blog | A guest post on elephants, and some notes on power-sharing

For some time now, a debate long underway in Israeli and Palestinian political circles, began surfacing in the English-speaking blogosphere. The premise of the debate is that the two-state solution is dead or dying; the debate is on what will happen next. Will it be an uneasy union of Israel and semi-autonomous Palestinian enclaves? Or maybe a generic liberal state of all its citizens, that will not manifest nationalism of either the Jewish or the Palestinian kind?

As far as analysis of the current stalemate and its long-term consequences  goes, I wanted to share  a brilliant article by Shalom Boguslavsky, originally published on the  George’s Friends (perhaps the only Israeli blog rightly claiming to the tradition of Orwell’s unsparing political essays).  In my humble opinion, the article is possibly the finest, clearest introduction yet to the burgeoning post-two-states discourse. It’s published here with Shalom’s kind permission. Here is the article in full, translated by myself and edited by Lisa Goldman.  My own take on Shalom’s analysis and scenarios is further below.

The elephant in the living room / Shalom Boguslavsky

Translated by Dimi Reider  | Edited by Lisa Goldman

Listening to the clichés and narrow commentary that somehow pass for “public discourse” in Israel, one might think we’ve got all the time in the world on our hands. Despite our fears and paranoia, we ease back into our couches and painstakingly parse Netanyahu’s latest speech, or whine about the Goldstone Report.

No one is talking about the enormous elephant looming in our collective living room. Occasionally Tzipi Livni or Benjamin Netanyahu will examine its hind leg and talk about the “Jewish state.” Others may describe its trunk as “the cost of the occupation.” And still others are feeling its tail and discussing the relationship between Israel’s Jewish majority and Arab minority. Another part of the beast, the debate over the settlements, has degenerated into shallow legalistic bullshit about property rights and construction permits. And the cultural war between secular Israel and religious Judea is rarely discussed, except perhaps when there are riots over Jerusalem parking lots staying open on the Sabbath.

So, ladies, and gentlemen, permit me to introduce the elephant.

The question is not whether “land for peace” is a good deal or not, and certainly not “who’s right” or “who was here first.” Our problem is that when Israel was first established, we promised to the world, in exchange for legitimacy, that the state will be “Jewish and democratic”; and this is also how most of us like it best.

The trouble is that the state is only “Jewish” because most of its citizens are Jews, and the reason the state is “democratic” despite being defined as Jewish is, well, because most of its citizens are Jews who want to keep it that way. Ours is a low-quality democracy and the state is not particularly Jewish, but this is a compromise most people can live with. Or, rather, could have lived with – if we could make it work, and hadn’t settled hundreds of thousands of Jews in a territory populated by millions of Palestinians.

And we cannot absorb those Palestinians into our society without losing the Jewish-democratic arrangement, which, like we said, rests exclusively on the population of Israel being largely Jewish.

The bottom line is this: We want three things – the Land of Israel, a Jewish state and a democratic state – but can only have two of them. The whole debate is about which two.

This dilemma pushed most of the secular to traditional public to adopt, theoretically, the two-state solution. These are the Israelis who do not want to give up the “Jewish and democratic” state. They want democracy part because they want to be part of that elite club known as “the west,” and they want the Jewish part because it’s important for them to identify themselves as “Jews” – despite the fact don’t bother to fill their “Jewish” identity with cultural or spiritual values and practices. To them, what makes them “Jewish” is their citizenship in a “Jewish” state.

For these Israelis, all we need are Jewish state symbols, fewer non-Jews to intermarry with, universal army service and an inherited narrative of persecution, with the IDF filling in for God as the Rock of Israel, plus a loudmouthed Persian midget filling in for Hitler as the current “Amalek”.

The religious Right is correct in saying that all this is a rather sorry excuse for Jewish nationhood. But they avoid offering us their alternative (see below) for a fairly simple reason:  the clock is ticking, and every day passing without progress towards the two states, brings us, in their minds, closer to their solution. So why let the public get in the way?

By contrast, the secular Right, led by Ariel Sharon, came up with a solution of its own as early as the 1970’s: Israel would go on controlling Judea and Samaria, and the Palestinians would have autonomy in little enclaves, which Sharon himself then called “Bantustans”.

