Imagined Israel

By all accounts, Benjamin Netanyahu devoted very little thought to the two final sites added to a list of designated heritage sites set to benefit from a large government restoration budget. Never mind that the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, is located in the West Bank town of Hebron. Likewise, Rachel's Tomb is in Bethlehem -- also occupied territory. Just before Sunday's Cabinet meeting, rightist ministers noticed that the two shrines, regarded as the burial places of the biblical ancestors of the Jewish people, were missing from the list. They leaned a bit on Netanyahu, he added the tombs, and the Cabinet unanimously approved the plan.

From there, the reaction followed as if part of the playbill. Palestinian protests in Hebron turned into confrontations between demonstrators and troops that have grown larger each day. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat described the heritage designation as a "unilateral decision to make Palestinian sites in Hebron and Bethlehem part of Israel," and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that the move "could cause a holy war." A State Department spokesman condemned the Israeli step as "provocative."

You might expect Netanyahu to be careful about playing with holy fire. In September 1996, early in his previous term as prime minister, he approved opening a tunnel alongside the Temple Mount, otherwise known as Haram al-Sharif. That set off a week-long mini war between Israel and Palestinians. How could he so easily give in to pressure and repeat the mistake of asserting ownership of contested holy places? While we're at it, how does a country declare that a place outside its borders is a national heritage site?

I could give quick responses based on Netanyahu's famously flawed personality. But deeper answers to these questions -- and quite a few other Middle Eastern puzzles -- can be found in Israeli political sociologist Lev Luis Grinberg's remarkably insightful recent book, Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine. The starting point of Grinberg's analysis is that Israel doesn't have borders, or perhaps has too many of them: "If we would ask Israelis … where the state of Israel is -- where its borders are -- we would never receive a simple answer. … There is no consensus among Jewish citizens of the state where its borders are, where they should be, or even what the legitimate procedure is to decide on them."

Internationally, of course, Israel's border is commonly regarded as the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary. For internal Israeli legal purposes, the Green Line is generally where the state ends and occupied territory begins; it defines "the area … ruled by democratic law and elective government," as Grinberg notes. But the Green Line doesn't appear on Israeli maps. And for purposes of military and economic control, the state includes the West Bank with its Palestinian population. (Gaza's status, at the moment, is even fuzzier.)

Moreover, in the imagination of most Israeli Jews, it seems, the line between those who belong to the nation and those who don't is ethnic: Jews are in. Palestinians are out, even if they live in Israel and vote. If you find this all confusing, then you understand perfectly. The reality is a mess.

This matters, first of all, because modern democracy depends on borders that aren't messy. "A precondition of democracy," as Grinberg writes, is "the existence of recognized borders … which define the equal citizens of the state." Physical boundaries allow creation of the social reality he calls "political space" -- the arena in which the institutions of state meet people who represent us and negotiate and compromise and make policy. When there aren't clear borders, when there's no agreement on who should be represented or how, violence replaces politics -- as happens again and again between Israelis and Palestinians.

Taking off from Benedict Anderson's classic definition of the nation as an "imagined community," Grinberg pays careful attention to imagination, positive and negative. Imagination allows us to see political representatives as standing in for us, making politics possible. Imagination lets us envision a different future. As a result of the first Palestinian Intifada in the late 1980s, many Israelis -- including the influential top brass of the military -- could imagine a border between Israel and the Palestinians and a political rather than a military solution to the conflict. That act of imagination opened up the space for negotiation with the Palestinians under Yitzhak Rabin's leadership.

Imagined realities can also be illusions. In the late Oslo years, Israelis imagined that they already lived in the era of peace and ignored worsening conditions in Palestinian society. When the Second Intifada erupted in 2000, imagination allowed Israelis to magnify real dangers into overwhelming ones. Wanting "national unity" in the face of the threat, they let generals set policy. Debate between civil groups with alternative answers to the crisis sank to distant background noise. In Grinberg's terms, "political space" vanished.

The book's analysis does not reach the present day, but its implications do. With violence low at the moment, most Israelis can imagine that Israeli security measures alone ended the intifada and that the current quiet can last indefinitely. This is an illusion, and a dangerous one: It ignores the Palestinian Authority's role in restoring order in the West Bank. It also ignores the frustration with blocked diplomacy that is again rising among Palestinians -- and international impatience with the Netanyahu government's foot-dragging. Imagination shapes behavior. Believing the illusion that things can go on as they are, Israelis have largely abandoned debate of alternatives. The space for politics remains closed.

So with no discussion, responding to a moment's pressure, ignoring the dangers, Netanyahu can include two West Bank holy places in a list of Israeli heritage sites. Netanyahu wouldn't think to consult Palestinians' representative leadership first. He sees them as outside the borders of his politics.

In fact, if there's a reason to quibble with Grinberg, it's his assertion that the myth of the Whole Land of Israel -- of permanent Israeli possession of everything between the Mediterranean and the Jordan -- has largely been undermined in mainstream Israeli politics. Netanyahu is evidence that the myth still moves extremely influential people. In physical terms, Netanyahu's imagined Israel is the whole land. In political terms, it includes only Jews. It takes no effort to convince him to include tombs in Hebron and Bethlehem in a map of Israeli heritage sites. But a plea by Israeli critics to include non-Jewish sites within the Green Line will sound to him like static on a bad cell-phone connection -- noise without meaning.

Grinberg's book is theoretical, but not anywhere near as tangled as is much academic writing in political science. He includes first-person concerns, including his rejection of fatalism. There are no iron laws in history. People can, in fact, reinvent the future. Netanyahu is a sufficiently educated man to read this book, but I have trouble, well, imagining him doing so. Others -- Israelis, Palestinians, and people outside the region -- will have to do the work of creating a different future.

You may also like