Toward a Binational Alternative in Israel: On the Illusion of the Two State Solution

Omri Boehm on the Re-Imaginings Necessary for Transformation

In the 25years that have passed since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, his two-state Oslo legacy has been driven into the ground. In 1993, when the agreement was first signed, approximately 110,000 settlers were living in the West Bank, and 146,000 were living in occupied territories surrounding Jerusalem. By now, the numbers have increased to approximately 400,000 settlers in the West Bank and 300,000 around Jerusalem. This situation will not be reversed. In 2021, roughly 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population lives on occupied territory—subject to Israeli law, represented by Israel’s parliament—and enjoys the opportunities and prosperity of a flourishing first-world country, with public schools, factories, banks, a system of highways, and a research university at their disposal. Around them, however, are almost 3 million Palestinians who, for 53 years now, have lived under Israel’s aggressive military regime.

Even intransigent two-state supporters agree that not all of these settlers can be evacuated, but they insist that the challenge posed by their presence is exaggerated. On this view, whereas the West Bank’s map is stained by approximately 130 spots marking Israeli settlements, about 110 of them count populations of less than 5,000. Another 60 settlements, the argument goes, have populations of less than 1,000, and many of them are, in the first place, located next to the 1967 border: by introducing only minor corrections to the border, it is allegedly possible to leave most settlers within Israel’s proper territory, and to compensate the Palestinians with other pieces of land from other areas. Given this, it is claimed that the tendency to “grossly overstate” the obstacle that settlements pose to a future two-state solution is based not on a sober analysis of the situation, but on an ideological support of one-state politics.

Unfortunately, this optimism is itself highly ideological, and can only be preserved if one avoids a careful look at the map. Surprisingly to many, the main obstacle has nothing to do with the number of settlers, but with the number of Palestinians. In the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea currently lives a Palestinian majority, constituting approximately 53 percent of the population. Yet even the most “generous” two-state programs offer this population about 22 percent of the land. We have grown accustomed to ignore this fact, and to see this arrangement as a reasonable, desired compromise. The truth is that it isn’t, and not merely because it is unjust: offering sovereignty to the majority of the population on this tiny and discontinuous fraction of the territory isn’t the type of compromise that can bring peace.

And then again the number of settlers must also be considered. While it is true that about 110 West Bank settlements have less than 5,000 inhabitants, this leaves 20 settlements counting more than 5,000, and some of them counting significantly more. Modi’in Illit, a settlement not far from Jerusalem, counts more than 70,000 inhabitants; Beitar Illit, 55,000; Ma’ale Adumim, 40,000; and the list goes on. To understand the significance of these figures, consider Israel’s evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip, in 2005. In total, 8,400 settlers were removed from a land that is not nearly as sacred to Jews or symbolic to Israelis as the West Bank, and the event is still remembered as traumatic to Israeli society.

Also, the idea that most settlements are located along the ’67 border is misleading. Whereas the largest settlements indeed are located near the border, numerous others are located very deep in the territory. Ariel, one of Israel’s most prosperous settlements—population 20,000—is positioned at the heart of the West Bank. Its location was strategically chosen in the 1970s to interrupt any possible geographical continuity of a future Palestinian state. Speaking in 1980 as Israel’s minister of defense, Ariel Sharon had already referred to the settlement project as a fait accompli, a “skeleton” that had been laid down in the West Bank and would prevent any territorial compromise. Given this “skeleton,” he said, “I don’t see now any area that can be handed [over] to anybody.” When he spoke, a settlement like Ariel counted only a few hundred inhabitants. In 2018, Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who served as Trump’s chief donor, contributed the necessary sum for the founding of Ariel University’s Adelson School of Medicine. Sharon’s “skeleton” is now a fully formed, heavy body. At some point one must admit that the two-state dream has faded into a two-state illusion. Ignoring this fact is akin to denying global warming.

At some point one must admit that the two-state dream has faded into a two-state illusion. Ignoring this fact is akin to denying global warming.

Meanwhile, the idea of an enlarged Jewish state encompassing the West Bank is gaining currency, both in Israel and internationally. Almost immediately after he had assumed office, President Trump signaled that he would back out of the two-state commitment to which US presidents—Democrats and Republicans alike—had remained loyal for decades. When Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century emerged, Israelis across the political spectrum started explicitly advocating annexations as well. During Obama’s presidency, even Netanyahu paid occasional lip service to the two-state solution, proclaiming a “vision of peace” in which the two peoples would live “freely side-by-side,” each with “its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government.” The Obama administration countenanced this open lie because it helped mitigate escalating feuds with Israel’s government and spared the president a clash with America’s Jewish community. The mainstream liberal media was getting comfortable with Netanyahu’s lies as well. Whether we like it or not, Trump’s presidency shattered the hypocrisy: the position of the Israeli government has hardly changed in practice, but it now speaks truthfully of what it has been doing all along, namely preventing a Palestinian state and promoting annexations.

Significantly, this is not just a Netanyahu policy; his party, Likud, embraced annexation officially in 2017. Blue and White, as well as Yesh Atid, Israel’s “center-left” opposition, have also been enthusiastic about the Deal of the Century—and no longer even pay lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state. If a Biden-Harris administration wishes to backpedal to the old familiar politics, it will be sure to fail: there is no going back to the two-state lie, let alone to the two-state solution. A new generation of Democrats refusing to accept ethnic nationalism obviously knows this well. Yet what is there for liberal democrats in Israel or the US to offer in place of the defunct two-state solution? What is the plan?

Israel’s Basic Laws, which stand in for the country’s constitution, are currently being rapidly revised in ways that reinforce the same trend and raise the same unsettling questions. Though Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence asserts somewhat generally that Jews have the “right for self-determination” in Eretz Israel—thus accommodating the possibility, at least, of Palestinian self-determination—Israel’s 2018 nation-state law specifies that this right is “unique to the Jewish people.” Preparing the legal infrastructure for massive annexations—anticipating the moment at which “too many” Arabs will live within Israel’s declared borders—the law also revokes the status of Arabic as an official language in Israel, and defines “Jewish settlement” of Eretz Israel as a “national value,” thus undermining the declaration’s pledge to equality, irrespective of “religion or race.” The nation-state law constitutes a dramatic step towards establishing a one-Jewish-state “solution.”

In recent years, right-wing legislators such as Naftali Bennett, Moshe Ya’alon, Ayelet Shaked, and others have begun to promote political plans that could be called “apartheid with a human face,” plans now effectively accepted by Likud’s central committee. The idea is to annex large portions of the West Bank and stop subjecting Palestinians to Israel’s military regime—but without granting them a sovereign state or full citizenship. The model for such a “humane apartheid” is the status quo in Jerusalem. Unlike the rest of the West Bank, the city’s eastern parts were annexed by Israel immediately after the Six-Day War, with its Arab inhabitants becoming permanent residents of Israel, but not citizens. (Unlike Arab Israeli citizens, they cannot vote for the Knesset.)

The general public, as well as government officials, journalists, lawmakers, police officers, and judges—and also the international community—have come to accept this as entirely normal, and it provides a convenient model for the future in other areas of the West Bank.

And though separation is now plainly untenable, democratic visions for Israel beyond the two-state solution are perceived as anti-Zionist forms of betrayal—quite literally, as treason.

Less moderate voices support not just apartheid but transfer, or ethnic cleansing—an idea that is being rehabilitated at the heart of Israeli politics. Amiram Levin, a former top Israel Defense Forces major general publicly perceived as a liberal Zionist, suggested in 2017 that in the next round of hostilities, Israel should “tear the Palestinians apart,” to make sure that “they do not stay.” He proposed “kick[ing] them to the other side of the Jordan River.” In 2019, Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the religious Zionist party Tkuma, said to Israel Hayom, Israel’s largest daily: “As far as I’m concerned, let Gaza rot, let them die of hunger, of thirst and of malaria.” This policy, he says, should be accompanied by opening “Gaza’s gates to massive emigration,” otherwise known in Israel as “voluntary transfer.” Smotrich may be the leader of an extreme-right religious Zionist party, but as he drafted this plan, in 2019, he was also a minister and a member of cabinet.

For that matter, Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century also raised the possibility of population swaps and the denaturalization of Arab Israeli citizens in what is sometimes called the Triangle Area—a region that is heavily populated with Arab Israelis and borders the West Bank. As Israel’s former defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, tweeted immediately after the announcement of the plan: “In 2004, when I suggested a plan for population swaps, everybody raised an eyebrow. But just now President Trump adopted the full plan . . . Standing by your principles and being patient pays off.” In 2014, when he was Israel’s foreign minister, Lieberman ran on a platform calling for the transfer of Arab Israelis from Acre, Haifa, and Jaffa to the West Bank and neighboring Arab countries. Lieberman was once considered an outlier, an extremist; today, he is seen as a pragmatist, a moderate, and indeed a pillar of what passes for Israel’s center-left.

