Israeli Public's Commitment to Democracy Shines as the Country Turns 75

April 27, 2023 Topic: Israel Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Lebanon Watch Tags: IsraelPalestineHamasHezbollahIranDemocracyPolitics

Israeli Public's Commitment to Democracy Shines as the Country Turns 75

Just as the attempted judicial overhaul aroused the Israeli public to stand up to defend the democratic character of the state, we may also see the public act against another threat to the character of the state—namely, becoming a binational state.

One of the basic things that Barnett et al fail to see is that the democracy movement has the potential to address not just the internal threat to Israel’s democratic character but also the one posed by continuing occupation of Palestinians. Drifting toward a binational state is also a threat to Israel as a Jewish democracy. Yes, to date that drift has seemed far too abstract to produce a serious public backlash against it—especially with Hamas in control of Gaza, the Palestinian Authority characterized by dysfunction and corruption, and no sign of any Palestinian willingness to compromise. But with an aroused Israeli public more sensitive to the threats to democracy, it may no longer be possible to postpone the necessary debate on the dangers of a binational state.

While Barnett et al put the onus only on Israel, two states for two peoples requires something of the Palestinians as well. In fact, a serious Palestinian move to reform the Palestinian Authority or a determined and more public and peaceful form of Palestinian protest against occupation could help stimulate the debate in Israel. Violence plays into the hands of those in Israel who favor one state. They see it as definitive proof that Israeli territorial concessions will make it more vulnerable and not more secure. But ultimately one state is a threat to Israel and the drift toward it needs to be addressed.

For Barnett et al, one state is not just a reality, it appears desirable. But this, too, is a misreading because there is no such thing as a one-state solution. The authors fail to understand that the separate national identities of Israelis and Palestinians are deeply rooted and will not melt away. Both Israelis and Palestinians have paid a heavy price to preserve who they are. Israelis have built a state in an environment where they were rejected and wars were forced on it. Does a country with a flourishing culture and which successfully achieved its raison d’être by ingathering more than a million Jews from the Soviet Union, as well as providing a home to Jews from Ethiopia, Syria, Yemen, and throughout discriminated communities in the Middle East, suddenly yield that identity? Does a country of close to ten million—over seven million Jews and two million Israeli Arab citizens—that has persevered through wars to become the “start-up” nation with a GDP per capita now ahead of Germany, Britain, France, and Japan, say their state and identity has failed?

Palestinians, too, have persevered. In their dispersal, in the refugee camps, and through two intifadas and profound suffering, they have not surrendered their identity. Ahmed Ghneim, a Fatah activist who remains close to Marwan Barghouti, once explained why he favored two states: “in one state, one of us [Israelis or Palestinians] will feel the need to dominate the other.” Ghneim is right. A binational state would guarantee that the conflict would turn inward. For a country that does not share the same language, religion, or experience, this would turn into a nightmare very quickly.

Two states for two peoples may be difficult to achieve but it serves both Israeli and Palestinian interests. Barnett et al are too focused on their one-state reality to address how it would be certain to doom both Israelis and Palestinians to enduring conflict. Indeed, the bloodiest wars are civil wars. Having a flag and a soccer team is not enough. The authors ignore that in the Middle East there is not a post-nationalism reality. Every state in the region that is characterized by more than one sectarian, tribal, or national identity is either at war internally or completely paralyzed. Does anyone really want Israel-Palestine to look like the tragic conflicts that have engulfed Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, or Yemen? Is that the future that we should hope for these two peoples?

Yes, it is hard to go from where we are to two states for two peoples. And, yes the United States tried three times to achieve an end of conflict result requiring major compromise. You would not know from the authors of the essay that the Palestinians were a large part of the failure of those efforts, even if there is enough blame to go around. Even if the end of conflict moment is not at hand, Israel needs to have a policy that has two states for two peoples as a destination. The starting point for getting there is having that as a vision; moving to improve the realities on the ground for Palestinians; reforming the Palestinian Authority the way it was done in 2007 when Salaam Fayyad came in and restored law and order and created transparency economically; pressing the Israelis to help a reforming PA to deliver; restoring a sense of possibility for both Palestinian and Israeli public.

Given the complex realities of the Middle East, it is not enough for an idea to have abstract appeal. It has to provide very detailed, real-world answers that would satisfy deeply held nationalist aspirations on each side of this conflict. One state cannot and will not do that. If one state may seem too simple and misguided, that is because it is.

Ambassador Dennis Ross is counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization. Ambassador Ross’s distinguished diplomatic career includes service as special assistant to President Barack Obama and National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Middle East Envoy to President Bill Clinton, and Director of Policy Planning for President George H.W. Bush.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations. He is also an adjunct professor in Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). In 2013–2014, he worked in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of State, serving as a senior advisor to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations.

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