We Can’t Expect Joe Biden to Stop Supporting Apartheid

Nathan Thrall

The Western media discourse gets it all wrong. Israel is not at risk of becoming an apartheid state — it already is one.

Palestinian children and family members attend a candlelight vigil among the rubble of homes destroyed by Israeli military strikes in Gaza City on May 25, 2021. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty)

Interview by
Branko Marcetic

Over the past few weeks, the world watched as Israel’s attempted expulsion of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem spiraled into an eleven-day pummeling of the Gaza Strip by Israel’s military, leaving 254 people dead, including sixty-six children. The onslaught saw Israel level high-rise buildings, wipe out whole Palestinian families, and even target Western news agencies.

To put this latest assault into proper context, Jacobin spoke with Nathan Thrall, an analyst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and author of The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine. Thrall explains how making progress toward a just settlement of the conflict means letting go of the many myths that govern Western discussions of the subject.

Branko Marcetic

It certainly seems as if Benjamin Netanyahu deliberately picked a moment to stir up conflict with Palestinians. What kinds of considerations were driving his actions?

Nathan Thrall

Much of the Israeli and international press has made the claim that Netanyahu sought to exacerbate tensions in order to thwart the possibility that his political rivals would be able to form a government. These claims are unsubstantiated and don’t make sense. First of all, the timing doesn’t work. The widespread protests in Jerusalem that culminated in the Gaza war began while Netanyahu had the mandate to form a government. At that time, Netanyahu himself was courting a political party made up of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Stirring up distrust of Palestinian citizens at that moment was against his own interests, as it would have made it only more difficult for him to achieve his top priority of forming a coalition.

Second, the large-scale protests in Jerusalem started because of Israel’s decision at the start of Ramadan to close off the area around Damascus Gate, which is one of the main public spaces for Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem. Those protests were strong enough to force Israel to capitulate by opening the steps of Damascus Gate to Palestinians. Israel did so in order to stop the protests, not to fuel them. Again, this was while Netanyahu still had the mandate to form a government, and it was two weeks before the Gaza war. Rather than pouring fuel on the fire, Netanyahu oversaw a humiliating surrender that could only be justified by a sense that the expansion or transformation of the protests posed a serious threat.

Third, the other major catalyst of the protests in Jerusalem was a series of court hearings over Israel’s plan to forcibly remove Palestinians from their homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and replace them with Jews. This plan was and is being advanced as part of a larger overall policy of what Israel refers to as “Judaizing” East Jerusalem, using racist laws that allow Jews but not Palestinians to obtain properties lost in the 1948 war. It is a policy that has been in place for decades, under governments of both the right and the left.

Netanyahu did not determine the date of the court hearings, and the court itself began the hearings before there were large-scale protests in Jerusalem. Here, again, Netanyahu’s government sought the opposite of what is claimed: a critical Sheikh Jarrah court hearing was rescheduled from its inflammatory date of “Jerusalem Day,” when Israelis celebrate their conquest of the Old City and the rest of East Jerusalem in 1967. And then, because of the risk of a conflagration, Israel for the first time rerouted the march away from Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, despite the fact that Israel views these occupied areas as the heart of the country’s annexed, sovereign capital.

None of this is to deny that the tumult over the past several weeks was a reaction to Israeli policies: the Judaization of Palestinian areas of Jerusalem; the closure of the steps of Damascus Gate; the excessive force used on Palestinian protestors throughout Ramadan; the huge number of casualties inflicted on Palestinian worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque; the refusal to state that Israel would permit Palestinians to vote in Jerusalem; the decision, on the holiest night of Ramadan, to stop busloads of Palestinian citizens of Israel from reaching Al-Aqsa Mosque, thereby restricting the freedom of worship and movement of Israeli citizens. And that’s not mentioning the deeper causes: ongoing dispossession, ethnic subjugation, and collective punishment of 2 million Palestinians in Gaza. All of these Israeli policies led to the recent unrest. But these policies are par for the course. They are part of the daily, hourly oppression of Palestinians on the basis of their ethnicity, which the UN as well as Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights groups — from Al-Haq to B’Tselem to Human Rights Watch — have concluded meets the legal definition of the crime against humanity of apartheid.

In short, the conditions for Palestinian revolt are not made by the unique circumstances of the Israeli prime minister’s narrow coalitional interests. The conditions for Palestinian revolt are ever present.

Branko Marcetic

We’ve seen much of Israel’s political spectrum follow Netanyahu further rightward over the past decade. What was the response of other political leaders in Israel to this latest conflict? Were there notable voices of dissent, and how significant were they?

