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Rethinking Israel after Sixty Years

Did the Palestinians really flee or did we, the Israeli Jews, drive them out?

Wednesday 14 May 2008, by Jeff Halper

Israeli Independence Day 2008, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the rise of the Jewish State on the ruins of Palestinian society, should be cause more for sober reflection and reevaluation than for celebration. True, Israeli Jews have much to celebrate Only a few weeks ago the shekel joined the fifteen strongest currencies in the world, and with an economy fueled by diamonds, arms, high-tech, security services, and tourism, Israel’s economy is booming. Israel’s international position continues to soar: the European Union recently upgraded its links, German Chancellor Angela Merkel brought half her cabinet to Jerusalem to emphasize that Germany was Israel’s "loyal partner," and President Bush will come for the second time in the past few months. Celebrities like Steven Spielberg (who withdrew as a cultural consultant to the Olympics in protest of China’s human rights violations), Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google founder Sergey Brin, Rupert Murdoch, and Henry Kissinger, alongside South African Nobel Laureate and anti-apartheid crusader Nadine Gordimer, will also grace the festivities. And as for the "conflict," it has been effectively removed from the public consciousness (with the exception of Sderot) as attacks inside Israel have been virtually eliminated. What’s not to celebrate?

A lot, it turns out, though most of it exists beyond the bubble that insulates the Israeli public from its wider reality, and so does not dampen public celebrations. After sixty years, however, several fundamental developments have materialized which were not anticipated by the Zionist movement nor Israel’s founding, but which must be squarely acknowledged and addressed.

First, the vast majority of Jews did not and will not come to Israel. Israeli Jews represent, if emigrants are factored in, less than a third of the world Jewish community. Only 1% of American Jews ever came, and most of them are religious, even ultra-orthodox Jews, or the elderly, who live there only part-time. The reservoir of potential Jewish immigrants has been exhausted.

Second, some 30% of Israel’s population - almost 50% if we include the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories who, it seems, will stay permanently under Israeli rule - are not Jews. This is the Demographic Bomb, made even more threatening to a "Jewish state" by the fact that the Palestinians are a people whose national rights can no longer be denied. Israel/Palestine is a bi-national country which somehow must either be partitioned or shared. And finally, the greatest irony of all, it is Israel, by its own hand, through its massive settlement project, that has foreclosed partition and created a thoroughly bi-national entity which can only lead to a one state or apartheid.

These realities are irrefutable; they have been exhaustively documented and are plain to anyone with the eyes (and open mind) to just look. What remains for anyone sincerely looking for justice, peace, security, and the well-being of Israel (dare I say of both peoples?) is to unflinchingly face this political equation and rethink the viability and justice of Israel as a Jewish state. Only then will we find a way, based on reality and the best interests of these two inextricably linked peoples rather than on wishful ideological preferences, to reconcile the "facts on the ground" with the rights, claims, and needs of all the country’s inhabitants. That is not an easy task; it requires a fundamental re-conceptualization of the two-state paradigm and, with it, the very possibility of preserving Israel as a Jewish state. This rethinking is, however, a prerequisite to formulating a political program that, given the events of the last sixty years, has a fighting chance of resolving this conflict. It is also essential to redeeming Israel, whether as a country or as a national entity within a wider bi-national state or regional confederation.

Most dramatic development, one ignored or denied by Israelis even though their successive governments bear responsibility, is the disappearance of the two-state solution. Anyone familiar with Israel’s massive settlements blocs, its fragmentation of the Palestinian territories and their irreversible incorporation into Israel proper through a maze of Israeli-only highways and other "facts on the ground," anyone who has spent an hour in the West Bank, can plainly see that this is true. The expansion of Israel’s Matrix of Control throughout the Occupied Territories, coupled with an absolute American refusal to allow international pressures on Israel to meaningfully withdraw, has rendered a viable Palestinian state unattainable - and thus the two-state solution, unless we Jews, Israeli and Diaspora, are willing to become the world’s new Afrikaners ruling permanently over an impoverished Palestinian mini-state, a chilling thought on this 60th anniversary.

It turns out, however, that we have mechanisms for both delaying forever a political solution and avoiding the predicament of apartheid. It is enough that we maintain a de facto apartheid since, for the vast majority of Israeli Jews, it is enough to merely assert a two-state solution, to profess to support it as a general idea, in order to considered peace-minded. In fact, most Israeli Jews, like most Jews of the Diaspora, require a Palestinian state as a condition for the existence of a Jewish one, the alternative being a bi-national state which is anathema to a Jewish one. But since being in de facto control is better than making concessions but can nevertheless be presented as a "pro-peace" position, two-state supporters require only the notion of a Palestinian state, a never-ending process towards it. Especially since few believe in, genuinely aspire to, or even care about such an eventuality. As long as a Palestinian state can be held out as a possibility, the pressure’s off.

Thus many Israelis, Diaspora Jews, and others - including such searching and otherwise radical figures as Noam Chomsky and Uri Avnery, together with the Peace Now, Brit Tzedek, Rabbis Michael Lerner and Arthur Waskow and members of Rabbis for Human Rights - cling tenaciously to the two-state solution, all refusing to admit that it is no longer viable as a solution. (A growing coterie of Jewish organizations - ICAHD, the Jewish Voice for Peace, parts of the European Jews for Just Peace coalition and others - are unable to reconcile Israel’s "facts on the ground" and unconditional support for its occupation policies on the part of the US and Europe with the prospect for a genuine two-state solution. While not yet embracing a one-state solution, they advocate a kind of holding pattern, expressed in the phrase "end the Occupation," until some viable solution emerges, a rational position nonetheless considered "radical.")

