Interview with Israeli historian Ilan Pappe

"This situation is not temporary, it is the future"

In interview with Emran Feroz, Israeli historian and Exeter University professor Ilan Pappe criticises the unilateral policy favoured by the Netanyahu government, which is committed to retaining control of historical Palestine in its entirety and approves of the restoration of authoritarian Arab regimes

A few days ago the Israeli government once again approved the building of new settlements in the West Bank. Meanwhile, politicians in the European Union and the United States still believe in a two-state solution. How realistic is this at the moment?

Ilan Pappe: It′s not. The two-state solution has been an unrealistic prospect since 2000, if not before. The reason are incontrovertible facts on the ground, created by Israel. Large parts of the West Bank are already colonised. It's physically impossible to build a state there. That's one reason why it's not realistic.

The other reason is that even if for a short period, the two sides had agreed to a two-state solution, it would have not ended the conflict, because it's not a solution that tackles the main problems in Israel and Palestine. And the main problem is that Palestinians and Israelis do not enjoy equal status as the citizens of those lands between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Israeli apartheid and Zionist settler colonialism, not to mention the ethnic cleansing conducted by Israel in the past are the real problem. You won't solve them with a two-state solution. You can only solve them with a political structure that stops such strategies and ideologies from determining the relationship between Palestinians and Jews in historical Palestine.

You often suggest a bi-national state as a solution. What would such a solution look like under the current circumstances in Israel and Palestine and what would life be like in such a state?

West Bank infographic (source: Deutsche Welle)
The patchwork of Palestine: "The two-state solution has been an unrealistic prospect since 2000, if not before. The reason are incontrovertible facts on the ground, created by Israel. Large parts of the West Bank are already colonised. It's physically impossible to build a state there," asserts Ilan Pappe

Pappe: I'm not sure if there will be a bi-national state. Whether we will ever experience a one-state solution remains to be seen. I would prefer a democratic state. I don't think that even a bi-national state would be the best solution. Since nationalism remains very strong on both sides, however, it would be a necessary step on the way to a democratic state. It's very difficult to say what life in such a state would look like. What′s certain is that we already live in a one-state solution that doesn′t deserve to continue.

These days Israel controls all of historical Palestine. Palestinians live under Israeli rules and under different degrees of oppression. Gaza, where the people are strangulated in a siege, is probably the worst off. The second worst sections are the so-called areas A and B in the West Bank, where people are denied any freedom of movement, whether inside or outside. It's the same in area C, where people are subjected to a policy of dispossession. Yet even the Palestinians who live in Israel itself are subjected to apartheid policies and dispossession. This is not the single state we′re after. Neither is it two states.

We know what we don't want to see and this is very important. We know that we don't want to see Palestinians losing more land. We don't want to see them being discriminated against by law or by policy. We don't want to see their houses being demolished. We don't want to see them in prison without trial, expelled or killed.

If we begin with these rights and stop some of these violations, we could begin to build a single state from below. You don't even have to call it a one-state solution. You just have to call it fighting for Palestinian rights. It′s a justified struggle for rights. Once these rights are secured, including the right of Palestinian refugees to return, I think we will have a good idea of how people can live co-exist on equal terms.

Building of Kirjat Arba settlement near Hebron (photo: picture-alliance/landov/D. Hill)
The West Bank as construction zone: Israel has recently intensified building works in the occupied territories. According to the German citizens' rights group "Frieden Jetzt" (Peace Now), the Israeli ministry of defence approved the construction of a further 150 settlers' apartments in four West Bank locations at the end of January. This marked the end of an 18-month informal break in building works by Israel

You mention words like "apartheid" and "settler colonialism". In Europe, especially, we find it difficult use such vocabulary when talking about this issue. Why do you refer Israel as a settler colonialist entity?

Pappe: Of course it's difficult to use these terms because they describe something that Israel has endeavoured to conceal for so many years. But I think more and more people understand that this is the reality on the ground. You cannot call it a democracy and you cannot deny the origins of Zionism. Using new and proper language is a struggle to get rid of the old language. It's an intellectual struggle, but also an activist one. In this area, at least, I think we are getting better results than in the past.

Settler colonialism was a movement of Europeans who left Europe for good reason. Whether they were Jews or Christians, they had to leave. They felt insecure or they felt at risk. They were not merely looking for a home, they were looking for a homeland. And as we know from the instances that pre-date Zionism and influenced it, the indigenous population was unfortunately the main obstacle to the success of such movements. In the case of settler colonialism in North America, Australia or New Zealand, the Europeans eliminated the natives, they committed genocide. In the case of South Africa, long before Zionism, they created apartheid and committed ethnic cleansing. These means were more similar to the ones Zionism used to colonise Palestine. In academic terms, calling Zionism a settler colonialist movement is utterly tenable. Many parts of the world are based on settler colonialist movements. Israel is just the only one which denies it.

