The Challenge for Israel’s Left: Returning to Begin’s Plan

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Menachem Begin addressing the Knesset in Jerusalem, 1981.Credit: Herman Chanania / GPO

There probably isn’t much point in arguing with a provocateur who provides intellectual arguments for his justification of apartheid. Someone who has contempt for morality does not hold the truth very dear. Nonetheless, Gadi Taub’s recent article, “Requiem for the Israeli left’s apartheid argument," requires a response.

First, because the basis of his argument is actually correct: The Zionist left must acknowledge the fact that a Palestinian state in the ’67 borders will not come to be, and start to create an alternative. Until then, shouting against occupation, annexation and apartheid is devoid of any real political meaning. And second, because Taub’s distortions and half-truths conceal a surprising truth – a repressed truth, even – that points to the kind of alternative that must be sought.

According to Taub, with the end of the two-state solution, the most the Palestinians could possibly obtain is “autonomy within our territory” but obviously without “annexation with full citizenship.” In the present reality, he writes, all that is possible is to realize Menachem Begin’s limited autonomy plan in the framework of Donald Trump’s “deal of the century.” The Palestinians would obtain self-determination, without sovereignty, and remain without citizenship or the right to vote in the country that rules them. Until the Palestinians forsake the “ethos of return” – and similar ideas related to the dream of Israel’s destruction – there is no other possibility.

Taub is unfazed by the argument that this would be apartheid: Partial autonomy is a fairly enlightened apartheid and the international community is anyway becoming more right-wing and nationalist. There is no danger that the world will pressure Israel to allow a “one-person-one-vote” system in a way that would turn the Zionist project into a state of all its citizens. But more important, the moral opposition to the establishment of apartheid is nothing but “virtue signaling” by narcissistic leftists. Fundamental opposition to apartheid is meaningless, since there is no real alternative. All that remains is to accept the Trump plan that “imposes on the autonomy that Menachem Begin wanted” the title of “state.”

And while Taub sings a “requiem for the apartheid argument,” Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn mocks the “messianic stage” of opposition to the occupation. He rejects the growing talk, with the end of the two-state solution, about “civil equality between the Jordan River and the Sea” as an irrelevant leftist delusion.

The truth is totally different. Begin’s autonomy plan was exactly the opposite of Taub’s plan and looked just like the idea of civil equality that Benn dismisses. Begin, who always opposed any partition of the land, did offer the Palestinians “limited autonomy,’ but the main component of it was that, in addition to national autonomy, the Palestinians would also receive “free choice” – i.e., the full right to Israeli citizenship. On this matter, Begin left no room for doubt: Every Palestinian who requested Israeli citizenship would receive the right “to vote and be elected to the Knesset, in accordance with the election law.” Taub somehow forgot to mention this part of the autonomy plan. Apparently the Haaretz editor-in-chief would be surprised by it as well.

In addition to the establishment of Palestinian autonomy and granting the right to full citizenship, the Begin plan also stated that all inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank would enjoy full “freedom of movement and freedom of economic activity” throughout the country, and the freedom “to purchase land and settle in Israel.” What about the Palestinian dream of return? The plan called for the formation of a committee with representatives from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian autonomy to set rules “by which the Arab refugees outside of Judea, Samaria and Gaza would be permitted a reasonable degree of immigration into these districts.” Obviously, those who returned to the territory would also receive the right to seek full Israeli citizenship.

In other words, Begin’s “autonomy plan” was not an autonomy plan at all. Its name hides the fact that it is a plan for one state with civil equality and a structure that could almost be called federative. It is more akin to the binational ideas of the old Brit Shalom or the current “two states, one homeland” than it is to the enlightened apartheid of Taub and Trump. This shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Begin’s spiritual mentor, vehemently opposed partition of the land and believed that the future of the state had to be, constitutionally, binational.

Critics from the left will argue, with some justification, that in a Jewish state, even full citizenship for Palestinians does not provide equality because it replaces the Palestinian aspiration for national sovereignty merely with self-determination. And sovereignty in the Jewish state remains first and foremost the sovereignty of the Jews, not of all its citizens.

Nevertheless, this is precisely the point where the main significance of the plan lies: Due to the commitment to Jewish sovereignty, the Zionist left is incapable of envisioning full citizenship for all the Palestinians. The Begin plan stretched the idea of Jewish sovereignty beyond the bounds of what is familiar to us today. In fact, it unraveled it into something that Zionists, including on the left, are today incapable of conceiving: full civil equality.

What led Begin to propose all this? He answered this question himself, in a speech before the Knesset: “I wish to explain why we offered free choice of citizenship, including Israeli citizenship. … I will put it simply, without offending anyone: We never wanted to be like Rhodesia … We are offering full civil rights. Anti-racism …”

The case of Rhodesia is not so well known today. In the 1970s, it was the symbol of an apartheid state. Unlike Taub, Begin actually had a moral objection to the idea of Israel developing along the same racist model and did not think, like Taub does, that civil equality for all Palestinians would mean suicide.

The Knesset’s position also pulls the rug out from under the familiar taboo. In the vote on all the details of the plan – including the right to citizenship, the right to movement, property and the joint committee on the right of return – 64 MKs voted in favor, eight voted against and 40 abstained. Aluf Benn would have called them “messianists.”

This is not to say that it is possible or worthwhile today to simply return, word for word, to the Begin plan. But there is also no need to listen to Taub’s requiem for the apartheid argument, which is built on distortions of facts regarding the limited autonomy idea. The Begin plan shows that even after the demise of the two-state vision, a real model for Jews and Palestinians living together remains. It includes full civil equality between the Jordan River and the sea, and, contrary to popular opinion, does not negate the basis of Zionism.

The Israeli left will have to develop a model of this type and promote it as a real political alternative. Unlike Begin, we will have to do this together with our Palestinian partners. If this is not done, the future holds not only apartheid, but much worse catastrophes.

Professor Boehm is a member of the philosophy department at The New School in New York.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: