Vol. 43 No. 2 · 21 January 2021

The Separate Regimes Delusion

Nathan Thrall on Israel’s apartheid

5582 words

Last April​ , Haaretz ran a statement warning the Israeli government against formally annexing its settlements in the occupied West Bank. Opinion polls showed that the public didn’t care much about the issue, but political elites were debating it fiercely. Both proponents and opponents of annexation claimed that the future of Israel and Zionism was at stake. The statement argued that ‘annexation would mean a fatal blow to the possibility of peace and would be the establishment of an apartheid state.’ It was signed by 56 former members of the Knesset, among them former ministers of the interior, foreign affairs, finance and more than a dozen other departments, as well as former ambassadors, generals in the Israeli army, chairs of political parties, a head of the semi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, a former speaker of the Knesset, and a winner of the Israel Prize. The signatories included not just members of Israeli left factions but two dozen from centrist and centre-left parties, and even a former justice minister, Meir Sheetrit, of the right-wing Likud Party.


The following week the two largest parties in the Knesset – Likud and the centrist Blue and White, which together commanded a parliamentary majority – signed an agreement to form a coalition government that could apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank no sooner than 1 July, after Israel and the United States had finalised annexation maps. These maps, detailed versions of the ones in Donald Trump’s ‘peace plan’, called for Israel to annex 30 per cent of the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians a ‘state’ made up of several discontiguous cantons entirely surrounded by Israeli territory. The Trump plan also proposed rescinding the citizenship of around a quarter of a million Palestinian citizens of Israel by transferring ten Israeli towns to the jurisdiction of the future Palestinian state. By the end of the week, Israel’s Labor Party, the originator of the settlement enterprise, agreed to join the new government and vote in favour of annexation.

Much of the Israeli press misinterpreted the agreement between Likud and Blue and White. Reporters treated 1 July not as the earliest day that annexation could take place but as a deadline, creating a sense of urgency around the move. In the days after the coalition agreement was signed, liberal Zionist groups issued their battle cries. Their reasons for opposing annexation were telling. Concern for human rights was often secondary to the harm annexation might do to Israel. They warned that it would damage the perception of Israel as a democracy. They urged Israelis not to give impetus to campaigns promoting boycotts or the reduction of economic and military aid, and cautioned that annexation would only widen the divide between Israel and the Jewish diaspora. And they brandished the spectre most feared by the Zionist left: that Israel will eventually be forced to give citizenship to all Palestinians living under its control – there are nearly five million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, all without Israeli citizenship, and roughly 360,000 in annexed East Jerusalem, more than 90 per cent of whom have permanent residency but not citizenship or the right to vote in national elections – thereby ending Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, with all the privileges that entails for Jews. (In 2018, an Israeli army official reported that Palestinians outnumbered Jews in the territory between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.) ‘Whether annexing one settlement or all of them,’ the liberal Zionist group Peace Now asserted, ‘such a move would constitute the foundation to an apartheid state. Annexation is bad for Israel.’ J Street, a Washington-based lobbying group aligned with the Democrats, stated: ‘As pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans, we believe that annexation would severely imperil Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people, along with the future of the US-Israel relationship.’

Many of the arguments against annexation conceded that the territory was already de facto annexed and would remain in Israel’s possession. Yair Lapid, the head of the opposition and chair of the centrist Yesh Atid party, contended that formal annexation wasn’t necessary because the largest area in question, the Jordan Valley, which makes up more than a quarter of the West Bank and ensures the full Israeli encirclement of the Palestinian population, ‘is now part of Israel. It’s not like somebody is threatening to take it away from us.’ Amos Gilad, until 2017 one of the most senior officials in the Ministry of Defence, said that Israel’s permanent control over the Jordan Valley would be better achieved by increasing Jewish settlement rather than a ‘purely declarative’ annexation: ‘The government could take measures to ensure that the Jordan Valley becomes home to tens of thousands of Israelis, and not just several thousand.’ The mainstream debate, then, was not whether but how to entrench Israel’s acquisition of West Bank territory.

