Decolonizing Israel-Palestine is a Dangerous Delusion

Decolonizing Israel-Palestine is a Dangerous Delusion

Maximalist stances on the conflict are the immoral ones because in practice they will just lead to more war, more death, and more destruction for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Since the bloody Hamas attack on October 7, 2023, and the brutal Israeli invasion of Gaza that has followed, the discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has hardened perhaps more than ever before. One framework for understanding the conflict that has gained a significant level of traction on the global Left is that of “decolonization.”

This narrative sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as another case of colonialism—“settler colonialism” in particular—in which outsiders have conquered a piece of territory and settled it as their own, displacing and oppressing the local indigenous population.

To be sure, this lens captures an important part of reality. There was, of course, a large Arab majority population on the land that is now Israel and Palestine at the turn of the twentieth century. Mass Jewish immigration did change the territory’s fate in profound ways within a relatively short span of time. Jews did arrive en masse to Palestine in this period, buy up large swaths of land—displacing Palestinian farmers—and build proto-state institutions with an eye toward establishing a homeland. After winning the formative war between the two communities in 1948, the Israelis created a state and seized more land than was allotted to them in the United Nations’ prewar mediation effort, displacing around 700,000 Palestinians in the process. And that state did extend its control over the remaining Palestinian territories after defeating its Arab neighbors in the influential 1967 war, a control that it has never fully relinquished since.

Of course, others have critiqued this narrative for its blind spots and omissions, noting how, for example, it elides the fact that most Jews were refugees fleeing horrific European persecution, how roughly half of Israel’s population today are non-white Jews displaced from Arab lands in the conflict’s reciprocal cycles of violence, and how a promising but ultimately failed peace process—and the deep factional divisions that it represents in each society—complicate this picture.

A reasonable interpretation of this debate is that the decolonization narrative describes some important aspects of reality, but it is ultimately incomplete. Regardless, the point of this article is not to debate its historical merits and demerits. No, rather, its point is something much simpler: to say that—however seductive it might be for some—the full-throated decolonization idea represents a dead-end for both communities from a practical perspective, a maximalist vision of the conflict that will simply never happen and thus will never help anyone in practice. Instead, sadly, it hurts the people it purports to care about.

The rationale behind this is simple. However much some might wish otherwise, Israel isn’t going anywhere. I say this not as a cheerleader for one party in the conflict but as a social scientist making an analytical statement. Israel has close to 10 million people. Its economy is in the top thirty in the world in terms of GDP, approximately on par with countries like Ireland, Austria, and Norway. Its military and security apparatus, despite the colossal failure on October 7, is that of a high-tier regional power comparable to countries like Egypt, Turkey, or Iran. It also has about 100 nuclear weapons, in what may be one of the biggest longstanding “open secrets” in international politics.

Indeed, there are only two paths by which full decolonization advocates could achieve their objective of erasing Israel. One is through violence. Leaving aside the profound moral issues with that approach—moral issues that make even a strident Palestinian anti-Zionist like Rashida Tlaib unwilling to support it—the key point is that it will never happen. Violent state death has all but been eliminated from world politics. And no country with nukes has ever died or been conquered before in history. As shockingly successful as Hamas’s bloody assault on October 7 was, the proportion of Israel’s population that it killed was about 0.01 percent. And even that engendered a huge outpouring of global sympathy (which has been largely squandered, of course, by Israel’s response) and a brutal and massive retaliation that has decimated Northern Gaza and has scholars debating whether to use terms like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe it. So, in a concrete and practical sense, if you are advocating for the violent decolonization of Israel, you are advocating for a dead-end—one that will lead to nowhere but more war, mutual radicalization, and the violent destruction of Palestinian communities and lives in particular.

