Saving Israel from Itself…and Reality

Posted on January 11, 2005


An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the Letters column of Harper’s Magazine, April 2005

The right-wing Israeli-American detente continues to invent machiavellian peace solutions designed to seperate Palestinians from their land, leaving Israel the latter and an as-yet undetermined bantustan state with the former. Most recently, the Israeli-American block has succeeded in righting the wreck of Oslo with the engineered election of Machmoud Abbas, paving the way for another few years of negotiating hat-tricks while Israel continues the settlement land grab it accelerated during Arafat’s former tenure, this time with the boost provided by the apartheid wall. The Israeli maximalists (labor and likud included), who seek the largest possible chunk of the West Bank to add to Israel proper, grow more emboldened with each passing year for one simple reason. Their plans–Oslo, the apartheid wall, and the new Oslo that will follow Abbas’ installment–work. They work because they are aligned with the unanimous mainstream political objectives for Gaza and the West Bank and those objectives are clear–seperate the land from the people, herd the people in a bantustan state with malleable borders, populate the land with Israelis for eventual annexation with Israel.

But one question persists for all those who seek justice for Palestinians. How come Israeli progressives can’t come up with a plan that works? It is useful to note, for example, that South Africa’s transition from apartheid to representative democracy, as imperfect as it seems to be, managed at least to unite the country and create representative democracy, even if it has failed so far to right much of the economic legacy of apartheid. This process would never have been possible without the aid of progressive white South Africans, who were instrumental in developing the transition to democracy. Why can’t left and progressive Israelis adopt a similar role?

Jeff Halper, for example, the director of the Israeli Commission on House Demolitions and one of the most well-known Israeli progressives, proposes a convoluted peace plan in a recent article on (A Middle East Union: A Two Stage Solution to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict) which he claims could end the conflict in a two-step process. Halper’s plan would:

1) create a temporary and truncated Palestinian state

2) manage the new state via a confederation consisting of Israel, Egypt and Syria with oversight from the international community.

Halper believes that such a solution would alleviate some of the economic problems of Palestinians while creating goodwill in order to eventually form a bi-national Palestinian-Israeli state. Indeed, Halper envisions his plan putting to rest much of the animosity that now exists between Israel and its neighbors. The plan has a glaring and obvious flaw, however, as it is predicated on good faith negotiations on the part of Israel, an unlikelihood considering Israel’s record of increased settler projects and greater movement restrictions during the Oslo period. This is the very reason why a state like the first-phase Palestinian entity Halper proposes, does not already exist as a product of the Oslo negotiations. Halper also imagines good faith emanating from the surrounding Arab governments, which themselves are no beacons unto the world. In this light, it seems unlikely that after routing Palestinians into a more advantageous two-state arrangement than those currently on the books, subsequent Israeli governments would not instead step up the colonial project in the territories under cover of the confederation with its neighbors. The problem that has lead to the current impasse has not so much been the character of the peace plans offered–deeply flawed and unjust, to be sure–but Israel’s consistent demonstration of bad faith and unwillingness to honor any of its commitments to Palestinians as dictated by the agreements. These are the very realities which Halper, and others, believe have now made a two-state solution impossible.

Then why not just move on to the next level? Accept the inexorable destiny of a one state solution, and create a plan that moves directly from this political juncture to that phase, without providing Israel the kind of interim steps that it has historically used to further its apartheid agenda? As much as Halper believes the two-state solution to now be implausible because of the Israeli colonial project, he perceives the one-state solution to be impossible in the near term because of resistance to the idea from both Palestinians and Israelis. According to Halper, Palestinians will not give up their quest for “self-determination” and Israeli’s will not give up their “Jewish” state. This reasoning is questionable. There is little incompatible between a one state solution and a Palestinian quest for self-determination, just as the Black South African quest for self-determination did not exclude a non-racial representative democracy. In other venues, Halper has expanded his analysis concerning this opposition, claiming that it is not so much the Palestinian people who balk at a one state solution, but their leadership. But Halper leaves his definition of the Palestinian leadership purposefully vague; is this leadership Abbas’ Fateh, transplanted into the territories via the platform of the Palestinian Authority, itself a product of Israel’s attempts at creating a banustan republic in the territories? Or is this the leadership that has opposed the autocracy of the PA, taken an ethical stand against Oslo, advocated a one-state solution and will not budge from the right of return issue, the perennial two-state non-starter. Mustafa Bhargouti, openly a member of the latter group, recently garnered 20% of the Palestinian vote during the 05 Palestinian presidential election, despite the fact that he was not allowed to move freely through the territories and had no support within Israel or the US.