As for apartheid, it's very clear from a lot of new studies that have been published in the last ten years. Of course, there are differences between Israel and South Africa, but there are also many similarities. You could call it one of the many faces of apartheid. There is more than one apartheid, but what they all have in common is denying equal rights.

In recent years,, we witnessed the Arabellion in countries like Egypt, Libya or Syria. What is Israel's stance towards these uprisings?

Pappe: Initially I think Israel was very worried about the developments in the Arab world, particularly when it looked as if democracy would take hold in these countries. A democratic Arab world is the worst possible scenario for Israel. Firstly, the people would demand that their governments take a far more active role in supporting Palestine. Secondly, Israel′s unique status within the Middle East, from which it also benefits, would be gone.

As things look now, the authoritarian regimes are currently becoming even more extreme – take Egypt or Syria. That plays into Israel′s hands. It is also benefiting from the "Islamic State" phenomenon, because it complies perfectly with the narrative of Israel. IS is distracting everyone′s attention away from Palestine. At the same time, it provides Israel with the perfect image of Islam. Israel can thus continue reselling itself as the only "sane culture" in the area, the "last bastion" of the West in the Middle East.

Bearing all this in mind, the recent developments regarding Iran are also significant. After the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions, it seems that Europe and the United States are happy with their new relationship with Iran. Is Israel happy with this new situation too? Netanyahu has often said that Iran poses a bigger threat than IS.

Concluding the nuclear agreement in Vienna with Iran (photo: Mehr)
Iran as arch-enemy: "Basically, Netanyahu's regime isn't happy with the deal because the situation before Iran used to be a good distraction from Palestine. I think the rest of Israeli society is quite happy about the deal," says Pappe

Pappe: In this instance, I think we have to differentiate between the Israeli government and average citizens. Most Israelis do not lose sleep at night over Iran. The government has been trying to spread fear amongst its citizens with this rhetoric, but it's one of the few times when it didn't succeed. Maybe because the head of Mossad and some other high-ranking individuals said that there was no danger from Iran. The military elite did not agree with the political elite.

Basically, the government isn't happy with the deal because the situation before Iran used to be a good distraction from Palestine. I think the rest of Israeli society is quite happy about the deal.

At the moment, we see that many Sunni Arab states are totally failing and becoming destabilised while Shia Iran is very stable. Do you think that Iran will play a major role in future in solving the situation in Israel and Palestine?

Pappe: Absolutely. Much depends on the Iranians. I don′t think we will see much change as long as Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is in power. Developments in Iran will become much more interesting after his death. I think that, at the moment, Iran is just modifying its tone a bit, not its policy. It could really play a very constructive role. In Syria and Iraq, but also in Palestine. It's true that the Sunni Arab countries have failed in many ways. And the whole re-emergence of the supposedly Sunni-Shia conflict is once again something that plays into Israel′s hands. Any stable political power that wants to stabilise the Middle East as a whole and wants to help the Palestinians needs to put such issues behind it.

The Middle East is changing every day. One cannot say how the situation there might be next week or next month. How does Israel handle this rapid pace of change?

Pappe: At the moment, Israel has a very clearly right-wing political system. The chances of any liberal or left-wing government coming to power in Israel are very slim. We have to understand that the strategic opinions of the current government are that of Israel as a whole. And that view is very clear. It's the kind of view that says that the creation of a Greater Israel, an ethnic state, is more important than having a democracy in Israel. It's even more important than having a good relationship with the rest of the world. They also are intent on getting rid of the Palestinians.

Israel also understands very well that in today's Middle East there are even some Arab elites who will support this aim, as long as they get provided what they need – lobbies, weapons or money. The real problem for Israel is the fact that the world is not just made up of cynical politicians. There are civil societies and movements like BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), there is the Internet and there is the electorate in the West. None of them legitimise Israel's policy anymore. Israel has to face up to these facts. It probabaly has the military and economic power to survive, but it won′t have the necessary support anymore, even amongst the Jews in the world.

So the political elite in Israel have to ask themselves if this is really the kind of Israel they want. Unfortunately, at the moment it seems that it is what they want. So it's up to the rest of the world to change the situation. Because today's Israel is an apartheid state which will continue violating Palestinian rights. This situation is not temporary, it is the future. The United States and Europe have to ask themselves what they want, especially because Israel clearer about its policies than ever before.

Interview conducted by Emran Feroz

© Qantara.de 2016

More on this topic
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: Qantara.de reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. Qantara.de will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.