Can Zionists Support a Binational State? This Israeli Writer Says Yes

In his thought-provoking new book ‘Haifa Republic,’ philosopher Omri Boehm reminds us that the binational state was a concept promoted by parts of the Israeli right as recently as the late 1970s

Abe Silberstein
Abe Silberstein
Palestinian flag
Credit: AP
Abe Silberstein
Abe Silberstein
The book cover for "Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel," by Omri Boehm.
Credit: NYRB

Is it time for liberal Zionists, in the name of Zionism, to embrace the end of a sovereign Jewish state in Israel and instead seek the establishment of a binational one? Omri Boehm, an Israeli philosopher and associate professor at the New School for Social Research, believes so – making the case in his new book “Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel,” published this week by the prestigious New York Review Books imprint.

The book is an effort to reconcile Zionism with the diminishing prospects of a two-state solution. For decades, the Zionist left in Israel and its supporters in the Jewish Diaspora focused on the two-state solution as the only way to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Israel’s current government, however, has no intention to advance that solution, as Foreign Minister Yair Lapid recently reminded the European Union’s foreign ministers.

Boehm argues in “Haifa Republic” that the two-state solution is now impossible to achieve, and adjures those looking to prevent an apartheid reality on the ground to think outside its confines.

The most significant conclusion he invites readers to recognize is that without a two-state solution, one must consider another option: a binational state.

Unlike most proponents of a single state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, Boehm foregrounds his binational proposal in Zionism. This stance takes considerable intellectual courage, but in the past it was actually quite common in Zionist circles. In the decades before the 1937 Peel Commission first breathed life into the idea of a hard partition between Jews and Arabs, a binational state was precisely what many of the most famous early Zionists were advocating.

Drawing on the groundbreaking research of Hebrew University professor and Haaretz contributor Dmitry Shumsky, Boehm establishes a Zionist pedigree for his binational republic. He notes that the Altneuland in Theodor Herzl’s 1902 novel “The Old New Land” was a Jewish autonomous zone under Ottoman rule, existing alongside autonomous zones for others; the “state” in “Der Judenstaat” was also a non-sovereign entity, similar to the “states” pursued by Czech and Hungarian nationalists in the 19th century.

In addition to the more commonly known binationalism of Ahad Ha’am and the Brit Shalom movement, both David Ben-Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky were also not inclined to emphasize sovereignty. Even as late as 1940, by which time Ben-Gurion had already decided to support partition, Jabotinsky was still promoting a model that had many binational aspects to it.

But what was once an unquestionably Zionist idea is today rejected by the Zionist mainstream and championed largely by post-Zionists. After all, with an existing State of Israel, we are clearly not operating in the same political universe as the Zionist thinkers of a century ago. No matter how loud one claims their Zionism, granting serious consideration to a binational state is seen by many left-wing Zionists as effectively siding with the enemy. Among many “one-staters,” a pronounced commitment to Zionism is similarly anathema.

Radical coexistence

Speaking with Haaretz from Berlin, where he currently lives, Boehm says his decision to ground his argument in Zionism was no mere pragmatic consideration. Unlike some Israelis on the academic left, he has retained a strong attachment to Zionism.

“If we support a binational vision, then in the virtue of it being binational, we are supporting a version of Zionism,” he says. “I do not think it is a binational state if the Palestinians have national rights and the Jews do not.”

“Haifa Republic” was originally published in German last year under a different title: “Israel – Eine Utopie.” The English title reflects a proposal that Boehm sketches in the book for a new kind of entity in the Holy Land – a “Haifa Republic,” inspired by the relative comity with which Jews and Arabs coexist in the northern Israeli city.

A protest attended by Jews and Arabs calling for greater government funding during the coronavirus pandemic, in Haifa last year.Credit: Rami Shllush

It also touches on the significance the city holds in the overshadowing tragedies of each people, the Holocaust and the Nakba: It was the port city of Haifa where Jews escaping Europe arrived after World War II, and from which Palestinians were forced to flee in 1948.

