Israel Wants Palestine’s Land, but Not Its People

Mr. Netanyahu only confirmed an unspoken truth. And yet something has changed.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Last week, ahead of the parliamentary elections in Israel this Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that if re-elected, he would annex up to one-third of the occupied West Bank.

His announcement prompted widespread international condemnation. But for most Palestinians such declarations mean nothing. We’ve heard many statements of support over the years, and nothing ever changes. Cynicism is widespread; by now, many of us would prefer straight talk. As Gideon Levy, a columnist for Haaretz, wrote recently, referring to Mr. Netanyahu’s plan: “Let him turn the reality in this territory into a political reality, without hiding it any longer. The time has come for truth.”

Israel already is reaping all the benefits of annexation in the West Bank, and without having to bear any responsibility for the welfare of the Palestinians living here.

Mr. Netanyahu made this promise, on the eve of an election, only to please his right-wing supporters. Formal annexation won’t bring about any real change or extra benefits for the Israelis who live in the occupied areas. For all intents and purposes, the Israeli government already treats them as though they were living in Israel proper (extending Israeli law to them), and gives them perks (cheap mortgages and tax relief).

That’s one reason that many Palestinians I know have come to believe in a one-state solution: After all, with so many Israeli settlements in the West Bank by now, a two-state solution would be impossible to implement. That’s not to say, however, that many Palestinians welcome Mr. Netanyahu’s formal annexation plan as a step forward toward that goal.

Israel has always wanted this land — without its people. And the territory Mr. Netanyahu is promising to annex is sparsely populated with Palestinians. Most Palestinians living in the areas slated for annexation have already lost their land and they would not get it back. They would simply be condemned to remaining laborers in the service of Israeli usurpers.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s move would, at least, have the virtue of being clarifying: If implemented, it would confirm the demise of the 1993 Oslo Accords — a development that many Palestinians would welcome because they have been disappointed by the agreement. Under the accords, the permanent status of the territories in the West Bank was to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization; outright annexation, as Mr. Netanyahu is now proposing, would be a clear violation.

For a time, the agreement was expected to bring about a negotiated peace between the two sides and freedom for the Palestinians. Instead, over the years it has enabled Israel to keep exploiting Palestinians economically, control much of their resources and exercise total dominion over their borders.

Mr. Netanyahu was an avowed opponent of the Oslo Accords when he was in the political opposition, before 1996, the year he first became prime minister. By now, after his various stints as Israel’s leader, he can claim credit among his supporters for having shrewdly managed the occupation of the West Bank until the time he could fully annex the territory. He furthered this goal with his unfettered encouragement of more and more Jewish settlements being built in the West Bank.

Palestinians have little interest in the elections in Israel this week. I’m not sure if that’s the result of their experience of living under an occupation that has morphed into ravenous colonial rule or of the economic hardships they suffer. Either way, I think few Palestinians believe that it will make much difference to them who is elected. None of the candidates is expressing a clear position on the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations; those simply are not on the campaign agenda. I wrote nearly the same thing half a year ago, before the previous election.

What does stand out is the ever-growing discrepancy in power between Israel and the Palestinians. When Mr. Netanyahu declares that he will annex about one-third of the West Bank, everyone knows he has the power to do so. When Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, declares that he will cancel the divisions of the West Bank created by the Oslo Accords — into so-called Areas A, B and C — which gave Israel power over more than 60 percent of the area, everyone knows he is powerless to implement that announcement.

Israeli flags in front of an Israeli settlement on the southern outskirts of the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
CreditThomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Worse, it is possible that Mr. Netanyahu is shrewd enough to carry out his promise of annexation and then manage to weather all the criticism and the consequences. He would probably justify the measure as being necessary for the defense of his country: He recently said to his voters in a Facebook post that Arabs “want to annihilate us all — women, children and men.” (Facebook then temporarily suspended some features of the account, as a penalty for violating the company’s hate-speech policy.) This hardly augurs well for the prospect of peace between our two nations if Mr. Netanyahu is re-elected.

Then again, it’s not like his main opponent, Benny Gantz, a former military chief, is better disposed toward us Palestinians. Short of being a Saudi billionaire, Mr. Gantz said last week, “the best place to be an Arab in the Middle East is in Israel” — as though Palestinians in Israel were treated like Israelis’ equals. “And the second-best place to be an Arab in the Middle East is the West Bank.” As though Palestinians — or anyone — could be happy living under foreign occupation for half a century. How deep can denial go?

Mr. Netanyahu is shameless. Mr. Gantz is blind. Palestinians see no prospect in this election. How could they?

Conservatives Are Hiding Their ‘Loathing’ Behind Our Flag

The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character.

The Republican Party under Donald Trump has devolved into a populist cult of personality. But Mr. Trump won’t be president forever. Can the cult persist without its personality? Does Trumpist nationalism contain a kernel of coherent ideology that can outlast the Trump presidency?

