This article was originally written as a private letter addressed to Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his campaign manager, former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). Unanswered since it was sent in early June 2023, it is now published as an open letter.
Sir, I hope this isn’t too presumptuous of me, but I only mean to assist you in dealing with the issue of Israel-Palestine.
I think you are in desperate need of a good analogy here. Palestine is in no way an independent nation. They lost 56 years ago. They are essentially Indians on a reservation. Perhaps a better analogy is blacks in Apartheid South Africa or even Jim Crow Mississippi in the 1950s. Roughly half the population of the land under the control of the national government of Israel have no civil rights or liberties at all: No right to vote, no right to their own courts, total surveillance beyond [Edward] Snowden’s worst nightmare. The “Palestinian Authority” is trained and supported by the U.S. and Israel, not the people. They are trustees in a prison, not a sovereign state of any kind. The people are not just under martial law, but under foreign military occupation law which is far worse, and for longer than the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Europe.
When we talk about Israelis and Palestinians it sounds like we are already talking about the citizens of two neighboring nations. But this is not so. In the 1948 war, Israel made a secret deal with the king of Jordan that he would take sovereignty over the West Bank, to prevent the Palestinians from being able to make a state there, as recommended in the UN partition plan. Importantly, they also brutally cleansed 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. This is known as “the Nakba” or “catastrophe,” leading to an 80/20 percent super-majority Jewish Israeli democracy under what we now call “pre-1967 borders.” At least one could argue it led to a sustainable outcome.
Then—through no fault of their own—the Palestinians were caught in the middle when war broke out in 1967 between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. At this point, Israel occupied and effectively de facto annexed the entire West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and all the people there, along with the Gaza Strip and the millions of Palestinian refugees who live there as well.
Beginning in 1979 at Camp David, Israel promised to let the Palestinians have a sovereign state on the 22 percent of Palestine left after 1948: the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. [PLO Leader Yasser] Arafat recognized Israel within 1967 borders in 1988. The Oslo Accords “peace process,” which was supposed to implement this two-state reality, began in 1993.
But it was a sham. All the while, even though the Fourth Geneva Convention says that it is illegal for one nation to transfer their own civilian populations into land taken in war and UNSC Resolution 242 says that Israel must withdraw from the occupied territories, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jewish colonists or “settlers” have moved to the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which they consider part of greater Israel and call “Judea and Sameria.” This has effectively made a sovereign state there impossible.
The Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu, who used to play along with the narrative of an eventual two-state solution, in the last decade officially cancelled the illusion that he would ever let this occur. Netanyahu said in 2015 that, “I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to radical Islam against the state of Israel. Anyone who ignores this is sticking his head in the sand. The left does this time and time again. We are realistic and understand.” He was then asked specifically whether he meant that a Palestinian state would not be established if he were reelected prime minister. He answered, “Correct.”
Even though he backed down on official annexation of the Jordan river valley, Netanyahu still vowed in 2020 that “Israel will retain security control on the entire area west of the Jordan River.”
So this is why B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International all finally came out in 2021–2022, after the 40-year illusion of “independence someday instead of freedom today” had finally crumbled, and officially declared that Israel was an “apartheid state.”
It should now finally be acceptable to frame the issue in these terms. When your father sided with Israel in the 1967 war and declared them “tough,” while defeating three nation-states at once, that was a totally different situation, and back before all this transpired. Times have changed. Jordan and Egypt are friends with Israel. Israel bombs Syria almost weekly with impunity. They are not threatened from without, at all.
Jimmy Carter warned that if Israel did not let the Palestinians go, they would be stuck in this apartheid corner. So did former Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Brand new in Foreign Affairs is, “Israel’s One-State Reality: It’s Time to Give Up on the Two-State Solution” by Michael Barnett, Nathan Brown, Marc Lynch, and Shibley Telhami.
So back to Jim Crow. If the whites of Mississippi had said, “We will not end segregation and our two-tiered ‘rule of law,’ but we will let northern Mississippi become an independent black nation instead someday instead,” but then they never did that, that would be where we are with Israel-Palestine right now.
The Israelis argue as Jefferson once did, that they have the wolf by the ears and cannot safely let him go. But the Palestinians are not wolves, they are human men and women and children and the Israelis have no right to hold them in this bondage. The idea that “radical Islam” is gonna come git ’em if they do the right thing is just W. Bush-level nonsense. The Palestinians don’t want the Israeli Jews dead and gone, they just want to have freedom too. It was their country first, within living memory, after all.
Imagine if someone said about South Africa in 1983 that, “DeClerk and the whites of South Africa have a right to exist. And they have the right to defend themselves. And the blacks, well they have the right to aspirations of having those rights.” This simply will not do.
