Returning to Israel after an extended absence can be a disturbing experience. On the way back from the airport to my Jerusalem apartment, I noticed new posters tacked onto utility poles and bridges along the highway. They read: Transfer= Peace and Security. The meaning was unambiguous: Israel must expel the 3 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories–and perhaps even its own Palestinian citizens–in order to achieve peace and security.
While racist slogans have become pervasive in Israel, it was this particular message–the notion of expulsion as a political solution–that unhinged me. One does not need to be a Holocaust survivor to recognize the phrase’s lethal implications. The slogan, however, does not merely underscore the moral bankruptcy of certain elements in Israeli society; it also helps uncover some of the inherent contradictions underlying Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.
From the extreme right (those behind the posters) to the radical left, Israelis agree on at least two points: The current crisis must be dealt with, and land is the major issue around which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict revolves. After more than two years of armed conflict, which has left close to 2,500 people dead–including 300 Palestinian and eighty Israeli children–most Israelis see the situation as hopeless, a view that is, ironically, shared by many Palestinians.
Israeli hopelessness does not stem merely from the Sharon government’s preference for military action over diplomacy (which despite its ruthlessness has not stabilized the situation), but also from the fact that public discourse has been colonized by military calculations, which undercut the possibility of even envisioning a positive change. The current absence of a political horizon helps explain why no one greeted the government’s announcement of early elections with any enthusiasm.
Most Israelis appear to understand that the doctrine advanced by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin and adopted by Sharon is no longer tenable, namely that the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty while the Palestinian population would be given some form of autonomy without receiving full citizenship. The Israeli left has rejected this solution for pragmatic and ethical reasons, recognizing that in Israel’s effort to maintain control over the territories it has become an apartheid regime.