At a recent conference in Washington, a group of conservatives did their level best to promote Trumpism without Trump (rebranded as “national conservatism”) as a cure for all that ails our frayed and faltering republic. But the exclusive Foggy Bottom confab served only to clarify that “national conservatism” is an abortive monstrosity, neither conservative nor national. Its animating principle is contempt for the actually existing United States of America, and the nation it proposes is not ours.

Bitter cultural and political division inevitably leads to calls for healing reconciliation under the banner of shared citizenship and national identity. After all, we’re all Americans, and our fortunes are bound together, like it or not.

Yet the question of who “we” are as “a people” is the central question on which we’re polarized. High-minded calls to reunite under the flag therefore tend to take a side and amount to little more than a demand for the other side’s unconditional surrender. “Agree with me, and then we won’t disagree” is more a threat than an argument.

The attackers — the nature-denying feminists, ungrateful blacks, babbling immigrants, ostentatiously wedded gays — bear full responsibility for any damage wrought by populist backlash, because they incited it by demanding and claiming a measure of equal freedom. But they aren’t entitled to it, because the conservative denizens of the fruited plain are entitled first to a country that feels like home to them. That’s what America is. So the blame for polarizing mutual animosity must always fall on those who fought for, or failed to prevent, the developments that made America into something else — a country “real Americans” find hard to recognize or love.

The practical implication of the nationalist’s entitled perspective is that unifying social reconciliation requires submission to a vision of national identity flatly incompatible with the existence and political equality of America’s urban multicultural majority. That’s a recipe for civil war, not social cohesion.

Yoram Hazony, author of “The Virtue of Nationalism” and impresario of the “national conservatism” conference, argued that America’s loss of social cohesion is because of secularization and egalitarian social change that began in the 1960s. “You throw out Christianity, you throw out the Torah, you throw out God,” Mr. Hazony warned, “and within two generations people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman. They can’t tell the difference between a foreigner and a citizen. They can’t tell the difference between this side of the border and the other side of the border.”

“The only way to save this country, to bring it back to cohesion,” he added, “is going to be to restore those traditions.”

Mr. Hazony gave no hint as to how this might be peacefully done within the scope of normal liberal-democratic politics. “It’s not simple,” he eventually conceded. Mr. Hazony notably omitted to mention, much less to condemn, the atrocious cruelty of America’s existing nationalist regime. Indeed, roaring silence around our Trumpian reality was the conference’s most consistent and telling theme.

The incoherence of an American nationalism meant to “conserve” an imaginary past was not lost on everyone at the conference.Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at Notre Dame, pointed out that American nationalism has historically been a progressive project. The nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he noted, arose as the United States began to establish itself as an imperial power of global reach. Building nations has always been about building armies, regimenting the population and centralizing political control.

Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, similarly observed that nationalist projects meant to unite the diverse tribes and cultures of large territories generally involve a program of political mythmaking and the state-backed suppression of ancestral ethnic and community identities.

Mr. Levin suggested that a genuinely conservative nationalism, in the context of a vast national territory with an immense multiethnic population, would refrain from uprooting these traditions and communities and seek instead to preserve them in a vision of the nation as “the sum of various uneven, ancient, lovable elements,” because we are “prepared for love of country by a love of home.”

But what, today, do Americans call “home”? The next logical step would be to observe that the contemporary sum of rooted, lovable American elements includes the

  • black culture of Compton, the
  • Mexican culture of Albuquerque, the
  • Indian culture of suburban Houston, the
  • Chinese culture of San Francisco, the
  • Orthodox Jewish culture of Brooklyn, the
  • Cuban culture of Miami and the
  • woke” progressive culture of the college town archipelago, as well as the
  • conservative culture of the white small town.

But Mr. Levin, a gifted rhetorician who knew his audience, did not hazard this step.

Barack Obama claimed resounding victory in two presidential elections on the strength of a genuinely conservative conception of pluralistic American identity that embraced and celebrated America as it exists. Yet this unifying vision, from the mouth of a black president, primed the ethnonationalist backlash that put Mr. Trump in the White House.

The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character. This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism’s disloyal contempt for the United States of America. The struggle to make good on the founding promise of equal freedom is the dark but hopeful thread that runs through our national story and defines our national character. It’s a noble, inspiring story, but the conservative nationalist rejects it, because it casts Robert E. Lee, and the modern defenders of his monuments, as the bad guys — the obstacles we must overcome to make our nation more fully, more truly American.

To reject pluralism and liberalizing progress is to reject the United States of America as it is, to heap contempt upon American heroes who shed blood and tears fighting for the liberty and equality of their compatriots. The nationalist’s nostalgic whitewashed fantasy vision of American national identity cannot be restored, because it never existed. What they seek to impose is fundamentally hostile to a nation forged in the defining American struggle for equal freedom, and we become who we are as we struggle against them.

Whether couched in vulgarities or professorial prose, reactionary nationalism is seditious, anti-patriotic loathing of America hiding behind a flag — our flag. We won’t allow it, because we know how to build a nation. We know how the American story goes: We fight; we take it back.

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