Today is Election Day in Israel, though it’s hard to tell if you’re not actually in Israel. Haaretz, the Israeli daily, even published a story about how foreign journalists are having a tough time selling their stories to their hometown papers.
My theory is that it’s because the elections in Israel are about nothing at all. Israeli society has reached a consensus that there is simply no partner for peace among the Palestinians. Fatah may be willing, but they aer unable to make peace, while Hamas is able, but unwilling. This critical issue that resists characterization as either foreign or domestic policy has collapsed the political space that normally divides right from left in Israel. Instead, we have three centrist parties that have run listless, issueless, and rudderless campaigns. All of these parties are out of ideas, and one of them will find themselves governing without any leadership or goal.
Perhaps now is the time to offer a different idea, and a new coalition for advancing it. Many have previously observed that the project we call Israel is comprised of three pillars: a Jewish state, a democratic state, and a state situated on the ancient Biblical land of Israel. So far, nobody has managed to do better than to encompass two of these three pillars at a time.
Right now, for example, we have a Jewish state, whose fundamental character is enshrined, most powerfully, in the Law of Return, that guarantees citizenship to any Jew. We also have a state that wields authority over nearly all of the Biblical land of Israel. What we do not have is a democratic state. Over one third of the people governed by Israel do not have full civil rights, to say nothing of rights of citizenship or even a path to normalization.
The alternative vision is to have a Jewish state and a democratic state, but to release the third pillar by ceding the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians – a two-state solution. While many Israelis are prepared to cede the land in exchange for peace and security, few Israelis believe that giving up the land to the current crop of Palestinian leaders will in fact lead to peace and security. There is also opposition to ceding land under any circumstances not only from Religious Zionists, but also, perhaps surprisingly, from many Russian immigrants.
But what if we chose to give up on that other pillar, the one that guarantees a Jewish state? What might that look like? I think we’d be talking about the bi-national state, or one-state solution.
The one-state solution is not new, but it has a troubled history for supporters of Israel. It has primarily been forwarded by the most vituperative and hateful voices in the far-left, anti-Zionist community. Most recently, the ‘reformed’ Muammar Qaddafi wrote about “Isratine” in the New York Times. But let’s pull away for a moment from the dubious provenance of the idea, and examine it on its merits.
Critics of the one-state solution see it as a ruse – a demographic act of terrorism against the Jewish state. The argument, as forwarded by Alan Dershowitz and others, is that as soon as the Palestinians represent an electoral majority, they will vote to replace the binational state with an Islamic state.
Personally, I find the argument ludicrous and unrealistic. The key assumptions that the argument rests upon are that all Palestinians will vote as a bloc, that they all want to be governed by Islamic law, and that no counterbalance can exist to prevent this kind of parliamentary coup de etat.
None of these assumptions stand up to scrutiny. Palestinians today are already divided between Hamas and Fatah, and would likely be further divided if other options existed. Arabs as an ethnicity are as internally divided as Jews as an ethnicity – the joke that where there are two Jews there are three opinions can be said about Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular with nothing lost in translation.
There’s also no indication that Palestinians desire a religious government. Hamas today stands for Islamic rule, but it used to receive its support from Saddam Hussein, rather than from Syria and Iran, and was a largely secular movement. The shift towards Islam has to do with the will of its Iranian backers, not the will of the people. Fatah, the other elected representative of the Palestinian people, is a secular movement. Why would the opportunity to participate as equal citizens in a binational state suddenly turn the Palestinians into Islamic fundamentalists?
Finally, there’s no reason to believe that Palestinians could vote in a brand new government on the basis of an electoral majority. The barriers to such a path are constitutional institutional, and military.
A binational state would need a constitution that protects human, civil, political, and religious rights for all citizens. Such a constitution would also have to enshrine a power-sharing agreement that would allow all the sectors of Israeli society to have their voices heard.
Whatever institutions are crafted by the new state, there can be no doubt that Jews would still wield tremendous power, that would certainly be sufficient to counterbalance the demographic attack strategy feared by some. Jews will still control most of the wealth of the country at the outset, most of its trade and political connections, and will still make up most of its civil servants. That kind of institutional power is difficult to overthrow simply by winning an election.
Should the worst come to pass, however, and we’ve badly misjudged the intention of the Palestinians, their remains an enormous barrier to their success in converting Israel into a Muslim state. That barrier is the IDF. The Jewish population of Israel is and will still be in control of the jet planes, the tanks, the armaments, and of course the nuclear weapons. Whatever changeover we envision, the reins of military power would be transferred very slowly and very carefully.
I think we can also fairly question the demographic threat to the binational state. Right now, Israelis emigrate at a high rate, while Palestinians have nowhere to go and nothing to do but have children. In a binational state we could reasonably expect a few changes to these demographic trends. First, some Palestinians would seek to reunite with their families in other countries. Second, a new national identity and mission could well cut into Israeli emigration. Third, Jews in the Diaspora will flock once more to Israel. Some will come specifically because they want to counter the demographic threat. Others will be attracted to the chance to settle in Biblical Israel, and others will want to return home to be part of the new chapter of national life.
The real issue is what is the Jewish character of the state of Israel? Right now, that character is expressed through the Law of Return, but also through government policies that explicitly favor the rights of Jews, even at the expense of citizen Israeli-Arabs, to say nothing of non-citizen Palestinians.
The religious character of the state is a source of intense dissatisfaction on all side. The secular Jews feel coerced by the religious in every facet of their lives, from how and whom they wed to the availability of public transportation on Saturday. Religious Jews separate themselves more and more from the life of the state by living in their own enclaves and ghettos, stoning outsiders who violate their norms, and refusing to serve in the IDF or other national service, even as their communities rely on government handouts to survive.
The true character of a nation should be expressed by its people. Zionism is a floundering ideology. In the absence of a galvanizing external threat, it loses all shape, direction, and definition. Why must Jews be in their own land and have their own state? The need for refuge is one important reason, but for Jews, perhaps short-sighted Jews, who live in Israel, it is not enough. When Miss Israel said that she’d rather live in New York than put up with all the problems and issues of living in Israel, she was excoriated. But she and her generation are voting with their feet. They don’t see a cause in Israel, they just see heartache and heartbreak.
But there is a reason for Jews to live in the State of Israel, in the land of Israel. It’s the same reason that Jews have always had. It’s to unite opposing ideologies – to go through the process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis in the world spotlight.
It was Jews who fused the diversity of peoples and faiths born in Mesopotamia with the monistic structure of Egyptian society and religion and emerged with a pluralistic, multi-ethnic monotheism. It was Jews who connected story-telling, law, and writing to produce a document that is the underpinning of Islam and Christianity. It was Jews who harnessed the power of dialectic reasoning that emerged from Greece and created a rationalist religious structure that we know as Talmud and Halacha. And it was Jews who took the parochial teachings of one faith and extended its principles of monotheism, Sabbath, and redemption throughout the world.
The mission that falls to Jews today is to bridge between East and West, and to prove that the Western ideals of democracy can be alloyed with the Eastern ideals of faith and tribe. And the best place to do that is in the land of Israel, with all of its mixed population, holy sites, and ancient stories. That mission will define the character of the land, not its demography.