The two-state solution, in fact, is a Fateh creation manufactured in the Diaspora–it has no roots or tradition in the West Bank and Gaza and its acceptance in the occupied territories at the dawn of the Oslo era has more to do with collective exhaustion and lack of options than any real faith in it. Almost everything that Palestinians have ever aspired to–freedom of movement in historical Palestine, freedom to move and return outside the borders of the territories, and a return of refugees is only achievable through a one-state framework. What’s more, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have already had decades to get used to the reality of living alongside Israelis, working and living in an Israeli created environment. Even the most racist, illegal and unjust power sharing arrangement in a flawed one-state solution would not be so different than what Palestinians have already endured for over three decades, except that there would no longer be checkpoints or prohibitions on movement.

What is really standing in the way of the one-state solution, instead, is Israel’s insistence on maintaining a Jewish state. This is inconsistent with a representative democracy. The difference between white South Africa and Jewish Israel, is the former’s willingness to admit that it’s project for the Boerish nation was unjust and unjustifiable. Israel reserves the right to continue its Zionist narrative, which Halper has called “compelling”. Even progressives such as Halper view the entire conflict through this prism, in which the suffering and dispossession of Palestinians must continue until a peace solution that minimally inconveniences Israel’s Zionist continuum can be perfected.

Bernard Avishai’s article “Saving Israel from Itself” in this month’s Harper’s is another example of this kind of exceptionalist political thinking. Like Halper, Avishai also finds pre-state Zionism compelling and disagrees with the idea that it has made Israel an undemocratic state. In Avishai’s view, this is too harsh a judgement that ignores “how radically, and for the better, historic Zionism has changed Jewish culture.” In this vein he offers the example of his love affair with the old “cooperative farms”, which he praises for refusing “to exploit” Arab labor. It is this very example which shows the true nature of Zionism, however, and Avrishai’s failure to understand it. These colonizing communities began the Zionist enterprise of displacing Palestinians and show Zionism at it’s heart to be chauvinist, hypocritical and blind to the moral implications of its ideology. Jewish settlers took advantage of changing Ottoman land laws which converted communal land into titled property, often without the knowledge of its illiterate peasant inhabitants. This situation was exacerbated by the very “conquest of labor” ideologies that early waves of European settlers brought with them and Avishai celebrates. Under an Arab landlord, at least, a dispossessed Palestinian might continue to cultivate and live on the land, but the Jewish collectives sought to remove the existence and influence of Palestinians completely. These communities knew full well that they took advantage of a legal structure morally opposed to the socialist model they sought to establish for themselves in Palestine. Ahad Ha-am, an early Zionist thinker of the late 19th century noted:

We abroad are used to believing that Eretz Israel is now almost totally desolate…but in truth this is not the case. Throughout the country it is difficult to find fields that are not sowed. Only sand dunes and stony mountains that are not fit to grow anything but fruit trees—and this only after hard labor and great expense of clearing and reclamation—only these are not cultivated.

Some decades later, Dr. Arthur Ruppin, the architect of the Jewish National Fund with which Avishai “fell in love”, formally took that perception to its logical conclusion:

Land is the most necessary thing for our establishing roots in Palestine…we are bound in each case of the purchase of land and its settlement to remove the peasants who cultivated the land so far, both owners of the land and tenants.