Critics had trouble articulating a persuasive reason for Israel not to formalise an annexation that had, in practice, already taken place. A typically contorted attempt was a report published by Israel’s leading national security think tank, INSS, a centre-left institution that supports a two-state solution. The paper began by arguing that unilateral annexation was a terrible mistake. It concluded, however, that Israel should nevertheless proceed once annexation had won public support, which would come once the Palestinians rejected Trump’s peace plan. The danger of annexation, the INSS argued, was that it might

undermine [Israel’s] founding vision as a Jewish, democratic, secure and moral state that seeks peace with its neighbours. It is therefore recommended that the new government in Israel call on the Palestinian leadership to return to the negotiating table, with the Trump plan included in the terms of reference for negotiations. If the Palestinians continue to refuse to discuss the plan, then the government will be able to receive public support in Israel for steps toward unilateral separation from the Palestinians, including gradual annexation conducted in a way that ensures that Israel’s political, security, economic and social interests are met.

Yair Golan, a former deputy chief of staff of the army and current representative of Meretz, the most left-leaning Zionist party in Israel, said he would vote in favour of annexation ‘if the Israeli government declares that its supreme goal is to separate from the Palestinians’.

Palestinians were almost entirely absent from the debate on annexation. The questions of whether they would get a state, what territory and powers it would have, whether they would be granted citizenship, residency or some other status in the annexed territory, what rights they would or would not be given and which of them would be stripped of their Israeli citizenship were being decided solely by coalition negotiations between two Zionist parties. Yet even the fiercest critics of annexation – those who warned that it would turn Israel into an apartheid state – described Israel as a functioning democracy that was merely at risk of some day ceasing to be one. According to this logic, as long as Israel refrains from formalising annexation, it may indefinitely withhold civil rights from millions of Palestinians while offering every form of support to Israelis in the occupied territory: infrastructure for Israeli cities, towns and industrial zones in the West Bank; nature reserves; municipal buildings; police and fire stations; government schools and play areas; state medical facilities; cemeteries. As long as Israel declares that the absorption of the West Bank is temporary, it will continue to be considered a democracy. Israel will never become an apartheid state unless it declares itself to be one.

The premise that Israel is a democracy, maintained by Peace Now, Meretz, the editorial board of Haaretz and other critics of occupation, rests on the belief that one can separate the pre-1967 state from the rest of the territory under its control. A conceptual wall must be maintained between two regimes: (good) democratic Israel and its (bad) provisional occupation. This way of thinking is of a piece with the general liberal Zionist belief that it’s legitimate to condemn Israeli settlements – and even, for some, to boycott their products – but not to call for reducing support to the government that planned, established and maintains them. What seemed most troubling about annexation for these groups was that it would undermine their claims that the occupation is occurring somewhere outside the state and that it is temporary, a 53-year-long departure from what liberal Zionist groups like the New Israel Fund call Israel’s ‘liberal democratic founding values’.

It is not difficult to make the case that Israel’s actions in the West Bank amount to apartheid. Israelis and Palestinians in the same territory are subject to two different legal systems. They are tried in different courts, one military, one civilian, for the same crime committed on the same street. Jews in the West Bank, both Israeli citizens and non-citizens who are eligible as Jews to immigrate, enjoy most of the same rights and protections as Israelis in the rest of the country. Palestinians are subject to military rule and are denied freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and even the right not to be detained indefinitely without trial. The discrimination is not just national – by Israelis against Palestinians who lack citizenship – but ethnic, by Jews against Palestinian subjects and citizens alike. While Jews in the West Bank, citizens or not, are tried in Israeli civil courts, Israeli citizens who are Palestinian can be sent to military courts. A 2014 report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the largest and oldest human rights group in the country, noted that ‘since the 1980s, all Israeli citizens brought to trial before the military courts were Arab citizens or residents of Israel … no judgment was found in which the request of an Arab citizen to transfer his case from a military court to a court in Israel was accepted.’

