The boycott, divest and sanctions movement against Israel continues to make weary rounds through academic associations and religious denominations. As I wrote a few months ago, the American Studies Association voted narrowly last December to endorse a boycott of Israeli academics.
More recently, the much larger American Literature Association rejected a similar motion. Now, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) —the largest Presbyterian denomination in America — has voted, also narrowly, to divest funds from three large corporations — Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions — which its Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment has identified as enablers of Israel’s so-called occupation of the West Bank.
As I pointed out previously, Israel is a handier target for boycott and divestiture than, say, China, which has an appalling human rights record but also funds our national debt. Why, though, Israel in particular, and Israel alone? The Presbyterian Church bookstore sells a 76-page guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” which describes the object of its study as “a struggle for colonial and racist supremacist privilege.” Oh. Well, the church doesn’t officially endorse the book; it merely makes it available. Funny I haven’t seen it at Barnes & Noble, though.
The General Assembly of the church did comment to its advisory committee that the Israeli occupiers “are relentless and unwavering” in their oppression, leaving “the vast majority” of Palestinian communities and individuals “bowed and broken by systematic and intentional injustice.” This language wasn’t a close call for the church leadership, which approved it by a vote of 482-88.
There is, of course, only one country in the Middle East where Christian communities can worship freely and without fear of violence against their religion. It’s the same one, according to the Presbyterians’ resolution, that has “de-legitimated” itself by grinding Palestinians into the dust.
Israel is a far from perfect society, and certainly not immune from criticism. Israelis and Palestinians do not enjoy neighborly relations based on mutual equality and respect. Israel exerts control over major sectors of the Palestinian economy; it collects (and sometimes withholds) Palestinian taxes. It reserves to itself the right to carry out raids or bombing strikes against suspected terrorists in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It has steadily encroached on territory which the Palestinians regard as their own.
But does all this amount to a state of occupation? Israel did indeed occupy the West Bank and the Gaza Strip between 1967 and 1993. In 1967, it conquered these territories, formerly held by Jordan and Egypt, as a result of the Six Day War, a war of survival for Israel. The Israelis promptly offered to return the conquered territories in exchange for peace and recognition as a sovereign state; this was unanimously rejected by the defeated Arab League.
For the next quarter century, the Palestinians had no governing institutions. The functions of government, including justice, security, education, health, sanitation and infrastructure, were carried out by the Israelis, whose soldiers patrolled Palestinian cities and villages. This changed with the Oslo Accords, by which the Israelis entered into peace negotiations with a newly created entity on the other side, the Palestinian Authority. The aim of the process was to produce an independent Palestinian state based on recognition of the state of Israel and the settlement of borders, displaced persons, and the status of Jerusalem, which each side claimed as its capital. Over the next several years Israel withdrew its forces from populated areas, leaving 99 percent of Palestinians under the day-to-day governance of the Palestinian Authority, subject to the controls indicated above. These controls were to be lifted with the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement.
In short, the Israeli government was a reluctant occupier. It assumed control of the West Bank and Gaza as the only alternative to its control by hostile powers that had attacked it and, in the aftermath of defeat, refused to make peace or to refer to Israel by any other term than “the Zionist entity” or “the Zionist occupier.”
These terms of opprobrium were echoed in Arab-sponsored United Nations resolutions denouncing Zionism as a form of racism. They are precisely the terms now echoed in the literature distributed by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and presumed by its divestiture resolution.
There is, however, no present occupation of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip in any accepted meaning of the term, nor has there been for over 20 years. There is, instead, an unresolved condition of hostility between a state recognized as sovereign by the vast majority of other states, and a stateless people across its borders, 40 percent of whom — the residents of Gaza — refuse to entertain recognition of Israel in any way, shape, or form, and whose governing councils have just joined forces with the Palestinian Authority, now the rump representative of the West Bank.
Why have the negotiations of the past 20 years failed to produce the notionally desired result, namely a peace agreement based on two states living side by side? The answer to this is deeply enmeshed in regional politics, and in America’s own relation to Israel and the wider Middle East. But one thing is clear: only one side, Israel, has ever produced a public negotiating position.
Only Israel has offered an outline of future borders, a compromise over Jerusalem or satisfaction of the claims of displaced persons. The Palestinians have merely restated their original demands, where they have responded to Israeli proposals at all. No area of agreement has ever been identified between the two sides. But that is not surprising when only one side is actually attempting to negotiate.
The only concrete result of two decades of abortive discussion has been the transfer of governing responsibility to the Palestinian Authority and the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. The Israelis did not make these arrangements out of benevolence. The political, financial, military, and moral burden of the post-1967 occupation was a price they were no longer willing to pay by the 1990s, especially with the rise of armed resistance by the Palestinians.
One need not be particularly cynical to suggest that making this burden intolerable was part of the long-range Arab strategy for dealing with Israel. At the same time, the achievement of a measure of substantive autonomy could be advertised as a victory by the Palestinians in their struggle for independence. Both sides, in short, were able to agree on an arrangement that, for different reasons, suited their purposes of the moment. But they have not since agreed on anything else.
The fault for this impasse is, to me, unambiguous. Where one side talks and the other doesn’t, progress cannot result. At Camp David in 2000, Yasser Arafat, then head of the Palestinian Authority, made literally no response to the comprehensive proposals made by his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak — not even to acknowledge them.
In the most recent round of “talks,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut off the scheduled release of a final group of Palestinian prisoners after the Palestinians had refused to engage in direct negotiation for four months. It was pretty plain to everyone except the broker of the talks, John Kerry, that at this point neither side wanted to go through the sham again. You could almost hear the sighs of relief amid the ritual recrimination when both sides got up from their separate tables in their different rooms.
Palestinians (or their apologists) may describe the long failure to produce peace differently; I invite a reply. But two facts seem to me clear: the Israelis did not seek to become occupiers in 1967, and they ceased to play that role thirty years later. Palestinians have their own courts and execute their own justice. They educate their own children. They police their own streets. They have representatives abroad, and at the United Nations. Compare this, please, with the long Chinese occupation of Tibet. That’s the real thing.
The occupation at issue in the Middle East is that of Israel by the Israelis. It is that which the Muslim world as a whole has never accepted. “Zionism” is, among Israel’s enemies, the code word for those who reject Israel as such, and those who embrace the term embrace the attitude. The Presbyterians say that Israel has “de-legitimated” itself, which implies that it was legitimate at some previous point. I’d like to hear from them when that was, and when and how it ceased to be. Until then, it is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that has a legitimation problem to worry about.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.