New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


The Arab-Israeli Peace Process and Herzl’s Dilemma

Last month, I spent a fascinating week traveling in Israel with a group of fellow Washington, D.C. think-tankers from across the political spectrum.  As you might imagine, the conversations we had there returned again and again to two main issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  In several full days of meetings with officials, academics, and other experts in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah – among other places – we managed to circle back to these themes from many different directions, and in discussions often delving into great detail.

One of my most intriguing impressions from the trip, however, had little to do with the minutiae of the policy programmatics of Iran sanctions, the current state of its weapons program, the religious drift of post-Kemalist Turkey, the challenges of infrastructure development in the West Bank, the Fatah-Hamas split within the Palestinian movement, President Obama’s rocky relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, what happens when the Israeli settlement “freeze” and the Arab League’s negotiating mandate for the PLO both expire this autumn, or whether the current crop of negotiators might be able to close the seemingly small remaining gaps between them on a peace settlement.  Instead, it had to do with a very broad-brush issue: the very character of Israel itself as “the Jewish State.”  This status, I came to feel, was in a strange way both deeply problematic and the potential engine for a solution to the Palestinian question – at least if the Palestinians can manage their own troubling tensions between ethno-national and religious identity.  And so I undertook to write about it.

Arab-Israeli issues are a new subject for this website, and not an easy one.  Indeed, I venture into these waters with much trepidation, given their complexity and intractabilty, and the strong feelings the topic elicits.  But New Paradigms Forum aspires to be the locus of broad-ranging policy discussion and debate, so here goes ....

I.          Herzl's Dilemma

The challenge faced by early Zionist leaders was closely bound up with the problem of a distinct people finding itself surrounded by a larger and often dangerously hostile population.  The founder of the movement, Theodore Herzl – who came upon his Zionism the hard way, in the bitter disillusionment of an assimilated Jew shocked to find, as a journalist following the Dreyfus Affair in Paris, how thin was the veneer of acceptance afforded his coreligionists in Europe at the time – acutely felt the dangers of submersion in a hostile majoritarianism.  As he wrote in his seminal work The Jewish State (1896), “[t]he majority may decide who are the strangers.”  A Jewish homeland was thus in his view a necessity precisely in order that there exist somewhere on the planet a state in which Jews were that majority.

Yet Herzl and the early Zionists seem clearly to have understood that Zionism was in some respects problematically entangled with questions of majoritarian self-governance.  This was true in the obvious sense that the Zionist project was ineradicably grounded upon a dream of self-rule by Jews in their own land, but also in the sense that the success of their project depended on the territorial self-determination this implied being one that did not encompass too many non-Jews.  Herzl seems not to have envisioned Zionist politics as being anything other than genuinely democratic, but in order for this to be the case it would be necessary to ensure that Jews outnumbered non-Jews in their homeland.  This is why he felt that immigration to the Holy Land was “futile unless we have the sovereign right to continue such immigration” until Jews had the majority necessary to ensure the character of their state as a specifically Jewish state without traducing democratic values.  Demography – the weight of raw numbers – was for them the key to avoiding a terrible a choice between the ideal of a “Jewish” state and the ideal of democracy.

After the First World War, as the Western powers debated what to do about the “Jewish problem” in the wake of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and Britain’s endorsement (in the Balfour Declaration of 1917) of the idea of a Jewish homeland, a commission set up by President Woodrow Wilson took the view that “a national home for the Jewish people” simply could not mean creating a specifically Jewish state because this would inherently entail prejudice to the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.  On the basis of the demographics of the time, such arguments were not without some force.

On the eve of the Second World War, Britain cut back Jewish immigration to Palestine, purportedly on these very grounds.  Continuing to adhere to the theory that the purpose of its League of Nations Mandate there was to prepare the territory for self-government, London now declared that it was not part of British policy “that Palestine should become a Jewish State.”  Evidence submitted to an Anglo-American committee of inquiry in 1945 highlighted the majoritarian dilemma that had been noted by Herzl himself in his comments on immigration, with Arab representatives observing acidly that there was “something inconsistent in the attitude of Zionists who demand the establishment of a free democratic commonwealth in Palestine and then hasten to add that this should not take place until the Jews are in a majority.”  The committee’s recommendation was that Palestine not be considered the proprietary property of any particular group at all: it should be neither a “Jewish” state nor an “Arab” one.

