Israel's Big Mistake

How my countrymen gave up the hope for real peace, and how they can get it back.
<em>Demonstrators sing peace songs during a rally in Tel Aviv in 2002.</em> Quique Kierszenbaum/Getty Images.
Demonstrators sing peace songs during a rally in Tel Aviv in 2002. Quique Kierszenbaum/Getty Images.
Yoav Sorek
March 2 2014

These words are printed in three languages, loud and clear, on big red signs beside Israeli roads leading to Palestinian-governed territories:

This road leads to Area “A” under the Palestinian Authority. Entry for Israeli citizens is forbidden, life-threatening, and against Israeli law.

The warning is unlikely to shock anyone familiar with Israel today. As those of us who live here know all too well, a trip inside one of these areas can indeed prove fatal.

Yet the term “Israeli citizens” belies a deeply unsettling truth: not all Israelis need avoid entering these areas. Israeli Arabs come and go freely, and are even encouraged to conduct business in the territories. Only Jewish Israelis are at risk of death. No less unsettling is that one encounters such signs not at distant outposts, far from densely populated Jewish towns, but on the fringes of Jerusalem and the outskirts of Tel Aviv, just a few miles from Ben-Gurion International Airport.

Israeli Jews have resigned themselves to this reality. Under the laws of our own government, areas within what we consider our ancient national homeland are simply off-limits to Jews. We are not taken aback by this circumstance, not even disturbed. When the Palestinian Authority names central streets after suicide bombers with Jewish blood on their hands, we don’t think twice about it. And when we talk about a Palestinian state, we take it for granted that Jews will not be allowed to live there—or that, if allowed, they would never feel safe enough to do so.

To be sure, in the latest round of negotiations headed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, all sorts of suggestions have been floated for normalizing relations between Israelis and Palestinians. At the end of January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went so far as to raise the prospect of Jewish settlers having the right to remain in a future Palestinian state. But the outcry of protest from his own coalition partners, together with the longstanding stony refusal of Palestinian leaders even to consider the notion of a single Israeli Jew living in their prospective state, has only underlined the grotesque abnormality of our situation.

Correcting this fundamental abnormality is what lies behind Netanyahu’s repeated demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Maintaining it in place is what lies behind their repeated rejection of the same demand. This—not territory—is the essence of the conflict. Just as the very existence of a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East has been the root cause of the long-running Arab war against that state, accepting its existence will be the root cause of any future peace.

Unfortunately, we Israelis have stopped hoping for such a peace. In the disastrous aftermath of the Oslo accords, having awakened from a false dream, we have become realistic. We don’t talk much about peace—tellingly, what in the 1990s was called the “peace process” is now routinely referred to as the “political process”—and even when we use the term, we mean something different by it. We speak not of Arab acceptance of our legitimacy and our national aspirations but of how to arrange affairs so that the Jewish state can be kept safe, and the conflict confined. The hope that our neighbors will put aside their animosity and accept our presence here as right and natural—the hope, that is, for true peace—is something we have abandoned.

In doing so, we have also lost something that is key to our sense of ourselves, and to our future.


1. The Phone Call That Never Came

The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, entails more than the absence of violence; the verb from which it is derived means to complete an action, and the term itself connotes wellbeing and tranquility. In the Bible, shalom is the stage that follows victory. Once the Israelites repulse their enemies and are able to “dwell in the land safely,” they will also be blessed with “peace in the land” (Leviticus 26:5-6). King David is forced to fight wars throughout his life, but receives God’s promise that his son will reap the benefits: “I will give him rest from all his enemies all around . . . and confer peace [shalom] and quiet on Israel” (1 Chronicles 22:9).

Thus, the original Hebrew definition of peace involves more than a cessation of hostilities. Peace is the state in which one’s neighbors and rivals recognize that one’s presence is a fact and start cooperating instead of fighting.

This was the original Zionist vision as well. Even those who acknowledged that the Jewish homeland could not be built without bloodshed looked forward to the day when Israel would become a steady reality, accepted by all of its neighbors. Indeed, when the state of Israel was established, “in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months” (in the words of the 1948 declaration of independence), the new government took pains to “extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness.” The declaration proceeded to visualize the days after the war, when the young state would “do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”

At the time, few if any Zionists foresaw the Jewish state as a permanently isolated enclave, under unremitting threat from hostile neighbors. The image of “a villa in the jungle,” in the vivid coinage of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, was emphatically not the Zionist dream. Instead, surveying the Middle East, the early Zionists saw the potential of a regional transformation, effectuated through cooperative efforts by Jews and Arabs together. Theodor Herzl inscribed this vision in his fictionalized Altneuland (1902), picturing the Arab residents of Palestine as proud future citizens of the Zionist state. A half-century later, David Ben-Gurion reiterated the same vision, extolling Israel’s promise of bringing comity and prosperity to all.

History, of course, proved otherwise. Arab opposition to a Jewish homeland, strong from the beginning, proved unrelenting. In response, the Zionist movement eventually adopted Vladimir (Zev) Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” strategy: forge ahead, abandon vain efforts at appeasement, and build up the strength of the state against the day when none could dispute its permanence and there would be no choice but to accept it.


The Jewish state’s resounding victory in the Six-Day War of June 1967 convinced many Israelis that that longed-for day had come. Seven years earlier, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had proclaimed to the UN General Assembly that the “only solution” to the Arab-Israeli conflict was “the annulment of Israel.” But now, so sweeping was the young state’s lightning triumph over the massed forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan that in the aftermath it didn’t even seem necessary to draw up peace proposals. A full and genuine peace seemed inevitable: “Tomorrow,” in the words of a wildly popular song by Naomi Shemer, “we will maybe sail/ from Eilat to the ivory coast; and on the old destroyers/ golden oranges will be loaded.” Moshe Dayan, then minister of defense, said he was waiting for a phone call.

But the phone call never came. Instead, that same summer, the Arab League convened in Khartoum and issued its famous three “no’s”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.

In practice, as time went on, the “no’s” took on a somewhat softer tone. Most Arab states did, at least formally, accept UN Resolution 242 with its acknowledgment of the “sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of every state in the area.” Domestically, victory in 1967 also convinced many of Israel’s own Arab citizens that the state was here to stay; a process of genuine integration between the Arab and Jewish communities began, however haltingly, to unfold. In later years, after two additional wars, Israel would sign peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) and thus, in at least two cases, win formal, bilateral recognition of the Jewish state’s right to exist.


2. Accepting Arab Rejectionism

But not so fast. If the treaties with Egypt and Jordan were not enough to bring peace—and they manifestly were not—it was because even in those two cases the recognition was grudging; diplomatic relations were accompanied by official coldness and, especially in Egypt, the continued encouragement of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement. Elsewhere, the Arab and Muslim refusal to accept the legitimacy of a sovereign Jewish state in the region persevered and, if anything, intensified as the burden of battle shifted from states to their terrorist proxies and to the sphere of international politics. In the latter arena, an early and enduring Arab victory was the infamous 1975 United Nations resolution condemning Zionism as a “form of racism and racial discrimination”; ever since that time, and despite the resolution’s repeal in 1991, denigration of the Jewish state in the world body has been obsessive and unceasing.

What did change over the years was the rhetoric of the anti-Israel campaign. No longer portrayed as an alien speck in the Arab Middle East that had only to be pulverized and excised, Israel post-1967 came to be depicted as a monstrously aggressive, expansionist, imperialist power that had viciously seized and occupied Arab territories and had set about abusing and victimizing their inhabitants.

The main carrier of this narrative on the ground was Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, founded by the Arab League in 1964—the most ruthless and intransigent of Israel’s enemies and the chosen vehicle of the larger political, diplomatic, and terrorist war waged globally against the Jewish state. Financed lavishly by Arab and, later, European and other international donors, the PLO, headquartered first in Jordan, after 1970 in Lebanon, and after 1982 in Tunisia, also operated freely in the Israeli-administered territories of the West Bank and Gaza, where it controlled much of everyday life.