Boehm hopes it can also become the city where a new era of true radical coexistence – not simply the minority learning to accept the majority’s dominant status – can be born.

The book is as bold as it is brief. In four short chapters, Boehm diagnoses the torpor of contemporary liberal Zionism; examines what he sees as the inimical way in which Israelis are taught to “remember” the Holocaust while working to “deny, censor, and forget” the Nakba; and finally, draws out his new proposed “republic.”

While Boehm is clearly hoping liberal Zionists on the left will read his book and cast off the burden of the two-state legacy, the most interesting aspect of his argument is that some of the basic tenets of a binational state were supported not too long ago by parts of the Israeli right. He imagines that a “vital center” can be formed in support of binationalism and trains his focus on Menachem Begin’s autonomy plan, introduced in the late 1970s as part of Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt.

Begin’s autonomy plan envisioned a single sovereign Israeli entity between the river and the sea, and offered Palestinians living within its boundaries a choice between Israeli and Jordanian citizenship. Those who chose the former would be eligible to vote for the Knesset.

While the plan contained its share of caveats, poison pills and vague phrasings – Palestinian applications for citizenship needed to be in line with Israel’s citizenship law – the concessions it made to stop Israel from appearing “like Rhodesia” (in Begin’s words) were substantial.

"Haifa Republic" author Omri Boehm.Credit: Marzena Skubatz

“The plan did not offer the Palestinians a sovereign state, but it did something unimaginable today,” Boehm writes. “It offered citizenship to every Palestinian, every one of whom would be ‘entitled to vote for, and be elected to, the Knesset.’”

Critics will surely note that Begin was no advocate for ending Jewish sovereignty, and that his autonomy plan was submitted with the full knowledge that it would be rejected by Palestinian leaders. The historian Seth Anziska has persuasively reasoned that autonomy was introduced for the express purpose of “preventing Palestine.”

In our conversation, Boehm takes great care to distinguish between his proposal and Begin’s, and makes clear that he does not seek to revive the exact wording of the plan, which did not recognize the national rights of Palestinians.

“I do not want to go back to Begin,” he insists. “I want to shed light on what Begin was doing in order to say something about a binational republic.’’

In other words, Begin’s plan is relevant today not in its precise intent but in its imaginative capacity. And it is this willingness to imagine that is severely lacking in Zionist thought today, and which Boehm seeks to reinstate with “Haifa Republic.”

Menachem Begin talking on ABC's "Good Morning America" in 1980. Credit: Dave Pickoff/AP

Boehm’s vision

So what specifically does he propose? First, Boehm seeks to maintain the territorial unity of historic Israel/Palestine; all Israelis and Palestinians will enjoy freedom of movement, residence and work across the entire territory – a single federation in which two non-sovereign states operate along the pre-1967 lines so that each people can enjoy “cultural and national self-determination.”

Jews living in the Diaspora will continue to be eligible to immigrate to this state under the law of return, but the same will apply to Palestinian refugees. Hebrew and Arabic will both be official languages.

Political scientists will have a great deal of fun poking holes in the elaborate federative structure Boehm suggests, featuring, among other novelties, a mutual defense treaty between two separate internal security forces and a joint constitutional Supreme Court – but today the mechanical details feel beside the point. It is hard to conceive a governing coalition in favor of a binational state coming together in the current political climate. The prospect of a binational state is vanishingly small today – perhaps even smaller than the slim chances to see a two-state solution implemented anytime soon.

Yet a similarly bleak reality colored the limited horizons of the Zionist idea just a little more than a century ago. In Herzl’s much-too-quoted aphorism, the dream must be willed before it comes to fruition.

In the case of the binational state, the dream must first be dreamed – or at least written down. In the Zionist tradition, Omri Boehm has played his part by pushing binationalism back into the narrative.

“Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel,” published by New York Review Books and priced $14.95, is out now.

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