Debating the question of Israel’s right to exist on campus for decades, as I have done, I find that whether my interlocutor is Norman Finkelstein, Ilan Pappe, Jeremy Corbyn, Ben White or Garda Karmi, the argument sooner or later revolves around two competing interpretations of 1967. If, over the course of the debate, I can persuade the students that the Six-Day War was a war of self-defence and that the occupation is best understood as the opening of a bracket in the story of Israel and Palestine, a bracket that Israel has sought to close through repeated offers to divide the land, and that it has been Palestinian rejectionism and terror that has kept the bracket open, I win the debate.
Western opinion, high and low, left and right, is settled: two states for two peoples, secure Israel and viable Palestine. When Israel is perceived to be in that political space too, anti-Israel opinion and action remains a fringe activity.
However, to the extent that my opponent can make my narrative sound panglossian (or mere hasbara) and make their own narrative stand up, by pointing to examples of Israeli policy, rhetoric and style that seem to confirm it, I lose.
When Israel is perceived to have stepped outside the two states framework, no longer serious about dividing the land, two things happen. The anti-Israel activists can mainstream their explanation of the conflict (‘Israel isn’t serious about peace, it is eating the pizza while pretending to negotiate over it’) and the idea that pressurising Israel from the outside is now necessary begins to make sense to decent people.
Israeli politicians often seem not to understand two things. First, it is impossible to throw red meat to a domestic base in pursuit of votes without also addressing the whole world, which, as the New Left used to say, ‘is watching’. Second, it is impossible for Israel to have its two state cake and eat it. From the perspective of a western friend of the Zionist endeavour, nothing seems clearer than that.
For all the talk of auto-emancipation, the Zionist endeavour has always depended on the support of western public opinion. 50 years after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, that opinion is in good part dependent on who will win the ongoing framing war about the meaning of that remarkably short but utterly transformative conflict.
Israel’s enemies depict 1967 as a chapter in the long-running and unfinished story of Israeli dispossession of the Palestinians and the annexation of all the land between the river and the sea. They frame Israel as a pariah state in order to make it diplomatically isolated, the prey of local hard men, or so weak it is unable to resist a framework agreement ‘written in Arabic’ and against its interests. Their method: to imprison Western elite opinion behind bars formed by a set of demonising concepts: ‘settler-colonial project,’ ‘Zionism is racism,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘nakba,’ ‘apartheid state,’ ‘ethnocracy,’ and so on. Framing the Six-Day War as a pre-planned ‘colonialist’ land-grab is central to that delegitimising story.
Professor Alan Johnson is the founder and editor of BICOM’s quarterly online journal Fathom. He was a professor of democratic theory and practice
at Edge Hill University before joining BICOM in 2011.