After the 1967 war, Israel applied military law to all of the occupied territories it didn’t formally annex. Israeli Jews who moved to government-planned settlements in the West Bank were placed under Israeli civil law, separating them from the legal regime governing the Palestinians on whose lands they resided. Israel couldn’t apply civil law to its citizens in the West Bank on a territorial basis without further and egregiously violating the international legal prohibition on annexation, so the Knesset amended its laws and regulations to apply to settlers as individuals, extra-territorially. In this way Israel extended to Jews in the West Bank most of the same rights as Israelis in the rest of the country regarding health insurance, national insurance, consumer protection, taxes (income, property and valued-added), higher education, entry to Israel, population registration, traffic ordinance and voting, making settlers the only Israeli citizens, aside from the small number stationed abroad, permitted to vote in a place of residence outside the official territory of the state. On election days, the Palestinians living alongside them are put under closure, further restricting their movement.

The application of Israeli law to settlers as individuals still left some gaps, particularly regarding land, building and planning. In order to close them, the Israeli military issued ordinances that distinguished the municipal areas of settlements – local councils and regional councils – from the rest of the occupied territory, so that Israel could use one set of regulations (copied and pasted from municipal legislation in pre-1967 Israel) to expand Jewish communities and another to constrict Palestinian ones. Over the past two decades, Israel has built tens of thousands of housing units for Israeli Jews in the West Bank while rejecting more than 96 per cent of Palestinian building applications and demolishing thousands of Palestinian homes. Of the public land that Israel has designated for any kind of use, 99.76 per cent went to Jewish settlements. Palestinians are forbidden from entering settlement areas except with special permits, usually given to day labourers. Similarly, in the so-called Seam Zone – the West Bank areas that were severed from the rest of the territory by Israel’s separation barrier – Palestinians can’t enter without permits, even to farm their own land, while the same area can be accessed freely by any tourist or ‘Israeli’, defined as a citizen, a permanent resident or a Jew entitled to immigrate to Israel.

The fact that some Israeli laws that apply to territory in the West Bank were introduced via military order – in most cases, by replicating Israeli legislation – has allowed Jewish organisations that consider themselves progressive to argue that there are two separate regimes in the area under Israel’s control: a military regime in the unannexed West Bank and a civil regime in annexed East Jerusalem and pre-1967 Israel. According to this theory, West Bank settlers and Palestinians are subjects of the same oppressive military administration, while Israeli citizens and residents in pre-1967 Israel and annexed East Jerusalem are governed by a democratic civil regime.

Neither Israeli settlers nor Palestinians experience life in the West Bank this way. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth: it is not Israeli citizens in the West Bank and those within the pre-1967 lines who live under separate regimes, but Israeli settlers and the Palestinians living alongside them. Israelis from all over the country drive on major highways that cut in and out of the West Bank: no signs indicate that they have left Israel. New Jewish immigrants can move straight from London or Los Angeles to a West Bank settlement just as they would move to Tel Aviv, with the same financial benefits, language instruction and low-interest mortgages. Israelis living inside the pre-1967 lines work in settlement factories, study at a settlement university accredited by the Israeli Council of Higher Education, shop at settlement malls and visit national parks in the West Bank. The Israeli government is not separate from its institutions in the occupied territory. The Knesset has passed legislation applying specifically to the West Bank, and amended laws to apply specifically to Jews and Israeli citizens residing there. Israeli ministries spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on West Bank settlements and infrastructure. An executive branch ministerial committee approves the establishment of West Bank settlements. A legislative branch subcommittee is devoted to advancing their infrastructure and development. The state comptroller supervises government policy in the West Bank, overseeing everything from wastewater pollution to road safety. The attorney general enforces guidelines that direct the legislature to explain the applicability of every bill to the settlements. Israel’s High Court of Justice is the court of final appeal for all Israeli citizens and Palestinian subjects in the entire territory under Israel’s control. Officers of Israel’s national police force hand out traffic tickets to both Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank. Israel’s absorption of the West Bank is a joint undertaking of every branch of government – legislative, executive and judicial.

Whereas Israelis travel freely across Israel and its West Bank settlements, Palestinians within the occupied territory live under separate jurisdictions, requiring Israeli permits to cross from the unannexed parts of the West Bank to annexed Jerusalem, Gaza or the more than 30 per cent of the West Bank that is off limits to Palestinians: the Seam Zone, the jurisdictional areas of settlements, and so-called military training areas, more than three-quarters of which, the Israeli NGO Kerem Navot has found, are not actually used for military training but for such purposes as preventing Palestinian development and retaining Israeli control. A Palestinian in Ramallah ostensibly lives in one of the 165 Palestinian Authority-governed enclaves that together make up less than 40 per cent of the West Bank. But she, too, is subject to a single Israeli authority, not a separate West Bank regime. If she is a member of one of more than four hundred illegal organisations – the list is constantly expanding, and contains every major Palestinian political party, including Fatah – she can be arrested by Israeli forces in an autonomous Palestinian area, as happened in 2019 to the politician Khalida Jarrar, a high-ranking member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was taken by Israeli forces from her home near Ramallah at 3 a.m. Palestinian powers of autonomy are so limited that Israel controls all the roads leading in and out of PA-governed areas, invades homes within them every day and night and is permitted to enter even for reasons that have nothing to do with the security of Israeli citizens, such as arresting car thieves. Among those who make the arrests are members of Yamas and Yamam, two units of Israel’s national police.

The arrested Ramallah resident might be taken from her home to the Russian Compound in West Jerusalem and interrogated by members of the Israel Security Agency, which is headquartered in Tel Aviv but operates throughout the areas under Israel’s control. She could be held for six months without trial or charge, and her detention repeatedly extended, for another six months at a time, in perpetuity. If she is finally offered a trial, she might cross from the supposedly separate regime in West Jerusalem to the Ofer military court near Ramallah. Because almost everyone who appears before Israeli military courts is convicted, she would almost certainly go to prison. That prison would be one of 29 run by the Israel Prison Service, which operates across all Israeli-controlled territories. Without permits to visit prisons within the pre-1967 lines, her family would not be able to visit her. She might try to appeal against her conviction at the Israeli High Court but the odds are not good: the court has approved nearly every internationally prohibited policy Israel has carried out in the occupied territory, including deportations, assassinations, imprisonment without trial, demolitions, land confiscation, pillage of natural resources and collective punishments such as mass curfews, school closures and withholding electricity for an entire region. For her appeal, she might hire an Israeli human rights lawyer, who would argue her case against an attorney from the Ministry of Justice before a panel of High Court justices, two of whom live in the West Bank. According to the ‘separate regimes’ analysis, she and the two Israeli justices are not so different from one another. They are all subjects of a separate West Bank military regime.

The insistence on separate regimes derives from political rather than legal considerations. By asserting the existence of two regimes, liberal Zionist groups like J Street can tell donors, legislators and university students that they are ‘pro-Israel’, while criticising an occupation that allegedly exists somewhere beyond the state. But the attempt to separate Israel from the criticisms, and consequences, of its policies in the West Bank also leads to absurd and false assertions, such as J Street’s recent claim that ‘Israeli settlers’ are ‘demolishing [Palestinian] homes’. In fact, it is not ‘the settlers’ – one in ten Israeli Jews – but the government of Israel, which J Street supports, that destroys Palestinian homes in the West Bank. The government does so at the behest of elected ministers and legislators.

The fiction of separate regimes allows liberal Zionists to promote a politically correct two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines, while avoiding the more equitable remedy demanded by the recognition that the Israeli state extends to all the land under its control. Such a remedy would require not only an end to occupation but also to ethnic discrimination throughout the territory. The Zionist left doesn’t call for Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel to have full equality within pre-1967 Israel. Instead, leading liberal Zionist organisations seek to ensure Israel remains a Jewish-majority state that can continue to provide to its Jewish citizens land and immigration rights that are denied to citizens from the indigenous Palestinian minority. The only way for the Zionist left to oppose ethnic domination in the West Bank while preserving ethnic privilege in pre-1967 Israel is to assert that there is an ‘apartheid regime’ in the West Bank separate from the Israeli state. For pre-1967 Israel to be part of an apartheid state would therefore require formal annexation of the West Bank, ‘amalgamating’ the two regimes. But this is a misunderstanding of the crime of apartheid as described in international law. Like torture, apartheid does not need to be applied uniformly or everywhere in a country to be criminal: in international law there is no such thing as an ‘apartheid regime’, just as there is no such thing as a ‘torture regime’. The word ‘regime’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the original 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. And, although the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court does use the word ‘regime’ in its definition (it was added to satisfy the US delegation, which was concerned about the possible prosecution of US citizens belonging to white supremacist groups), it was clearly not inserted to allow apartheid to be restricted to regions or units of a state.

Yet the notion that only formal annexation can turn Israel into an apartheid state has become intrinsic to left-wing Zionist ideology. In June last year, more than five hundred scholars of Jewish studies, many of them prominent supporters of Israel, such as the American Jewish philosopher Michael Walzer, signed a letter stating that ‘annexation of Palestinian territories will cement into place an anti-democratic system of separate and unequal law and systemic discrimination against the Palestinian population. Such discrimination on the basis of racial, ethnic, religious or national background is defined as “conditions of apartheid” and a “crime against humanity”.’

The same month, Zulat, a new think tank headed by the former chair of the liberal Zionist Meretz party, Zehava Gal-On, published a report entitled ‘Whitewashing Apartheid’. In a section on the consequences of de jure annexation it performed a whitewash of its own, arguing that apartheid in the West Bank is currently practised not by Israel but by a separate regime: ‘Even if we annex only one square metre, the state of Israel will be relinquishing its democratic pretensions and abandoning its 53-year declared intention to end the conflict, reach an agreed settlement with the Palestinians and cease ruling over them.’ Even annexation, however, ‘does not necessarily make Israel an apartheid state but rather preserves it as a state operating a regime with apartheid characteristics in the occupied territories’. By this standard, apartheid South Africa was a democracy – like all democracies, an imperfect one – operating a regime with apartheid characteristics in the townships and Bantustans. Those Bantustans, incidentally, had their own flags, anthems, civil servants, parliaments, elections and a limited degree of autonomy not unlike that of the Palestinian Authority.

Perhaps no organisation has promoted the idea of separate regimes more forcefully than Yesh Din, a human rights organisation that has conducted important legal advocacy on behalf of Palestinians subjected to settler violence, unlawful killing and destruction of property by Israeli security forces, Israeli land confiscation and Israeli restrictions on access to farmland. Last year, Yesh Din became the first Israeli organisation to publish a significant report accusing government officials of apartheid. At the same time, it is one of the staunchest defenders of the separate regimes theory. Yesh Din’s shifting, inconsistent answers to the question of at which point Israel would cease to be a democracy have been emblematic of the broader weaknesses in the separate regimes argument. The night Likud signed its coalition agreement with Blue and White, Yesh Din published a position paper on the potential impact of annexation. ‘The coming annexation,’ it concluded,

will pull the rug from under the argument, currently prevalent in many circles, that while apartheid, or at least an apartheid-like regime, is currently practised in the West Bank, the sovereign state of Israel is a democracy. Applying Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank would be tantamount to a declaration that there is one regime, rather than separate administrations. Annexation without full citizenship and equal rights for Palestinian residents of the annexed area would produce a veritable apartheid regime Israel would have difficulty denying. Such a regime would perpetuate human rights abuses against Palestinians, leaving them forever deprived of liberty and equality.

