For all of all its embarrassingly self-serving pretensions to be “a light to the nations,” Israel has been moving ever closer to the authoritarianism of certain central European countries whose leaders have alt-right and anti-Semitic proclivities. Tom Segev, the prominent Israeli historian, described the situation in his country to Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist, as follows: “Our government is more and more right wing, racist, anti-Arab. If they were members of a government in Austria, we’d recall our ambassador in protest.” It is to these authoritarian leaders that Netanyahu feels a special kinship, as does Trump. Both men went out of their way last year to express that kinship demonstrably by meeting with them while shunning the European leaders who speak up in defense of democracy.
And there is more—sadly, much more. Netanyahu felt no need to disown his son’s attack on a liberal Israeli NGO in a tweet in which his son included anti-Semitic and Nazi iconography. (The son is reportedly being groomed to enter Israeli politics.) Nor did Netanyahu utter a word of criticism of Trump’s scandalous moral equation of the neo-Nazis, racists and anti-Semites in Charlottesville and those who turned out to condemn their hatred and violence.
The central thesis of this new book, titled “The Arab Minority in Israel” (published only in Hebrew), is that Israeli Arabs are a fifth column “who suck from the state’s teats” and cannot be integrated into Israeli society. Expressing admiration for the Americans’ internment of its Japanese citizens during World War II, the author advocates the confinement of Israeli Arabs in concentration camps. The author sees Israel’s failure to have taken such measures as a sign of “an enfeebled Israel that has lost its will to exist.” For “although the Arabs openly identify with our enemy . . . [n]ot only are they not incarcerated in camps, we allow them to stand on our platforms.”
These are not Palestinian residents of the West Bank, but Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel that he is describing. And these are views that are shared not only by the Likud members in attendance at this book launch. As far back as 2006, a Pew Research Center study found that half of Israel’s Jewish population believes that Israel’s Arab citizens should be expelled from the country. If this is how many Israelis view their own fellow citizens, then imagine how they will treat the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank who they now intend to keep under permanent military occupation.
The theoretical possibility that a two-state accord has not yet been decisively eliminated by the irreversibility of Israel’s settlements will certainly be taken care of by Trump’s peace envoys, the wrecking crew headed by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Both are longtime promoters and funders of the settlements, and they will surely manage to firmly close the door to Palestinian statehood in the three or seven years left in Trump’s presidency.
Israel’s dominant political culture is today far more reflective of Trumpian and similar mid-European authoritarian values. It is the predictable by-product of a culture shaped by the unrelenting repression and total disenfranchisement of millions of people under Israel’s military rule that is now in its fiftieth year. Virtually every young Israeli Jewish citizen spends three impressionable years of his young life looking at Palestinians through his rifle’s sights as potential targets to be eliminated. What is amazing is that some of them still emerge from this dehumanizing experience with enough of a conscience to support human-rights organizations like BT’selem, Breaking the Silence and Ir Amim, organizations that Netanyahu and his government are doing their very best to discredit, demonize and destroy.
The above notwithstanding, Trump’s ill-conceived Jerusalem initiative may yet have a positive consequence, however unintended. Nothing has been as harmful to the Palestinian struggle to end Israel’s occupation and unrelenting theft of territory intended for its state as Abbas’ insistence on the preservation of the Palestinian Authority and the myth that it serves as “a state in formation,” when it so clearly allowed Israel to solidify its occupation. Trump’s move on Jerusalem achieved what years of Israel’s settlements failed to do—shatter the illusion of a two-state outcome, and allow the Palestinian national movement to turn into a struggle for rights, which is to say a struggle to end Israel’s de facto apartheid regime, a course I have advocated for over a decade, and now increasingly embraced by younger Palestinians. What is particularly significant is that this younger generation is opting for a struggle for equal rights in a single state not because they despair of achieving a state of their own, but because it is their preferred solution. It is the right choice, for their struggle for a state of their own is one Palestinians cannot win, while a struggle to maintain an apartheid regime is one Israel cannot win.
If after what undoubtedly would be a long and bitter anti-apartheid struggle Palestinians prevail, they will be in the clear majority. Having established the principle that the majority can impose on the minority the religious and cultural identity of the State, Israel will not be in a strong position to deny Palestinians that same right. That will lead in time to a significant exodus of Israel’s Jews.
If Palestinians do not prevail, then the undeniable apartheid character of the state and the cost of the ongoing struggle will lead to the same result—an exodus of Israel’s Jews over time, creating an even greater demographic imbalance between the country’s Jewish and Arab populations. Palestinians will not leave because they will have nowhere to go.
The outcome is therefore likely to be the end of Israel as a Jewish state. If so, it will be an outcome brought about not by BDS movements but by Israelis themselves, not only because of their rejection of the two-state solution, but because of their insistence on defining Israel’s national identity and territorial claims in religious terms. A state that fast-tracks citizenship through government-sponsored religious conversion to Judaism, as Israel’s government now does, cannot for long hide that it privileges its Jewish citizens—just as the United States could not have claimed to be a democracy if conversion to Christianity were a path to U.S. citizenship. New legislation endorsed by Netanyahu and the ruling Likud that explicitly allows democratic principles to be overridden by Israel’s legislature if they clash with certain Jewish religious principles demonstrates that the notion of a Jewish and democratic state may have been an oxymoron from the outset.
Henry Siegman is President Emeritus of the U.S./Middle East Project and a past senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He formerly headed the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America.