Meanwhile, an arguably larger change was occurring within the psyche of Israel’s political and intellectual elites. Weary of policing the West Bank and Gaza, eager to move into the tantalizing era of reconciliation fleetingly glimpsed in June 1967, embarrassed and discomfited by the serial indictments of Israel leveled by the international community, many began to internalize the critique of their state’s fundamental legitimacy and to accept Arab rejectionism as an unalterable condition of life. Despite the brief euphoria generated by Egyptian President Sadat’s visit in 1977 and the subsequent peace treaty negotiated at Camp David, Israelis began perceptibly to surrender any thought of transforming the basic terms of a clearly intractable conflict. 

The most striking evidence of this fateful shift in mood and perception would present itself in the early 1990s, when, under the premiership of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel started negotiating with its arch-enemy. Whereas real peace would have to be based on acceptance of the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East, the Palestinian national movement, represented by the PLO, was based on the opposite doctrine. Had Israel retained its hope for real peace, it should have been steadfast in its refusal of any dialogue with this organization, and waited for it to dissolve (as almost happened). Instead, entering into the most ambitious and futile of peace processes, it picked the PLO as its partner, thereby compromising on the issue of its own legitimacy and helping to create a new political entity based explicitly on anti-Zionism. In exchange for tepid and partial recognition, a small Jewish state in the midst of a huge Arab region agreed to shrink itself still further.

This was the new meaning of “peace,” and, just as one might expect, it led to nothing but violence. The passing of Gaza and most of the West Bank’s populated areas into the hands of Arafat and his murderous kleptocracy did nothing to resolve the problem of the 1948 Arab refugees (on which more below), to prepare the local Arab population for genuine peace, or to mitigate the larger Arab/Muslim refusal to accept a Jewish state. If anything, it achieved the contrary aim; in advancing that aim, the PLO initiated a sustained campaign of terror whose toll in blood would number in the thousands of Israeli civilians.

Yet even this was not enough to dissuade successive Israeli leaders from trying to woo some form of acceptance from the steadfastly recalcitrant Palestinians. The Oslo accords signed on the White House lawn in 1993 ostensibly obliged the PLO to strike from its covenant the call for Israel’s eradication. In the late 1990s, during his brief term of office, Ehud Barak, having reached a reckless final-status agreement with the Palestinian Authority (PA), insisted that Arafat declare a final end to the conflict. Benjamin Netanyahu now demands that Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state. So far, all such efforts have failed.

None of this should come as a surprise. In embracing the Palestinian national movement as its partner, Israel pretended not to see that, absent its fundamental objection to the existence of the Jewish state, there was no Palestinian national movement.


3. Paying the Price

That is today’s reality. Before considering what if anything might be done to change it, let’s look at a few examples of the price paid by Israel for constricting its Zionist horizons and acquiescing in the conditions imposed on it from without.

Tel Asur, also known as Baal Hazor, is the highest mountain in the Judean hills north of Jerusalem. Of its twin peaks, one is home to a military base and the other is open to visitors—unless they are Jewish. (The area is surrounded by hostile villages.) From the top one can enjoy a fascinating view of the Holy Land: the Mediterranean and the coastal plain to the west; the Gilead mountains in Transjordan to the east; the high mountains of Jerusalem and Hebron to the south; and the great Mount Hermon, facing Damascus, to the north. Mentioned in the biblical story of Absalom and Amnon (2 Samuel 13:23-30), the site, according to an ancient tradition, is where the patriarch Abraham first stood after separating from his nephew Lot and where he was promised by God that all he saw spread out before him would forever be the land of his descendants (Genesis 13:14-15).

To anyone who cherishes the Bible, here is a place of compelling and indeed romantic interest. Under normal circumstances, the Jews in Ofra, the nearby Israeli village to the southwest, and the Christians of Tayibe, the Arab village to the southeast, would cooperate to realize their area’s religious, cultural, and economic potential. Yet the Arabs of Tayibe are resolutely opposed to the mere presence of Jews in the area, and this turns everything into a political pitched battle.

Thus, when the residents of Ofra began to construct a sewage-processing plant to protect the area’s environment and drinking water, some neighboring Arabs, pushed by Israeli “peace activists,” petitioned to block its completion. The fact that the plant would also serve some of their villages, while being fully financed by Israeli Jews, was no deterrent. Claiming that part of the structure was built on private land and lacked the necessary permissions, they filed a lawsuit that succeeded in halting the project in its final stage. Now the unfinished plant corrodes in the sun, and the sewage runs freely.

Such stories abound in the West Bank, an area of picturesque landscapes rich in biblical and historical associations, all within a few minutes’ drive from Israel’s bustling metropolitan centers. It could and should be turned into a biospheric sanctuary, devoted to preserving the many archaeological treasures and traditional forms of agriculture to be found in the area. If this were to happen, local residents would benefit from a dramatic rise in amenities and employment opportunities, and the world would enjoy access to an un-mined portion of the biblical heritage. Yet with the exception of a few hiking paths, some freshly excavated ruins, and a number of boutique wineries and olive-oil presses—all in the Jewish sector—very little of this potential is being realized. On the contrary: in most of the Arab-inhabited countryside, delicate ecosystems are maltreated, sewage is uncared for, waste is burned openly, and scarce aquifers are polluted.

Another case of underdevelopment is the Old City of Jerusalem, one of the world’s best-known ancient sites. Commonly, such prized urban spaces undergo renewal projects, carefully restoring old buildings and streetscapes, rebuilding infrastructure, modernizing electrical and other delivery systems. This was done in the Jewish Quarter, which had been destroyed and plundered in the 1948-49 war and deserted during the Jordanian occupation. After its liberation in 1967, renewal projects uncovered, among other sites, the Herodian Quarter, the Burnt House, and the Roman Cardo, essential attractions for visitors from around the world.

No similar program has ever been seriously considered for other parts of the Old City, mainly populated since the 1950s by low-income Arab families living in cramped and dilapidated quarters. One might think there would be broad support for an initiative to rejuvenate the Old City as a whole, uncovering the archaeological riches lying underneath and bringing the entire walled area up to 21st-century standards. Yet the Palestinian leadership unfailingly objects to any such proposals. Whatever the area’s Arab residents may wish for in terms of an improved quality of life, the ethic of “resistance”—fueled as ever by foreign money funneled through Palestinian Authority enforcers—assures that these families stay where they are.

As elsewhere, the real source of tension in Jerusalem’s Old City is not Israel’s presence there since the June 1967 war but, rather, the longer-standing rejection of Jewish national legitimacy. One sees this clearly in the most seemingly refractory conflict of all: the one over the Temple Mount.

Conventional wisdom has it that any attempt to change the status quo on the Mount—where, ever since 1967, Israel has allowed the Islamic Waqf to retain its authority over the Muslim buildings as well as access to the plaza itself—will enrage the entire Muslim world and ignite a conflagration. But why? The Holy of Holies in the ancient Temple—the spot on the Mount most sacred to Judaism—was located, according to most authorities, in the middle of today’s 37-acre plaza. That spot is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock, which dates from the 7th century and is one of the most ancient and beautiful of Muslim monuments.

Unlike Al-Aqsa, the famous mosque located on the southern edge of the terrace, which faces south to allow worshippers to pray toward Mecca, the Dome is not and never was a mosque. According to some sources, it was built to protect the rock known as the foundation stone, and thereby to mark the place of the ancient Jewish temple. Its creators had no intention of denying the site’s Jewish importance, or of Islamizing it; indeed, some claim that the site was used as a synagogue in the Middle Ages, and until this day the whole platform is also known as Bayt al-Muqaddas, an Arabic version of Beyt Hamikdash, the classical Hebrew term for the Temple and its immediate environs.

Sadly, despite this history of former coexistence, today’s political struggle over the fate of Jerusalem has corrupted religious understandings. Al-Aqsa, coopted by the Palestinian resistance movement, has stretched symbolically over the entire Temple Mount, so that Jewish attempts to pray anywhere in the vast open areas of the plaza are portrayed as a threat to the mosque. Yet the truth is that Israel for its part has never repudiated the significance of this holy place to Muslims, and no amount of Jewish prayer, not even the building of a synagogue on the Mount, would harm the mosque in any way.


