By Nicholas Kattoura and Matt Kinsella-Walsh
September 17th marked the second Israeli general election of the year. It represented an attempt by Benjamin Netanyahu to regain a Knesset majority after failing to form a coalition government in April. His power grab backfired, with Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party emerging victorious. Many liberal analyses of this election, which pitted Netanyahu against his former Commander in Chief of the IDF, point to Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as proof of the paradoxical nature of the “only democracy in the Middle East.” Some went farther, challenging the legitimacy of an election that does not include the votes of the five million Palestinian’s whose fates it would decide.
While the outrage is certainly warranted, and the question of Palestinians under Israeli control voting in Israeli elections an interesting one, the truth is that even if granted the right to vote, Palestinians would be left with no one to vote for. Virtually every candidate endorses the continued occupation of Palestine, and speaks quite proudly of their ability and willingness to kill Palestinians. However their personal depravities, as horrific as they are, come second to the violent structure of a settler colonial state. Settler colonial states, a category to which the United States and Israel both belong, are founded upon the subjugation and displacement of their Indiginous populations. In fact, on the year of Israel’s founding, its first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, celebrated what he called “the double miracle… more land, less Arabs.” His words encapsulate the essential truth at the core of settler colonial states, that their existence depends completely on the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their land and rights. In Israel, this occurred in 1948, in a violent founding that saw 750,000 Palestians displaced into refugee camps. It happened again in 1967, as part of a Six Day War that generated another 200,000 Palestinian refugees. However, this displacement is not limited to periods of explicit war. In the West Bank, as part of a process that routinely violates international law, Israel demolishes Palestinian homes on a nearly daily basis to make room for Jewish settlements. Importantly, since 1948 Israel has refused Palestinians’ right to return to the homes and land illegally seized by the Israeli state. Many observers, us included, argue that this is because to do so would fundamentally conflict with the bedrock of the Israeli state, which posits in both structure and rhetoric a state for Jews, without Palestinians.
Although the Joint List emerged from this election as the third largest party in the Knesset, and, some have argued, with the power to play kingmaker, they cannot change the fundamental structure of Israel. While an influential Arab coalition is important, it is ultimately a form of harm reduction, potentially able to limit some of the most violent policies of the settler state by pushing for reform. However, reform from within the Israeli state will never undermine the historical bedrock upon which it stands. If Israel is intrinsically Zionist, as we all claim, then the framework through which the Joint List must operate becomes significantly more narrow. The Joint List, by virtue of belonging within the Israeli state, is constrained by the Zionist institutions it must work through. Our mistrust in electoralism, therefore, lies in the fact that harm reduction takes precedent over the dismantling of structures that produce harm in the first place.
Consequently, any argument for Palestinian voting rights within Israel strikes us as incomplete. To vote requires an implicit acceptance of the right of the state to rule, and it lends the state the legitimizing weight of a false popular voice. In such a manner, a Palestinian vote for Israel only reifies a state that depends on Palestinian subjugation for its continued operation. It means accepting its colonial precepts, and the endless drive for territory that comes at the expense of Palestinian lives. Settlements will never be stopped by the Israeli state because Israel itself is a settlement.The checkpoints and Israeli-only access roads that serve as the nuts and bolts of occupation and apartheid will not disappear with an election. The infrastructure of settler colonialism is built to last. At the end of the day settler-colonialism is not an event–it is not encapsulated in an election–but rather a structure: a continued project to disenfranchise, marginalize and displace Indigenous people in order to seize land.
The institutions of Palestinian oppression have existed since Israel’s founding, and have only expanded in the 70 years since, yet liberal authors constantly cite electoralism as a mechanism of change and opportunity for Palestinians. The BDS movement as a tactic for liberation did not emerge because of a specific prime minister’s political inclinations. Instead, BDS was articulated by Palestinians on the ground who were and still are subjected to excessive state-sanctioned violence in the form of checkpoints, illegal settlements and prolonged sieges. Benjamin Netanyahu oversaw Operation Protective Edge, which killed over 2,000 Palestinians during the summer of 2014. However Ehud Olmert, at the head of a center-left coalition, oversaw Operation Cast Lead, which killed over 1,000 Palestinians between December 2008 to January 2009. This is to say that whether left or right, the political leanings of the Israeli Prime Minister and their ruling coalition are irrelevant as long as they lead a Zionist state. To argue for voting as the preminent route for Palestinian liberation is a liberal deflection from the fact that violence against Palestinians is the crucial, non-negotiable factor for any Zionist political project.
Ultimately, while we understand and share the liberal anger that emerged in response to the Israeli election and continued disenfranchisement of Palestinians, we also understand that this reality does not change how we organize for the liberation of Palestine. Our movement did not start under Netanyahu nor does it end after Netanyahu vacates office. Whether Israel is run by Netanyahu, Gantz, or even a kibbutznik, our campaign for Palestinian liberation will not falter. Our goal has never been to elect the most liberal Israeli president but rather to dismantle the system of settler-colonialism that establishes the circumstances to murder, displace, and maim Indigenous Palestinians. In other words, electoral politics, while a potential means for harm reduction, will not save Palestine. That can only come from an organized mass movement both within Palestine and across the world.