II.          The Shadow of Demography

This tension has echoed down through the years, and helped shape the ideological and political contours of Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians.  In this conflict, both sides for years claimed the “right to exist” as a polity defined in specifically proprietary ethno-nationalist terms, and these claims proved entirely irreconcilable as long as they referred to the same piece of sacred ground.  This is why, for instance, Israeli officials have so long demanded recognition of Israel’s “right to exist” – a phrase that goes a step beyond merely asserting the right of an already-existing country to defend itself, by implying Israel’s right to exist as a specifically Jewish state. Not missing the point, Arab officials long contended that Judaism was merely, as the Palestinian National Charter put it in 1968, “a religion, … not an independent nationality.”  Denying the Jews an ontological status capable of sustaining claims to nationhood was one way to preclude having to make any accommodation with the specifically national claims that would result from accepting the Zionist premise.  (For their part, the Palestinians long complained that Israel “denied our existence” as “a Palestinian people.”  This wasn’t quite true, but Israeli leaders did sometimes suggest that democratic Palestinian “self-determination” could be perfectly well satisfied within the territorial confines of, say, Jordan.)

As Herzl recognized from the start, demographics were central to the problem.  Arab leaders, including the Fatah movement within the PLO, claimed for many years not to desire genocide per se, but their program of action expressly involved the liquidation of the “Zionist entity”: the destruction of the Jewish polity in the region as such – that is, not necessarily as a state but as a specifically Jewish state.  For a while, as a result of several waves of Jewish migration to Israel, the demographic tables were sufficiently turned since Woodrow Wilson’s day that this was a distinction without a difference, for ending the Jewish character of the polity, as Yehoshafat Harkabi once noted, inherently meant something very akin to genocide.  In order for “Palestine” to have the Arab character the Palestinians desired, in other words, it would be necessary to evict or kill enough Jews to make them into a minority incapable of standing in the way of Arab majoritarianism.  Jewish numbers thus ensured that what Harkabi termed “policide” effectively equated to genocide.

But Harkabi’s equation is not a law of nature, for it rests merely upon the contingent weight of numbers, which can change – and are changing.  And here is where I think the contemporary politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are in some ways more deeply bound up with Herzl’s dilemma than at any other time since the earliest years after Israel’s founding.

III.          The Weight of Numbers

There are today some seven million people living in Israel proper, of whom some three-quarters are Jews.  With this commanding population ratio, the “Jewishness” of the state might seem secure.  But this proportion has been secured over time in large part through aliyah (“ascent”), the Jewish practice of emigration to Israel.  Between 1948 and 1951, for instance, the population of Israel doubled, with the arrival of over 600,000 new migrants.  From 1989 until the end of 2003, moreover, a further 950,000 or so Jews from the former Soviet Union arrived.  Scores of thousands of Ethiopian Jews – many of them brought to Israel in dramatic airlift operations – have also added to Israel’s population.

By comparison to Israel’s five million Jews, the number of Palestinians in the region is quite formidable: there are said today to be perhaps more than seven million Palestinian refugees and displaced persons, including those displaced in 1948 and 1967, and their descendants.  Many of these are in surrounding Arab-ruled countries (e.g., Jordan), but the West Bank and Gaza are said to have a combined total of something upwards of 3.8 million inhabitants.

These raw numbers make clear that Herzl’s dilemma is still very much with us, and explain much about the bitter contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not least the Palestinians’ insistence for so many years upon a “right of return” of all of these displaced persons to their (or their families’) original homes in what is today Israel – an insistence that corresponds precisely to Israel’s firm determination that widespread exercise of no such “right” can ever be permitted.  It also explains why immigration of Jews to Israel has long been considered, in the words of former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Daniel Ayalon, “the ultimate means to securing the future of the state of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Yet this “ultimate means to securing the future” for Israel is petering out, for the Jewish State has largely tapped out the world’s large reservoirs of potential Jewish migrants and is starting to feel the press of Arab numbers – even within Israel itself, where Arab Israeli citizens have a birth rate roughly double that of the Jewish population.  (The largest single pool of potential Jewish migrants outside Israel is the United States, but they seem unlikely to move in significant numbers.)  Emigration to Israel stands today at a fraction of what it once was – dropping from 185,000 in 1990 to a mere 13,000 in 2003, and still reaching only 16,000 in 2009 after much effort had been put into encouraging it – and it is not particularly welcome unless it is Jewish.  (In 2005, for instance, the Israeli cabinet voted to approve an emergency amendment to the Citizenship and Entry to Israel Law that limited the number of Palestinians who could receive Israeli citizenship, via marriage to an Israeli Arab, to a paltry 200-250 a year.)  Israel, as a Jewish state, is apparently starting to feel the pinch.

The shadow of this demography is visible throughout Israel’s interactions with the Palestinians.  As early as 1969, Yasir Arafat adopted the idea of a “democratic, progressive State in Palestine” as a plank of his propaganda campaign.  In this regard, he made his basic political point of raw majoritarian power clear enough: “The majority of the inhabitants of any future State of Palestine will be Arab, if we consider that there are at present 2,500,000 Palestinian Arabs of the Moslem and Christian faiths and another 1,250,000 Arabs of the Jewish faith who live in what is now the State of Israel.”  It was in this context that “democracy” became an objective for the Palestinians.

And Israel has not been unmindful of this – nor in any way eager to speed the arrival of the point at which it might actually have to face the fateful choice between its democratic ideals and its Jewish identity.  Promoting aliyah has been one key to the country’s postponement of such a day of reckoning, but Israel’s still-favorable population ratio has also been secured by not annexing to the country the territories seized in the 1967 war.   Some Israelis still regard these lands as inherently part of Eretz Yisrael by divine right, but it has apparently been clearly understood that the sheer number of Palestinians there ensure that without some kind of horrific “ethnic cleansing,” these lands cannot remain Israeli and Israel remain both a Jewish and a democratic state.

This is presumably has much to do with why Israel finally agreed to the principle of a two-state solution based upon talks with the PLO, as enshrined in the Oslo Accords of 1993 that were negotiated as part of the peace process that grew out of the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991.  And it is surely also why even the arch hardliner Ariel Sharon – infamous for his role in permitting Lebanese Christian militiamen to enter the Shabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon to massacre Palestinian and Lebanese refugees in 1982 – opted to withdraw Israeli forces from Gaza in 2005.

To be sure, in the religiously and ideologically charged environment of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the seemingly small details of a two-state solution that remain to be worked out (e.g., Jerusalem) may yet preclude agreement.  Nevertheless, remarkable progress has been made, to the extent that I found it astonishing how frequently I was told in Israel that “everybody knows” the basic contours of what peace will look like.  Demography seems to have given the Jewish State a profound interest in a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli mess, not merely on the commonly-asserted “land-for-peace” grounds that Israel’s security interest is furthered by agreeing to a Palestinian homeland in the Occupied Territories, but also because such an answer will help Israel avoid the deep identity quandary of Herzl’s dilemma: the tension in Zionism between being a Jewish state and being a democratic one.

IV.          The New "Nationalism" of the Extremists

That said, it is not enough for there to be a real chance for peace that Israel has come around to the view that a two-state solution is desirable – and sooner rather than later.  As the saying goes, it takes two to tango, and it is also necessary for the Palestinians to have come around.  And here too, my impression is that we stand at a critical crossroads.

Despite its penchant in the early days for recycled pseudo-Marxist agitprop, the PLO’s claim seems to me always to have been a fundamentally secular nationalist one.  Like the Zionists, the Palestinians claimed a specific and territorially-rooted national identity of a sort that would not be entirely out of place in the land-und-volk tradition of European nationalist imaginings.  It, too, was a nationalism assumed to have lain dormant for centuries, but which had now awakened in its glory to escape years of oppression and to lay exclusive claim to its sacred land.  (In this respect, some of the rancor of the encounter between the Zionists and the Palestinians may have lain not in the mutual ignorance often assumed by conflict resolution experts, but in the fact that they understood each other all too well.)  The Palestinians’ traditional goal has been what Arafat described to the Arab Summit in October 2000: the exercise of their “natural right to self-determination.”

Yet the Palestinian cause has also been in the throes of an identity crisis, a challenge in many ways more acute even than that which looms for the Jewish State in confronting Herzl’s dilemma.  The split between the old-school secular nationalists of Fatah and the Islamists of Hamas is far more than just a garden-variety power struggle.  It is a deep identity struggle between a European-ish secular nationalist identity and a new variety of religious self-understanding that is not defined in traditional nationalist terms; this battle is being waged to define what the Palestinian cause actually means.

Hamas and its supporters find the basically secular nationalism of Fatah to be anathema.  For these Islamists, as the Hamas Charter of 1988 put it, “nationalism” (wataniyya) is “part and parcel of the religious faith.”  Theirs is an Islamicised version of nationalism, however, in which the specifically national element seems almost incidental alongside religious identity and obligation.  According to the Charter, “[n]othing is loftier or deeper in Nationalism than waging jihad,” and this is binding on all Muslims as Muslims.  Unlike a secular nationalism, which gains moral and political force from asserting its likeness to other nationalisms – the strength of traditional claims to self-determination resting in the assertion that one’s own group must be given the right to take its place alongside all the other “nations” of the world – what Hamas calls nationalism sees itself as unique and peerless.  Hamas’ principle of divine sanction, the Charter asserts, “does not exist under any other regime,” and it is unlike every other nationalism that has ever existed.  “[T]he nationality of Hamas” is infused with “the all important divine factors,” and “the nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its faith.”

