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How Israel's left is missing the point

A discriminatory law which bans Palestinians from joining spouses within Israel was extended without

While Israeli PM Netanyahu's coalition seems steady, recent events like the response to the new anti-boycott law, the march for Palestinian independence, and the housing protests have some claiming a resurgent "peace camp". Yet the rhetoric by Israel's "left" has merely highlighted how much remains to be done to realise equality and basic Palestinian rights.

When the Knesset passed the anti-boycott law earlier this month, there was a huge outcry. Long-time activist Uri Avnery declared that the anti-boycott law "crosses the boundary between a democratic and a non- democratic society". The New York Times published an editorial saying that the legislation "seriously tarnished" Israel's "reputation as a vibrant democracy".

Days later, Israel's cabinet voted to extend another piece of legislation. The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law bans Palestinians from the Occupied Territories from living with their spouses in Israel (for West Bank residents it depends on the individual's age). First passed as a "temporary" measure in 2003, it has been periodically renewed ever since. In 2006, the ('liberal') Israeli Supreme Court ruled against a legal challenge to the law.

As B'Tselem puts it, "the statute severely impairs the family life of tens of thousands of persons". To put it simply, this law prevents Palestinian families living together. That's why the EU Ambassador to Israel has previously slammed the legislation as "establishing a discriminatory regime to the detriment of Palestinians in the highly sensitive area of family rights".

Officially, the Israeli government justifies the law on the grounds of security, pointing to terrorist attacks perpetrated by Palestinians who had entered Israel through family unification. But as a rationale for such a general prohibition this is inadequate: Israel's security services, after all, are able to approve entry for thousands of Palestinian workers.

In reality, says B'Tselem, the security argument is "baseless" and intended to "cover-up the real reason" for the law: trying to stop "the further increase of the Arab population in Israel in order to preserve the Jewish character of the state". In the words of then-minister without portfolio Gideon Ezra: "the state of Israel is not prepared to accept a creeping right of return; no one wants our state to cease to be a Jewish state". In 2005, the then-PM Ariel Sharon admitted: "There is no need to hide behind security arguments. There is a need for the existence of a Jewish state".

Where is the outrage over a law that was greeted by the right-wing news site Israel National News with the headline: "Cabinet Extends Measure Preventing 'Invasion by Marriage'"? Why, for Avnery and others, is the anti-boycott law -- and not the legally-sanctioned separation of Palestinian spouses -- the final straw? The key difference seems to be that the former will affect Jewish Israelis.

The ban on family unification is just one example, of course -- Israel's "vibrant democracy'"has long meant something rather different for Palestinians. But its renewal at the same time as the anti-boycott law dominated the headlines highlights the problematic politics of a mainstream Israeli left that seems more invigorated by a perceived urgency to "save Zionism" (i.e. through two-state ethnic separation) than by a fight against colonial occupation.

Ben White is a freelance journalist specialising in Israel/Palestine.

Tags:Israel