But here’s the thing: You can still be completely and totally as pro-Israel as you want and still be good on this. I am not at all saying you must go around calling the situation “apartheid” all day and make people angry at you.
You can say that Israel is our ally and that we would never let any foreign nation get away with threatening their existence, how much you personally love them and all those things, however for the good of Israel, if they want to be a Jewish democracy: They have to let the West Bank go, meaning mass removal of Jewish settlers from the West Bank and real independence for a Palestinian state now, not someday. Otherwise, Israel should give equal rights and citizenship, 14th Amendment-style, to everyone born west of the Jordan River. The status quo is simply unjust.
Or even better: Since we believe in democracy and non-interventionism, we just won’t fund Israel’s military or side with them on this issue in the UN anymore. Like the Ukrainians using our weapons against Russia, we are implicated in this and it is not right, in fact even dangerous. Our support for the Israeli occupations in Palestine and Lebanon were major motivating factors in Al Qaeda’s war against the United States, including September 11th, after all. Bin Laden’s first declaration of war from 1996. The lead hijacker Mohammed Atta and co-conspirator Ramzi bin al Shib joined Al Qaeda in response to Shimon Perez’s war in Lebanon.
Find a way to stick up for the Palestinians. They absolutely need real independence or equal rights as Israeli citizens. Ignoring their side cannot be an option. There is a huge core of potential support for you that is just cringing right now because of this when they should be rallying to support you as a great alternative to the Clinton-Obama-Biden establishment types—the only one of them who’s really one of us. The legend of the Kennedys is of men who would risk anything to stick up for what is right for the little guy.
There’s a whole interesting story about how your father and uncle tried to make the Israel Lobby register as foreign agents and tried to force inspections of their Dimona plant to stop their nuclear weapons program. Just making the point that they were not 100 percent on board with whatever Israel wanted to do and might have mixed feelings about the current situation.
Best, Scott Horton
It is incorrect that the Arabs turned down the opportunity to have an independent state in 1948 and 2000.
“The late Israeli historian Simha Flapan writes in his book The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities that the Arab nations wanted peace with the new Jewish state and only reluctantly went to the defense of the Palestinians when the atrocities against them could no longer be ignored. The Israelis had made a secret deal with King Abdullah of Transjordan that allowed him to take the West Bank, which, under the UN partition plan, was to have been part of the Palestinian state. Israel took the rest of the proposed Palestinian state, except for the Gaza Strip, which ended up in Egyptian hands.”
“In accounts of the July 2000 Camp David summit and the following months of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, we often hear about Ehud Barak’s unprecedented offer and Yasser Arafat’s uncompromising “no”. Israel is said to have made a historic proposal, which the Palestinians, once again seizing the opportunity to miss an opportunity, turned down. The failure to reach a final agreement is attributed, without notable dissent, to Yasser Arafat.
As orthodoxies go, this is a dangerous one. Broader conclusions take hold. That there is no peace partner is one. That there is no possible end to the conflict with Arafat is another. For a process of such complexity, the diagnosis is remarkably shallow. It ignores history, the dynamics of the negotiations, and the relationships among the three parties. It fails to capture why what so many viewed as a generous Israeli offer, the Palestinians viewed as neither generous, nor Israeli, nor, indeed, as an offer. Worse, it acts as a harmful constraint on American policy by offering up a single, convenient culprit (Arafat) rather than a more nuanced and realistic analysis. …
When Barak reneged on his commitment to transfer the three Jerusalem villages – a commitment he had specifically authorised Clinton to convey to Arafat – Clinton was furious. In the end, though, and on almost all these questionable tactical judgments, the US either gave up or gave in, reluctantly acquiescing out of respect for the things Barak was trying to do. If there is one issue that Israelis agree on, it is that Barak broke every conceivable taboo and went as far as any Israeli prime minister had gone or could go. Even so, it is hard to state with confidence how far Barak was actually prepared to go. Strictly speaking, there never was an Israeli offer. Determined to preserve Israel’s position in the event of failure, the Israelis always stopped one, if not several, steps short of a proposal.
The ideas put forward at Camp David were never stated in writing, but orally conveyed. In the Palestinians’ eyes, they were the ones who made the principal concessions. Arafat was persuaded that the Israelis were setting a trap. His primary objective thus became to cut his losses rather than maximise his gains. That did not mean that he ruled out reaching a final deal; but Palestinian negotiators, with one eye on the summit and another back home, could not accept the ambiguous formulations that had served to bridge differences between the parties in the past and that later, in their view, had been interpreted to Israel’s advantage; this time around, only clear and unequivocal understandings would do.