When Sharon finally became prime minister he began working on his plan – secretively, as was his habit. Judea and Samaria were chopped up into three enclaves, with the aid of the settlement blocs and the separation fence. The disengagement created the Gaza Bantustan, which is also being used as a scarecrow to frighten those who might support further “concessions.” With the creation of Kadima and the consequent breaking of Likud and Labor, we ended up with a political system virtually bereft of opposition. What we have now is a large “centrist” block and small handfuls of “radicals” from the left and right.

The de-jure opposition leader, Tzipi Livni of Kadima, has all but blended into that centrist block (the frequency of her Knesset speeches notwithstanding), and the current Prime Minister, Netanyahu, calls his take on Sharon’s legacy “economic peace.”  Netanayhu’s idea is that the Palestinians in the enclaves will get autonomous rule and give up their full political rights in exchange for economic growth. International support for this preposterous scenario is supposed to be achieved with the eternal and mythical power of the “hasbara.”

Incredible it may seem, but it’s true: the secular Right is actually building its entire political agenda on the assumption that some Holocaust clichés and cries of anti-Semitism will persuade the world leaders to support a late-South African style model in the Palestinian territories.

But if you thought that basing your policy on propaganda was a bizarre idea, how about leaning it on the bearded guy in the sky?

Enter the religious Zionists, who see Israel as part of God’s plan of redemption. As far as they are concerned, you don’t need a Jewish majority to keep the state Jewish; all you need is Jews to control it and to run it according to Jewish religious law. All the non Jews are welcome to stay as resident aliens and mind their own business, as long as they know who’s the boss and hew our woods and draw our waters without complaining.

Importantly, this is also the idea behind the settlement project – making the two-state project unfeasible. And who said that the one state will be what they want it to be? Well, just leave it to God (although some have already thought about encouraging Him to interfere, by, say, blowing up the Dome of the Rock to bring about an apocalypse and the coming of the Messiah).

The two-nation-states solution seems to be no longer possible. It’s not likely that any Israeli government will be able to evict hundreds of thousands of settlers. They can’t stay in Palestine, either, because even in the unlikely scenario that they will be decently treated, some will still insist upon wearing a yellow star as they go on a rampage and get filmed being beaten up by mustachioed Arab policemen. Then the IDF will be back in the West Bank to “defend” them, and we’ll be back where we started.

Furthermore, the partition into two states will not resolve the question that motivates it to begin with – that of Israel’s “Jewishness” – because Israel’s own minorities are no longer willing (.pdf) to accept the deal. And it doesn’t look like we or the Palestinians will have a government capable of signing an agreement any time soon. Forcing an agreement from the outside – an idea fascinating the Left here recently – is not a reasonable scenario either.

But failing to achieve partition does not mean the status quo will remain. Quite the contrary: The conflict will escalate; the Israeli Arab minority will become more radicalized and assert its Palestinian identity with increasing urgency and conviction; and conflicts within Jewish society will grow. Ultimately, we’re looking at Israeli society disintegrating from within, and at the same time, losing support and legitimacy from without. In case you haven’t noticed, this process is already in full swing.

So once it becomes clear that the left-wing model of two independent states will not be supported by Israel, and that a Jewish state alongside a demilitarized, non-contiguous Bantustan-state will not be accepted by anyone but Israel, the public here will have to decide between two models of the one state: the theocratic apartheid model of the settlers; or the secular-democratic model slowly gaining popularity among local and foreign intellectuals.

Since even Micronesia wouldn’t be caught dead supporting a theocratic Jewish apartheid state, and even God wouldn’t succeed in making it look acceptable, the first scenario is unrealizable – which, unfortunately, will not deter its proponents from trying to realize it by any means necessary.

So we’re left with the bi-national, democratic model. This is a more pleasant alternative than the first. Sadly, though, it is not much more practical. It is unlikely that a society of two nationalities with a century-long history of conflict, each of them with a heavy burdenof ongoing internal conflicts and none of them equipped with a consistent and committed democratic tradition, will be able to contain its own contradictions.

The likeliest outcome of it all is a bloodbath, which will result in one large Palestinian state with a large Jewish minority, probably deprived of its right for self determination. No fun at all. Anyone with a creative but practical solution is welcome to step up.

