In July 1999 a new Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, came to power. Barak had opposed the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles between Israel and the PLO and had voted against its sequel, the 1995 Oslo II accords, in the Cabinet. Nonetheless, his election raised hopes that after three years of stalemate induced by the administration of Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there would be renewed momentum toward a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement and resolution of the “final status” issues left open by the Oslo accords–settlements, the status of East Jerusalem, refugees, borders and the nature of the Palestinian entity.
Those hopes were dashed by the failure of the July 2000 summit at Camp David convened by President Clinton at Barak’s request and against the wishes of Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat, who thought the parties were not close enough to conclude an agreement. Israel’s proposals at Camp David, while more generous than any previous public position, fell far short of what any Palestinian leader could accept. Barak proposed a barely contiguous Palestinian state on 90 percent of the West Bank (with an additional 10 percent, the Jordan Valley, leased back to Israel for decades) entirely surrounded by Israeli-controlled territory. The Palestinians would have sovereignty over a few suburbs of East Jerusalem, but only a quasi-autonomous civil administration for Arab neighborhoods of the city proper. Barak’s refusal to withdraw to the 1967 borders reflected not only his commitment to a limited form of Palestinian sovereignty but his constricted negotiating room. Having lost his parliamentary majority just before the summit, he was terrified of appearing too dovish.
Following Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit, flanked by 1,000 Israeli soldiers and police officers, to the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem on September 28, 2000, the second (or al-Aqsa) intifada erupted. Israeli forces immediately deployed extreme violence, firing more than 1 million live bullets in the first three weeks of the uprising, largely against stone-throwing youth and before any act of Palestinian terrorism occurred. Nonetheless, negotiations continued throughout the fall in the hope that a deal could be struck before Clinton and Barak left office.
On December 23, 2000, Clinton proposed “parameters” bridging the differences between the parties at Camp David and the subsequent talks. They were presented as a “take it or leave it” American plan for two states: Israel alongside a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and 94-96 percent of the West Bank. All the exclusively Jewish neighborhoods established in East Jerusalem since 1967 would remain in Israeli hands, as would settlement blocs in the West Bank containing 80 percent of the settlers. Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would become part of the Palestinian state. Refugees would be able to return to the Palestinian state, but not to Israel.
Both Barak and Arafat accepted the Clinton parameters, although both had reservations. The Israeli public relations machine successfully marketed Israel’s position as an unqualified “yes” and portrayed the Palestinian position as an unequivocal “no.” Barak needed to do this regardless of his personal opinion of the parameters because adopting a position opposed to that of the United States is the kiss of death in domestic Israeli politics. In contrast, Arafat feared appearing to concede too much to Israel’s patron; and the diplomatic effort of the Palestinians to explain their position was clumsy. Negotiations on the Clinton parameters continued until the Oslo process was definitively buried when Barak called off last-ditch Palestinian-Israeli talks at Taba, Egypt, in mid-January 2001. Anticipating Sharon’s victory in the prime ministerial election several weeks hence, Barak said he did not want to conclude an agreement that would bind Israel’s next government. A few weeks later, Sharon defeated Barak in the most overwhelming electoral debacle in Israeli history. There have been no substantive Palestinian-Israeli negotiations since then.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, was minister of public security in Barak’s government. Born in Tangier, Morocco, in 1943, he immigrated to Israel in 1955 and eventually received a PhD in history from Oxford with a specialty in modern Spain. After a successful academic career he entered politics, serving as Israel’s ambassador to Spain from 1987 to 1991 and as a Knesset member from 1996 to 2002. Barak was so impressed by Ben-Ami’s performance as a negotiator at Camp David that he awarded him the additional portfolio of foreign minister, which had been vacated by David Levy, one of several defections that led to the demise of Barak’s government.
In his official capacities Ben-Ami presided over both the suppression of the second intifada and the continuation of talks with the Palestinians until Sharon became prime minister. He also orchestrated Israel’s campaign to blame the failure at Camp David on Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s “generous offer” and to portray Arafat as personally responsible for the intifada and thus not “a partner for peace.” Ben-Ami’s political star began to wane because, as minister of public security, he bore heavy responsibility for the deaths of thirteen Palestinian citizens of Israel who were shot dead in October 2000 in the course of demonstrations supporting the second intifada.