Nathan Thrall

Although there has been a steady weakening of the Zionist left and strengthening of the Zionist right, these terms are rather misleading when used in a US publication. The Zionist left is ethno-nationalist and not progressive in any sense of the word. Israel’s “peace camp” does not call for Israel to ensure full equality for all its citizens but rather sees peace — defined as separation from Palestinians — as a means to preserve Israel as a Jewish ethnocratic state.

This framing of a “rightward shift in Israel” is not just misleading but serves as a whitewash of Israeli policy. It’s like blaming Donald Trump for structural racism in the United States. There are quotes from the so-called Left in Israel that are much worse than anything Netanyahu has said.

As I documented in a recent New York Review of Books piece, “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama,” the spiritual leader of Labor Zionism, Berl Katznelson, said, “Never before has the white man undertaken colonization with that sense of justice and social progress which fills the Jew who comes to Palestine”; three years after Israel’s establishment, the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, referred to the new state’s takeover of Palestinian land as a “project of colonization far greater than all of the last seventy years.” After the 1967 war, a prime minister from Israel’s left expressed hope that, “precisely because of the suffocation and imprisonment there, maybe the Arabs will move from the Gaza Strip.” Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the hero of the Israel “peace camp,” whose vision of peace is one of segregation, said, “It is better for the Arabs not to be swarming around here.”

And yet the whole media speaks as if the entire problem of Israeli ethnic domination over Palestinians started with Trump and Netanyahu, that just as Americans had to get rid of Trump, Israelis have to get rid of Netanyahu, and then all will be solved.

What growing numbers of progressives in the United States are now beginning to realize is that a conflict that had been mischaracterized as essentially an interstate conflict is in fact an intrastate conflict. The Biden administration and most members of Congress still falsely characterize the struggle over Israel-Palestine as primarily over the occupation of Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the rest of the West Bank that began in June 1967. If the conflict is over occupation, then undoing occupation should end the conflict. But this conflict did not begin with the occupation of 1967. It is a conflict over Zionism. It is a conflict over the transformation of Palestine, which was 97 percent Palestinian at the dawn of Zionism, into the Land of Israel, against the will of the native majority.

This occupation-centric framing distorts one’s perception of the necessary and just remedy. A border dispute between states (or between a state and a state-in-the-making) is indeed solved with minor border adjustments. But if this struggle is really between a dominant group, roughly 7 million Israeli Jews, and a stateless, dominated group, roughly 7 million Palestinians under Israel’s control and millions more prevented from entering the territory, then the appropriate remedy cannot possibly be to leave the dominating group unified in a single state and divide the dominated group into two, with part of them as an oppressed minority in a Jewish ethnostate and the other part of them in a non-contiguous pseudo-state under overall Israeli control. (The Palestinian Authority has 165 small islands of limited autonomy in the West Bank, and these islands together make up less than half the West Bank. Israel controls all of the West Bank and it directly administers more than 60 percent of it. In total, Palestinian areas of pseudo-autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza make up less than 10 percent of the area under Israel’s control.)

One of the most important — and, to Israelis, shocking — developments during the Gaza war was that Palestinians protested across historic Palestine, including within pre-1967 Israel, showing the world that the Palestinian people are one. This very simple fact poses a huge challenge to the existing peacemaking paradigm of the international community. Even the skeptics of that paradigm in Washington are still criticizing the call for a negotiated two-state solution on pragmatic grounds: the settlements have expanded too much; what remains for the Palestinians is Swiss cheese; and so on. These are valid critiques. But the real issue is not one of pragmatism. The real issue is one of basic justice and morality. After more than seven decades of fragmentation, the Palestinian people are still one. Why do they have less right to live as one people than Israeli Jews do?

Branko Marcetic

Joe Biden has appeared decidedly uninterested in the Israel-Palestine issue and has pretty steadfastly backed Israel’s assault. It seems part and parcel of his career-long support for Israel, but he’s cast it as an example of effective behind-the-scenes diplomacy. What’s your assessment of his response to the conflict?

Nathan Thrall

Unfortunately, if the Biden administration intervenes in Israel-Palestine, it will be to help prop up the apartheid system, not to dismantle it. And a key pillar of that apartheid system is the Palestinian Authority that administers the ethnic Bantustans in the West Bank. In the protests in Jerusalem that preceded the Gaza war, thousands of people chanted against the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. After the Gaza war, its standing sunk even further. At last Friday’s sermon at the Al-Aqsa mosque, worshippers chanted “Out! Out! Out!” at the Palestinian Authority–backed mufti.

