Clinging to a Virtual Reality


by Lara Friedman, Daniel Seidemann

At the crux of the ongoing controversy over Google's decision to recognize "Palestine" on its landing page is an emphatic refusal by some in Israel (and abroad) to accept empirical reality. That reality is pretty uncomplicated. Most of the world today recognizes the Palestinians as a people. Most countries have voted at the U.N. to recognize Palestine as a theoretical state that must one day come into being in areas currently controlled by Israel. No nation on earth endorses Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem; Israeli actions to further entrench the occupation continue to provoke global condemnation.


The ruling Likud party may be split tactically, but it is unified ideologically, on the issue of peace and the two-state solution. At its most "pro-peace" end is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recognizes the need for a "deal" with the Palestinians involving territorial concessions, but who can barely utter the words "two-state solution." Netanyahu is clear, too, that the need for a deal derives solely from Israel's interest in avoiding becoming a bi-national state, not from Palestinian legitimate claims to self-determination or attachments to the land. And while Netanyahu refuses to draw or even describe the map that he imagines will be the foundation of this deal, he is working assiduously to impose a new map on the ground--one that will make a viable Palestinian state impossible.

At the other end of the spectrum is Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Ze'ev Elkin. As the source of the official condemnations of Google, Elkin has couched his criticism of the company in seemingly pro-peace terms. This is the same Elkin, however, who openly opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state and who calls for Israel to put the two-state solution to rest, once and for all, by annexing the entire West Bank.

Both Netanyahu's and Elkin's tactical approaches are shaped by a core conviction: that there is only one entitled, empowered national collective to the west of the Jordan River, and it is the Jewish people. In this imagined West Bank, anything the Palestinians "get" will be a reflection of Israeli magnanimity, not Palestinian rights. And in this imagined Jerusalem, non-Jews are at best tolerated minorities enjoying certain privileges of residency--which can be revoked virtually at the whim of Israeli officials--but denied the rights of citizens who have recognized equities in the city's past, present, and future.

Any moves, domestic or international, implying that the Palestinians have rights and attachments that equal or rival those of Israel in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, strike at the very foundations of Netanyahu's and Elkin's claims to Israeli-Jewish hegemony. Such moves are, consequently, intolerable. This explains the doomsday Israeli reactions--from approving E-1 to crying "diplomatic terror"--to Palestinian efforts to gain recognition at the U.N. And it is precisely the reason behind Israel's indignant reaction to Google's adoption of the term "Palestine." Clearly, Google hit a nerve.

While the international community may not be intimately familiar with the complexities of the West Bank and Jerusalem, most of the world, including Google, rejects the vision of the Netanyahus and Elkins of a mythical land in which the Jewish people have exclusive entitlement--a land that is visible only from within the confines of an ideological bunker. Virtually the entire world today recognizes, instead, that in the much-disputed land between the river and the sea, there are two national collectives, one Israeli, one Palestinian, both with legitimate aspirations, claims, and rights to states of their own, with their respective capitals in Jerusalem.

Some will argue that, since a Palestinian state doesn't presently exist on the map, to recognize it online is an exercise in virtual reality. In truth, by challenging Google's simple decision to "call a spade a spade," it is Israel, not Google, that is clinging to a virtual reality. The approaches of the Netanyahus and the Elkins are oblivious to current political realities and emerging historical trends. And being so out of sync with the views of much of the world is driving Israel into ever-increasing isolation, which should be of grave concern for Israelis and those who wish Israel well.

This article first appeared on Open Zion at the Daily Beast on May 10, 2013