What Israel’s Liberal Zionists Fear Most

Joseph Dana

The writing is on the wall for liberal Zionists. Advocates and defenders of liberal Zionism are slowly coming to the realization that the two-state solution, as it was envisioned under the Oslo Peace Accords, is not only unviable but dead. Writing in the liberal daily newspaper Haaretz last week, the famed Israeli author and staunch two-stater AB Yehoshua declared: “The two-state solution has become a deceptive cover for a slow but ever-deepening slide into vicious occupation and legal and social apartheid.”

Liberal Zionists see no inherent tension in Israel being both a Jewish and democratic state. According to their loosely defined ideology, liberalism and tribalism can coexist peacefully. For decades, the primary problem has been the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and the slow shift to right-wing nationalism. Yet, as liberal Zionists such as Yehoshua decried the state of Israeli policies, they never launched an attack with real bite.

It has been decades, for example, since the peace camp staged a concrete conscientious objection movement in Israel. Speaking with Israelis in liberal enclaves such as Tel Aviv, I found it fascinating to hear what they had to say about military service. If the ideology of extremist settlers was so abhorrent, why put on a uniform and defend those same settlers in their settlements? I never got a clear answer but always left such conversations thinking the settlers were more honest about their ideas than the liberal Zionists were.

The two-state solution is dead in large part because of the entrenchment of Israel’s settlement project in the West Bank. Young soldiers from liberal Zionist families in Tel Aviv allowed that reality to take root, and now they are dismayed by the fruits of their labor. As such, it is easy to see why liberal Zionism takes issues with Palestinian-led nonviolence against Israeli rule.

The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, used to write about how the Palestinians need a Mandela or Gandhi figure who could usher in a wave of nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation. In the course of several weeks of largely nonviolent protests on the Israeli-Gaza border where Israel has shot dead 44 unarmed protesters and injured more than 950, Friedman and other liberal Zionist writers have largely been silent.

In 2012, when the spirit of the Arab Spring looked like it would engulf Israel and Palestine, Peter Beinart wrote a book called “The Crisis of Zionism.” In the book, Beinart outlined what he saw as “democratic Israel” and “undemocratic Israel.” The noted American writer created a false dichotomy whereby Israelis lived in a democratic state (within the 1948 borders) but administered an undemocratic state in the West Bank. This type of fantasy thinking represents the last-ditch efforts by liberal Zionists to downplay the harsh reality of life between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

The true nature of the Israeli regime must be obscured at all costs because it directly contravenes the prized argument of liberal Zionism: namely, that Israel is, at its core, a liberal democracy where the rule of law is protected and respected. The reality is that the Israeli government administers a three-tiered legal system. At the top, Jewish residents have full civil and human rights in accordance with Western democratic norms. In the second tier, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship or residency face institutional discrimination. At the bottom, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have no civil or human rights and, at least for West Bank Palestinians, are subject to a military government. The crisis of Zionism is the inability to acknowledge this situation and take responsibility for creating it.

The debate around the two-state solution and Oslo peace process allowed liberal Zionists a convenient diversion. Instead of discussing the actual nature of the Israeli government, the debate focused on whether the Palestinians were ready for a state or if the Israeli government could curtail settlement building. While these are important questions, they miss the core issues at play in the conflict: rights.

One reason the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) movement terrifies Israel is that it places the issue of rights front and center. Instead of focusing on hypotheticals where the Palestinians might have a state and don’t live under occupation, the BDS movement lays down the reality of Israel’s racially tiered government and exposes the fallacy that Israel is a democracy. This is not to say that the BDS movement doesn’t have its flaws, but its ideological constitution represents a clear and present danger to the liberal Zionist model.

With the two-state solution dead, liberal Zionist thinkers such as Beinart and Yehoshua are struggling to find their ideological foothold. At the same time, Palestinians are embracing nonviolence as a tactic. A larger debate about Zionism and its ability to coexist with democracy is looming in the background. For one thing is clear, liberal Zionism is at a crossroads and in search of a new ideological footing.

Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.