“You can not like the word, but what is happening is an occupation — to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation. I believe that is a terrible thing for Israel and for the Palestinians.”
– Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, May 2003
On Monday, most of the presidential candidates addressed the annual conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The speeches hit all the usual marks, with the candidates striving to show that they would promote Israel’s interests better than the others. Palestinians were mentioned almost exclusively in the role of the demonized villain, and the notion of a resolution of the conflict was barely given even the emptiest kind of lip service, if it was mentioned at all.
All of these speakers avoided using one particular word: occupation. None of them offered any hint that they acknowledged that Israel was occupying territory not legally its own, ruling over millions of Palestinians without basic rights. Only Bernie Sanders, delivering a speech from the campaign trail in Utah, mentioned the word.
This is a problem. In the wake of the collapse of peace efforts, anger, despair, and violence threaten to engulf Israelis and Palestinians. Statements from top Israeli security officials affirm this key point: Palestinian despair of ever ending the occupation that began in 1967 is one of the drivers of violence.
Even the more moderate forces of the Palestinian Authority have been slow to condemn acts of violence, leading to renewed accusations of incitement from the right wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu. In Gaza, millions languish in dreadful conditions under a siege imposed against the Hamas government by Israel and Egypt, even while Israel quietly acknowledges that forces much more violent than Hamas are being kept at bay by the Islamist group.
Meanwhile, Israel is sliding ever further to the right, not just in the government but in the opposition as well. There is no constituency that feels any urgency for a resolution, and no one is pushing for talks or the sort of compromises a resolution will necessitate. Instead, the Netanyahu government, bending to the influence of settlers and parties to the right of the Prime Minister, is moving to consolidate the one-state reality that exists today into a permanent one.
This is all the result of the absence of an effective diplomatic process. It is very difficult to see how this state of affairs can change if the next President of the United States is committed only to “standing with Israel” and not to pressing both sides toward a resolution. It’s even more difficult to see it if our next president can’t even acknowledge the reality of occupation.
This is hardly a radical word. It’s one whose applicability has been affirmed by the High Court of Justice in Israel, and has been used by Prime Ministers such as Ehud Barak and even Ariel Sharon. It also has the merit of describing the situation on the ground in the West Bank, and legally still applies to Gaza as well. The fact that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are governed under military law, rather than civil law, is evidence that Israel itself recognizes the legal fact of occupation, despite what its right wing politicians might claim.
Our next president must find a way to strengthen Israel’s security by ending its occupation of Palestinian territory and undemocratic rule over millions of Palestinians. This isn’t just in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians; it’s also a U.S. interest, one backed by an overwhelming international consensus. Pursuing those necessarily intertwined goals, and navigating the political minefields that surround them is no easy feat.
An agreement ending the occupation is the only way there will be a secure State of Israel and a secure State of Palestine. But we can’t get there if we can’t even name the problem. Whether it is at AIPAC, along the campaign trail or after the new president is in office, it is essential that they address the problem of occupation. That starts by calling it what it is.