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Ivan Segré - Reflections on the Palestinian Question

Hélène Barthélemy15 October 2013

Reflections on the Palestinian Question

Ivan Segré, author of Qu’appelle-t-on penser Auschwitz? and Reflections on Anti-Semitism, writes in on the Palestinian Question, twenty years after the Oslo Accords. While Palestinians struggle for liberation they are freer than most Israelis, enslaved by the uncritical belief that, as oppressors, they can still be free. 

By Ivan Segré, French-Israeli philosopher

The Oslo process aimed to actualize peace between Israeli and Palestinians based on the division of “historical Palestine” in two states: one Israeli, one Palestinian. The failure of this process has perpetuated a blocked situation, which is increasingly worsening. It is tempting to contrast the miscarriage of the Oslo process with the success of a project antithetical to it, the project of a ‘Greater Israel’: the political vision of the Israeli state apparatus resting on a literalist, fundamentalist and, above all, vulgar reading of the Bible. Such an interpretation would, however, be a mistaken one. Certainly, the Israeli state apparatus does lean on religious nationalism, but it is the former that instrumentalises the latter – for all its some-time risks and dangers – rather than the other way around. What determines the discourse and the policy of the Israeli state apparatus is not biblical considerations, but military ones. We also know, moreover, that the principal decision makers in Israeli politics come from the army. This is a consequence of this state’s history, marked by the three decisive wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973.

For Israelis, the army’s political vision is not merely legitimate, but decisive. And the policy of any army is ‘for security’. Within this perspective, the 1967 borders are not acceptable, because they do not guarantee any strategic strength-in-depth; and hence the corollary proposition, that there will be no real partition of ‘historic Palestine’ between Israelis and Palestinians, which is indeed symbolically translated by the refusal to partition Jerusalem as currently defined, nor any ‘right to return’ for the refugees. In a more immediately military language, this can be formulated as follows : the viability of a state – one that also faces a hostile environment – supposes that it have secure – natural – borders, in the sense that they are drawn up in a coherent manner consistent with the territory that must be defended : in the south the Sinai desert, in the north the Golan Heights, the sea to the west and the river Jordan to the east.

The problem lies, however, in the presence within these natural frontiers of a population that is not only foreign to Jewish nationalism, but hostile to it. Their name : the ‘Palestinians’. Pushing them beyond the river Jordan is unrealisable, for moral, diplomatic and practical reasons ; but to integrate them would de facto mean opting for a binational state, which is impossible from the point of view of the Israeli state apparatus, whose guiding law is to go on as it is. So what can be done ? The answer is a simple, well-known one : nothing, to do precisely nothing, beyond the management of current affairs, which ultimately consists of treating the populations deemed hostile as a ‘security problem’ ; and the best way to remove the threat of one or many people deemed hostile or dangerous, is to lock them up. From the point of view of a state apparatus, nothing is more threatening than people who are free. If a sham Palestinian authority agrees to take responsibility of the security policy thus imposed, it can be delegated the day-to-day management of the situation ; if not, there will be no political authority in this little corner of the world (about the size of Wales or New Jersey) other than the Israeli state.

So does this mean that there can be no free people in this little corner of the world, other than the Israelis ? It is here that another law comes into play, not the rule of the state apparatus but rather a rule of thought. In his Reflections on the Jewish Question, Sartre concluded that : ‘No Frenchman will be free until the Jews enjoy their full rights’. This formula, insofar as it concerns only laws governing a state apparatus, is a nonsense : if some people are enslaved, in what sense are their oppressors not free ? Few governments down here give any credit to the rules of thought.  In their eyes, the world is ruled by other laws than these.

We could, nonetheless, put forward the hypothesis that the Israelis themselves also think for themselves, and that they will prove able to free themselves of the security-obsessed logic of their state apparatus ; in which case one fine day they will conclude that ‘No Israeli will be free until the Palestinians enjoy their full rights’.

In the meantime, then, the Israelis are not free; perhaps they are even more enslaved than the Palestinians. Indeed, thinking people – those who really think, and live by the rules of thought –know that the enslavement of the Palestinians and that of the Israelis are incomparable : the former know that they are not free, and fight for their liberation; the latter imagine themselves to be free, and thus rot away in their chains.


Translated by David Broder


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13 September 2013 marks the twenty year anniversary of the Oslo peace process. We thought that this should be taken as an opportunity for a genuine political reflection not only on the balance sheet of these twenty long years, but also on the different perspectives for the future of the region which are opened up by the failure to meet the promises of this process.

We have asked numerous figures to contribute their analysis to this little brainstorming exercise. The viewpoints thus gathered are being published by the Agence Média Palestine, in partnership with the Alternative Information Centre, over the coming months.