This religious identity – which hardly seems to be a “national” one at all – leads Hamas to a rejection of the PLO’s traditional demand for a secular state.  It rejects Fatah’s desire to “substitute … for the Islamic nature of Palestine by adopting secular thought.”  And it (still!) rejects peace with Israel because this is fundamentally not just a territorial dispute: it is a religious one.  According to the Hamas Charter, “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims.”  There cannot be peace until “[t]he members of other religions … desist from struggling against Islam over sovereignty in this region.”  (Note that it is not the Palestinian people who are assumed to have sovereignty there, but actually Islam itself.)

Such a specifically religious take on anti-Zionism has not merely been making headway among Palestinians, as Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections of 2006 suggests.  It has also become commonplace among other violent extremists in the Middle East.  Thus, for instance, can Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaim in 2005 that “[t]he Palestinian nation represents the Islamic nation against a system of oppression” – so that, as the late Ayatollah Khomeini famously put it, “the occupying regime must be wiped off the map.”  There is, one might say, little daylight between this and the views of Hamas as expressed by the Acting Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council in April 2007: “Oh Allah, vanquish the Jews and their supporters. Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them all, down to the very last one.”  In parallel to the struggle the world has watched between Israel and the Palestinians, there has thus also been a parallel war over the meaning of Palestinianism.  As Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas once put it, this is not a struggle between Fatah and Hamas per se, but rather a fight “between the national project and the project of the militias; between the project of the single homeland and the project of an [Islamic] emirate.”

No longer just a struggle between Jewish and Arab nationalisms, therefore, the conflicts in the Middle East have increasingly been taking on the coloration of a religious or even civilizational struggle.  The extremists’ pronouncements ring not merely with specifically religious invocations, but ones redolent of a clash of cultures in the deepest sense.  Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, for instance, has described Israel as threatening Arabs’ very manhood – as diabolically working to excise words like honor, nobility, and dignity from its opponents’ vocabulary.  According to Nasrallah, “[o]ur main and true slogan is ‘Honor First,’” for this honor is under threat and “[u]nder no circumstances … will we allow anybody to harm [it].”

This, then, is the “new nationalism” of the jihadists.  For Nasrallah and his ilk, the “nation” is conceived in civilizational terms rooted in religious identity.  “National” ties as traditionally understood are not terribly important, nor even necessarily are religious sectarian ones.  Nasrallah has called for Sunnis and Shi’ites to fight side by side against Israel in a holy “battle of the nation,” and indeed recent years have seen remarkable cooperation along these lines.  Their “nationalism” is that of the Islamic nation, and Islamic civilization as they see it, and it may be increasingly true – as Shimon Peres put it when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 – that that future conflicts in the region “will be over the content of civilization, not over territory.”

V.          Conclusion

So here’s why we would seem to have a pretty good chance to see a two-state peace deal.  As Israel has run out of feasible options for avoiding Herzl’s dilemma, so too are the more or less secular nationalists of Fatah worried that they may be running out of time if they are to have any colorable ability to speak for the Palestinian “nation” at all.  Both sides of the Oslo equation thus now speak for entities facing either the looming prospect or the actuality of deeply problematic identity crises.  And so they have good reason to come to a solution, and soon.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that the non-Islamist Palestinian negotiators seem to be running out of time faster than the Israelis, and perhaps fatally so.  This was a strong impression from my trip.  As one Israeli journalist quipped in bemoaning Palestinian rejections of the deals offered them by Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000 and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2009, in Yasir Arafat, the Palestinians had a leader who could have “delivered” peace, but he didn’t want it.  Now, in Mahmoud Abbas, they have a leader who may now finally have come around to wanting it ... but cannot deliver.

If indeed the region is not to be written off to an indefinite period of “civilizational” war, one must hope that such gallows humor is premature.  If Israeli and Palestinian negotiators can act on the shared interests created by their respective constituents’ identity crises in order to create a functional Palestinian state that is secure, relatively prosperous, secular, and fundamentally democratic, the world and their own peoples will owe them a great debt.  If not, hold onto your hats ....

-- Christopher Ford


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