Academics look at the exact nature of contemporary Israel and Palestine

At a time when 'the window for a two-state solution is closing', a new book by the academics Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir offers a comprehensive look at the nature of the Israeli regime.

The One State Condition: Occupation and Democracy in Israel/Palestine
Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir
Stanford University Press

The road connecting Ramallah and Jerusalem, with its physical manifestations of Israel's occupation that impossibly blend into the otherwise serene landscape, is a stark testament to Israel's control over the West Bank. The cold grey concrete of the separation barrier, the patrolling military jeeps and horribly ill-kept roads constitute an alien but seemingly permanent fixture of the modern Holy Land. The road is a representation of the facts on the ground, devoid of the ideological contortions employed by the majority of pundits and journalists to conceal the exact nature of contemporary Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

After nearly five decades of Israeli control in the West Bank and to a lesser degree in Gaza, the permanence of Israel's occupation is seldom questioned by the West. Israelis, willingly or not, accept the occupation as a temporary event. In the Israeli imagination, the "Territories" - absent and geographically flexible - are thought to be controlled until some future time when peace is finally sealed with the Palestinians. Until that fleeting moment, the "Territories" are a distant place that inspire connotations of military service, distant biblical images and fanatical settlers. Tell someone in Tel Aviv these days that you live in Ramallah and they are bound to look at you as if you were living on Mars.

The previous decade of intense physical and intellectual separation of Israelis and Palestinians, emboldened by the Oslo peace accords and entrenched by the Second Intifada, has created a deep cognitive dissonance over the depth of Israel's occupation in the Israeli and, by extension, western imagination. This is confirmed by the fact that half a million Israelis can clog the streets of Tel Aviv demanding social justice and willingly ignore Israel's control over millions of Palestinians deprived of rights and citizenship by the Israeli government.

This has not happened by accident or, as some might claim, because of conflict fatigue. The physical and intellectual structures Israel created and slowly entrenched to control Palestinians without extending any form of citizenship or rights constitutes the most sophisticated project in Israel's history, commanding untold resources and effort. At the core of this effort is the state's attempt to obfuscate the occupation's clear colonial association in favour of a discourse on security and peace. Painful debate of Israel's colonial enterprise remains a taboo discussion among all but the most aggressively left on the issue. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find an Israeli in Tel Aviv and even an American Jew in New York who would agree that Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza constitute a clear form of colonialism.

The transformation of Israel's occupation and its symbiotic relationship with the Israeli government is the subject of a timely new book by Israeli academics Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir called The One State Condition: Occupation and Democracy in Israel/Palestine. Originally published in Hebrew in 2008 with the title This Regime That is Not One: Occupation and Democracy Between the Sea and the River, the book is one of the most exhaustive resources on the creation, maintenance and entrenchment of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza available in any language.

The book presents a fluid and factual history of Israel's occupation, demonstrating the uncanny ability of the state to maintain the basic structure of its occupation regime and transform it in response to Palestinian resistance and outside pressure. Israel's relationship to the occupied Palestinian Territories emerges as a carefully choreographed machine capable of unending control.

At the core of Azoulay and Ophir's arguments is a pragmatic retelling of the creation of the modern Israeli state; a regime that administers an ethnic democracy in one area and an "occupation regime" in another, determined to split two civilian populations along ethno-religious lines. The Green Line - the 1949 armistice line that has come to represent the basis for a two-state solution - is presented not as a border, but as a marker separating Palestinians with some rights and Palestinians with zero rights. As the authors note early in the introduction, "a new conceptual grid is necessary to explain that and how Israelis and Palestinians have been governed since 1967 by the same ruling power, within the bounds of the same regime".

From land expropriations in the West Bank to Israeli oversight of Palestinian universities to monitor dissent and resistance, Israel's complex matrix of control is laid bare for the reader over 300 pages. The authors ultimately reach the conclusion that the quasi-separate regimes - one military and the other civil - are part of the same political system and could not function otherwise.

Forgotten historical developments are reintroduced to show the transformation of Israel's occupation regime over its four decades of rule. The story of how Palestinian work opportunities in Israel after the 1967 occupation destroyed the traditional Palestinian agricultural industry is one such story. A society composed largely of farmers was transformed into a source of cheap labour for the emerging Israeli state, devoid of access to labour unions and confined to the whims of Israel's changing permit structure. After the Oslo accords, drying up work permits destroyed the Palestinian economy, the effects of which are still unfolding in the West Bank. This emblematic but often overlooked facet of Israel's overall Palestinian strategy highlights the shallowness of the mainstream historical debate between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and its ability to influence future prospects for peace.

How often do we hear that the debate on Israel is changing in the West? The emergence of a liberal coterie of American intellectuals who coalesce around "Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace" organisations such as J Street have seemingly awakened to the intricate nature of Israel's precarious colonial adventures in the West Bank and Gaza. Today, it is not uncommon to read established writers and journalists argue that the "window for the two-state solution is closing" due to the irreversibility of the occupation.

The response in the United States has been to increasingly define Israel in two parts; sovereign Israel with recognised borders (by whom exactly is a pesky question) west of the Green Line and a separate Israeli regime in the area east of the Green Line. One prominent writer, employing a type of double speak that would have fit well in George Orwell's landmark essay Politics of the English Language, has even posited that Israel can be understood as simultaneously an undemocratic and democratic state, depending on what side of the Green Line you are considering.

Knowingly or not, The One State Condition throws cold water on this diversionary debate through detailed historical research fit into a philosophical framework. Despite its verbose academic style, the book is a surprisingly lucid walk through decades of Israeli occupation that reads at times as a treatise on the nature of state creation. If one is able to avoid falling prey to the gravity of the authors dense knowledge, a startlingly clear picture of the nature of the Israeli regime is sure to surprise even the most intense observer of the Israeli-Palestinian discourse.

Half a century of separate and unequal state governance is a long time, the authors note in the introduction. Yet, the mainstream discourse of Israel and the Palestinian Territories is trapped within an imagined reality that attempts to impose a soothing false dichotomy on the nature of the Israeli regime. Ultimately, the book exposes how central this dichotomy is to the maintenance of Israel's occupation and, more importantly, the camouflage necessary to obscure the system behind Israel's colonial rule.

Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah