Comment: Middle East ‘Deal of Century’ is step toward apartheid – The Daily Herald

Posted By on February 2, 2020

By Omri Boehm / Special to The Washington Post

The announcement of President Trumps Middle East Deal of the Century this week basically cedes the West Bank to Israel, allowing the country to seize land that would otherwise have constituted a Palestinian state. Since Palestinian representatives were not invited to the White House for the policys announcement (Trump told reporters last week that the details of the program had been discussed with Palestinian leadership only briefly), the policys significance seems to lie outside the formal proposal; that is, in how Israel, backed by the United States, will respond once the Palestinians reject the offer. In all likelihood, the response will include massive one-sided annexations, empowered by the claim that the Palestinians had refused to compromise.

Its a step toward apartheid.

As these monumental developments take place, liberal Zionists have watched with alarm. For some time now, they have begun to see that the two-state solution proposed by the Oslo accords is pass. It is now clear that Israel will never evacuate hundreds of thousands of settlers; that a town like Ariel (with 20,000 inhabitants and a research university) will not be removed from the West Banks center. Clinging to the two-state idyll is like climate change denial: It flies in the face of fact.

But Israeli progressives have not offered a politically viable counterpoint. Partly, thats because today Zionists of every political stripe believe that Jews need sovereignty; their own state. And partly its because, in order for that state to be democratic, it must have a Jewish majority. Since Palestinians account for about 50 percent of the combined population of Israel and the occupied territories, a Jewish and democratic state is impossible without a two-state solution.

Also, Israeli nationalists, who support annexations, want to protect Israels Jewish majority. So a politics of transfer code for ethnic cleansing is emerging on their agenda. Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is also a member of the cabinet, openly advocates for expulsions of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Avigdor Liberman, the countrys former defense minister and likely future partner of Israels center-left, even supports removing Arab Israelis from the Israeli towns where they live. For these reasons, a two-state solution seemed like the only hope for progressives who dont want to trample another peoples rights. Understandably, they now despair.

Yet this anguish is based on a false premise. Zionism today is based on the idea that Jews have the right to their own sovereign state, but the movements founders held a more nuanced view. Intense ideological disagreements divided Theodor Herzl, Zeev Jabotinsky and founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, but they all agreed on the distinction, now often forgotten, between Jewish self-determination and Jewish sovereignty. And, up until very late in Zionist history, they were all committed to the former but denied the latter. They believed that the Jews had the right to exercise political self-rule to run their own lives and revive Jewish culture but they did not think that this should be done in a sovereign Jewish state.

Herzl, for example, envisaged the Jewish state as a mere political autonomy, existing under a multinational imperial authority. He rejected the idea that the Jewish state should ever gain independence and become an ethnic nation-state like the new Greece, which he thought would become parochial and provincial. Jabotinsky, whose Zionism is commonly regarded as the nationalist alternative to Herzls, supported to the end of his life the principle that the future of Palestine must be founded, legally speaking, as a binational state. In such a federation, he explained, the Jewish and the Arab ethno-communities shall be recognized as autonomous public bodies of equal status before the law. Hannah Arendt could have written this sentence just as well.

Until the mid-1930s, Ben-Gurion supported the same principles. His binational program consisted in cantons that comprise autonomous states within the federal Palestinian government. It dictated that every canton will be able to write its constitution for itself, but none will be able to pass a law that restricts or violates the rights and equality of another cantons residents. In this federation, national autonomy would have complete authority in the areas of education, culture, and language. On the assumption that Zionism depends on Jews national sovereignty, Zionists tend to dismiss binational one-state politics as anti-Zionist and even fanatical. The founders didnt see it that way.

This is hardly part of some irrelevant past. In 1977, Menachem Begin, a disciple of Jabotinsky and Israels first right-wing prime minister, presented President Jimmy Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat with an offer to the Palestinians, as a part of the peace settlement with Egypt. His plan, sometimes called the Autonomy Program, could have been called the One-State Program. It stated that Israels Military Government in the occupied territories will be abolished, and that an autonomy of the residents, by and for them will be established instead. Palestinians would have not just national autonomy but the free choice to become Israeli citizens, which would entitle them to vote for, and be elected to, [Israels] Knesset. It also ensured all citizens and residents of the territory, Jews and Palestinians alike, full rights to acquire land and settle and to be assured freedom of movement and freedom of economic activity in the whole territory.

Critics on the left sometimes point out that Begins program undermines the Palestinians claim to their own national sovereignty, exchanging it for mere self-determination. This is true, but only half of the story. It is because Zionism is now assumed to be about Jewish sovereignty that granting all Palestinians citizenship in the Jewish state seems inconceivable; even to liberal Zionist eyes. In this light, Begins program does not just exchange Palestinian sovereignty for self-determination; it also transforms the meaning of Jewish sovereignty in Israel, pushing it toward the type thats familiar from Jabotinskys and Ben Gurions Zionist binational programs.

In December 1977, Begin brought the program to the Knessets approval. Defending it from the podium, he explained that granting Israeli citizenship to all Palestinians is necessary to prevent the country from becoming like Rhodesia; that is, a racialist state with a segregated legal system and apartheid. In the vote that ensued, 64 voted in favor and eight against. Forty abstained. (Ultimately, it was rejected by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which insisted on sovereignty, and Israel turned away to pursue a peace accord only with Egypt.)

Trumps proposal Monday is monumental not just because it pushes Israel further in the direction of what Begin called Rhodesia. It also forces liberal Zionists to question their axioms and suggest an actual political program. There are living, worthwhile alternatives to Trumps deal; liberal Zionism beyond the two-state solution is possible. And for the first time in Israels history, a binational Zionism has become necessary.

Omri Boehm, an associate professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, is the author of A Future for Israel: Beyond the Two State Solution, forthcoming this fall.

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Comment: Middle East 'Deal of Century' is step toward apartheid - The Daily Herald

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