Still another contentious issue plagued by resistance to Zionism is the status of Arab citizens of Israel. Constituting roughly 20 percent of the population, they are the beneficiaries of numerous government programs aimed at improving their education, their economic opportunities, and their welfare. Yet while investment in the Arab sector is high, and while the share of taxes paid by Arabs is kept low, progress has been lingering. The reason is that, no matter how much Israel tries to advance the integration of its Arab citizens, there is no ignoring the elephant in the room: the issue of Arab loyalty to and solidarity with the Jewish state.

That issue affects both the way Israeli Jews treat Israeli Arabs and the way Arabs relate to the rest of society. There is no blinking the fact of discrimination against Arabs in Israel. Sheer prejudice may play a part here, but probably only a minor part. In general, it is no simple matter to join hands with people who very likely oppose your nation and wish it to disappear, and who therefore cannot be assumed to share your conception of the common good.

But the greater obstacles to Israeli Arab advancement are internal. The many Arabs who do accept the Jewish state as their permanent home are not represented in positions of leadership, and those who actively promote cooperation and integration are regularly branded as traitors. Recently, for example, an Arab Christian priest began advocating that Christian Arabs enlist in the Israeli army (they are officially exempt from service, though some volunteer); for this brave act, he was promptly silenced and had to be given police protection. In such an atmosphere, genuine integration remains extremely difficult, if not impossible.

There is much more to be said about the price paid within Israel itself for the forced closing of Zionism’s horizons. The regional price is, if anything, even higher. Israel is a dense country, inhabiting a small plot of land with scarce resources, and making an extraordinary success of it. But without a way to spread its success outward, the future is problematic. Real estate in Israel is expensive, not only because of market malfunctions but also because there is nowhere beyond the immediate borders where Jews can even consider living.

When a Jew from abroad wants to buy a home close to Jerusalem but can’t find what he’s looking for at a price he can afford, he will not turn his gaze to Amman, just a 90-minute drive from the Old City, but will stay in New Jersey and, a few times a year, fly twelve hours each way. Similarly, when an Israeli entrepreneur exhausts the opportunities of the home market, he will expand his reach not to neighboring lands but to Europe and the United States. And then there is the charitable front: Israel spontaneously dispatches aid delegations as far as Haiti and the Philippines, but is largely unable (at least publicly) to bring any real benefit to its own bleeding and war-torn region.


4. The Path Not Taken

Was a different outcome conceivable? 

The answer is yes, but a highly qualified yes. In the 1970s and 80s, had Israel not abandoned its single-minded quest for real, final peace, and had it stuck to its refusal to enter into dialogue with the unreconstructed PLO, it is at least possible (as I mentioned earlier) that the latter might have withered away. For this to have happened, of course, it would also have been necessary for other Palestinian leaders to emerge, leaders who, seeking the benefit of all, were prepared for reconciliation with Israel.

Indeed, there were such leaders-in-the-making among West Bank Arabs, though the odds against them were formidable and in the end decisive. Menahem Milson, who served briefly as civil administrator of the West Bank in the early 1980s, recalls how a “group of young Palestinians who had become politically active during my period [in office] laid the groundwork for a new political organization, the Palestinian Democratic Movement for Peace, calling for negotiations with Israel.” A number of West Bank notables—mayors, village chiefs, religious figures, educators, intellectuals, and others—were similarly bent on escaping the predatory grip of the PLO. From such beginnings it might have been possible to grow, in time, a new, moderate political class, ready in the right circumstances to take and exercise power in the public interest.

It was not to be. On one side stood the PLO, which since 1974 had been appointed by the Arab countries as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” Its coffers overflowing with Arab and, later, European money, it distributed patronage, Mafia-style, in return for submission and unquestioning loyalty; nor did it hesitate to counter dissent and deviation by means of threats, intimidation, and murder. On the other side stood the Israeli administration, fastidiously non-interventionist in the civil affairs of the territories when not positively preferring to deal with the PLO, which it regarded as the only source of authority capable of insuring domestic calm (a mistake soon to be repeated and amplified by the Rabin government in entering into the Oslo negotiations). Between these two forces, as Milson records, the nascent democratic movement of the 1980s was condemned to failure.

Since then, some others have taken up the banner of an anti-PLO strategy. In his The Case for Democracy (2004), for example, Natan Sharansky urges Israel and the West to support and work with those Palestinians who, inspired by the idea of a free society, familiar with the workings of Israel’s democratic political culture, and eager to build truly representative institutions of their own, are the only potential peace partners worthy of the name. Moshe Yaalon, now Israel’s defense minister, records in his 2008 memoir, The Longer Shorter Way (Hebrew), his own odyssey as a peacenik mugged by Oslo and thenceforth converted to a more sober but also more activist and more hopeful position; reaching conclusions similar to Sharansky’s, his book is a model of clarity and common sense on where Israel went wrong in its dealings with the Palestinians and on how, by ceasing to treat with dictators while patiently helping to plant and nourish the seeds of democracy, it might correct its error.


5. What to Do Now

What, then, can be done? Of course, as long as we Israelis continue to deal with a Palestinian leadership that cannot and will not accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state, there is a harsh limit to what can be achieved. That being so, Israel must simply allow the current, American-led “peace process” to self-destruct, as it will naturally tend to do.

But with the Arab world as a whole in flux, there may be a unique opportunity for Israel on its own to take steps in an alternative direction: one that is not focused solely on survival or on playing for time, that is not resigned to the permanent Arab rejection of the Jewish state, and that can circumvent the inevitable deadlock whenever we seek to appease or compromise with the Palestinian national movement. In short, the most important task is to change the Israeli mindset by recovering a positive Zionist vision.

Let’s start with the issue of the West Bank. Proponents of the two-state solution tend to see the West Bank as a separate territory that was seized by Israel from Palestinian rule in 1967. This is totally inaccurate: the West Bank is not a real territorial unit, there was never any Palestinian state there prior to Israeli control, and to this day Israel’s claim to the territory under international law is as strong as or stronger than anyone else’s. After 1948 and until 1988, when Jordan renounced its own claim to the area (a claim recognized by only three nations, and never by the Arab League) in favor of the PLO, the residents enjoyed Jordanian citizenship.

Were Israelis to return to their original concept of a Jewish state accepted by the surrounding Arab environment, their futile negotiations with the Palestinian national movement could be replaced by a dialogue addressing the very real problems of the Arab population of the West Bank. The biggest such problem is their legal and political status. If, as is possible, the PA is not going to become a state, what will be the identity of those who today live under its jurisdiction? Will they be able to recover their Jordanian citizenship? Will they enjoy full integration into Israel? Will a form of autonomy arise that will replace the PA?

Obviously, none of these options is simple or uncontroversial; by its very nature, the challenge admits of no simple or uncontroversial answers. But difficult does not mean insoluble. At only a fraction of the effort invested in the two-state solution over the last two decades, it would be possible to craft a model of governance that would benefit all parties. Once the idea of implacable Palestinian rejectionism is removed from the equation, even the option of integration into Israel makes sense. And why not? In the huge Arab Middle East, the Jews are a minority; in the small Jewish state, Arabs can be a minority. Fair enough. 

Then there is the issue of the Arab refugees, which would similarly benefit from a paradigm shift in Zionist thinking. Their story is well known: the war that attended the founding of Israel in 1948 created hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees who sought shelter amidst their brethren in the surrounding Arab states. At the exact same time, and in almost exactly equal numbers, Jews were forcibly expelled from the Arab states of the Middle East. Put simply, a harsh wartime population exchange occurred.

The natural and most humane solution was to absorb all of these refugees where they were, which is precisely what Israel did with the Jewish refugees.. Yet, by decision of the Arab powers and with the active connivance of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the Arab refugees, except for those in Jordan, were kept stateless and apart as an enduring monument to the “catastrophe” (naqba) of 1948 and an invaluable diplomatic and propaganda weapon against the Jewish state.

UNRWA, created as a temporary aid agency specifically and solely for the Palestinian refugees, renews its mandate every other year, and the refugees, their numbers swollen into the millions by successive generations who know no other existence, remain imprisoned in the camps. Meanwhile, the campaign against Israel’s legitimacy prominently features a demand for the “resettlement” of the refugees and their descendants in their ancestral homes—a demand that holds out the prospect of destroying the state’s Jewish character altogether.

