A Realist’s Utopia

This month marks the 44th anniversary of the Six-Day War between Israel and the bordering states of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.  It was this conflict in June of 1967 which has shaped Arab-Israeli relations ever since, primarily because of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  Indeed, the whole basis for the perennially stalled peace process between the Palestinian people and the Jewish state centers upon what portion of these occupied territories will become the new, sovereign state of Palestine.

However, a simple return to “1967 borders” has always been something which the Israelis have publically rejected.  Ostensibly, this is because these borders are deemed geographically indefensible should another armed conflict arise.  So when last month President Obama became the first American commander in chief to publically set the 1967 borders as the starting point for peace negotiations, all hell broke loose.  It was not much longer than Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-line, Likud prime minister of Israel, hopped on a plane to personally tongue-lash the president and then deliver a scheduled speech in front of a joint meeting of congress ? to thunderous applause.

So there we had it; this was a Manichean war of words between two irreconcilable worldviews.  President Obama was the liberal universalist, naively enthusiastic about emerging democracies promised by the so-called “Arab Spring.”  Besides, to the conservative imagination, Barack Hussein Obama did not exude the same intuitive love for the Jewish state which could otherwise be expected of any patriotic American, let alone the president himself.  Netanyahu was the experience-hardened, Israeli realist.  He knew the proper limits of such idealistic enthusiasm, and he knew the real price for Israeli security.  An emerging, sovereign, Palestinian democracy could not be trusted to be friendly toward Israel.  The establishment of such as state on the supposedly indefensible borders of 1967 would, therefore, be out of the question.  American pundits weighed in on either side of the melee with articles and op-eds.  Characteristic of the tone was the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and his oft-quoted piece, “Dear Mr. Netanyahu, Please Don’t Speak to My President That Way.”

Not so radical after all

Of course, obscured by the rancor was the plain fact that none of this was at all new.  Some variant of the “Two State Solution” has been a part of the mainstream discourse since Israel’s inception in 1948.  In fact, the suggested demarcation of the border was much more generous to the Palestinians during the Eisenhower administration in the 1950’s than it is today.  The last Bush administration publically affirmed a Two State Solution which, de facto, would have to be drawn largely along the 1967 border; though, crucially, this language was never used in any high profile speeches.  (Instead, in a 2005 press conference, President Bush employed the term “1949 armistice lines” which, in fact, amounts to basically the same thing.)  Even Netanyahu himself has acknowledged in June 2009 the ultimate goal of a Palestinian state within the territories of the West Bank and Gaza (where else?) with certain land swaps so as to ensure the Israeli retention of the large, Jewish settlement blocks.  True, emotionally and politically charged issues remain ? first among these is the future of east Jerusalem, a point on which Netanyahu has never shown any flexibility.  Nonetheless, at its core, this supposedly polarizing debate is mostly a semantic one after all, at best a protracted political dance where each participant jockeys to win an edge at the bargaining table where the final lines will be drawn.  No one, though, really thinks that this table can ultimately be avoided.

Two states – A consensus of dunces

Unfortunately this “hidden consensus” is totally disengaged from reality.  Two basic facts preclude the Two State Solution as being a truly viable option.  The first can largely be placed under the heading of “geography.”  The basic premise behind any Two State Solution is, first, the recognition of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state, and second, the recognition of a sovereign and independent Palestine alongside.  Yet within the very heart of the West Bank exists very large Jewish settlement blocks.  Even the most dovish Israeli politicians acknowledge that these enclosed settlements, which now truly amount to mid-sized towns and cities, must be retained within Israel proper if and when a Palestinian state is declared.  The problem is that these enclaves will have to be connected with one another and to the rest of Israel via secure roads, manned by Israeli police and military officials.

This means that, not only will Palestine continue to be divided geographically between the West Bank and Gaza; The West Bank itself will necessarily be completely fragmented  to the point where Palestinians, in order to travel between one West Bank town to another, will have to pass through Israeli checkpoints.  How this amounts to a sovereign Palestinian state, I cannot fathom.  (All of this is aside from the very real interdependence of Israeli capital and Palestinian labor which, itself, necessitates a porous yet highly militarized border.)

In the words of the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti, “The geopolitical condition that’s been created in ’67 is irreversible. Cannot be changed. You cannot unscramble that egg,” (60 Minutes interview, January 25th 2009)

It is also the case that, largely because of these same geographic concerns, any future Palestinian state will be a demilitarized one.  This was, incidentally, also a feature of Obama’s high profile speech.  Not to valorize militarism for its own sake, but it is far from clear what politicians really mean when they claim to support a Two State Solution.  What does it mean to support a “sovereign” Palestine which is totally disarmed and geographically divided by a hostile Jewish state brimming with military might?