Since 2001 Ben-Ami has written books in Hebrew, French and English about the Arab-Israeli conflict. His most recent effort, published four years after his resignation from the Knesset, is a fascinating–and deeply schizophrenic–book, alternating between a soul-searching history of the roots of the conflict, and political score-settling and self-aggrandizement when Ben-Ami turns to the record of the government he served. Ben-Ami’s account of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1930s until he joined the Israeli government in 1999 largely accepts, and on some matters is even more radical than, the arguments of Avi Shlaim in The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (1999). Shlaim is one of the leading Israeli “new historians,” who have shown that Israel bears far more responsibility than is commonly thought for the Palestinian ordeal of dispossession and occupation and for the absence of peace in the region. Ben-Ami’s adoption of their perspective is a measure of the triumph of the new history, although arguments about details, rectifications of errors and debates over interpretation will continue.
Zionism, Ben-Ami writes, was both a “movement of national liberation” and “a movement of conquest, colonisation and settlement.” This formulation is uncontroversial in many circles and is well supported by numerous serious scholarly publications. Coming from a recent member of Israel’s political elite, it is an astonishing statement. Recounting the first Arab-Israeli war, Ben-Ami employs post-Zionist vocabulary, calling it the “1948 War” rather than the “War of Independence.” He notes that for Palestinians this was the Nakba (disaster)–again, a daring affirmation for an Israeli with unimpeachable establishment credentials. Moreover, he goes beyond the conclusions of Benny Morris, the foremost new historian of the Palestinian refugee problem. Morris, while documenting instances of expulsion, massacre and intimidation of Palestinians by Israeli armed forces, nonetheless concludes that there was no Israeli plan to expel the Palestinian Arabs–that their flight was born of war, not design. This thesis, according to Ben-Ami, is “not always sustained by the very evidence [Morris] provides.” Ben-Ami attributes much more responsibility to Israeli military actions than Morris. He is unconcerned that no comprehensive order to expel the Palestinian Arabs has been found in any open archival collections, because “Ben-Gurion did not have to issue particular orders for expulsion.” There was “an ideological predisposition, a mental attitude, a supporting cultural environment within which military commanders initiated or encouraged the eviction of the Arab population.”
Despite these and many other valuable conclusions and insights into Israel’s hyper-militarized political culture, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace is, in its final chapters, the work of a politician defending the government he served rather than of a historian. In his account of the record of the Barak government Professor Ben-Ami’s critical historical analysis gives way to a political brief presented by Israel’s foreign minister, with corresponding shifts in tone and perspective. In these chapters Ben-Ami seems to be mainly interested in justifying his participation in the Barak government and the Camp David summit. He reveals a limited understanding of and no empathy with Arab political culture, oscillating between paternalism and contempt for the Palestinian leadership. And he settles scores with Israeli rivals, such as Yossi Beilin and Shimon Peres, whom he obviously detests and considers unworthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.
The positions Ben-Ami espoused as foreign minister are somewhat revised in his new book. The attack on the Palestinians is softened by criticism of Israeli and American policies and negotiating tactics. But he ultimately holds the Palestinians responsible for the failure of the Camp David summit. He stands by his argument that the al-Aqsa intifada was not precipitated by Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. As he told the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer on November 1, 2000, “Arafat orchestrated these waves of violence, rather surfed on it, because he wanted to avoid the American peace package and be exposed by the President once again as a peace rejectionist.” And he maintains that Arafat was psychologically incapable of signing a peace agreement with Israel.
In contrast, the report of former Senator George Mitchell, who was dispatched to the Middle East by President Clinton to investigate the causes of the second intifada, concluded that the Palestinian Authority did not deliberately plan to initiate violence after the failure of the Camp David summit. Mitchell also determined that while Sharon’s visit did not cause the second intifada, “it was poorly timed and the provocative effect should have been foreseen; indeed it was foreseen by those who urged that the visit be prohibited. More significant were the events that followed: the decision of the Israeli police on September 29 to use lethal means against the Palestinian demonstrators.” (Mitchell’s conclusions were seconded by several high-ranking Israeli intelligence chiefs, some of whom had warned that a second intifada was imminent because of mounting Palestinian frustrations with the Oslo process.)
