The remarkable pace by which the term "apartheid" has moved from the margins of the Israeli-Palestinian debate to its centre was on powerful display this weekend. The prestigious American magazine, Foreign Affairs, widely considered one of most influential foreign policy magazines shaping Washington's thinking, added its weight behind the claim that Israel has imposed an apartheid regime that systematically discriminates against non-Jews.
In an article titled "Israel's One-State Reality" authors Michael Barnett, Nathan Brown, Marc Lynch and Shibley Telhami, highlight the seismic shift that is underway in leading policy circles today. Describing the situation in Palestine and how Israel arrived at the point where it is practicing apartheid, they say that what was once "unsayable" is now "undeniable".
"A one-state arrangement is not a future possibility; it already exists, no matter what anyone thinks," the authors who are all professors on the Middle East, say. "Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, one state controls the entry and exit of people and goods, oversees security and has the capacity to impose its decisions, laws, and policies on millions of people without their consent."
Israel, argue the authors, "has locked in a system of Jewish supremacy, wherein non-Jews are structurally discriminated against or excluded in a tiered scheme: some non-Jews have most of, but not all, the rights that Jews have, while most non-Jews live under severe segregation, separation and domination." Tellingly, they claim that this reality has been "obvious" to anyone who has paid attention. For various reasons, Washington and supporters of Israel have preferred to stick their head in the sand and smear anyone who points to the truth of Israel's apartheid system as anti-Semetic. "Until recently, the one-state reality was rarely acknowledged by important actors, and those who spoke the truth out loud were ignored or punished for doing so," the article pointed out. "With remarkable speed, however, the unsayable has become close to conventional wisdom".
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Anyone following the debate on Israel's practice of apartheid closely will be familiar with many of the points highlighted by the authors. Since 2021, Major human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, B'Tselem and many more have applied the term to describe Israel. As have many academics: according to a recent poll of Middle East–focused scholars who are members of three large academic associations, 65 per cent of respondents described the situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories as a "one-state reality with inequality akin to apartheid".
Beyond repeating well-known facts about how Israel has created a regime of Jewish supremacy, the Foreign Affairs article is unique for emphasising the culpability of Washington and other foreign powers in enabling the creation of an apartheid regime. Israel's major allies, the authors argue, are guilty of "magical thinking". For decades, the US, more than most, has defended its support of Israel on wishful thinking, believing that Israel shares the same values as the West. "The United States does not have 'shared values' and should not have 'unbreakable bonds' with a state that discriminates against or abuses millions of its residents based on their ethnicity and religion". It is difficult to square a commitment to liberalism, say the authors, with support for a single state that offers the benefits of democracy to Jews but explicitly withholds them from the majority of its non-Jewish inhabitants.
While it has become fashionable to blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Israel's shift towards apartheid, it is argued that the current reality, preserving Jewish supremacy in historic Palestine, has strong grounding in Zionist thought and practice. It began gaining adherents soon after Israel occupied the Palestinian Territories in 1967. The authors claim that, although it is not yet a "hegemonic view", it can plausibly be described as a majority of Israeli society and can no longer be termed a fringe position. It is worth bearing in mind that Netanyahu, who is Israel's longest serving Prime Minister, has written that "Israel is not a state of all its citizens" but rather "of the Jewish people—and only it." The Likud leader has also been accused of erasing Palestinians and their history, a fact which members of his current coalition openly endorse.
Advocates of Israel who reject the one state reality are urged to put on new glasses, for them to be able to see apartheid for what it is. Israel's allies are used to seeing a distinction between the Occupied Territories and Israel proper, and think Israel's sovereignty is limited to the territory it controlled before 1967. In making this point, the authors are arguing that the state and sovereignty are not the same. "The state is defined by what it controls, whereas sovereignty depends on other states' recognising the legality of that control". The mistake is to confuse the two without realising that Israel as a state controls every inch of Palestine, even though under the eyes of the international community, the occupations state has no claim to sovereignty over the territory.
"Consider Israel through the lens of a state. It has control over a territory that stretches from the river to the sea, has a near monopoly on the use of force, and uses this power to sustain a draconian blockade of Gaza and control the West Bank with a system of checkpoints, policing and relentlessly expanding settlements," said the authors clarifying the distinction with sovereignty. While explaining how Israel has been able to exploit the situation, the article said that "By not formalising sovereignty, Israel can be democratic for its citizens but unaccountable to millions of its residents." According to the authors, this arrangement has allowed many of Israel's supporters abroad to continue to pretend that all this is temporary—that Israel remains a liberal democracy and that, someday, Palestinians will exercise their right to self-determination.
As much as US policies have helped to entrench the one state reality, normalisation by Arab states under the Abraham Accords has further cemented Israel's apartheid system. The traditional Arab position was that normalisation would be offered in exchange for complete Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. The baseline for negotiation was that peace with the Arab world would require a resolution of the Palestinian issue. The Abraham Accords rejected this assumption and, in turn, rewarded Israel for its settler colonial practices. "Decoupling of Arab normalisation from the Palestinian issue went a long way toward entrenching the one-state reality."
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In a warning to authoritarian rules in the Middle East, the authors powerfully explain that the Palestinian issue resonates strongly with the Arab population. "Arab rulers might not care about the Palestinians, but their people do—and those rulers care about nothing more than keeping their thrones". Fully abandoning the Palestinians after more than half a century of at least rhetorical support would pose a risk to their authority. "Arab leaders do not fear losing elections, but they remember the Arab uprisings of 2011 all too well," said the authors arguing that abandoning the Palestinian cause has the potential to trigger a popular revolt.
Policymakers and analysts who ignore the one-state reality will be condemned to failure and irrelevance, doing little beyond providing a smokescreen for the entrenchment of the status quo, said the authors before listing practical steps that need to be taken. To end Washington's deep complicity in creating the one-state reality, the US is urged to take "radical" measures, including imposing sanctions on Israel and, above all, for the West to look at its response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a model for defending international law and the rules based system they claims to uphold.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.