Without a Palestinian State, Israel Can Never Be Jewish or Democratic

Israel’s policy of perpetual occupation is already causing an increase in animosity toward the Jewish people and their state. Perpetuating this policy fosters the beginning of an anti-Israel movement – from within and without the state – that will be difficult to reverse.


Casino tycoon and right-wing political patron Sheldon Adelson has finally spoken to the existential issue of Israeli democracy absent a Palestinian state. Many observers were shocked by the multi billionaire, hard-liner's recent statement proclaiming, "Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state – so what?”

While I passionately oppose Adelson's views, his remarks provided clarity by openly acknowledging that a binational Jewish state would not be a democracy, an obvious consequence largely ignored by the Israeli right wing.

Israel, however, defines itself as a Jewish, democratic state. Its claim to being the only democracy in the Middle East gives it the moral high ground and engenders much foreign support, especially from Americans.

The issue of "democracy versus apartheid" was mostly quiescent while Israel appeared to be progressing toward a two-state solution, especially after the Oslo Accords in 1993. That is no longer the case.

The current Israeli coalition government effectively advocates a binational state, without rights for the Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, to name a few, have publicly endorsed either one state, or a second state the Palestinians could not possibly accept. Bennett proposes that Israel annex 60 percent of the West Bank (Area C, which is currently under Israeli control), leaving the Palestinians with about 9 percent of the available land prior to the United Nations partition in 1947, whereas the United Nations awarded Palestine 45 percent of the territory. Ya’alon favors controlling the Palestinian population – unless the Gaza Strip is demilitarized. Lieberman, for his part, has suggested forcing Israeli Arabs of the Triangle to emigrate to a Palestinian state. And Netanyahu has made it clear that he could never accept a fully sovereign Palestinian state in what is today the West Bank.

Since Oslo, which called for a Palestinian state by 1998, peace talks have faltered over borders, settlements, security, the division of Jerusalem and other weighty matters. The Israeli government has removed all of the above from the table, pivoting to one, binational state. As a result, 65 percent of the population in Israel and Palestinian Territories – including Israel within the Green Line, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank – are citizens with full rights, while 35 percent remain under occupation or blockade. Thus, today, we have a Jewish state, home to about 43 percent of the world's Jews, denying millions under its control any tenets of a civil society, dignity, or the most basic of human rights.

This unfathomable situation will batter the conscience of Jews and non-Jews alike. When we teach our children that government must be by the consent of the governed, will we say, except in Israel? How will Israeli teachers conflate this with its Declaration of Independence, which states that the State of Israel "will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex"?

Those who see Israel as a colonialist, apartheid state already besiege Jewish students in American universities. We are witnessing the beginning of an anti-Israel movement that will be difficult to reverse. Even when anti-Semitism sleeps, it sleeps very lightly. Israel’s current policy of perpetual occupation is already causing a disturbing increase in this atrocious prejudice.

Israel is now in conflict with the most basic values of the world’s free societies, and of Jewish tradition. Jews rightfully teach their young about our persecution by Egyptians, Romans, Babylonians, Spanish and the Nazis. Might these youngsters ask: Then why are we treating the Palestinians so badly? What have we learned from our own persecution? How can we preach our ancient values when the Jewish homeland has abandoned them?

All this may cause Jews to disavow their support for Israel, or even for their religion itself. Blatant hypocrisy will not have a happy ending. Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s right-wing president, in speaking of Israeli society's horrific treatment of the Palestinians, recently commented: “I’m not asking if they’ve forgotten how to be Jews, but if they’ve forgotten how to be decent human beings."

Israel is rapidly becoming a pariah state. The signs cannot be ignored. Part of the intractable problem the approximately 550,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, most of whom think the Bible is the Middle East's real estate directory. Yet they form a potent voting bloc. Fear of security is also a strong force, despite that a recent letter signed by 106 Israeli generals and spy chiefs argues that Israel has the strength and means to reach a two-state solution.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to peace is the corruption of power. Why should mighty Israel give up anything? What they won in battle is theirs.

If Israel’s leaders are determined to stand alone, they will almost certainly stand alone. But they should remember that revolutions seem impossible until they happen, then they are inevitable.

Stephen Robert is the chairman of the Watson Institute of International Studies, chancellor emeritus at Brown University, a member of the Council of Foreign Relations and Brookings Foreign Policy Leadership Committee and director of the U.S./Middle East Project.