The Palestinian Authority has no credibility, and that is precisely the entity that the United States will seek to bolster. Those are the leaders whom Secretary of State Antony Blinken met when he visited this week. This leadership had zero influence over the protests in Jerusalem, zero influence over the war in Gaza, and zero influence over the Palestinian citizens of Israel who demonstrated in large numbers over the past several weeks.

We can’t realistically expect the Biden administration to stop supporting apartheid, to stop doing what it can to prolong it and sustain it and help quell any challenges to it. But we can at least hope that it will play as small a role as possible, so that the revolts and challenges that do naturally arise will not be as easily quashed.

In the meantime, progressives in the United States need to better understand that they can’t challenge apartheid by fostering partnerships with the Israeli left. If you don’t want to be part of whitewashing apartheid, the first step is to stop blaming apartheid on Netanyahu and Trump, or on the Israeli right and the Republicans. The next step is to recognize that Israel’s system of apartheid is supported by both Biden and the Israeli left. And the step after that is to start reducing your own complicity in apartheid, first and foremost through your tax dollars.

In 2014, the year of the last major Gaza war, the city of Flint, Michigan, in order to save $5 million, began taking water from a new source, the Flint River, causing an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, resulting in a dozen deaths and elevated levels of lead in the blood of Flint’s children. The year of the outbreak, per-capita income in Flint was $25,136. In Israel, it was $37,679. Flint is part of Michigan’s 5th congressional district, which is almost exactly the same size as the West Bank, and on which the federal government spent $379 million in 2014, less than it appropriated for projects in the Israeli-controlled occupied territories, and less than a tenth of what the United States now gives Israel in military aid every year. US taxpayers shouldn’t be funding apartheid in Israel no matter what. But they certainly shouldn’t be funding it while they themselves are dying from financial neglect.

Branko Marcetic

The US government aside, it certainly feels like this latest conflict has shifted opinion both in the United States and in the world, further in favor of the Palestinian struggle. What’s your sense of this? And if it is the case, how significant is it to ending the Israeli occupation?

Nathan Thrall

There’s no denying that opinions about Israel are shifting in the United States and the rest of the world. It was unimaginable a short while ago to have the French foreign minister say that the status quo is leading to apartheid, as he did on Sunday. It was unimaginable to have the foreign minister of Luxembourg speak of Israeli apartheid, as he did several days ago. It was unimaginable to have not just prominent members of Congress but some of the most popular politicians in America say of Israel, “Apartheid states aren’t democracies.”

These statements shouldn’t be controversial. For over 99 percent of Israel’s existence — for all seventy-three years since 1948, save for six months — Israel has withheld basic rights from the majority of the native Palestinian population under its control, putting them under some sort of military rule while the Jewish population living beside them had full rights. Such a state cannot be considered, by any reasonable definition of the term, a democracy.

Since 1967, the claim that Israel is a democracy has rested on one central pillar: that the country’s decades-long project of oppressing millions of members of one ethnic group as it confiscates their lands is occurring somewhere outside the boundaries of the state. For years, most of the world, including liberals and progressives, believed in what I have called “The Separate Regimes Delusion”: that there was a good, democratic Israel that was separate from a bad, temporary occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, rather than a single sovereign — the state of Israel — that is not just controlling all the territory between the river and the sea but directly administering 90 percent of it. The Israeli internal debate over whether to formally declare the annexation of the settlements showed the world that, whether formally declared or not, the settlements have already been annexed de facto. They are an integral part of the state of Israel. There is no separate, undemocratic apartheid regime of settlements and Palestinian Bantustans. Apartheid is not a localized Israeli tumor but a national metastasis.

Liberal Zionists like to claim that Israel is merely at risk of one day becoming an apartheid state if it doesn’t come to its senses and end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But the mere possibility that apartheid might end in the future doesn’t mean it is not apartheid now. Did the United States not have a system of slavery for decades, because that system eventually came to an end? Was South Africa under the National Party merely at risk of becoming an apartheid state if it didn’t end its subjugation of the nonwhite population? If we arrive at Israeli-Palestinian peace tomorrow, historians will still have to characterize Israel during the past decades as an apartheid state.

And, for the same reason, we have to call the system of domination by its name today. Whether in the cities of pre-’67 Israel, such as Jaffa and Lydd/Lod, or in annexed Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, or in the de facto annexed settlements of the West Bank, the process is the same: backed by the state, the dominating group (Jews) takes over the land and replaces the dominated population (Palestinians). This is what our tax dollars have been supporting for decades.