Confession of a Democratic Zionist

On June 11, 2009, I published a piece here in which I suggested a formula: A demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish State of Israel. Three days later it was the thrust of Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech at Bar-Ilan University, June 2009.
Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech at Bar-Ilan University, June 2009. Credit: Avi Ohayoun
Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

The truth is, I’m to blame. I’m the irrational, ignorant dolt who has put the demand to recognize the Jewish state at the center of Israeli public debate. Don’t blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Do not reproach Ruth Gavison, Tzvia Greenfield, Gadi Taub or Ben Dror Yemini. Let’s blame me; I’m the renegade. I’m the culprit. I’m the hopeless nationalist who believes deeply in the Jewish and democratic state.

This is what happened: In early September 1993 the full text of the Oslo Accords was published. As a declared peacenik and avid text junkie, I pored over the document excitedly and enthusiastically. After only a few minutes, I was horrified. To my astonishment, I discovered that the peace agreement meant to end the conflict between the Jewish national movement and the Palestinian national movement did not mention one of them at all. While Israel recognized the Palestinian people and its legitimate rights, the Palestinians did not recognize the Jewish people and their rights. Herzl founded the Jewish state in Basel, and the United Nations recognized the Jewish state in Lake Success, but in Oslo the Jewish state was forgotten.

This black hole in the agreement with the Palestinians became my obsession. I spent years in splendid isolation writing numerous articles demanding explicit recognition of the Jewish people and its right to self-determination in its own country on its historic homeland. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I argued, is not a territorial dispute, but an existential identity conflict. It stems from the fact that we weren’t seeing them and they didn’t see us, and all of us were living in mutual denial. That being the case, the only way to peace was true separation and mutual recognition – two states for two peoples.

The first to internalize the new approach were actually the leaders of the peace camp. In the talks that led to the formulation of the Geneva Initiative in the early 2000s, they demanded that their Palestinian interlocutors recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Their demand was even accepted, albeit partially and limply. Later on, retired IDF chief Moshe Ya’alon adopted a similar line. So did then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Following the trauma of the second intifada, the demand for explicit recognition of the democratic Jewish nation-state gained more and more support.

On June 11, 2009, I published a piece here in which I suggested a 10-word formula: A demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish State of Israel. Three days later this short formula was the thrust of Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech. The position that resolving the conflict had to involve recognizing the right of the Jewish-democratic state to exist had become Israel’s official position. Today it is also accepted by U.S. President Barack Obama, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and many others in the international community.

Does the concept of a Jewish and democratic state deter peace? On the contrary. Only when every Palestinian child in Deheisheh and Balata knows that there’s a Jewish people that also has rights in this land will peace begin. Does the concept of a Jewish and democratic state perpetuate the occupation? On the contrary. Only when every teenager in Ofakim and Migdal Ha’emek understands that dividing the land is required to ensure the continuity of the Zionist enterprise will the end of the occupation begin. Is the idea of a Jewish state anti-democratic? Quite the contrary. In this fanatic and violent Middle East, only a Jewish state can be democratic and only a democratic state can be Jewish.

Israel must recognize the full and equal rights of all its citizens, but the world must recognize the right of a small, threatened and persecuted people to a home. Dear friends and colleagues, do not raise your hand against the Balfour Declaration, the UN partition resolution, the Declaration of Independence and the right of the Jewish state – the State of Israel – to exist.

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