The most important thing about the Israeli prime minister’s speech before a joint session of the US Congress was what he didn’t say. Benjamin Netanyahu never uttered a word about the Palestinians.
This astonishing evasion has become the standard Jewish Israeli response to the existence of the Palestinian people and of their national movement. Palestinians have simply been written out of the equation in most facets of official and unofficial mainstream Jewish Israeli discourse. A number of leading Palestinians have complained that Israelis have become “blind” to them. It’s an apt metaphor. Israelis increasingly speak and, presumably, think about their national, strategic and security challenges as if there were not 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, 200,000 more in East Jerusalem and another 1.6 million in Gaza.
It’s a striking change because in the past, Israelis spoke openly, and almost obsessively, about the “Palestinian problem”. Those were times when the dimensions of the “problem” were, in every respect, much less challenging than they are now. Even when their discourse was characterised by rage, Israelis in the 1980s, 1990s and even the 2000s generally recognised that the Palestinians and the occupation were vital national security issues, and indeed existential ones.
In those decades, the Palestinian population was smaller, less well-organised, had fewer arms, and was more moderate and politically unified than today. The region was more stable and better integrated into the global system of order. All of these factors have deteriorated from any rational Israeli perspective. Yet the prevailing Israeli impulse is to simply refuse to acknowledge the Palestinian issue.
On January 7, I attended a lecture at the National Defense University in Washington, DC by the then-outgoing Israeli military chief of staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz. He spoke for just over 25 minutes about Israel’s national security concerns. Like Mr Netanyahu, he did not mention Palestine, the Palestinians or the occupation at all. He referred to Gaza once or twice, and only in passing, simply as a zone of military operations. He devoted no time or thought whatsoever to Gaza or to any aspect of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
And this wilful, almost neurotic blindness isn’t restricted to Israeli political and military leaders. In January 2013, Israel held its last parliamentary elections, which saw the resurgence of the political centre and of the left, but which almost entirely excluded any serious debate or discussion about the Palestinians or the occupation.
Instead, the election focused on national service for religious Jews, economic indicators, crime rates, housing prices, and other social and economic issues. The current Israeli election campaign seems similarly oblivious.
Israeli society enjoys a luxury that should never be afforded to an occupying and colonial power ruling over a captive and disenfranchised people. They held an election as if the Palestinians and the occupation did not exist. And they did so primarily for two reasons. First, nobody had any new ideas. And, second and far more disturbingly, they simply could.
Israel’s dominance over the Palestinians has reached a stage where, when they want to, Israelis can actually completely ignore the reality of the Palestinian people and get away with it. And because there is no consensus at all among Jewish Israelis, and none of their parties has any serious new ideas about what to do about the Palestinians and the occupied territories, it’s easier to just ignore the question entirely.
This is why and how it was possible for Mr Netanyahu and Gen Gantz to come to Washington without mentioning the Palestinians or the occupation. But any Jewish Israeli who thinks about this reality seriously, with even the slightest hint of imagination, let alone empathy, will realise how dangerous such an attitude is.
I asked Gen Gantz how he would feel if he were Palestinian and listening to the head of the Israeli military talk about Israel’s strategic concerns without even mentioning Palestinians or the occupation. He responded with some rote recitation about the virtues of peace and the need for security. Frankly, what he said was no improvement on his silence.
But how do Israelis expect millions of Palestinians, in the long run, to react to living under occupation and/or siege while it is apparently regarded as so trivial it is not worth mentioning by the occupying society? Isn’t that a sure-fire formula for an explosion of frustration and outrage?
It’s apparent that Jewish Israeli society has come to regard the Palestinians as fundamentally irrelevant to their core concerns. But no people are likely to acquiesce in their own irrelevance. If this continues, the only real questions are how and when Palestinians will decide to reassert themselves in the Israeli consciousness.
Palestinians seem more angry and embittered than at any time since at least the second intifada. Any Israeli who might be wondering why need look no further for an explanation than their own leaders and society’s toxic indifference to the simple reality of the Palestinian people.