Ben-Ami maintains that Israel accepted the Clinton parameters whereas Arafat rejected them. But in September 2001 Ben-Ami told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, “We sent the Americans a document of several pages containing our reservations.” Nonetheless, he regards Israel’s reservations as a “yes” while insisting that Arafat “never formally said no, but his yes was a no.” This is clearly not the case, because negotiations over the Clinton parameters continued at Taba in January 2001, although disagreement on the interpretation of some key issues persisted, as might be expected in negotiations of this sort. According to EU Special Representative Miguel Moratinos, who prepared a “non-paper” on the talks that was accepted by both parties as a fair account of the state of the negotiations, both sides accepted the Clinton parameters, and Arafat did not reject the two-state solution.
It is hard to believe that the former foreign minister believes his own arguments in the final chapters of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, given what the historian says in the preceding chapters, which offer elements of a cogent explanation for the breakdown of the peace process well before the 2000 Camp David summit. The Oslo accords, Ben-Ami declares frankly, could not meet the minimum Palestinian expectations because they reflected the balance of power. He admits that the Oslo process was all but dead when the Barak government came into office. Moreover, the collapse of the peace process was “not exactly an unexpected accident; rather it was a failure written into the genetic code of Oslo.”
Ben-Ami’s attacks on Arafat in his official capacity are also flatly contradicted by the portrait he draws in his book. Here, Arafat is soberly depicted as “a difficult partner” who was “at the same time…the ultimate defender of the two-state solution.” Ben-Ami also understands that “no Israeli leader, including Rabin, really imagined how painful and how far-reaching the concessions would have had to be in order to come close to meeting the expectations of Israel’s Palestinian interlocutors.” Exactly correct. And the fact that Ben-Ami speaks in terms of Israeli “concessions” rather than acknowledgment of Palestinian “rights” expresses the gap between the two parties and is the underlying reason for the failure of the Oslo process.
One complication reducing the Israeli government’s willingness to turn over the entire West Bank to the Palestinians in any peace settlement is that since 1967 some 145 “officially recognized” settlements and more than 100 “outposts” have been established in the area, including more than a dozen exclusively Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The total population of these settlements today is about 440,000. Every US administration until the current one has considered the settlements “an obstacle to peace,” although this policy has rarely had any teeth in it, especially after President Reagan declared the settlements “not illegal.”
The birth of Israel’s settlement project from 1967 to 1977 is the subject of Gershom Gorenberg’s The Accidental Empire, an absorbing narrative with extensive references to archives, private papers, oral histories, books and articles. The outlines of Gorenberg’s story have been known since the 1983 publication of Occupation: Israel Over Palestine, a collection of essays edited by Naseer Aruri. But there is no comparably detailed history.
Gorenberg is an American-born Israeli journalist who writes regularly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for The American Prospect. Like Ben-Ami, he is a liberal Zionist who accepts (albeit less robustly) many elements of the new historians’ critique of Israeli policies. He acknowledges that the Israeli army deliberately provoked Syria for years before the 1967 war. And he agrees with Ben-Ami and Yoram Meital, the leading Israeli scholar on the subject, that despite the famous three “no’s” of the September 1, 1967, Khartoum Arab summit–no recognition, no direct negotiations and no peace treaty with Israel–the statement issued by the Arab states implicitly signaled that they accepted Israel’s pre-1967 borders and were prepared for indirect negotiations over the territories occupied in the war. “Decoded as its authors intended,” writes Gorenberg, the Khartoum declaration “meant that these Arab countries were aiming only at getting back the land lost in the last war, not at erasing Israel from the map, and that they would use diplomatic means, not tanks and troops, to accomplish their goal.”
In Trapped Fools: Thirty Years of Israeli Policy in the Territories (2003) Gen. Shlomo Gazit, Israel’s first coordinator of government operations in the administered territories (1967-74) and head of military intelligence (1974-79), notes that the leading American dailies recognized the diplomatic overture concealed by Khartoum’s face-saving bellicose rhetoric, while their Israeli counterparts did not. Gazit wonders if anyone in the Israeli intelligence community informed the government of the American assessment of Khartoum so as to be sure that an opportunity for a dialogue was not missed. In any case, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his Cabinet failed to read between the lines of Khartoum, preferring to decry the summit as yet another example of Arab rejectionism. Ignoring the nuances of Khartoum allowed Eshkol to postpone relinquishing the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, where Israelis had begun settling in July 1967.