The second path is intended to be a peaceful one, although it can have nonviolent coercive elements, too. The idea is to transform Israel into a secular binational democratic state, one in which Arabs and Jews share a single democracy on the entire territory. For advocates, this would be done via a mixture of internal and especially external pressure. The model is undoubtedly South Africa, in which apartheid was eventually toppled due in no small part to external pressure on the regime, with Western sanctions and divestment playing a crucial role. While the allure of this comparison to its proponents is clear, the analogy falls apart upon closer inspection.

There are several crucial differences between the two situations from a political practicality perspective. For starters, the demography is different. Whites were only ever about 20 percent of South Africa’s population, while Israeli Jews make up approximately 50 percent of the population of Israel and the Palestinian territories combined. The world is also very different. The United States was in its “unipolar moment” and had a unique and fleeting dominance of world affairs when it helped end South African apartheid, whereas today’s world is much more multipolar, and Israel could look to Russia, China, or beyond if the United States truly turned against it. Moreover, the United Nations has endorsed partition repeatedly as the lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since even before 1948, while it never endorsed anything besides a single integrated state for South Africa.

But the most fundamental difference is psychological. Indeed, Israeli Jewish commitment to Zionism runs far deeper than attachment to apartheid in South Africa. For white South Africans, apartheid was about the maintenance of economic privilege and racial ideology. For Israeli Jews and many Jews elsewhere, Zionism and Israel have always been about survival and the existential fear of collective annihilation. This mentality is laid out well in an article on historically persecuted “small peoples” by the scholar Uriel Abulof. Rightly or wrongly, millennia of persecution have ingrained the idea among many—perhaps even most—Jews that they won’t be safe if they don’t control their own fate and live in their own state. While South African whites obviously did not—in the main—think they would literally be killed if they ended apartheid (or they would not have done so), most Israeli Jews believe they would be killed if Israel ended. This is why the idea of one-state polls so poorly in Israel and why no major Israeli political party or force today advocates it. In the eyes of most Israeli Jews, it is tantamount to suicide. To be blunt, Israeli Jews will never go for it in the way that white South Africans ultimately, if reluctantly, did.

Critics will say that this is an immoral accommodation of power in world affairs. To them, I say two things. First, it might be worth thinking about why Israeli Jews hold this belief and whether it is something to be understood and navigated rather than simply decried or ignored. Second, I would counter that it is an accommodation of political reality, which is crucial in thinking about effecting peace or change in international politics. Peace-making often takes into account political realities, failing spectacularly when it doesn’t. Indeed, it is curious that most of those ardently committed to the total decolonization or elimination of Israel (rather than a real two-state solution) are the same voices advocating for an immediate peace between Russia and Ukraine that would recognize and legitimize the political reality of Russian conquest of 20 percent of that country since February 2022. Why should political reality be accommodated in one case but not the other? Likewise, the international community’s neglect of the political reality that Hamas was an essential political actor and one that had the power to sabotage the Oslo peace process during the 1990s was one of the fundamental reasons for its tragic failure. One can go on and on: and ignore stark political realities in conflict and peace-making at one’s own peril.

Astute critics might also point out that my analysis neglects the realities of Israel’s politics and society that have blocked a real two-state solution from viability. These include Israel’s current far-right government, the significant right-ward drift in its electorate since Oslo, the ever-growing problem of violent and extremist settlement of the West Bank, and various forms of discrimination against Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians. These and other issues are very real obstacles to peace, and they must be challenged or dismantled if there is to be any hope for a lasting solution to the conflict. Yet, as explained above, the idea of eliminating Israel altogether is stillborn—that is, it has literally no chance of happening. Meanwhile, the dismantling of these very real and ugly barriers to peace pushed by large segments of Israeli society—while very difficult to achieve and even very unlikely at the moment—is at least more of a political possibility. There are some major segments of Israeli society that would like to see these changes occur. Isn’t it easier to imagine a state curbing its worst extremist impulses than deciding to commit suicide? And pressuring a state to commit suicide—especially the Israeli state, given the fear-driven psychological dynamics described above—is only likely to strengthen hardline sentiment and worsen those same impulses.