Opinion

No, Liberal Zionism Isn't Dead Yet. So Fight for It

If a Jewish state really becomes dependent on the subjugation and annexation of Palestinians - apartheid - then its continuation would be immoral. But we haven’t reached that point of no return yet

A crowd of people celebrating Jerusalem Day is met with protesters at the Old City's Damascus Gate, May 24, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Joshua Shanes and other frustrated progressives are right to draw attention to the one-state reality Israel is creating on the ground (Liberal Zionists, Face the Facts: There's Already Only One State From the River to the Sea.)

Likewise, they are correct that as a result liberal Zionists, until now content with expressing displeasure with the continued occupation and supporting the two-state solution, need to reevaluate their approach, which has become morally untenable as Palestinians enter another year living under foreign rule.

But they are wrong to conclude that the only answer is for liberal Zionists to support granting citizenship to Palestinians in the West Bank and accepting some Palestinian right of return ("the one-state solution"). 

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First, if Israel withdrawing from the occupied territories seems unlikely, the chances of it voluntarily surrendering its demographic majority are zero, which means such an outcome could only come about through external pressure. The one-state solution is particularly ill-suited to such an approach. 

Apart from the much-maligned Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and other parties of similar repute, who will actually apply this pressure?

Certainly not the United States, which views Israel as an important strategic ally to whom it has given billions of dollars in military aid. It has no reason to prefer an unknown entity.

The European Union acts by consensus in the international arena. There will never be a consensus among its EU member nations, especially Germany, to aggressively pursue a policy that could leave millions of Jews vulnerable to discrimination and abuse.

China, Russia, and most other putative allies of the Palestinians have only ever paid lip service to the issue. 

Second, liberal Zionists are a diasporic population whose main distinction from more strident left-wing critics of Israel is their continued support for and sympathy with an independent Jewish state, even if they reject the values of its government and the majority of the country’s Jewish population.

Liberal Zionists are to the left of the American Jewish establishment, which sees no contradiction between liberalism and supporting the State of Israel as it is, but they have never shared the view of anti-Zionists and some non-Zionists that there was something inherently problematic about Zionism. On the contrary, they openly identify as Zionists.

By calling on liberal Zionists to embrace one state, these internal critics are all but asking for a negation of what liberal Zionism practically means today: the possibility of a liberal democratic Jewish state.

The Neve Achi settlement outpost, named by Peace Now as one of the dozens of outpost Israeli authorities have retroactively legalized in the West Bank. July 7, 2019
Ilan Ben Zion,AP

They base this momentous decision on a thinly-supported case for the obsolescence of two states, one which fails to take into account several factors in favor of the paradigm’s continued relevance: the possibility of mutually-approved land swaps, the limited presence of a Jewish minority in a new state of Palestine, and a customs union, for example. 

I do not deny that one-state may be a necessary conclusion in the future; if the perpetuation of a Jewish state really does become dependent on the subjugation of Palestinians then the continuation of that state is consequently immoral.

In such an event I am afraid apartheid would prevail, but we would nevertheless have an obligation to fight against it. But the evidence we have reached this point of no return is unconvincing. 

Finally, there is the fact that by choosing one state, liberal Zionists would underline and bolster the main arguments of the Israeli right, who contend opposition to the occupation is merely a facade for "destroying" Israel.

We can debate whether or not the sudden loss of a demographic majority would really be tantamount to the dissolution of Israel, but that could very well be the end result, and only a solipsist or a fanatic would flatly deny the considerable possibility. Again, this result is nevertheless infinitely preferable to an apartheid state when placed in the context of that false binary.

An election campaign billboard showing Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, Israel, April 7, 2019.
Oded Balilty, AP

Rejecting a path, of course, is not enough. I agree with the central premise of liberal Zionism’s critics: our past and current efforts are simply inadequate to meet the moral emergency we face.

We have no standing to tell Palestinians to wait patiently for their rights or, worse, blame them for an occupation that today exists primarily to protect and advance an indefensible colonial project in the West Bank. A passive advocacy for two states is no longer an option.

Instead of adopting the faits accomplis of the Israeli right, liberal Zionists should work to undermine them. We should confront, not effectively concede to, the lie that a Palestinian state would pose an existential threat to Israel. The tool of coercion is the right one, but it must be directed toward an achievable, desirable and, a predictable goal. 

The great challenge for Liberal Zionists, in the face of Israeli governments either committed to entrenching the occupation, or not doing much to end it, is to persuade the next American administration to wield its power, in coordination with Israel's other allies, and impose a price that most Israelis are unwilling to pay to continue the settlement adventurism in the occupied territories. 

Abe Silberstein writes on Israeli politics and U.S. - Israel relations from New York. Twitter: @abesilbe