“For Eshkol, Khartoum was the tipping point,” Gorenberg argues, unconvincingly. “Whatever the intent of the Khartoum decisions,” he writes, “their bellicose language convinced Israel’s government that peace was out of reach” and “encouraged the growth of the settlements.” This thesis, however, is undermined by Gorenberg’s own reading of Khartoum, as well as by his account of the eagerness with which Eshkol and other Israeli officials sought to establish “facts on the ground” before the Khartoum summit even took place. The evidence is corroborated and elaborated on by Ben-Ami and by Tom Segev’s 1967: And the Land Changed Its Face (so far available only in Hebrew; an English translation will be published by Metropolitan next year). The “accidental empire” did not develop in a fit of absence of mind.
Indeed, Gorenberg shows that the Eshkol government, intoxicated by the victory in the June war, wasted little time in creating new facts. Immediately after the war, Eshkol decided to annex East Jerusalem. A few days later, the Moroccan neighborhood of the Old City of Jerusalem was razed to make room for Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall; on June 27 the city was “unified” under Israeli sovereignty. On July 16, the first settler in the occupied territories installed himself on the Golan Heights; a month later, the Israeli Cabinet adopted a secret decision to permit “work camps” on the Golan Heights with the unstated possibility that they would become settlements. Even before the 1967 war was over, Minister of Labor Yigal Allon conceived his now famous plan to annex the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea shore, the Hebron hills and Jerusalem and to create a small Palestinian enclave on the mountain ridge north of Jerusalem. All these developments occurred before the Khartoum summit statement of September 1. While the strident rhetoric at Khartoum allowed Israel to justify expansion as a “defensive” measure and hardened Israeli popular opinion against giving up the occupied territories, it cannot have provided the impetus for the annexations and settlements that were already under way.
Gorenberg’s description of Israel’s approach to settlement as “a vacuum of strategy” is not persuasive. He tells us that civilian settlements were disguised as “temporary” military outposts or as work camps to avoid the appearance of violating the Fourth Geneva Convention, a danger to which Eshkol was alerted by the legal counsel to the Foreign Ministry. Yet the new settlers were civilians, not soldiers. Many of them were driven by religious messianism, sometimes seizing land in “wildcat” actions that usually received retroactive government backing; the laborers they employed were primarily Palestinians living under military rule; and despite the official claim that these “outposts” were defensive in nature, they exacerbated the conflict with Palestinians on whose land they were built, thus requiring the presence of Israeli soldiers. There were tensions between settlers and the army that protected them, but Gorenberg does not mistake appearance for reality: “The army and the settlers were like a couple that fights in public and goes home together.” Thus, as the rest of the world decolonized, Israel, Gorenberg writes, “was backing into colonialism in the occupied territories.”
Like all forms of colonialism, the Israeli occupation fostered abundant self-delusion on the part of its masters. Moshe Dayan, who as defense minister presided over the “administered” territories, as Israel insisted on calling them, was convinced that Palestinians would eventually embrace him “as long as life improved economically for his subjects, as long he was a stern but kind ruler.” In a conversation with Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan cited by Gorenberg, Dayan likened the occupation to “the complex relationship between a Bedouin man and the girl he kidnaps against her will…. You Palestinians, as a nation, don’t want us today, but we’ll change your attitude by forcing our presence on you.” In one of the book’s most surreal scenes, Dayan plunders antiquities in a West Bank village under the watchful eyes of his mistress, a young Shin Bet agent and a crowd of Arab onlookers.
Perhaps the most important contribution Gorenberg makes in The Accidental Empire is to shatter the conventional wisdom that the election of the Likud government led by Menachem Begin in 1977 marked “a revolution in settlement.” Rather, the Likud regime escalated trends established during the previous ten years of Labor Party rule. Gorenberg also debunks what he frankly calls “the myth of a reluctant Eshkol pushed by Orthodox settlers.” This myth, he adds, would “later serve the purposes both of the Israeli left”–hoping to wash its hands of responsibility for the construction of settlements–“and of the young Orthodox rebels” who were proud to claim credit for the Jewish state’s expansion into the biblical “land of Israel.” In fact, Eshkol’s “solution was to fall back on the method that Labor Zionism and his own past provided: to redraw the map one settlement at a time.” By December 1967, the West Bank had become Judea and Samaria in official documents. The following year, Eshkol advised one of his intelligence operatives to encourage Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to “emigrate, beyond what is now going on without our intervention.”
