Forgoing Independence

Yehouda Shenhav's binational solution has no basis in reality, says historian Tom Segev.

Toward the end of his book, Yehouda Shenhav quotes the British newspaper The Guardian, asking: "Why not fight for equal rights in a single binational state, particularly since this essentially existed in Palestine until 1948?" Shenhav knows of course that Israel did not exist before May 1948. I point out this minor stumble only because it is indicative of the nature of this entire polemic: It has no firm basis in history or in the political reality.

In recent years, the binational idea that Shenhav promotes has captivated certain intellectuals in the United States. It first came into being in the 1920s and did not become reality because a majority of the Jews and a majority of the Arabs did not wish to live in a binational framework. There is no reason to presume that they desire such a framework today; and understandably.

For some reason, Shenhav believes in dialogue between religious leaders. The truth is that God is the chief instigator of conflict in the Holy Land. Thus, it's somehow a little hard for me to envision an encounter between settler leaders in Hebron and Hamas leaders in Gaza that would culminate in an agreement on a binational democracy.

The binational solution that Shenhav proposes does not only require Israel to give up its Zionist independence. It also requires the Palestinians to give up the independence they have yet to achieve. The idea recalls one of the founding arguments of the Zionist movement: If the Palestinians would just compromise on their national yearnings and consent to the Jews' presence, they could benefit from the blossoming and development of the land, just like the Jews. But more than six decades after the establishment of the State of Israel, relations between the state and its Arab citizens are still problematic; nor do they encourage the hope that a Jewish-Arab democracy could actually work.

Shenhav attacks the liberal left with a passion reminiscent of the invective once hurled back and forth between the different factions of Poalei Zion. In fact, he's flogging a dead horse. The liberal left has become merely a shadow of its former self. Israel has more or less adopted the basic positions of what used to be called the Israeli "peace movement": The Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak government officially agrees to the establishment of a Palestinian state in part of the Land of Israel. In actuality, this is totally meaningless, of course, since the government is doing its best to see that no Palestinian state arises. Most Israelis have lost their faith in peace; Israel has moved rightward. It's conceivable that if they were forced to choose between a democratic binational state and apartheid, a majority of Israelis would opt for apartheid.

Shenhav is correct when he says that the Green Line is dead; half a million Israelis now living in areas conquered in 1967, including East Jerusalem, have altered the reality. Not only the remnants of the Israeli left, but the entire world, including the Palestinians, still pretend that the Green Line continues to reflect a certain reality. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been fueled by fiction. Shenhav mocks the leftists who view the Six-Day War as the watershed event between justice and injustice and who harbor nostalgia for the pre-1967 period. He thinks that the year of the Nakba, 1948, should be the focus, but expresses nostalgia for the Mandate era. The truth, which is very hard to live with, is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an inseparable and inevitable part of the Zionist enterprise itself, and just as 1967 is the continuation of 1948, as Shenhav correctly states, 1948 is the continuation of 1917.

In Mandatory Palestine, there was no democratic binational entity: Jews and Arabs lived side by side, and only very seldom together. Mutual hostility and violence accompanied the expansion of the Jewish presence and increased from year to year. Over the years, various opportunities were missed to make life more tolerable, and the same holds true today, but there was never a real possibility for true peace between the Zionist project and Palestinian nationalism. This requires every thinking Israeli to explain to himself how he lives with the injustice and misery caused by Zionism, along with its accomplishments, to Arabs as well as Jews. This is a much harder thing to do than to cling to the fiction that Israel will give up its Zionist independence, just as it's easier to live with the leftist fiction that everything will work out fine once Israel gives up the territories. But according to Shenhav, the intellectual is supposed to present options that do not take into account actual possibility or readiness. His position is padded with citations from Emil Druckheim and Michel Foucault, and the result is a combination of evasion and empty arguments.