Ever since 1967, many Israeli Jews have denied that there is an occupation. They have spoken of Israel’s conquests as acts of liberation and return. But for those who have thought in terms of an occupation, until recently it was possible to conceive of it as an irregularity. One could believe that normalization would some day occur – not a return to the 1949 armistice lines, which were indefensible and constricting, but a fleshed-out state with secure borders and peaceful relations with its neighbours. This was the ethos behind the Labor party’s “Alon plan” of the 1970s and 1980s. Even though Likud governments in the 1980s expanded settlements, they did not annex the West Bank, leaving the whole enterprise in a state of temporal suspense.
The First Intifadah of 1987-1993 presented a challenge, and the occupation could not continue indefinitely without a major change in policy. A “two-state” solution that was mooted in 1991 by Sari Nusseibeh and Mark Heller encountered stiff resistance in Israel, but it slowly entered the mainstream. By the time the Oslo process began in 1993, the occupation was already a quarter century old, yet it seemed more provisional than ever.
The collapse of the Oslo Process and the Second Intifadah created a new chronotope of the occupation as not provisional, but endless. And this is where we seem to be now. Israeli Jews have become more hawkish, and there is decreasing opposition to the growth of settlements and the appropriation of Palestinian land. Some members of the Israeli hard Right, who have never defined Israel’s presence in the West Bank as an occupation, speak more openly about annexing parts or all of the territory. Security concerns, nationalism, and religious ideology are more tightly bound together than ever before.
The Palestinians, and their opposition to the occupation, will not go away. Israel’s pursuit of spatial wholeness, hearkening back to the biblical past, is not sustainable. Israel has a choice. On the one hand, it can embrace the uncertainties of incompleteness, of territorial compromise hearkening back to the 1947 Partition Resolution. Or, working together with the Palestinians, it could formulate a new chronotope, of shared spaces in a binational polity, without seeking justification in territorial claims or historic rights and wrongs. That would be supremely difficult to do, as both sides in the conflict are steeped in memory, but perhaps the only way to think creatively about space in Israel/Palestine is to throw off the chains of time.
Is Israel an occupying state? If so, when did the occupation begin? Does the term refer to Israel’s 1967 conquests or to the establishment of the state in 1948? Is the West Bank, or the entirety of historic Palestine, under occupation? And if there is no occupation, how do we conceive of Israel’s position vis a vis the territories conquered a half century ago?
How one answers these questions about time depends on how we conceive of Israel as space. The Occupation is what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called a chronotope, a “time-space,” in which “[t]ime, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.”
Derek J. Penslar is the Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History at the University of Toronto and a visiting professor of History at Harvard, where he will soon take up the William Lee Frost Chair in Modern Jewish history. Penslar is also co-editor of The Journal of Israeli History and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the American Academy for Jewish Research. He has written several books on the history of modern European Jewry, Zionism, and the State of Israel. Penslar is currently writing a biography of Theodor Herzl for Yale University Press's Jewish Lives series.