Israel today is as much the prisoner of the Palestinians as the Palestinians are prisoners of Israel. Israel’s imprisonment is moral and political, in that it has now seemingly lost the ability to extricate itself from the dilemmas created by successive governments’ cowardice and connivance with the settlement lobby’s campaign to seize all of Palestine for Israel, and the American government’s passive acquiescence in this.

The steady expansion of nominally illegal colonies into the Palestinian territories, which previous governments were unwilling to check (one cannot say truthfully they were unable to check it; they simply chose not to), has gone on to the point where the political parties are now incapable of disengaging from the settlement enterprise.

The goal of the settler movement — there is no secret about it — is the conquest of all Palestine, logically requiring expulsion of the Palestinians from the entire country, or their reduction to a permanent condition of subordination in which they would be deprived of elementary political rights.

Even now they are deprived of legal rights that under international law should be accorded to the subjects of a military occupation. Their supposed independent or autonomous political status under the Palestinian Authority is meaningless so long as no Palestinian state exists. It is useless to resume the argument about why it should have come to this; it simply is so.

Whether this status can be maintained indefinitely, free of effective external interference by international institutions or the democratic states, may be questioned, but Israel has successfully done so until now.

A novel factor in the situation is the appointment of a new United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestine territories occupied since 1967, Richard Falk, a law professor at Princeton University. He is Jewish, but his arrival has provoked furious criticism from the Israeli (and American Jewish) right.

One understands why when one reads the statement his office has just issued describing “the desperate plight of the civilian population of Gaza.” This document states that:

“Many leaders have commented on the cruelty and unlawfulness of the Gaza blockade imposed by Israel, … allowing only barely enough food and fuel to enter to stave off mass famine and disease. Such a policy of collective punishment, initiated by Israel to punish Gazans for political developments within the Gaza strip, constitutes a continuing flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. … At the very least, an urgent effort should be made at the United Nations to implement the agreed norm of a ‘responsibility to protect’ a civilian population being collectively punished by policies that amount to a Crime Against Humanity.

“In a similar vein, it would seem mandatory for the International Criminal Court to investigate the situation, and determine whether the Israeli civilian leaders and military commanders responsible for the Gaza siege should be indicted and prosecuted for violations of international criminal law.”

Until fairly recently, an indifferent international public has accepted the argument that this could be construed as a temporary condition, awaiting solution through one or another of the initiatives, plans, agreements, accords and “road maps” that have been drafted in language allowing both sides to prevent their realization. The Palestinians have in the past accepted the minimal settlement terms offered but with reservations concerning the return of refugees and the implied threat, in extremis, of renewal of resistance in a third intifada.

The Israelis have invariably found obstacles to agreement in Palestinian behavior, a result of the Israeli government’s increasing reluctance to impose its will on the settler movement. Only Ariel Sharon did so with respect to evacuation of settlers from Gaza, and it is doubtful that he would, or could, have attempted the full withdrawal from the settlements inside the Palestinian territories that Ehud Olmert now (only now, when he is deprived of power!) has declared is Israel’s only way out of its dilemma.

“We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, meaning a withdrawal from nearly all, if not all, of these territories. Some percentage of these territories would remain in our hands, but we must give the Palestinians the same percentage elsewhere — without this, there will be no peace,” Olmert said in an interview in the mass-circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. He added: “Including Jerusalem. …”

The shackles of Israel’s political imprisonment have been further tightened by the Likud Party internal election, which former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected easily to dominate, but in which the front-running Likud Party chose a slate of candidates even more hawkish than Netanyahu. The principal winner was Netanyahu’s nemesis, Moshe Feiglin. While Netanyahu opposes the current peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and hopes to limit contacts to economic cooperation, Feiglin goes much further.

His theocratic platform calls for banning minority Arab citizens from the parliament, encouraging non-Jews to leave the country, and pulling Israel out of the United Nations.

Parties even further to the right of Likud prosper in the polls. In the polls for the national election, set for Feb. 10, Netanyahu’s Likud has a 10-seat lead over Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party, and they also indicate that the presence of Feiglin on the Likud list could scare away a significant number of potential voters.

In addition, the dramatic fighting produced by the recent police expulsion of settlement extremists from a house they occupied in Hebron has inspired new talk of grave civil violence between the settlers’ community, supported by the religious bloc, and any elected government that attempted a realistic settlement with the Palestinians. Such would threaten the moral substance of Israel.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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