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Interview With Professor Omer: Israel’s Occupation and the Road Towards Peace

In today’s conversation, we tackle Israel’s controversial settlements as well as how peace between Israel and Palestine can be achieved in the future.

Atalia Omer (Ph.D., Harvard University, 2008) is an Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. She is the author of When Peace Is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp Thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice. You can read more about her here.

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Rootpolicy: Let’s start off with the recent change to the constitution recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Is this a real change or a nominal one?

Omer: Many argue the passing of the Jewish Nation-State Law legitimizes what has already been happening. However, it is still a significant move toward enshrining an apartheid-like system of control. It’s an explicit departure from the Declaration of Independence and the commitment that has been central (though not without problems) to liberal Zionism. The latter has roots with more inclusive interpretations of Israel as a Jewish State, but contradictions have always existed between the project of the Jewish nation-state and its claim to ensuring equality for all its citizens.

What about Arabic’s loss of status as an official language in Israel?

What happened to the Arabic language is consistent with decades of discrimination against Palestinians in Israel. With a highly radical and ethnocentric right-wing government, dominated by the Zionist Jewish Home political party and promoters of the Greater Israel land theology, Palestinian-Israeli Arabs—including Members of Knesset—and Jewish critics have been systematically targeted for years.

Israel continues to press in with the settlements. Is there some kind of central endgame? Or just engulfment?

I will say that with the current government—which does not represent everyone in Israel—there are intentions (blessed by the Trump Administration) to press forward with the illegal settlements and the occupation as part of a radical ideological land theology and territorial desire to occupy the region. In fact, the American decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem gave a green light for annexation, so the legal changes discussed above are highly consistent with these developments.

How does the government plan on selling the international community on that idea?

In terms of international public opinion, Israel’s narrative of self-defense is rapidly eroding—especially with the success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel. There’s a wave of right-wing populism in Europe and the US result in governments and aspiring politicians who support Israel. Thus they are Zionist even while also often expressing antisemitic beliefs.

As right-wing populism manifests in other places, including the US, Israel seems to be gambling on more Trumps and Orbans and turning its back on American Jews. For instance, Netanyahu was okay with the recent Polish Holocaust Law that outlawed blaming Poland for any crimes committed during the Holocaust.

A lot of people have argued that a two-state solution is the best way to create peace. What are your personal opinions on it, and do you think it is still possible after the Trump Administration’s move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem?

I wrote at least one book about it *laughs*. In light of some of the things I wrote above, the two-state peace formula has become harder to accept especially with an enduring policy of creating “facts on the ground” through settlement policies*. This tactic did not start yesterday but has reflected the approaches of successive governments, right or left. The new Nation-State Law is an exclusionary approach that is explicit about its exclusionary outcomes, thus “resolving” some of the contradictions of a two-state solution.

*Israel’s “facts on the ground” tactic is based on the assumption that the more land Israel has, the more bargaining chips it has if it’s forced into negotiations.

Do you think that these political moves have damaged relations even more between Palestinians and Israelis on a local community level? If so, what would be the best way to start repairing the damage and transforming the conflict on a local level?

The so-called “peace process” has been de-legitimized long ago and interpreted as a form of normalization of the occupation.

In terms of moving forward, more solidarity actions and intra-Jewish work is necessary to show the consequences of the occupation. I have done a lot of work with American Jews who have become anti-occupation activists. Their background means that they have major potential in influencing the dynamics of the conflict. With eroding support from American Jews, some significant changes will happen on the ground in Israel. It is important to reinforce the work of Israeli organizations critical of the occupation such as Breaking the Silence, Zochrot, Taayush, as well as Combatants for Peace.