An Israel seeking real peace, a peace based on acceptance of its existence as a Jewish state, could also push for the rehabilitation of the Palestinian refugees and an end to their ongoing tragedy. Back in the 1980s, Menachem Begin’s government made a small effort to start such a process, but it was never carried through in a serious way. Today, as criticism of UNRWA is gathering steam globally, a self-possessed Israel could both urge and take a leading role in a broader campaign to put an end to this lingering ramification of the 1948 war.

Another initiative worth pursuing much more vigorously than heretofore is the integration of Israel’s Arab citizens, including by requiring of them, as it does of Israeli Jews, some form of national service. A third would entail standing confidently behind what Israel regards as the best ideas for local and regional development, ignoring the automatic objections of those who see the Jewish state as an illegitimate power.

An example of the last is the biospheric sanctuary mentioned earlier. This could be brought into being without waiting for a political solution for the West Bank as a whole. The Arab inhabitants of the area will cooperate if they understand that Israel is not only serious but unwavering in its intentions. The same can be said of urban renewal in the Old City: a clear Israeli vision and a strong stand against pushbacks, both domestic and international, can turn such a plan into a reality for the benefit of all.


Impossible? The case of the light-rail system in Jerusalem, which opened in 2011, proves that it can be done. The system’s route crosses the pre-June 1967 border, stitching together Arab and Jewish neighborhoods as if Jerusalem were never a divided city and as if there were no tension or hostility between Jews and Arabs. The service works quite well, and has become an undisputed fact of city life.

In brief, Israel must adopt a more confident view of itself. Over the last decade, there has been a welcome renewal of interest among Israelis in classic Jewish and Zionist thought. But that is not enough. Traumatized by decades of bitter conflict, we Israelis find it hard to regard the Arabs as partners; demoralized by decades of anti-Zionist discourse, we find it even harder to regard ourselves as potential benefactors of the region.

But it would befit us to dream again. In 1993, Shimon Peres, in The New Middle East, composed a rhapsodic paean to the era of unity and prosperity about to be ushered in, as he saw it, by the Oslo Accords. It was a deluded vision, soon to be shattered. But if, at some imaginable point in the future, Israel were to achieve true acceptance from its neighbors, a real new Middle East could indeed emerge. Is it too much to envision the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem megalopolis as the center of the future Levant? Or the spectacle of Jews being welcomed as residents in Arab countries? Or a massive aliya from North America? Or the restoration of Jerusalem as the international hub it previously was, with the old routes connecting Jaffa to Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo, long shut down and neglected, once more facilitating the traffic of goods and ideas around the region?

In 1949, after the ceasefire in the war of independence, David Ben-Gurion was touring the newly conquered Eilat region on the southern tip of the newborn state. Pointing toward the mountains of Edom on the Jordanian side of the border, he asked the army officer leading the tour how one might go about capturing them. The officer, like the professional he was, replied by sketching a quick tactical plan, but then stopped and asked the prime minister, “Why, do you have any plans to conquer the area?” “No,” answered Ben-Gurion, “I won’t try to capture it. But maybe you will.”

Israel needs no more territory or conquests. But the mindset of our current leaders is much too far from Ben-Gurion’s. Speaking with a large group of journalists in 2012, Benjamin Netanyahu projected the persona of an uncompromising leader preoccupied with one mission: survival. That is an admirable thing; we need leaders ready to take upon themselves that most onerous of responsibilities. But if Ben-Gurion, leading a much more fragile country and facing perhaps even greater external challenges, could see beyond his own horizon, then we should be able to expect the same of our own leaders. When they don’t see as far as we think they safely could, ours is the duty to help them envisage, and debate, the better future that might lie ahead.


  1. Solving the Israel-Palestinian Conflict by Yoav Sorek
    Not everything depends on us Israelis; but much does. Here’s what we can do.
  2. O Pioneers! by Haviv Rettig Gur
    Have Israeli Jews really lost their self-confident, forward-looking spirit?
  3. The Vision Thing by Sol Stern
    Why do scenarios for a better Middle East—like Yoav Sorek’s—tend to succumb to the utopian temptation?
  4. Two-State-Minus by Hillel Halkin
    The two-state solution won’t work, the one-state solution won’t work. Where does that leave us?

More about: Anti-Zionism, Benjamin Netanyahu, David Ben-Gurion, Foreign Policy, Israel, Jewish State, Oslo Accords, Palestinian Authority, PLO, Theodor Herzl, Yoav Sorek



The two-state solution won’t work, the one-state solution won’t work. Where does that leave us?

<em>Sign prohibiting Israeli entry into Area “A” of the Palestinian Authority. </em>Credit: IDFBlog.
Sign prohibiting Israeli entry into Area “A” of the Palestinian Authority. Credit: IDFBlog.
March 9 2014
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), and, most recently, Jabotinsky: A Life (2014). His essays and columns have appeared in MosaicCommentary, the New Republic, the Forward, the Jewish Review of Books, and elsewhere.

I agree with Yoav Sorek that we should look forward to the day when there are no signs in the Land of Israel forbidding Jews to travel in parts of their historic homeland. But we should also look forward to there being no walls, fences, and roadblocks preventing and encumbering Palestinians from traveling in far more extensive parts of their historic homeland. However justified these may be at the present moment by considerations of security, they are surely more of an inconvenience and humiliation to Palestinians than the ban on travel in Area A is to Israeli Jews.

I point this out not because I wish to engage in the who’s right/who’s wrong debate that has characterized most discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian issue and that characterizes much of Yoav Sorek’s essay. Although I’m an Israeli and happen to think, if not in terms as black-and-white as Sorek’s, that my side has been more right than wrong, that’s not something I expect to convince the other side of. I point it out because any discussion of the problem that does not take into account the legitimate needs of both sides will just keep going around in circles.

Sorek is one of a growing number of people in Israel and elsewhere to argue that the conventional two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be implemented because it does not satisfy these legitimate needs and it must therefore be abandoned in favor of its one-state alternative. With the first half of that proposition, I once again agree. Dividing the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan into an Israel and Palestine that will, like Israel and Egypt, live with little contact on either side of a sealed border requiring passports and visas to cross is not possible. Israelis and Palestinians are not separable like Israelis and Egyptians. They are irreversibly scrambled together, with over a million Palestinians now living in Israel and over a half-million Israeli Jews in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Moreover, a majority of each people thinks it has a right—if not necessarily an exclusive one—to the entirety of this territory. No approach to the problem that fails to take these facts and feelings into account can work.


But the one-state advocates do not form a single group. Rather, they come from two diametrically opposed camps. One, on the international and Israeli far Left, calls for a de-Zionized bi-national state in which Jews and Arabs will be fully equal. The other, on the Israeli Right (international support for its position is non-existent), advocates a single Jewish state with a large Arab minority whose civil and human rights will be respected.

As a political concept, the bi-national Arab-Jewish state goes back to the 1930s. It was absurd then and it is even more absurd now. The idea of taking two bitterly warring peoples with different cultures, languages, religions, histories, and national aspirations and getting them amicably to share all of their institutions on an equal basis is either pitifully naïve or nastily Machiavellian. It is naïve in those who believe it can succeed. It is Machiavellian in those who know it cannot but support it because it will spell Israel’s doom. The naïve and the Machiavellian alike point to South Africa as a model, but conditions in South Africa in the early 1990s did not remotely resemble those prevailing between Israel and the Palestinians today.

Yoav Sorek belongs to the second camp, the advocates of a single, Jewish state west of the Jordan with a fairly accommodated Arab minority. Unfortunately, this, too, is a fantasy.

