On May 27, 2003, at a contentious meeting of lawmakers from his ruling Likud party, the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon uttered words intended to break through a deeply embedded denial:
“I think that the idea that we can continue holding under occupation – and it is occupation; you might not like this word but it’s really an occupation – to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is, in my opinion, bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for Israel’s economy.”
Sharon had spent much of the 1980’s and 90’s using relentless, strategic settlement expansion to entrench Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza. But in 2003 the aging former commander admitted the brutal reality of the occupation he had helped strengthen. He acknowledged that when a population is controlled by the army of a state in which it has no political rights, “occupation” is the only word that accurately describes the situation.
Nonetheless, the views of most of Sharon’s former Likud allies, and their supporters, have not changed in more than a decade. In March, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie spoke at an RNC fundraiser hosted by extreme right-wing “superdonor” — and prominent Likud supporter — Sheldon Adelson. The governor’s comments about Israel were just as uncritically hawkish and hardline as one would expect. Until a bit of uncomfortable truth slipped out when Christie mentioned the “Occupied Territories.”
It mattered little that Christie had referenced a term used by almost the entire world, including previous Republican presidents. Many in the audience were aghast, and the governor subsequently offered a personal apology to Adelson for the supposed affront.
Thus, Christie joined ranks with occupation-deniers, who typically give one of two justifications for their stance. They claim either that all of the Land of Israel is promised to the Jews by God (earthly matters like international law and Israeli law be damned), or that the West Bank is actually Israeli territory under international law, citing the League of Nations’ approval of the British Mandate in 1922 and its endorsement of “a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.” To buy the latter nonsense, one must conveniently forget that the League of Nations (to which the United States was not a signatory) stopped existing in 1946, having been replaced by the United Nations the previous year. According to the UN charter, the “obligations” of a UN member state prevail over any previous conflicting agreements. These obligations include Security Council Resolution 242 (to which the United States and Israel are both signatories), which calls for withdrawal of Israeli armed forces “from territories occupied” in the 1967 war.
Ultimately, the reality is not that complicated. Israel has never annexed the West Bank or Gaza, and the Palestinians living there are under Israeli control, subject to Israeli military law, and have no political rights in Israel. The occupation exists, and the only way to end it is through a two-state solution that brings an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Adelson and the Likud, however, oppose a two-state solution just as virulently as they deny the existence of the occupation. Moreover, they help to both prevent the former and strengthen the latter by supporting the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
To deny the occupation and oppose a two-state solution might make one pro-Likud, but that’s not the same thing as being pro-Israel. In fact, most Israelis and American Jews divert sharply from the Likud position. Recent polls have found that a solid majority of Israelis continue to support a peace agreement based on a two-state solution. Meanwhile, last year’s Pew poll of American Jewish opinion showed that 61 percent believe in a two-state solution. They believe that “pro-Israel” means being willing to do what it takes to preserve the Zionist dream of a democratic, Jewish state.
Ariel Sharon, in the end, seemed to feel much the same way. He left Likud, the party he helped form three decades earlier, in order to bring Israel closer to peace. Sharon was a realist, and he realized that the occupation harms Israel just as it harms the Palestinians. Adelson and Gov. Christie need a similar dose of reality: Pro-Israel means pro-peace and anti-occupation.