It is notable that the article praises Ha-am’s aspirations to create “a Hebrew national atmosphere”. Early Zionists knew full well, even if their modern day counterparts do not, that the Hebrew atmosphere they sought to impose came at the expense of the existing Palestinian one. It is this hypocritical arithmetic of dispossession that Avishai and other Israelis seem incapable of accepting as continuous with their history, this misperception of history which leads to an inability to face the reality of the present, and the resulting warped view of the present which produces non-sensical recommendations for the future such as the one Avishai suggests as the way of “saving Israel from itself”.

Avishai proposes converting Israel into a non-Jewish state, a secular “Hebrew republic” which retains the “Hebrew culture” he celebrates. Meanwhile, an unspecified independent Palestinian state would be established on all or part of what is now the occupied territories. Avishai spends little time examining the Palestinian state necessary for his plan to succeed, because, as becomes apparent, his motivation is not the correction of the unjust situation for Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. Instead, Avrishai seeks to counter the threat that rapidly growing Palestinian population, which he notes will surpass that of the Israeli Jewish one within 5 years, poses to the varnished image of Israeli democracy. Avishai notes that by 2010, Palestinian Arabs on both sides of the Green Line will collectively outnumber Jewish Israelis.

Once Palestinians in the occupied territories are safely bottled up in the bantustan republic he proposes, Avishai suggests that a special kind of parity be implemented between the Arab and Jewish Israeli populations that remain in the “new” Israel by removing the outward manifestations of Jewish privilege while indoctrinating Arabs in an “Israeli” Hebrew culture from birth. Of course, it is not for Palestinians to have a hand in choosing the national culture in which they must live; that is a right reserved exclusively for Jews and why the coming Palestinian majority must be routed via the two state solution. This unspoken truth lies at the core of proposals such as Avrishai’s which seek not justice, but a juggling of demography and legal nomenclature in order to retain Jewish control of historical Palestine. Without this clever ruse, it is doubtful that the new plurality of Palestinian Arabs would have any desire to live under the Hebrew culture sung of by Avrishai. Avishai cites one Israeli Arab who agrees with his idea—a writer friend of his, who he returns to throughout the article whenever balance requires a “Palestinian” perspective.

Indeed, it seems unlikely that the new Palestinian majority would entertain much of the “Hebrew atmosphere” currently forced upon them if the kind of political power derived from demographic superiority offered them an alternative. Why tolerate the persistence of Hebrew as a national language when their own language has been historically marginalized at its expense? Why accept an artificial separation of the West Bank and Gaza from historical Palestine, when only Jewish military violence has maintained that geographic pretense? Even more to the point, it is truly impossible to imagine a Palestinian majority that accepts a right of return for Jews—which Avishai reimagines as preferential immigration quotas in the “new” Hebrew republic—but not Palestinian refugees. At the very least, Palestinians would desire those preferential immigration quotas for their Diaspora, instead of world Jewry which has benefited from this policy for generations, all the while displacing Palestinians in order to accommodate the growing Jewish population.

Clearly, correcting long-standing injustices would be the first steps undertaken by the new Palestinian majority, while perpetuating a “Hebrew culture” created by tanks, bulldozers and discriminatory legal infrastructure might rate low on the list. Rightly, Israeli Jews would have little power to insist their culture be given preferential status, unless, of course, they reserved that capacity within some apartheid scheme. That is why Avrishai’s plan first necessitates undermining the nascent Palestinian majority by defining over 70% of it as citizens of a bantustan republic.

Avishai and Halper, doubtlessly, desire a solution to the complex issues that face Palestinians and Israelis, but this will never come to pass as long as they believe that there is something noble to be salvaged from the narrative of Zionism; there is not. Zionism is an outgrowth of the age of empire-unique to be sure–but just as infected with its cultural chauvinism and delusions of divine validation. The first step toward peace in the region must be to admit that Israel, despite the real suffering and dispossession of Jewish Europeans, had no valid claim to existance. From there, anything is possible.