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The Israeli Regime between the Sea and the River

Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir, This Regime Which Is Not One: Occupation and Democracy between the Sea and the River (1967 – ), Resling, 2008.

This Regime Which Is Not One
Listen to the Alternative Information Center’s interview with Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir about their book This Regime Which Is Not One.

First, an anecdote.  A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference in Europe and went to a ’round table’ discussion about settlement and colonialism in Israel/Palestine.  When I made a reference to this book, one of the participants — a radical lefty Tel Aviv academic — looked at me in amazement and said something along these lines: “Did you really read this book in South Africa?  No one in Israel has managed to do that.”  If this is true, it is a great pity, but an understandable one: it is an over-long, over-theorized, and densely written book, BUT it is probably the best current analysis of the system of domination in Israel/Palestine as it has been constructed over the last 40 years.

There is no easy way of summarizing such a complex book, so I won’t bother.  The following are just some of the key points:

(1) While the current Israeli regime is a product of settlement processes which were historically part (at least in part) of European colonialism, and its practices are similar in many respects to other separation regimes such as apartheid SA, the use of labels such as colonialism, settler colonialism, apartheid and so on tells us nothing about the regime’s specific nature, trajectory, direction in which it is going, and suitable strategies of resistance and change.  For all those, we need to undertake a concrete analysis of the specific conditions under which it emerged, its mechanisms of domination, its ideological strategies, and the forces acting to entrench or challenge it.

(2) We cannot understand this regime by looking at it as an extension of some kind of inherent Zionist or Jewish nationalist logic that has led inevitably to the current situation.  Just as post-1948 Israel was not a direct continuation of the pre-1948 Zionist movement and Yishuv institutions, the post-1967 regime was not simply an extension of the pre-1967 domination practices.  There is a break but also continuity after 1967, and another break with continuity after 1987 (and more so after Oslo).  The emerging regime at each point was not simply a stage in an unfolding grand design, but an outcome of contingent developments.

(3) The ‘regime which is not one’ has a dual character: brutal oppression, denial of human and political rights, total disregard for the welfare of subjects in the occupied territories combined with (qualified) democracy in pre-1967 boundaries.  BUT, it is the same regime, not two different ones: internal and external.  The notion that we can talk about an Israel in its pre-1967 boundaries as a distinct social and political entity is meaningless — the regime encompasses both sides of line and they are interdependent. And yet, they are different (I guess this is what is called dialectics. . .).  Both sides of the regime are essential to its being: it includes the OPTs, but the basis for such inclusion is that they remain excluded from the realm of legitimate politics.  It includes them as a permanent ‘outside,’ which is never free from domination (in Gaza today just as much as in the West Bank since 1967) but also never is absorbed into Israel.  Neither withdrawal nor full annexation is likely: it is not a failure to decide on a policy, but a policy decision to retain this ambiguity forever, if possible.

(4) In ‘European theory,’ there is a well-established distinction between sovereign and disciplinary power (Foucault) or between repressive and ideological state apparatus (Althusser) or between domination and hegemony (Gramsci).  The first term signifies the repressive side of power, the second term its attempt to win legitimacy and consent through making some concessions, taking care of people’s needs and assuming responsibility for their welfare.  Liberal and social-democratic reforms saw a gradual but consistent transition form the former to the latter mode of rule over the last 200 years.  Like Neve Gordon’s forthcoming book, Azoulai and Ophir talk about a reverse shift from the latter to the former mode of rule beginning with the first intifada, accelerating with Oslo, and culminating with the second intifada: while OPTs residents were never incorporated politically or even recognized as having any legitimate claims, the regime did regard itself as responsible for their welfare and attempted to win some consent from them between 1967 and 1987.  These attempts failed completely, and subsequently even the minimal concern with welfare was abandoned.

With Oslo, complete disregard to the welfare of residents became the norm.  Israeli authorities have shirked all responsibility for what is happening to residents, and their only concern is to ensure that they do not die en masse (not because they care, but because it would create a diplomatic problem).  Hence, a supply of limited electricity or fuel or allowing a limited supply of food aid by international agencies, calculated to be just enough to prevent mass starvation or total infrastructural collapse.

(A comment: the only face of the state displayed there is that of the repressive apparatuses, there is no other state machinery which may be ‘taken over,’ in the way in which ‘liberated zones’ were established in other conflict situations in which liberation movements took over municipalities, communities, schools, media.  The repressive apparatuses may be hampered in their operations or destroyed, but they cannot be converted.  Hence, the notion that there is ‘one state’ already, and the task is to democratize it, misses the point.  All state functions that potentially could be taken over and democratized have withdrawn from the OPTs, and their counterparts inside Israel are totally inaccessible to residents of the OPTs, though they are accessible to Israeli Palestinians.)

(5) While in the OPTs the distinction between citizen (soldier, settler) and non-citizen is paramount, within pre-67 Israel the distinction between Jew and Arab is crucial.  In the OPTs both distinctions overlap but not so in Israel.  This tension between the citizenship and ethnic principles opens up opportunities for change.  Israeli Palestinians are discriminated against but are not subject to the same system of domination as their OPTs counterparts.  They CAN exercise their citizenship rights to struggle for greater and more meaningful political and social integration as equals.  And, in their struggle, they can also open the way for changing the regime itself.  OPT residents can mount resistance to the occupation, but the road to changing the regime itself is blocked, because they are forcibly excluded from it, and have no effective leverage from their external position.

(A comment: my sense of all that is that regime change hinges on the success of changing Israel from within through the joint efforts of Israeli Palestinians and their Jewish allies.  A change there will also open possibilities for overall change in the nature of the regime.  Because the regime has successfully ‘externalized’ the OPTs from the consciousness of its citizens by presenting them as a ‘security’ rather than political issue, the struggles are almost completely separate.  This was not the case before 1987: Ironically, the situation between 1967 and 1987 resembled apartheid SA much more than it does now, even though the analogy to SA is used much more now than before.  But this is almost entirely due to the perceived success of the SA struggle — hence its elevation into a ‘model’ — rather than to serious analytical work.)

(6) There is much more but the book needs to be read and discussed directly.

Ran Greenstein is an Israeli-born academic based in South Africa.

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