To begin with, who can believe that the world’s nations, including the United States, would agree to Israel’s annexing the West Bank in defiance of a long-standing international consensus in favor of an independent Palestinian state? As it is, Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria have drawn repeated international condemnation that has been slowly but steadily inching toward the imposition of economic and diplomatic sanctions. The annexation Sorek calls for would immediately bring on sanctions far more severe than any threatened to date. There is no way that Israel, a country totally dependent on international trade, could withstand them for more than a short time—which is to say that there is no way it can seriously contemplate annexation in the first place. Inasmuch as Yoav Sorek must be aware of this objection, the only explanation I can think of for his ignoring it in his essay is his knowing that it can’t be answered.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s imagine the unimaginable: Israel annexes the West Bank, the international community looks the other way, and annexation becomes a fait accompli. Now, all Israel has to do is figure out how it can politically absorb some two million hostile West Bank Arabs, thereby increasing its Arab minority from the roughly 20 percent that exists within its 1967 borders to over 40 percent.

Does it grant them full citizenship and voting rights, so that its Arab population is now in a position to elect 50 members to a 120-member Knesset? Does it deny them such rights and officially become the apartheid society that its enemies already accuse it of being? Does it resort to tricks and evasions, such as granting full rights on paper while making them conditional on Hebrew literacy tests, loyalty oaths, and bureaucratic review boards that will find reasons to turn down nine applicants out of ten? Does it make Palestinians the citizens of a West Bank Bantustan, empowered to elect their own school boards and dog catchers? Does it, without bothering to consult the Jordanians (who would of course refuse to cooperate), declare them citizens of Jordan?

“Obviously,” writes Sorek, “none of these options is simple or uncontroversial.” But not to worry. “At only a fraction of the effort invested in the ‘two-state solution’ over the last two decades, it would be possible to craft a model of governance that would benefit all parties.”

Since so little effort is required, one would have appreciated Sorek’s investing some and giving us the benefit of his conclusions. And yet what could these have been? There is no conceivable “model of governance” for an annexed West Bank that could avoid either, on the one hand, the full enfranchisement of its inhabitants with all the consequences for Israel that this would entail, or else, on the other hand, their permanent disenfranchisement in one form or another, with all its consequences. Although it’s by now a tired cliché to say that an Israel that absorbs the West Bank cannot continue to be both Jewish and democratic, this doesn’t make that statement any less true. (I won’t comment on the almost comical paternalism, let alone the practical unfeasibility, of Jewish planners creating a “biospheric sanctuary” in the West Bank for its Arab natives, who would no doubt be eternally grateful to be spared all the ills of modern economic development.)


The two-state solution won’t work, the one-state solution won’t work. Where, then, if not paralyzed by despair, does this leave us?

It leaves us, I believe, with what a smaller number of people than the one-staters have been advocating for years, namely, two states in one country—or, to put it more concretely, a Palestinian-Israeli federation in which two sovereign governments, each with its own institutions, one in the West Bank and one in pre-1967 Israel, collaborate in administering a territory that is the homeland of both Arabs and Jews. Each people would, subject to restrictions designed to safeguard the majority status of the other in its sovereign area, have the right to live and work in every part of this territory and to travel freely in all of it. Jews living in the Palestinian state would be free to choose Israeli or Palestinian citizenship (or perhaps both); Arabs now living in the Jewish state would have the same right.

One might call this the “two-state-minus” solution—one in many ways similar, in a bilateral form, to the multilateral structure of the European Union. Although France and Germany are still sovereign nations, their sovereignty is now constrained in various ways by the mutual obligations and commitments conferred on them by their EU status. One can imagine a similar arrangement between Israel and a Palestinian state. Benjamin Netanyahu was imagining it last month when he suggested, as Sorek mentions, the possibility of Israeli settlers living in such a Palestinian state—and then, with a characteristic lack of political courage, declined to stand behind what he had said. No matter. He said it, and in doing so he was the first Israeli leader to put on the table—on a little corner of the table, it must be said—an idea whose time, I believe, will come.

Wouldn’t such an arrangement involve enormous problems, too? Of course it would. Unlike Yoav Sorek, I do not think that only a little effort is called for in conceptually squaring the circle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I do think, though, that there are better ways of doing it than the one he sketches in his essay.


Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverA Strange DeathMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), and a forthcoming biography of Vladimir Jabotinsky (Yale).  He has translated Yiddish and Hebrew works by Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Mokher Seforim, Moyshe Kulbak, S.Y. Agnon, Shmuel Hanagid, Y.H. Brenner, and many more. His essays and columns have appeared in Commentary, the New Republic, the Forward, the Jewish Review of Books, and elsewhere.

More about: Foreign Policy, Israel, Jewish State, Palestine, Yoav Sorek


The Vision Thing

Why do scenarios for a better Middle East—like Yoav Sorek's—tend to succumb to the utopian temptation?

<em>Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence in </em>Lawrence of Arabia.
Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia.
Sol Stern
March 16 2014

At the end of his provocative essay, Yoav Sorek laments that Israel’s political leaders have lost the ability to “see beyond [their] own horizon”—or “as far as we [Israelis] think they safely could.” He therefore proposes that “we help them envisage, and debate, the better future that might lie ahead.”

Similar sentiments are heard in Israel today on both the Left and the Right. Hawks and doves alike complain incessantly that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is risk-averse, lacks political vision, and appears content to manage an unsustainable status quo.

Sorek correctly diagnoses one of the main reasons for this general Israeli malaise. Despite decades of “peace processing,” the Palestinian leadership still adamantly refuses to accept the legitimacy of a self-defined Jewish state in the Middle East, while also insisting that not a single Jew will ever be allowed to live in a future Palestinian state. Earlier this month, as if on cue for the purposes of the present discussion in Mosaic, a classic statement of obdurate Palestinian rejectionism appeared in a New York Times op-ed by Ali Jarbawi, a former minister in the Palestinian Authority (PA). To endorse the concept of Israel as a Jewish state, Jarbawi warns, would entail tossing aside the “right of return guaranteed to [the Palestinian] refugees by international law”; therefore, it will not happen.

Jarbawi’s declaration is perfectly consistent with another New York Times piece three years ago by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. There Abbas presented a history lesson on the creation of Israel. Just after the UN General Assembly voted to partition the “Palestinian homeland” into two states in 1947, Abbas writes, “Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened.” By reversing the actual sequence of events—it was Arab intervention that caused the war and precipitated Palestinian Arab flight—Abbas underlines the entrenched view that the source of the current conflict remains the very establishment of the state of Israel: the “original sin.”  

Even the Obama administration seems to have concluded, however reluctantly, that negotiations for its preferred two-state solution won’t succeed as long as Palestinian leaders refuse to give up on the right of return. Indeed, for the Palestinians this “right” is more than a negotiating position. It is a sacred principle, embedded in their ideology and their backward-looking national narrative. For the Palestinians, peace negotiations have never been about the consequences of the June 1967 war, which ended with Israel in control of the West Bank and Gaza. They remain fixated on the consequences of the 1948-49 “catastrophe” (naqba): i.e., the failed war to prevent the emergence of a Jewish state.


To restive Israelis on both the Left and the Right, all this is very frustrating. No wonder they are sometimes tempted to blame their own prime minister for the resultant impasse, and to wish away the plain fact that in the murderous Middle East, the Jewish state’s options have been and remain very limited. In particular, the Israeli peace movement, ignoring political reality, has repeatedly proposed cutting a deal with the Palestinians for the return of most of the territories captured in the 1967 war in the hope that the 1948 issues—including the right of return and the legitimacy of the Jewish state—will then wither away as both sides recognize the benefits of peace.

In his essay, Yoav Sorek usefully dissects the utopianism of this view, embodied most saliently in the Oslo agreements of the early 1990s. As he notes, the effort to implement those agreements has led to an absurd and dangerous situation on the ground in the West Bank, with Israeli Jewish citizens forbidden to show their faces in the areas assigned to the governance of the PA. He also shows how Palestinian hostility makes it impossible for Jewish and Arab West Bank villagers even to think about cooperating on infrastructure projects for their mutual benefit.

But then, having convincingly demonstrated how inimical the local environment is to practicing the “vision thing,” practicing it is exactly what Sorek proceeds to do. In the face of the seemingly unbridgeable divide between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, he proffers an alternative approach, one based on a more positive Zionist mindset and, above all, on a principled refusal to accept Arab non-acceptance as a permanent condition. Successive Israeli governments may have been too unimaginative, or too inhibited, to pursue such an approach, but in his judgment it is the best way forward. 