Underlying this refusal to even entertain the notion that a two-state solution is no longer possible is the realization that, if a Palestinian state cannot be detached from Israel, then the conflict is one which encompasses the entire country from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. This, in turn, raises issues we’d rather leave untouched, events and policies we have suppressed these past 60 years. A Palestinian state - or, again, the prospect of a Palestinian state - is needed, above all, not for the Palestinians but for us Israelis. It is the only thing that will leave Israel intact as a country and, no less important, leave its dybbuks at rest.

And the dybbuks - any sense of guilt or responsibility for the terrible events of 1948 and thereafter - are at rest, and thus the festive spirit of the 60 Years in Israel. They have been exorcised from our public mind. Focusing exclusively on a two-state solution, on the Occupation, leaves Israel itself intact, removed from the political discussion, off the hook. The threat to modern Israeli narrative, legitimacy, and political claims by going beyond 1967 to 1948 - a threat inherent in marking 60 Years - has been excised. But if the dybbuks have been silenced, the Palestinian poltergeist of 1948 continues to stir under the feet of the dancing Israelis. For a good half of the people of Palestine/Israel, the 60 Years is precisely the issue, the unresolved Nakba, the catastrophe as present and alive for Palestinians as the Holocaust is for the Jews. The 60 Year anniversary takes us beyond the Occupation to those issues and questions we have so successfully blocked out, which we refuse to acknowledge or discuss.

Did the Palestinians really flee or did we, the Israeli Jews, drive them out? If almost half the inhabitants of that part of Palestine apportioned by the UN to the Jews in 1947 were Arabs, how could we have turned even that small bit of land into a "Jewish state"? Is Zionism, then, truly free of war crimes or did we in fact conduct a deliberate and cruel campaign of ethnic cleansing that went far beyond the borders of partition? In that context, was the occupation of the entire land of Palestine the result of Jordanian miscalculation or, from a perspective of forty years later, was in actually an inevitable "completion" of 1948, as Rabin and many others have said? Can we reconcile a genuine desire for peace with a steady annexation of the Occupied Territories, including almost 250 settlements? Do we prefer a false peace - insulation from attacks even as Palestinian resistance to occupation grows - to territorial concession leading to a viable Palestinian state? Can we really expect to "win," to frustrate Palestinian aspirations for freedom in their homeland forever, and if we do, what kind of society will we have, what will our children inherit? Do we have a responsibility towards the Palestinians as the people who dispossessed them of their land, first and foremost the refugees of 1948 and 1967 and the tens of thousands of families whose homes we wantonly demolished? As Israeli Jews speaking in the name of world Jewry, can we expect our Diaspora to support a crime going on these past 60 years and thereby implicate them, thus undermining the moral basis of their community, convictions, and faith? And the hardest question of all: What about the moral basis of Zionism? Are we truly the victims, or have we perpetrated a terrible crime for which redemption means coming to terms with what we have done - a task far harder than simply making peace? If Palestinians are understandably preoccupied with throwing off the oppressive Occupation and reclaiming at least a part of their country, their identity and their freedom, shouldn’t we Israelis be equally preoccupied with cleansing ourselves of the transgressions that require us to suppress our guilt, shirk our responsibilities, and, in the end, fail to reconcile with the Palestinians with whom we are so entangled despite a hundred "generous offers"?

For Israeli Jews, 60 Years is a cause for celebration rather than reflection. Still, the poltergeist churns, the celebrations are exaggerated, even forced, an unsettled disquiet permeating the festivities, most visibly in the presence of thousands of soldiers and distinctly militaristic character. The Palestinian people, exhausted, brutalized, impoverished, steadfastly refuse to disappear or submit. In 1967 Israel defeated the entire Arab world in six days; after more than 40 years it is unable to pacify the unarmed Palestinians. As the history of colonialism shows, a people cannot be defeated, oppression cannot be normalized or sustained, no matter how strong the dominating regime seems to be. Nineteen sixty-seven had to do with occupation. Had we dealt with that wisely and justly, Israel today could have been a Jewish state on 78% of the Land of Israel living at peace with its neighbors. Nineteen forty-eight, the focus of the 60 Years, is a different matter entirely. With the Occupation having been transformed into a permanent political fact (a Palestinian prison-state a la a South African Bantustan will not resolve the conflict), the question of peace, co-existence, and reconciliation now shifts to the entire country, to an indivisible Israel/Palestine. No need to blame the Palestinian for that; they accepted the two-state solution way back in 1988. It is us, those who thought (and still think) that military power combined with Jewish victimhood can defy a people’s will to freedom, who carry the responsibility.

Nothing remains, if we want to salvage a national Jewish/Israeli presence in Palestine/Israel, but to courageously confront what we did in both 1967 and 1948 so as to transform the 60 Years into the turning point whereby we finally dealt with the presence in our country of another people with equal claims and rights. When we truly quiet the poltergeist and put our dybbuks to rest. Supremely difficult, the fundamental rethinking this will require is the only way out. And if, in the end, because of our policies, a bi-national polity emerges in Israel/Palestine, well, if done in a spirit of mutual recognition and reconciliation, it may in fact represent the original and ultimate aspiration of Zionism: a genuine homecoming of the Jewish nation to the hearth of its civilization. Now that will be a cause for genuine, unfettered celebration.

 Jeff Halper is the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). Contact him at: