Nathan Thrall calls out J St and other liberal Zionists for enabling apartheid

Nathan Thrall (Philip Weiss)

Philip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  January 19, 2021

We all understand that this is a time of tremendous potential shift in the discourse of Palestine in the U.S. When Joe Biden comes in, liberal Zionists, who can take some credit for electing him, will make up the central branch of the Israel lobby inside the Democratic Party. Secretary of State Tony Blinken is their friend. So is his deputy Wendy Sherman. So liberal Zionists will own our Israel policy.

And Biden along with liberal Zionists will be coming under huge pressure from the Democratic left, the Sandersite progressives who have been fighting for Palestinian rights in the halls of Congress, to actually do something at last for Palestinian freedom.

The latest sign of this pressure are the official reports saying Israel is enforcing apartheid, notably Yesh Din last July and B’Tselem last week. These follow a similar declaration years ago by the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, among others. And when Israel is declared apartheid state, there’s one plain outcome: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

To this list of pressures I’d add a brilliant analysis by Nathan Thrall in the London Review of Bookstitled “The Separate Regimes Delusion.” Thrall’s thrust is that liberal Zionists have bolstered the persistence of apartheid by insisting that that’s not happening in Israel, it’s only the West Bank. Israel is a democracy! There are two regimes here! Thrall’s piece is a careful and lacerating exposition of the damage caused by the claim that the two “regimes” can be separated. Apartheid has been the order of the day in Israel since 1948.

And: Thrall names names. The Jerusalem-based author of The Only Language They Understand (and recently-departed head of the Arab-Israeli project at International Crisis Group) calls out J Street, Peace Now, and New Israel Fund among others for trafficking in a lie that is crushing Palestinians’ lives.

The importance of this piece is underlined by Ken Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, who tweeted: “Supporters of Israel shouldn’t pretend that the government within its 1967 borders is somehow different from the government presiding over the occupied territories. It’s one government with responsibility for its conduct between the river and the sea.”

Let’s go to Thrall’s points. Liberal Zionists brag that they killed annexation. I think that’s true. Israel might have gone ahead if the Democratic Party’s Israel lobby hadn’t organized Democrats to oppose annexation. Thrall writes acidly that they didn’t really care about democracy but Israel’s image and the danger of fostering BDS:

[L]iberal Zionist groups…. 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 ….

But what kind of democracy is it if millions of Palestinians are having their political fate shaped by Jewish Zionists? My emphasis:

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 [in 2020] between two Zionist parties.

Annexation threatened the liberal Zionist fig-leaf: that all that bad shit is happening in another place, the occupation, which is a temporary military affair… Even the fiercest critics of annexation, Thrall writes, described Israel as a “functioning democracy.”

He doesn’t accept the distinction.

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’.

Thrall details the ways in which Israel is practicing apartheid in the West Bank, an argument familiar to our readers, and one that even liberal Zionists allow. But military occupation gives the liberal Zionists a legalistic copout. There’s two regimes, they say– yes, for 53 years!

Thrall calls out J Street and its donors and acolytes, and the politicians it influences, for trafficking in falsehoods:

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 separate-regimes fiction allows liberal Zionists and their Democratic Party friends to cling to a supposed solution and avoid the undemocratic truth of both sides of the Green Line.

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.

Liberal Zionists aren’t for equality. They use the separate regimes to preserve inequality in Israel, which is itself apartheid.

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.

Annexation was a threat because it would destroy the liberal Zionist claim “that there is an ‘apartheid regime’ in the West Bank separate from the Israeli state.”

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.

Thrall goes on to say that the idea that only annexation will make Israel into an apartheid state “has become intrinsic to left-wing Zionist ideology.” For instance, a report from a think-tank headed by Zehava Gal-on of Meretz– who is part of J Street’s inauguration party tomorrow night — says that even if Israel went forward with annexation that doesn’t make it “an apartheid state but rather… a state operating a regime with apartheid characteristics in the occupied territories’. Thrall blows that distinction up!

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 ….

Thrall points out the importance of Europe and the U.S. to maintaining apartheid in Israel. The The U.S. and Europe have “tirelessly” maintained Israeli impunity for its actions at the UN and ICC.

He concludes by insisting on the South Africa parallel, going back to the founding of the state. And liberal Zionist responsibility.

European and American policymakers, together with the liberal Zionist groups that lobby them,… 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.

That’s a devastating last line, and the piece is a devastating read, read it in full here.

Thrall’s broadside follows on several blows delivered by American Jews/former Zionists in the last year, Peter Beinart, Ian Lustick, and Jerome Slater, that suggest an erosion at last in the mainstream discourse of Palestine.

Of course, it is tragic and unfair that the dismantling of the Zionist idea is to be effected by Jews. But that’s the other side of the coin of the lobby itself, which I maintain is the only game in town for Joe Biden’s Middle East policy. For now anyway.

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006