The settlement enterprise reflected to a considerable degree the ethos of Labor Zionism, as Gorenberg recognizes by terming the settlements “the colonial project of a sovereign state” and “a return to the struggle before statehood.” Pre-state Zionism was, as Ben-Ami puts it, “a movement of conquest, colonisation and settlement” led by Labor Zionists. What made the situation after 1967 unusual was the alliance of Labor Zionist territorial maximalists–Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, Yigal Allon and Yisrael Galili–with messianic religious Zionists inspired by the theology of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook. As Gorenberg demonstrates, the vast majority of Israel’s Labor leaders had a soft spot for the settlers, in whom they saw the “pioneer” spirit rekindled, and whose wishes they indulged. For Kook’s fundamentalist disciples, Israel’s victory was “mind-boggling proof” of their doctrine, inspiring them to settle more land and to prove themselves equal, if not superior, to the secular Zionist kibbutzniks, whom they viewed as, at best, “good sinners.” One of the ironies of this peculiar alliance, which Gorenberg recounts in vivid detail, is that the religious settlers’ Labor patrons were “helping to build a community” that sought to throw them “on the ash heap of history.”
In January 1967 President Lyndon Johnson asked Eshkol what kind of Israel he wanted. The Israeli prime minister reportedly replied, “My government has decided not to decide.” Despite his own considerable evidence that Israel’s indecision was intended to permit territorial expansion on the sly and without making potentially problematic public commitments, Gorenberg takes Eshkol at his word.
Consequently, the chief flaw of The Accidental Empire is its thesis, suggested by the title: that the territorial conquests of 1967 and the settlement project they enabled were unplanned–“born of a national evasion of choices,” as Gorenberg puts it. This argument is premised on the assumption that most Israelis (with the notable exceptions of Begin’s Herut, or Freedom, Party, and the Labor Zionist Ahdut Ha’avodah, or Unity of Labor Party) accepted the 1949 armistice line (the Green Line) as Israel’s final borders and looked forward to a life of normalcy. The settlement project, he suggests, emerged gradually, as Israel’s leaders, helped along by belligerent Arab rhetoric, put off any decision regarding the final status of the territories, often for domestic political reasons rather than because of some overarching plan. Gorenberg repeatedly undermines his thesis, as when he observes that Dayan’s plan for permanently integrating Israel and the West Bank “remained as a blueprint of what would happen, bit by bit, in the absence of annexation or withdrawal.” In another revealing passage, he writes that “the purpose of settlement, since the day in July 1967 when the first Israeli settler climbed out of a jeep in the Syrian heights, had been to create facts that would determine the final status of the land, to sculpt the political reality before negotiations ever got underway.”
If it was not the “rejectionism” of the Arab states at Khartoum that drove the occupation and the settlement project, what did? A good part of the answer lies in the nature of the state of Israel before 1967. Many Israelis across the political spectrum shared the conviction that all of historical Palestine belonged to the Jewish people and that the 1949 borders were a temporary compromise. For such people, the “accident” by which Israel acquired its empire was an unexpected opportunity, even a sign of divine intervention.
As Ben-Ami points out, Ben-Gurion made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the 1949 borders. He envisioned partitioning the entire Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan between Israel and Iraq. On several occasions Ben-Gurion and Dayan discussed “completing the job” left unfinished in 1948-49. They were especially interested in annexing southern Lebanon up to the Litani River and making peace with a rump state dominated by Maronite Christians. Ben-Ami sharply criticizes Ben-Gurion for helping to “create the psychological conditions for the Six Day War” (although Ben-Gurion was one of the few Israeli statesmen who called for withdrawal after the war).
Ben-Ami refers to recently published documents proving that in the years before 1967, “Yitzhak Rabin intentionally led Israel into a war with Syria.” Dayan told Yedioth Aharonoth reporter Rami Tal in a posthumously published interview that Israel initiated at least 80 percent of the clashes with Syria in the “water war” of the 1960s. Moreover, after the Syrian air force had been disabled early in the 1967 war, settlers in the Hula Valley lobbied the Israeli government to initiate a land assault on Syria. These Labor Zionist “pioneers,” according to Ben-Ami’s interpretation of this encounter, “simply wanted to acquire more land in the Golan.”
