonial power that has stimulated Western rebuke, but rather that, particularly under the Netanyahu government, its colonialism is just so brazen that it undermines the mythology of a two-state solution that is integral to the “hearts and minds” aspect of the West’s counter-insurgency strategy for Palestine and the Palestinians.

Dr Philip Leech is a visiting research fellow at the Council for British Research in the Levant. He is on twitter @phil_haqeeqa and his academic profile is available at

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