Israel could by this reasoning annex only the Jewish-inhabited areas of the West Bank, maintain its occupation of millions of Palestinians in the adjacent non-annexed areas, and remain democratic. Perhaps aware of the deficiencies of this argument, Yesh Din later amended the paper. The new version, issued without explanation or correction, stated that after annexation Israel would be an apartheid state unless it gave full and equal rights to Palestinians, not in ‘the annexed area’, as the original version had it, but in ‘the entire West Bank’.

This formulation still allows Israel to remain a democracy, at least in the eyes of Yesh Din and like-minded groups, even as it holds two million Palestinians in Gaza, the largest of its ethnic enclaves, without clean drinking water, functioning sewage, regular electricity or the right to enter and leave freely. Though Israel claims that it ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005, it still controls exports, imports, sea and airspace, and even the population registry, giving a unique ID number to all Palestinians in the territory, without which they may not exit, even across the border with Egypt. Conspicuously absent, too, from Yesh Din’s paper was any suggestion that Israel must grant full and equal rights to Palestinians in the areas formally annexed in 1967: East Jerusalem and 28 surrounding West Bank villages. Palestinian residents of these areas still do not have ‘full citizenship and equal rights’. Nor was any attempt made to explain why a partial West Bank annexation in 2020 would make Israel an apartheid state but the annexations of 1967 had not already done so.

In July​ , Yesh Din published a fifty-page legal opinion, written by the human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, which found Israeli officials guilty of apartheid, defined by the 1973 convention as ‘inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them’. Racial groups are recognised in international criminal law as social rather than biological: in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, invoked in the preamble of the 1973 Apartheid Convention, ‘racial discrimination’ is defined as ‘any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin’. Decades later, the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and for the former Yugoslavia held that the definition of a persecuted group was not a matter of heredity but stigmatisation and the subjective perceptions of the persecutors. International criminal law applies to individuals, not states, so it is not the Israeli government but its officials who could be prosecuted for committing apartheid. The human rights organisations B’Tselem and Adalah are the only major groups in Israel that have called on the ICC to launch an investigation into war crimes committed by Israeli officials. When B’Tselem’s executive director, Hagai El-Ad, spoke against the settlements at the UN Security Council in 2016, he was condemned by centrist and centre-left Israeli lawmakers. The coalition chairman from Likud threatened to strip him of his citizenship and a Labor Party activist filed a police complaint alleging he had committed treason.

Yesh Din’s legal opinion focused solely on whether apartheid is being committed, ‘not who is committing it’, and limited its scope to the unannexed areas of the West Bank (Yesh Din’s primary area of expertise), leaving out not only Gaza and Israel within its pre-1967 lines but also the lands annexed in 1967. This wasn’t because it was invalid to examine the subjugation of Palestinians in the entire territory under Israel’s control, Sfard claimed, but because it was still possible, despite ‘creeping legal annexation’, to look at the West Bank as governed by a separate ‘regime’ or at least a ‘subsidiary’ regime of Israel. One ‘difficulty’ in treating the West Bank as a separate regime, he acknowledged, is that part of the West Bank has already been formally annexed. The annexed area of East Jerusalem and its surrounding villages

shares many commonalities with the West Bank: its Palestinian residents are not Israeli citizens, and as such, do not vote and have no political representation. Additionally, Israel has implemented a number of policies in East Jerusalem that are analogous, and sometimes identical, to those it employs in the West Bank: massive colonisation through Israel-focused development, incentivising tens of thousands of Israeli citizens to settle in the area, mass expropriation and dispossession of Palestinian land and property, prevention of Palestinian development and diversion of resources to benefit Israelis who move to the city. All of these, and, chiefly, the unlawful annexation that must not be recognised, justify treating East Jerusalem and the West Bank as a single unit.