One example of such an approach, writes Sorek, already exists in the light-rail system that connects Jewish and Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem “as if [it] were never a divided city.” Extrapolating from the success of that simultaneously bold and common-sense venture, he envisages other unilateral initiatives of the same ilk. Thus, for instance, he proposes turning parts of the West Bank inhabited jointly by Jews and Arabs into

a biospheric sanctuary, devoted to preserving the many archaeological treasures and traditional forms of agriculture to be found in the area. If this were to happen, local [Palestinian] residents would benefit from a dramatic rise in amenities and employment opportunities, and the world would enjoy access to an un-mined portion of the biblical heritage.

In another, much more sweeping proposal, the government of Israel, after “allow[ing] the current, American-led ‘peace process’ to self-destruct, as it will naturally tend to do,” could implicitly forgo its pursuit of a two-state solution and instead initiate “a dialogue addressing the very real problems of the Arab population of the West Bank.” This might be followed by a referendum in which the Palestinians could make up their own minds as to their preferred legal and political status. For those wishing to remain under Israeli jurisdiction, Israel could “craft a model of governance that would benefit all parties.” After all, Sorek writes confidently, “Once the idea of implacable Palestinian rejectionism is removed from the equation, even the option of integration into Israel makes sense.”

Unfortunately, it is far from clear how Sorek foresees all this happening, or indeed how it could happen. A biosphere in the West Bank? If, to use his own example, the Christian Arabs of Tayibe and the Jews of neighboring Ofra can’t cooperate on the construction of a sewage-processing plant to protect the area’s environment and drinking water, what makes him think his more ambitious project has any chance of getting off the ground? Suppose the local Arabs decline the favor; does he propose forcing them to accept it for their own good?

As for abruptly jettisoning the two-state concept, does Sorek believe that Netanyahu (the same Netanyahu who doesn’t “see beyond his own horizon”) would suddenly be persuaded by the power of a good argument to ignite a political war with the American administration and world opinion? Or does he perhaps envision the rise of a new right-wing coalition not only favoring but prepared to impose a one-state solution?

In brief, this scenario for “a better future” is as wildly unrealistic as the Left’s two-state utopianism. Sorek seems to have been gripped by his own illusions about the Palestinians—and to have forgotten that overcoming “implacable Palestinian rejectionism” is exactly what the struggle has been about for at least a century or more. Indeed, if that ongoing hate crime could somehow, miraculously, be “removed from the equation,” what would be wrong with proceeding directly to the two-state solution?


There is, however, one proposal in Sorek’s essay that, instead of adding another irritant to Israel’s already dangerous internal polarization, could provide a common ground of action for reasonable Israelis on both the Left and the Right. I agree with him that the Israeli government and pro-Israel organizations should launch a major initiative to expose the scandal of the six-decade mistreatment of the 1948 Arab refugees. The 700,000 Palestinians who fled their homes have been cynically turned into a mini-nation of five to seven million (the exact number depends on who’s counting). These displaced persons and their descendants, scattered throughout Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories, are kept in miserable camps by the corrupt UN agency UNRWA. It is the only refugee problem dating from the conclusion of World War II that has not been solved by the integration of the refugees into their host countries. To the contrary, it has been deliberately left unsolved. 

It should be possible for Israel and its supporters to explain to Western publics what the so-called right of return means: namely, the continued immiseration and oppression of millions of Palestinians. Pressuring Palestinian leaders and their sundry ideologues, apologists, and fellow travelers to renounce the delusional dream of a wholesale return to Jaffa and Haifa, dismantling the camps, and undertaking the rehabilitation of the refugees in their host countries—these would not only be positive developments in themselves but essential preconditions for any forward movement in negotiations between the parties.

Is it too much to hope that such a campaign might even bring Israelis from different points of the spectrum closer to agreement on other aspects of their relations with the Palestinians, or Palestinians closer to accepting Israel? If Yoav Sorek is looking to start a movement, here is a golden opportunity.


Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author of A Century of Palestinian Rejectionism and Jew Hatred (Encounter Broadside).

More about: Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, Israel, Jewish State, Palestine, Yoav Sorek


O Pioneers!

Have Israeli Jews really lost their self-confident, forward-looking spirit?

<em>A member of Kibbutz Ein Gev carrying a basket with gravel.</em> Photo by Zoltan Kluger. Courtesy Goverment Press Office.
A member of Kibbutz Ein Gev carrying a basket with gravel. Photo by Zoltan Kluger. Courtesy Goverment Press Office.
Haviv Rettig Gur
March 20 2014

Yoav Sorek’s essay, “Israel’s Big Mistake,” is many things at once: a paean to a once-vigorous and self-confident Israel; a lament over the failures and shattered dreams of Arab-Israeli rapprochement; a mash-up of history, ideology, and political analysis in a heartfelt—but, I fear, ultimately misguided—plea for a regenerated Zionist spirit.

There is much to commend here, especially in the way Sorek frames Israelis’ perceptions of the Israeli-Arab relationship over the past seven decades. He ably puts his finger on a key feature of Zionism: the yearning for acceptance. This same impulse characterized nearly all the diverse Jewish responses to the attractions and the dangers of modernity. For Jewish nationalists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it prescribed the assimilation by Jews of the increasingly universal categories of political identity underlying the new international state system.

The impulse for recognition, reciprocity, and normalcy did not die with the birth of the Jewish state in 1948. As Sorek rightly notes, it was an integral part of Israel’s sense of self from its earliest days onward. His essay examines the history of this need as expressed particularly in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking—a need that in his view turned into a self-incriminating and self-defeating ideology. So desperate were Israeli leaders to be accepted by Israel’s long-time enemies that they lost their confidence in the Zionist spirit and by the 1990s charged heedlessly, and disastrously, into the morass of Oslo.

The facts in Sorek’s exposition are essentially true, and the narrative of a dangerously overeager peacemaking is now shared by a majority of Israelis. But his reconstruction also exemplifies a flaw in all historical writing: namely, the imposition of an orderly and seemingly purposeful path of causation on a past reality that at the time was as confusing and chaotic as is present reality. In particular, his argument that, essentially, Israeli leaders went to Oslo because their faith in Zionism was shaken rests on the assumption that, the final disastrous results of Oslo being knowable and inevitable, Israel’s behavior in the 1990s can be explained only by the irrational motives that drove its leaders and much of the public.

In fact, the results of Oslo were not a foregone conclusion. Peace, even with the PLO, seemed a reasonable prospect at the time. In a post-cold-war world dominated by the United States, the PLO’s support for Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War seemed to showcase the movement’s growing isolation and delusion. When Jordan, a country that had also supported Hussein and was itself deeply enmeshed in Palestinian affairs, then abandoned its pan-Arab orientation in favor of a genuine accommodation with Israel, it no longer seemed impossible that the Palestinians might seek to do the same.

None of this implies that the Oslo process was well-conceived or in any sense successful; it was neither. But it was not so irredeemably foolish as to impugn the mental faculties of its proponents. In 1992, if a political accommodation, however uncomfortable, was possible with Jordan—and also, as Sorek points out, with Israeli Arabs—and was manifestly in the best interests of the Palestinians themselves, it was neither irrational nor “post-Zionist” to think that it was worth a try.


In short, the negative results of Oslo need larger explanations than those furnished by a narrow, ideologically-tinged critique of the Israeli national psyche. But Sorek’s argument suffers from another analytical flaw as well: the cherry-picking of facts and symptoms to reach a questionable conclusion.

One example is his discussion of the virulently anti-Israel attitudes voiced by Palestinians and, for that matter, Israeli Arabs. Sorek’s almost exclusive focus on Israel’s failure to challenge this discourse misses the complexity of the phenomenon. In a nutshell, political identity is carefully policed in Palestine precisely because it is so fragile. Fatah and Hamas are tyrannical movements that must constantly inflate the phantasm of the “Zionist Enemy” in order to buttress their own shaky grip on power. Palestinian rejectionism, whose manifestations and consequences Sorek describes well, is rooted not merely in a tenacious clinging to an unbending maximalism but at least as much in the exigencies of the moment: the simple fact of PA and Hamas dictatorship and the harsh reality of political dysfunction and failure.