In 1967, Tom Segev provides nine pages of evidence for a strong streak of irredentism in Israeli political life. Additional lands were sought not only by the followers of Begin but also by Ben-Gurion’s proteges (Dayan and Peres), army officers (Rabin) and political figures (Yisrael Galili and Yigal Allon) affiliated with Ahdut Ha’avodah, a current in the Labor Zionist movement that split from and then rejoined the Labor Party. Unlike Gorenberg, Segev does not regard the leaders of Ahdut Ha’avodah as marginal figures, a reasonable judgment since Galili and Allon were ministers in the government that launched the 1967 war. Segev also challenges Gorenberg’s understanding of pre-1967 Israeli political culture, noting, “Many Israelis were old enough to remember the days before the Green Line; it was difficult for them to internalize it as a permanent arrangement.”
Allon, commander of the Palmach and of the southern front in the 1948 war, never forgave the Israeli government for preventing the army from conquering all of the West Bank in 1948. Ben-Gurion favored such a military initiative, but he could not convince the rest of the government and considered this “a cause for mourning for generations to come.” This story was published with great fanfare in the Israeli press in 1966. On the eve of the 1967 war former chief of staff Yigael Yadin gave a rare interview in which he too expressed regret that the Old City of Jerusalem and other territories were not conquered in 1948, when Israel had the chance.
Shortly after the “dovish” Eshkol became prime minister in 1963, army deputy chief of staff Rabin described to him Israel’s desired borders: the Jordan River in the east, the Suez Canal in the west and the Litani River in the north. If we replace southern Lebanon with the Golan Heights, these are the territories Rabin conquered as chief of staff in the 1967 war. Segev’s account of the army higher command’s view of Syria is consistent with Ben-Ami’s recollection from the time of his own military service that all the soldiers on the northern front “knew” the Golan Heights “would have to be taken over.” Ben-Ami concludes that Israel was “dragged by the hyperactivism of her army” into the 1967 war.
Does this mean that Gorenberg is entirely wrong and that Israel had a strategy to attack its Arab neighbors, occupy and annex their lands, and establish settlements before the 1967 war? There is no evidence that there was anything more than contingency plans for such an adventure. But Ben-Ami and Segev describe a political and psychological ambience in which it was acceptable to speak quietly about such things and widely believed that they were desirable. However, Labor and liberal Zionists thought it preferable to refrain from the demagogic statements for which Begin was notorious in order not to upset the West, especially the United States. Hence, when the opportunity arose, there was no need for the government to issue direct orders any more than there was in 1948, when Palestinians were driven from their lands. Army commanders knew they would be given retroactive permission to conquer as much land as they could. And civilians knew how to take the initiative in establishing settlements and locating allies within the government, even as there were sometimes clashes with other elements of the government over settling in a particular location or with excessive fanfare.
Like many who cherish the illusion of a “beautiful Israel” in the period between 1949 and 1967, Gorenberg seems to think it was possible to shut down the settler-colonial element of Zionism once a Jewish state was established. Many Zionist leaders saw Israel as a democratic, socially progressive, culturally innovative state seeking to grant equal rights to all its citizens. This was the dominant image of Israel in the West until the 1980s. Many Americans still embrace it.
However, many elements of the exclusivist Jewish settler-colonial project remained in place and were legally institutionalized after 1948. Most Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel lived under military law until 1966. They were not permitted to join the Histadrut trade union federation until 1965. About half of their agricultural lands were confiscated to make room for new settlements or expanding existing ones. Jewish immigrants were legally privileged over Arab citizens. The Palestinian refugees, in violation of UN resolutions and international law, were prevented from returning to homes and lands where they had been settled for hundreds of years. Hence, as a recent Stanford University doctoral dissertation by Shira Robinson argues, from 1949 to 1967 Israel was caught in the contradiction between the ideals of a liberal state and the realities of a settler-colonial enterprise.
Ben-Ami endorses a version of this important insight. Before leaving to head the Israeli delegation to the Taba talks, he said that Israel must choose “between being a state or a Yishuv [Jewish community].” He decries the culture of “illegalism” or “creating facts” in the face of legal constraints, which characterized Israel’s settlement activity in both the pre-1948 and post-1967 period. While he believes this was necessary before 1948, he bemoans the fact that it had not been suppressed as late as 2000.
In fact, this remains the consensual Israeli approach to this day. Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which was expressly intended to consolidate Israeli control over much of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, reflects this well. Rather than negotiate with the Palestinians as stipulated by the now defunct “road map” or through any other framework, Sharon simply relied on Israel’s overwhelming military power to impose what he considered a proper solution for the Gaza Strip–a solution that has turned the territory into a large, lawless prison camp with no prospects for economic development or political independence. Before Sharon’s stroke, the Israeli press reported that he intended to carry out similar measures in the West Bank after the March 28 parliamentary elections. (The former prime minister’s successor, Ehud Olmert, adopted this strategy as his platform in the elections.) He would have dismantled a few dozen smaller settlements and annexed about 30 percent of the West Bank, including greater East Jerusalem and all the land to the west of the separation barrier Israel has been building since the summer of 2002. The Palestinians would have been permitted to proclaim a “state” in the remainder of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is an arrangement, as Sharon knew very well, that no Palestinian leader could accept.
The persistence of the “illegalist” settler-colonial element in Israeli political culture–historically central to the ethos in Labor Zionism and adopted by messianic religious Zionism after 1967–has led some to conclude that a two-state solution will not provide a satisfactory resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They contend that the thick network of infrastructure and settlements (some of them small cities) established by Israel in the West Bank during nearly four decades of occupation creates a “matrix of control,” in the words of Israeli activist and anthropologist Jeff Halper, thereby making a contiguous and viable Palestinian state impossible. Even if a Palestinian state were established, Israel would dominate it economically and militarily, and the great majority of Israelis would continue to have the kind of patronizing attitude toward the Palestinians that Ben-Ami expresses. Nor would the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip insure equal rights for the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, now about 19 percent of the population, as long as Israel defines itself as the state of the Jewish people.
The critique of the two-state solution, which has been elegantly articulated by Tony Judt and Gary Sussman, as well as by the late Edward Said, founders on two realities. The first is that neither the one-state nor the two-state solution is on the horizon. The heated polemics on this question more than occasionally evoke the least attractive qualities of an academic seminar. The Israeli government’s effort to impose a solution unilaterally has met with approval, as ever, in Washington, and the Palestinian national movement is, for its part, in disarray, with the near disintegration of the Palestinian Authority, the collapse of Fatah’s hegemony and the recent electoral victory of Hamas, whose ideal is a very different kind of one-state solution than that of the secular left. The second obstacle to the one-state solution is the clear preference of both peoples to live in separate states: In all polls taken on this issue a firm majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip support two states, as do the majority of Palestinian Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.
The settlements and the Israeli separation wall are enormous obstacles to a viable two-state solution. But they were put in place by acts of political will. In principle, they can be removed by political decisions. What is uncertain is whether any coalition of forces can be assembled in Israel that can muster the wisdom and courage to undertake this. It would be greatly facilitated if the international community and the media ceased to propagate obfuscations about the nonexistent “peace process.” This has become a propaganda term that conceals Israel’s continued settlement expansion, the construction of the separation barrier declared illegal by the International Court of Justice and the fact that the Gaza Strip remains under occupation practically and according to international law. These harsh realities and their appalling consequences for the Palestinian people must be confronted. The Bush Administration, which has endorsed very nearly any Israeli outrage against the Palestinians in the name of the “war on terror,” is hopeless on this, as on many other Middle East policy questions. The Democratic Party has a poor record on Israeli-Palestinian issues and cannot be considered a serious alternative.
Where, then, is the hope for a peaceful solution to the conflict? I believe that it lies in the young Palestinians, Jewish Israelis and internationals who have been fighting shoulder to shoulder in weekly battles against the Israeli security forces since late 2003 to halt the construction of the separation wall. This struggle has been led by Palestinian villagers in unheralded places like Budrus and Bil’in, organized in the Popular Committee Against the Wall. Although their successes have so far been minor, these actions have demonstrated that trust is built through joint political action and that whether there will eventually be two states or one, coexistence, not separation, is the foundation for peace.