PS Ethnic cleansing and alien invasions are not “practical”.

(See “Elephants: part II” for my thoughts on Shalom’s article)

6 Comments

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6 responses to “blog | A guest post on elephants, and some notes on power-sharing

  1. Very important post, Dimi, Thanks.

    Why do I think a 2 state solution is still feasible? Once Israelis realize that the only alternative for them is sharing power with the Palestinians, I think they will rush to remove even half a million settlers from the OT, even it if becomes a national project on a huge scale. Fear…

    Not that power sharing is my personal nightmare.

  2. niz

    Thanks for this post. I don’t know if we can use the northern Ireland comparison though. The variable in the equation is that in the case of northern Ireland, you had a well developed and democratically stable Europe which has an interest in stopping the conflict. The Middle East is still a vacuum of power unfortunately and this will not change very soon.
    The analysis of Shalom is correct in the sense that the problem is exponential and tends to be locked into its own vicious cycle.
    Israel’s existence in the region relies mainly on the palestinian question. This is the ultimate test for Israel. Like any ecosystem, the introduction of a new plant would unleash a chain of reactions. Ingeneral it either dies out or is absorbed in the ecosystem. I don’t think Israel can retain its initial design of a jewish, democratic state on the whole of palestine for long. There should be an existential compromise, that is rooted in the fact, that if Israelis are to live in the Middle East, they cannot continue threatening it! Israel currently is an existential threat to other Arab states surrounding it. I am not a fan of a bi-national state because I agree that it will not work, nevertheless, an arangement can be made on confederal or even federal basis. It’s not binational state, but what kind of binational states. Jewish provinces should be governed by jewish law or whatever they decide to do and the Arab provinces have their own laws (we’re back to the Ottoman Mulla system, which makes you think..these turks knew what they were doing).
    It’s gonna be a hard compromise for the hard liners, but hey we’re in the Middle East and like Sartre’s play No Exit, everyone hates everyone but they are destined to live together forever (sadly eveafter)

  3. Shalom

    How is Israel “existential threat” to somone besides Palestine?

    And who’s gonna be the boss of this “neo ottoman” construct? There is something in the idea that only an empire can make these middle eastern tribes to stop killing each other, but we don’t have any.

  4. Ya Shalom:

    What most Israelis don’t understand is that the rest of the region sees Israel as much more belligerent than, say, Iran. Israel has occupied parts of Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, not to mention Palestine, and on top of that also has nuclear weapons. When you’ve been occupied by a nuclear neighbor for decades and have had your infrastructure decimated a couple of times, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to consider that neighbor an existential threat.

    Clearly though, Israel continues to act in a fashion that means that it has to maintain unrivaled and overwhelming military superiority in order to feel “secure.” There are two common ways of looking at such a predicament: the first, shared by Israelis and many Americans, sees this as to do with the nature of Arabs and their regimes, while the second sees it as having to do with the nature of Zionism and the Israeli state. Given that the latter still has no constitution or official boundaries and has destroyed South Lebanon and Gaza both in the last three years, I tend to lean more toward the second point of view.

  5. Pingback: blog | Elephants: Part II « Dimi’s notes

  6. Skeptic UK

    Israeli’s seem to recoil at the N. Ireland comparison, let alone the more contraversial S. Africa one. Republicans havent dropped their aim for a united Ireland; Palestinians shouldn’t be pressed about a subjective ‘recognition’ when they have de- facto recognised Israel anyhow. S Africa proves that once the will exists, change can occur rapidly. Sometimes you need to skip steps and negotiating positions, come back to them later or let them fade away as a new paradigm starts. Palestinians shouldn’t budge on new settlements (otherwise what is there to negotiate for), but the older, more established settlements that dont destroy the possibility of a geographically realistic Palestinian state should be set aside for an end to synical demolitions and evictions. The blockade on Gaza should end, observed Cease fire, then gradual de- militarisation. Eventually Israel could offer insentives for disarmement. Jerusalem should be frozen- too hot. Work on practicalities recognising and accepting differences exist but leaving them to the next generation to resolve in a new, evolving environment. Without movement, each generation will become more and more extreme.

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