The second obstacle for any Two State Solution is far more intractable.  This is basic demographics.  Leaving aside the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, we can shortly expect a demographic tipping of the scales within Israel itself.  As it stands, Arab Israeli passport holders make up about 20% of the total population, and the percentage of Israeli Jews has shrunk, by proportion, by about 1-2% each year since 1949.  This means that, within one to two generations, it is possible that Jews will be the minority within the Jewish State.

Between 2020 and 2030, the population of Israeli Jews is expected to increase by less than 15%.  This is compared to the Arab and non-Jewish populations which are expected to increase, in this same decade, by just over 26%.  (Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, 2010)  Again, these figures pertain to “Israel proper” and would not be significantly affected by Israel ceding the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

Counterbalancing the “tipping point” with the Orthodox birthrate

The kicker is that the one plausible way for Israel to avoid this “tipping point” scenario is by relying upon the high birthrates of the ultra-Orthodox and Haredi Jewish communities.  Secular Zionists are, therefore, between a rock and a hard place.  Over the next 20-40 years Israel will become increasingly Arab and, simultaneously, increasingly Orthodox Jewish.  Therefore, even if Arabs and non-Jews do not make up 51% of the population within 50 years, it will nonetheless be the case that secular-minded Jews (traditionally the bedrock of Israeli, Jewish democracy) will find themselves to be the absolute minority far sooner than anyone has imagined.  The prospects for Israel retaining its fragile “secular,” “Jewish,” and “democratic” identity in the long run are therefore negligible.

What must be understood is that these demographic shifts are not necessarily fatal for any given democracy; they are detrimental specifically to that chimerical creation that is a religio-ethnic democracy.  A state which tries to maintain popular sovereignty, secular government, and equal representation under the law alongside a specifically determined ethnic and religious character intrinsically brings upon itself these tensions which, given the right circumstances, will tear it apart from the inside.  Truly modern, secular states which disavow any predetermined ethnic identity are able to absorb diverse and even undemocratic populations, and then go on to secularize and democratize these very same groups.

“Progressive assimilation” is the order of the day.

However a country which is always staking its very existence upon certain demographic ratios necessarily cannot employ such a strategy.  It will have to cast its lot with the most closed, culturally entrenched sectors of its own ruling, ethnic population.  In doing so, it may for a while offset countervailing demographic pressures, but it ultimately cuts itself off from any sustainable model of secularization, growth, internal unity, and progress.  In the end, it cannot even remain democratic.

That hard-liners and liberals continue to pitch mock battles with one another over the minutia and semantics of a Two State Solution is therefore the height of irresponsibility.  For the very idea of “two states” is predicated, in the first place, upon the unworkable and premodern idea of “identitarian” government.  In many ways the “Two State Solution” is, therefore, an oxymoron; for it solves nothing.  It only conceals and maintains the basic contradictions a form of government which is, right now, propelling two peoples towards a very real and bloody conflict.

A Realist’s Utopia

What is needed now is a rational assessment of the situation in light of the given facts.  When this is carried through, all signs point to a One State Solution.  What was once the utopian dream of Jewish intellectuals like Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and Albert Einstein, has now become the banner of hard-nosed realists.

Just last year, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (a member of the conservative Likud party) came out against any partition of the land of Israel, and instead proposed a bi-national solution to the current crisis.  Speaking on the de facto inseparability of the Palestinian people from Israel, Rivlin commented, “It is a group with a highly defined shared national identity, and which will forever be, as a collective, an important and integral part of Israeli society.”  (Haaretz, “Israel official: Accepting Palestinians into Israel better than two states,” April 29th, 2009)

True, heads of state and diplomats rarely discuss this taboo option, at least in public.  However, like all timely ideas, the One State Solution is gaining broad consensus just below the surface.  A sure sign of this fact is that Israelis themselves have begun to see the inevitability of one state on both ends of the political spectrum.  A recent poll showed a relatively equal level of support for a bi-national state amongst self-described “right-wing” and “left-wing” Israelis, 15% and 18% respectively.  (March 2010 poll, The Israel Democracy Institute of the Guttman Center)

For an idea which is constantly derided as being the fantasy of only the most deluded, anarchic radicals, these are truly shocking numbers.  They show that one-third of Israelis, broadly distributed across the political landscape, support a single, bi-national state with equal rights for all its citizens.

Today, the support for a trulysecular, bi-national state is no longer motivated by sheer idealism alone.  This “utopian” solution is now the most realistic one as well.  Speaking on the abovementioned poll, Dr. Ya’akov Shamir of the Israel Democracy Institute confirmed, “In Israel there is a group that believes that a bi-national state is inevitable because with Jewish and Palestinian communities so entangled in the West Bank, it will be almost impossible to divide them.”  (The Jerusalem Post, “Palestinians increasingly back 1-state,” March 22nd, 2010)  We may only add that this “indivisibility” is rapidly becoming the new reality on both sides of the 1967 line.

Landon Frim is an instructor of Philosophy at Stony Brook University and the chair of the Faith and Socialism Commission of the Socialist Party, USA