The borders of Israeli Arabs’ identity are similarly policed because it, too, has become increasingly elastic and accommodating. While their leaders reject even the term “Israeli Arab,” and insist on being called “Palestinian citizens of Israel,” about half of Arab Israelis themselves now say they are either “very proud” or “quite proud” to be, simply, Israeli—this, despite years of conflict, terrorism, intifada, and vicious delegitimization of the Jewish state in Arabic-speaking media and among political elites.

Indeed, all evidence points to a remarkable level of identification with the Jewish state. Arab Israelis are bullish on the country’s future, with 63 percent in 2012 saying it will succeed in defending itself against outside threats, 78 percent reporting confidence in its Supreme Court, and 42 trusting the IDF to protect them. The more one examines the available statistics—a prime source is the annual study conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, from which I’ve been quoting—the brighter the picture becomes

So, in an example cited by Sorek, when Arab leaders excoriate a Christian Arab priest for encouraging his followers to join the IDF, their harshness is a sign less of their ability to force a “closing of Zionism’s horizons” than of the slow but overwhelming triumph of Zionism’s day-to-day reality over the collapsed fantasies of Arab ideologues. Simply put, Israeli Arab leaders are right to be worried. One need only look at the priest’s continued public advocacy of his position, and at the increased willingness of Israeli Arabs themselves to join the IDF and participate in other forms of national service, to see in which direction the arc of history is bending.


The essence of Sorek’s thesis is contained in his call for “a clear Israeli vision and a strong stand against pushbacks, both domestic and international”—pushbacks, that is, to potential initiatives by Israel to address directly the problems of Palestinian Arabs in the areas under its control and on the wider scene. Thus, citing the role of UNRWA in worsening the plight of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants still sequestered in camps throughout the region, he insists that a “self-possessed Israel” could spearhead a global campaign to solve the issue once and for all. Proceeding to sketch the glowing future Israel might enjoy by regaining its lost self-confidence, he wonders if it is “too much” to envision, for example, a “massive aliya from North America” or “the restoration of Jerusalem as the international hub it previously was.”

Here Sorek exhibits the same suspension of disbelief he chastises so effectively in the Oslo generation. Has the absence of self-confidence led to Zionism’s present-day troubles? Israeli self-confidence cannot and will not undo the plain fact that the sovereign legal authority in the West Bank resides with an IDF major general unelected by the Palestinian residents. Israeli self-confidence will not help stabilize or democratize the collapsing regimes of the country’s regional neighbors, remove the threats in Sinai or Syria, or put an end to the ceaseless machinations of nuclear procurers and terror planners from Marrakesh to Tehran.

Nor is “self-confidence” a helpful watchword for advancing a better Israeli future. It won’t bring “massive aliya from North America” for the simple reason that Zionist ideology by itself has never brought massive aliya from anywhere. Speaking with me recently, the eminent demographer Sergio DellaPergola described the critical factors: “To assume dramatic migrations [from the Diaspora to Israel], we have to assume either that Israel will have transformed itself into the most developed country in the world or that something will happen in the [Jews’ current] countries [of residence], a total disruption of the sort we saw when the Soviet Union fell.” Such a disruption would now have to take place in the United States, since that is where three-quarters of Diaspora Jews live.

Besides, what is this self-confidence of which we speak, and how do we know it when we see it? I recently launched a high-tech venture with my brother, a talented computer programmer and expert who is regularly summoned to Redmond, WA to consult with Microsoft. A good friend recently retired from a nonprofit enterprise that he founded a decade ago and that now raises and disburses millions each year to make a real difference in the quality of Israeli society.

Such examples could be multiplied; they are not exceptions but almost an Israeli norm. And this unparalleled flourishing of Israeli innovation and entrepreneurial daring is accompanied by a deep sense of mutual solidarity. Indeed, Israeliness itself is bound up in an intoxicating dialectic of individual self-fulfillment and collective responsibility and sacrifice, a feature that arguably have something to do with Gallup findings that Israelis are among the happiest people in the world.

The strange complexities that drive the interaction of these characteristics are not the subject of this discussion. But, at the very least, they suggest that when someone accuses Israeli Jews of having lost their pioneering edge, their Zionist devotion, or their sense of identity and collective history, the burden of proof rests with the complainant.


Haviv Rettig Gur is the political correspondent of the Times of Israel.

More about: Foreign Policy, Israel, Jewish identity, Jewish State, Oslo Accords, Yoav Sorek, Zionism


Solving the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

Not everything depends on us Israelis; but much does.

<em>Israelis and Palestinians wave flags as Israelis march celebrating Jerusalem Day outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's old city on Wednesday, May 8, 2013.</em> Credit: Associated Press/Sebastian Scheiner.
Israelis and Palestinians wave flags as Israelis march celebrating Jerusalem Day outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's old city on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Credit: Associated Press/Sebastian Scheiner.
Yoav Sorek
March 23 2014

I’m grateful to the three distinguished thinkers who have responded to my analysis of Israel’s situation and to my suggestions for improving it. Rather than reacting to all of their individual comments, I’ll try to focus on a few core criticisms and arguments.

I should begin by noting the obvious: it is very hard to write about the Arab-Israeli conflict without being drawn into the solutions sweepstakes. In one way or another, once you confront the issues, you’re expected to offer a solution to them or at least to embrace one out of the several already publicly available. I’m no exception: although my essay was written less to propose or endorse a solution than to urge a basic shift in a prevailing Israeli mindset—a mindset for which we Israelis have paid a harsh price—I couldn’t avoid pointing to a few practical instances of a way forward. Regrettably, these have turned into a focus of discussion for more than one of my respondents as well as for others who have commented about the essay on the Mosaic website and elsewhere.


Hillel Halkin is right to place me in the camp of those advocating “a single, Jewish state west of the Jordan with a fairly accommodated Arab minority.” To him, however, this version of a “one-state” solution is as much a fantasy as the “two-state” solution that we both agree is a non-starter. He points to two major obstacles. The first is the “long-standing international consensus in favor of an independent Palestinian state,” which ensures that any Israeli effort to annex the West Bank would be intolerable to world opinion and result not only in harsh economic sanctions but in diplomatic and political isolation. The second is the so-called “demographic problem”: granting citizenship to so many Arabs, he writes, would threaten Israel’s Jewish identity, and conferring any other political or legal status on them would be morally repugnant.

Instead of either a one-state or a two-state solution, Halkin puts forth his own proposal: a confederation, in which the whole territory would be divided in terms of sovereignty, thus allowing the majority in each state to retain its national identity, but would remain a single geographic entity with freedom of travel, labor, and residence for all.

I must say that Halkin’s idea, which he calls “two-states-minus,” is better than any other two-state option, and it rests on sound reasoning. Unfortunately, it strikes me as even more fantastic than mine. I don’t believe that one small territory can hold these two national movements. In my view, it would be easier to restore Palestinians to their former status as “plain” Arabs—and I’m not saying that would be easy, either—than to re-direct Palestinian nationalism into some sort of cooperative political arrangement with Israel.

In any case, however, Halkin has misinterpreted my attitude toward my own or anyone else’s solution. He quotes me accurately enough: “at only a fraction of the effort invested in the ‘two-state solution’ over the last two decades, it would be possible to craft a model of governance that would benefit all parties.” But, to repeat, I never meant that this would be simple or easy to do. The issues are both extremely complicated and of long standing, and any future effort to address them within my proposed framework would necessarily require both a great deal of time and uncommon amounts of creativity. Nevertheless, had Israel invested in “my” option but a fraction of the effort poured into the futile Oslo process, we would likely have already come up with a number of elegant and inventive approaches to the problems it raises.

My point here is a general one, worth dwelling on for another moment. My essay wasn’t intended as a political action item. Instead, I tried to outline a positive vision, to suggest a wider horizon. I firmly believe that adopting such a vision would lead to a better future for my countrymen and also for the Palestinian Arabs. But I’m fully aware—as my mostly sympathetic respondents confirm, each in his own way—that relatively few Israelis or supporters of Israel are prepared to entertain such a vision. Until they are, we can’t expect others to change their views.

