Thursday, April 15, 2004

Changes on the ground - but not in the soul?

According to the George Bush, Israel will remove all settlements from Gaza, some settlements from the West Bank.

At first sight this makes the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, appear magnanimous by offering a concession to the Palestinians when last year's road map is all but dead.

But the truth is somewhat different. Baruch Kimmerling's 2003 book, Politicide, highlighted the demographic changes taking place in the region. With the Palestinian population set to grow faster rate than the Israeli population (through both domestic birth and immigration), the pressure is on the authorities to come to a settlement and fixed borders - otherwise the Israelis may find themselves outnumbered in the present 'Greater Israel'.

George Bush's endorsement of the Sharon plan must therefore be a dream to those Israelis aware of this fact. But what does it mean to Tony Blair, whose domestic public and political opinion is less disposed to giving ground o the Israelis?

But even if this unilateralist approach by the Israelis does deliver in the way that last year's road map did not, there is still one other point made by Kimmerling which hasn't been dealt with: that of the relationship between Israeli military power and joint Israeli-Palestinian economic dependency on the other.

It will be no surprise to learn that Kimmerling's book didn't receive positive coverage in Israel. In part that's because of the depiction he makes of Israeli democracy. He suggests it's not a democracy in the European or North American sense of the word; instead it's closer to the system which existed in South Africa until 1994.

While apartheid was a form of institutionalised political separation between black and whites, economically the two were joined at the link. Just as white South Africa couldn't have survived without the cheap labour of the black population during apartheid, so too does the Israeli economy depend on the Palestinians to fill sections of their labour market.

The apartheid system in South Africa worked only so long as the regime was prepared to reinforce its position through the means of the state (i.e. police, army, etc). But whereas the South African regime eventually realised during the 1980s that its future was subject to a law of diminishing return, not least because demographic trends suggested the black population would vastly outnumber the whites in the near future. So the regime cut its losses and cut a deal with the black political class to ensure its long-term future.

The contrast with Israel couldn't be more stark. Despite the demographic changes, the Palestinians will never be able to threaten Israel militarily - not least because its Arab supporters in the region have continually failed to support them over the last few decades.

Even after a more homogeneous Israel has been established - and the borders with a Palestinian state fixed unilaterally - the economy of the two will still be interlinked. Palestinians will still depend on jobs in Israel and higher wages; Israelis will need cheap labour to maintain their present standard of living.

But given the wariness and suspicion between the two, the chances of some peaceful co-existence may be highly unlikely. Consequently, the Israeli military presence will remain, at the border crossings, along the barrier currently being built and in parts of the West Bank whose future remains undetermined.

And that pervasive militarism in Israeli and Palestinian societies will continue to prevent them from becoming, as Kimmerling suggests, 'normal'.

What do you think? Let me know.

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