Yet Yesh Din’s legal opinion didn’t do so. Nor did it examine discriminatory policies within Israel, where tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens live in villages that Israel refuses to recognise or connect to water and electricity, and where hundreds of Jewish-only towns have admission committees that are permitted by law to reject Palestinians on the pretext of ‘social suitability’, thereby excluding applicants who haven’t served in the Israeli army, aren’t Zionist or don’t plan to send their children to Hebrew-language schools. Israel has seized more than three-quarters of the land of its Palestinian citizens. This expropriation is a continuous project, particularly in the Negev and Galilee, but most of it took place, as in the West Bank today, while Palestinians were under military rule. In the seven decades of Israel’s existence, there have been only six months, in 1966-67, when it did not place members of one ethnic group under military government while it confiscated their land. As the Israeli historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin has pointed out, ‘these six months, less than one per cent of Israel’s existence, are the point of reference for the whole discussion of Israel as a “Jewish democratic state”.’ And yet ‘the exception … becomes the rule, while the rule – the occupation – is presented as the exception.’

Apartheid couldn’t have been sustained for decades without many outside funders, protectors and co-conspirators. Foremost among them is the US, which has granted more than $110 billion to the occupying military force and spent hundreds of millions on upgrading the infrastructure of apartheid, refurbishing checkpoints and paving West Bank roads. The EU is the chief financier of the Palestinian autonomy cantons and a leading importer of settlement products. Together the US and its European allies have tirelessly attempted to stop the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court from holding Israel to account.

Even those who present themselves as champions of Palestinian freedom and human rights lend support to the status quo. The EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said of the Trump plan that ‘we recognise [its] merit’ and ‘it is maybe a starting point for negotiations.’ The office of the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace Process regularly neglects the UN’s core mandates of protecting human rights and upholding international law, preferring to be a bit player in the US-led peace process. In October, after Israel advanced plans for nearly five thousand new houses in West Bank settlements, the outgoing UN envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, issued a typically bland statement, noting that most of the houses were in ‘outlying locations deep inside the occupied West Bank’ and that the ‘significant number and location of advancements is of great concern’ because they ‘undermine the prospect of achieving a viable two-state solution’. Is it the role of the UN envoy to distinguish between illegal settlements deep in the West Bank and illegal settlements closer to the pre-1967 lines? With the aid of the ‘peacemakers’, the definition of what constitutes ‘outlying’ pushes steadily eastward. The UN, like the US, Europe and liberal Zionist groups, has subordinated international law and human rights to the sanctification of a two-state solution, which it treats not as one possible means of achieving what should be the primary goal – ending the oppression of millions of people on the basis of their ethnicity – but as the goal itself.

Diplomats and well-meaning anti-occupation groups greet every new act of Israeli expansion with dire warnings that it will be a ‘fatal blow’ to the two-state solution, that ‘the window is closing’ for Palestinian statehood and that now, on the eve of this latest takeover, it is ‘five minutes to midnight’ for the prospect of peace. Countless alarms of this kind have been rung during the past two decades. Each was supposed to convince Israel, the US, Europe and the rest of the world of the need to stop or at least slow Israel’s de facto annexation. But they have had the opposite effect: demonstrating that it will always be five minutes to midnight. European and American policymakers, together with the liberal Zionist groups that lobby them, can thus maintain that the two-state solution isn’t dead but merely embattled – and, therefore, permanently ‘alive’. In the meantime, millions of Palestinians continue to be deprived of basic civil rights and subjected to military rule. With the exception of those six months in 1966-67, this has been the reality for the majority of Palestinians living under Israeli control for the entire history of the state. South Africa’s apartheid lasted 46 years. Israel’s is at 72, and counting.

Listen to Nathan Thrall discuss this piece on the LRB Podcast.

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