Thus, many in the international community are somehow convinced that the Israeli presence in the West Bank is illegal, as if a Palestinian state existed there before 1967 and therefore the land is “occupied.” They are wrong, but somebody needs to say and to show that they are wrong, to say it and show it consistently, steadily, tirelessly, until the message is absorbed and accepted by those with the capability of moving the needle of world opinion.

Unfortunately, how the world thinks is very much connected with the way Israelis think, and connected especially with their own lack of confidence in their claim to the land. Their current mindset is the combined fruit of international acceptance of Arab propaganda and a homegrown failure of nerve. Here’s a typical example: when accused by the international court in the Hague of building its security fence on Palestinian land, Israel declined to correct the misconception. In fact the land isn’t Palestinian; indeed, under international law, Israel has the best claim to it. But instead of making that argument, Israel claimed only a “security need” to confiscate land for the fence. Unsurprisingly, it was condemned by the court.

Adopting a different position and sticking to it would not be the work of a year or two. From today’s perspective, the task of placing a new concept of justice on the international agenda seems little short of a mission impossible. But the effort must be made, if for no other reason than that all other solutions are recipes for continued war and rejectionism. Waiting for Arab acceptance is a long-term exercise; trying to negotiate with Arab non-acceptance only makes it longer.

As for the demographic challenge that Halkin cites, here too I have no simple solution, but the threat may not be as dire as some choose to believe. Recent analyses suggest that trends in birth rates are working in favor of the Jews, not the Arabs. Adding an option of free emigration and the possibility of Jordanian citizenship (a possibility ridiculed by Halkin, but which there is reason to believe is not so preposterous as he thinks), one might achieve a net result of a reasonable number of new Israeli Arab citizens, people who have chosen to be part of the Jewish state and don’t want to undermine it.

As I continue to insist, the main factor is Arab rejectionism. If we Israelis are patient enough and determined enough to overcome it, the Middle East equation could acquire a totally new look, issues now unsolvable would yield to reasonable compromise, and rejectionism would be replaced by a notion of the common good. Is this a fantasy? In terms of the present situation, yes. But there’s no reason to think the present situation must last forever, and even less reason to set it in stone.


I like Sol Stern’s formulation of my core idea: Israel should adopt a “principled refusal to accept Arab non-acceptance as a permanent condition.” Unfortunately, he sees this as totally unrealistic. If, he asks, the Christian Arabs living in the West Bank village of Tayibe can’t or won’t bring themselves to cooperate with the Jews of nearby Ofra, how can we even think of any large-scale acceptance?

My answer is simple: there is nothing deep about the refusal or reluctance of the Tayibe villagers to cooperate. Their rejectionism is a function of politics, of attitudes introduced as part and parcel of Palestinian nationalist propaganda and before that of pan-Arab propaganda—and of Israel’s tacit acquiescence in that propaganda. The villagers’ attitudes too can change, and changing Israeli attitudes will help change theirs as well.

Sometimes, dynamic thinking reveals possibilities nobody has noticed or dared to acknowledge. A few years ago, a friend and I met with representatives of the European Union’s agency for humanitarian aid (ECHO). The Frenchman we spoke with in the agency’s Jerusalem office, whose main mission is to deliver EU aid to Gaza, was serenely convinced that Israel—which had long since left the territory—was still acting the role of evil oppressor, exercising its malignant power by obstructing the shipment of goods to the Gazan people. We pointed out that, since Gaza was overpopulated, and since most of its residents were not locals but uprooted refugees, a better way to improve their lot would be to facilitate their move to countries willing to absorb them. According to surveys, 40 percent of Gazans said they would be happy to leave. Why not help them?

His reply was startling in its candor. “Are you kidding? 40 percent? It’s probably 99 percent. All of them want to leave!” Well, we repeated, have you thought of helping them? “No, never.” Why not? “Because if they leave, it’d be like releasing Israel from its responsibility for the nakba.” So—we tried again—you want to keep them there for the sake of a political vendetta. What if Israel admitted its responsibility, and agreed to compensate not only the refugees but their grandchildren?

Our questions were too much for him; he had nothing to reply. So trapped by propaganda was this sincere and pleasant European as to be unable to think of the good of the people he was charged with supporting, let alone the future good of the neighborhood.

Stern asks whether I believe Benjamin Netanyahu would actually be prepared to ignite a political war with the American administration and world opinion by pushing for a one-state solution. Practically speaking: no, I don’t think so, even though Netanyahu has already come close to doing precisely that over the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat. But, again, my essay wasn’t aimed at short-term results. In the long run, things do change, sometimes radically, and some of these changes will be late-blooming results of shifts in people’s way of thinking now.

Toward the end of his response, Stern endorses my idea of doing something about UNRWA and the refugee camps in which generations of Palestinian Arabs have been effectively held captive. I thank him for that: as a starting point in a positive process, this definitely has much to commend it; it’s also an example of an issue that might be affected for the good by some prodding from Israel. When I worked with Binyamin (Benny) Elon, then Israel’s tourism minister, on his 2002 peace plan, we initiated an effort to mobilize support in the U.S. Congress for changing UNRWA’s mandate. Some progress was made; the effort continues, and it should be bolstered.


Last but not least, Haviv Rettig Gur challenges my premise that today’s Israelis show a lack of confidence in their national project. He’s certainly right that, when it comes to enterprise in general, and to technological and scientific innovation in particular, today’s Israelis are a marvelously spirited bunch. This has greatly contributed to increased prosperity and well-being.

But this undoubted success has nothing to do with Israeli feelings about the conflict with the Palestinians, an issue over which Israeli society suffers from deep self-doubt—so deep as to raise questions about its own sense of national legitimacy. This is especially true among the ranks of the older elites. My Promised Land: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Israel, the recent best-seller by Ari Shavit—who is considered a mainstream Zionist—exemplifies the effects of this debilitating condition, as both Ruth Wisse in Mosaic and Sol Stern in The Daily Beast have acutely pointed out. Even that supposed warmonger Ariel Sharon, in his last years, referred to Israelis as “conquerors” in their own land. Self-doubt doesn’t go much deeper than that.

While agreeing with my general verdict on the Oslo process, Gur demurs that, at least in conception, it was not “so irredeemably foolish as to impugn the mental faculties of its proponents.” He may be right about that. But I remember vividly the warnings of Oslo’s opponents—precise, well founded, crystal clear, and comprehensively argued, but falling on deaf ears in the euphoria promoted by Oslo’s prophets and promoters.

Important to mention in this context is that, prior to Oslo, Israel consistently deemed the Palestinian national movement to be beyond legitimacy. Negotiating with that terrorist movement, or even meeting its officials, was illegal; so was displaying the Palestinian flag. All of this vanished in the sweeping thrill of imminent reconciliation that turned yesterday’s lawbreakers into today’s peacemakers. This was not rational; it was an irrational attempt, born of reckless impatience, to escape reality—and it entailed the abandonment of any search for a genuine peace. The day afterward, systematic, murderous Arab terror, on a heretofore unprecedented scale, spread across the country.

High-tech ventures are nice, but in the diplomatic and political arena, Israel has been conducting itself in survival mode, not in confidence mode. If the country is under so much international pressure today, that is at least partly the result of decades of willed silence, amounting to impotence, in the face of the arrantly false and defamatory Palestinian “narrative.”

David Ben-Gurion once famously remarked that, in the end, “what the Jews do” is more important than “what the Gentiles say” (or think). As many of my commentators have noted, not everything depends on us; but much does. And what doesn’t depend on us is a challenge we have to face and do everything in our power to overcome.

In the overcoming of challenges, the long experience of Zionism has many still-pertinent lessons to teach us.


Yoav Sorek, an Israeli journalist and editor, and a 2012-2013 Tikvah Fellow, concentrates mainly in the field of Jewish thought and religion, with occasional forays into politics. He was an aide to Binyamin Elon, then Israel’s minister of tourism, on the latter’s 2002 peace plan, “The Israeli  Initiative.” His book, A Brief History of the Covenant (Hebrew), dealing with the challenge of Jewish renewal in Israel, is forthcoming this summer. 

More about: Foreign Policy, Hillel Halkin, Israel, Jewish identity, Jewish State, Oslo Accords, Yoav Sorek