We should listen very carefully to these calls for ethnic cleansing. Israelis have always wavered between repressing and boasting about the fact that, in 1948, a Jewish democracy with a Jewish majority was enabled through massive expulsions of Palestinians. Seventy-three years later, with no prospect of two separate states and the Palestinians soon again to become the majority of Israel’s population, Israelis still shun any responsibility for these crimes. Political despair, in combination with a violent ethnic conflict, threatens a catastrophe. If we continue to ignore reality and to refuse to imagine an alternative we can fight for, the result will be much worse than apartheid. Israel’s right wing has its solutions—annexation, apartheid, expulsion—while liberal democrats have failed to come up with any. This is true not just of Israel’s now nonexistent parties of the left, but also of organizations like B’Tselem, Peace Now, J Street, or the New Israel Fund. They are united against the occupation—B’Tselem just now took the step of explicitly labeling it apartheid—but can they make any meaningful political progress without having a viable goal they can fight for?

The reason for the inability to offer an alternative positive agenda is not difficult to find. Committed as these liberals are to the principle of a Jewish democracy, they require separation from the Palestinians in order to ensure a Jewish majority. And though separation is now plainly untenable, democratic visions for Israel beyond the two-state solution are perceived as anti-Zionist forms of betrayal—quite literally, as treason. Accordingly, liberal Zionists can only seek refuge in criticizing Netanyahu’s corruption, fighting for the legalization of light drugs, and promoting women’s and gay rights: important objectives, but also ways not to talk about Gaza, the occupation of the West Bank, and the future of a country where liberal democracy is ever more at risk.

As these monumental transformations beyond two-state politics take shape, leading left-leaning Israelis and liberal Zionist voices (think David Grossman, Amos Oz, Ari Shavit, Avishai Margalit, or Michael Walzer, among many others) are lagging dangerously behind. Clinging to the lost hope for a Jewish liberal democracy—and, yes, for a sustainable ethnic Jewish majority—they continue backing separation plans that have been losing credibility since the late 1990s. What once was an audacious rational perspective on Israeli politics has stagnated into an irresponsible bad faith. It is long past time for liberal Zionist thinkers to think again.

Consider Amos Oz’s Dear Zealots, his last political statement, in which Oz reaffirmed his longstanding support for two-state politics while dismissing leftists seeking one-state alternatives as, at best, a “sad joke,” or, worse, as dangerous moral fanatics. Oz knew particularly well that the situation had dramatically changed in the course of fifty years, but he remained unimpressed by what Israelis call “the facts on the ground.” In his view, the facts only served as excuses for fanatics: the “extreme right” and the “anti-Zionist” left had, as he saw it, entered a “secret pact, a conspiracy,” brainwashing us with the idea that the occupation is “irreversible.” “Irreversible,” Oz wrote, was the word that “irritated” him, that “outraged” him. His idea, which some falsely acclaimed as prophetic, was basically that it is always possible to use the imagination in order to conceive a return to the past. Oz’s praise of the imagination as a counterweight to the idea of “irreversibility” was in fact a reactionary obfuscation.

Gramsci famously stated that times of political “crisis” are times when “the old is dying, and the new cannot yet be born.” At these times, Gramsci predicts, intellectuals belonging to the cultural hegemony will seek to anchor people’s nostalgia to the dying ideologies of the past, thus aggravating the crisis. In Israel, which has been trapped in a Gramscian crisis for a long time now, the old political slogans—“Jewish and democratic,” “liberal Zionism,” “the two-state solution”—are rapidly becoming empty clichés. By continuing to ignore the facts on the ground, by continuing to insist on the two-state solution, by refusing to rethink the relation between Israel and Zionism, liberal intellectuals have allowed the conversation about the country’s future to decline into a shouting match between chauvinistic Zionism on the right and anti-Israeli critique on the anti-Zionist left.

Haifa Republic argues, by contrast, that the vital center can still be reclaimed, articulating an alternative to two-state politics from within a liberal Zionist perspective. True Israeli patriots must now challenge Zionist taboos as we have come to know them, must dare to imagine the country’s transformation, from a Jewish state into a federal, binational republic. Contrary to common misconceptions, passionately held by Zionists and anti-Zionists alike, such a transformation is neither post- nor anti-Zionist. It represents a type of politics that was a matter of consensus for many long years among Zionism’s founding fathers: for the greater part of their careers, Theodor Herzl, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am, and David Ben-Gurion could all agree on it. Future leaders—on the left and the right—can and ought to agree on such politics as well. Rehabilitating Zionism’s binational origins is the only alternative to apartheid and expulsions and the only way to sustain liberal Zionist aspirations in the 21st century: securing a democratic homeland in which Jewish citizens exercise national self-determination—alongside Palestinian compatriots doing the same—in a joint, sovereign state.

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Haifa Republic

From Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel. Used with the permission of publisher, New York Review of Books. Copyright © 2021 Omri Boehm.

Omri Boehm
Omri Boehm
Omri Boehm is an associate professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City . He is the author of The Binding of Isaac: A Religious Model of Disobedience and Kant’s Critique of Spinoza . His writings on Israeli politics and culture have appeared in The New York Times, Die Zeit, and Haaretz, among others.





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