The idea that there should be an independent sovereign Jewish state in the world is, to understate the fact, controversial. Much of the European-oriented West and certainly the Arab Middle East opposes it. Even many diaspora Jews either don’t see it as essential to Jewish survival, or are no longer concerned with the continuance of the Jews as a people.
But recent events in Israel’s politics have brought us to a crossroads. The direction that we go now will be critical for the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state, and therefore for the survival of the Jewish people.
The history of modern Israel can be viewed from various vantage points: religious, geopolitical, military, ethnographic, and perhaps others. One dimension is the struggle between the Jews who reestablished the Jewish state after several millennia of diaspora, and the Arabs of Eretz Yisrael and the surrounding region.
Jabotinsky, in The Iron Wall (1917) understood, long before the reestablishment of the state, that there is no way that we are going to make Zionists out of the Arabs. They will not be interested in minority status in a Jewish state, no matter what rights or economic benefits this gets them. They will only accept Jewish immigration and ultimately sovereignty, he said, if they have absolutely no choice. Hence, the “Iron Wall.”
But Jabotinsky also expressed the optimistic view that – if the Wall was truly impregnable – at some point the Arabs would decide that there was no hope of getting rid of the Jews, and that they would moderate their demands. And then “we may expect them to discuss honestly practical questions, such as a guarantee against Arab displacement, or equal rights for Arab citizen [sic], or Arab national integrity.”
It has turned out that Jabotinsky was right in the first instance and wrong in the second. Perhaps – prescient as he was in other matters – he didn’t realize that it was impossible to separate Arab resistance from worldwide Jew-hatred and anti-Zionism, and that outside powers (in particular, Nazi Germany and later the Soviet Union) would adopt the Arab cause as instrumental for their wider geopolitical programs. Or maybe we just weren’t capable of building an iron wall high enough or strong enough.
In any event, the rejection of Jewish sovereignty between the river and the sea by the Arabs of Eretz Yisrael did not diminish over time. It was fed by the rejectionism of the British-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, al-Husseini, amplified by the Soviet adoption of the PLO and Husseini’s heir, Yasser Arafat. It received a massive boost from Israel’s astonishingly stupid decision to accept the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian Arabs, and to breathe life into its corpse by signing the Oslo accords and inviting Arafat and his coterie back to Eretz Yisrael. With the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the realization of the initial steps in Arafat’s “phased plan,” Jabotinsky’s wall was breached. It became possible for Arabs to imagine finally ending the Jewish “occupation” of all of Eretz Yisrael.
The Arab citizens of the State of Israel have followed a more moderate trajectory than the Arabs of the territories, but its direction has been the same. When the state was declared by Ben Gurion in 1948, it was defined as a “Jewish state,” the realization of “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” At the same time, the Declaration of Independence affirmed that the state would be a Western-style democracy,
…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; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
It also explicitly invited the Arabs of Eretz Yisrael to “participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”
I am not sure why Ben-Gurion and the other founders didn’t grasp the fundamentally contradictory nature of the promises they made in the Declaration of Independence. How could the Jews be “masters of their fate in their own sovereign state” and still promise full equality of political rights to the Arabs, who would always vehemently oppose that objective?
Meir Kahane pointed this out some decades ago. The response of the Zionist establishment was to kick him and his party out of political life in the country, and even to imprison him.
Today there are four parties in the Joint List; three are Arab parties and one is the Arab-Jewish Communist Party. All four oppose the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. They are in turn composed of various factions that espouse everything from Islamism to Palestinian nationalism and Pan-Arabism. In the past few years the number of Arabs voting for the Joint List has grown, and in the last election it obtained 15 seats in the Knesset, making it the third largest party in the Knesset.
One of Israel’s Basic Laws – in effect, its constitution – disqualifies anyone who “[negates] the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” engages in incitement to racism, or supports armed struggle against the state from sitting in the Knesset. But the Supreme Court has insisted on the highest standard of proof in these cases, and as a result, since 1965 no Arab candidate or party has been disqualified. The Court has been harder on Jews, in the case of Kahane and his party, and more recently, upholding the disqualification of Baruch Marzel, Benzi Gopstein, and Michael Ben Ari on the grounds of incitement to racism.
This is where we are today. We have swallowed the contradiction inherent in the Declaration of Independence, and we are facing the political heartburn that results from trying to digest it. The most moderate of the Arabs and the Israeli Left find the idea of a “Jewish” state objectionable, and would prefer that Israel be a “state of its citizens” like the United States. The Right passed the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation-State of the Jewish People, to explicate the precise meaning of the concept of a Jewish state, and it faces strong opposition from the Left and the Arabs, who see it as anti-democratic and racist. Almost certainly it will soon be taken up by the Supreme Court.
No Arab party has ever been part of a ruling coalition, both because the Arabs didn’t want to support a Zionist government, and the Jewish parties didn’t want them. However, in July 1992, a 62-seat left-wing coalition of Labor, Meretz, and Shas (yes, Shas joined a left-wing coalition!) was supported in the Knesset by the votes of Hadash and one other Arab party, which kept it alive when Shas quit in November of that year, and they dropped to 56. A similar arrangement has been proposed for Blue and White and its proposed Jewish coalition partners with their 56 seats. The votes of the Joint List would allow them to pass a law that would prevent PM Netanyahu from forming the next government, and to form a government even though they will not have the required 61 seats by themselves.
The degree to which the key people in Blue and White – as well as their partner Avigdor Lieberman – have both personal and political animus against Binyamin Netanyahu can’t be overemphasized. But the fact that they appear to be ready to become indebted to and wholly dependent on anti-Zionist parties in order to accomplish their goal of forcing him out is shocking.
Such a government would in effect give the anti-Zionist Arab parties a veto on all of its actions. It would certainly not proceed with the extension of sovereignty in the Jordan Valley or to Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. It would certainly try to repeal or emasculate the Nation-State Law. And it is not clear how it would react to provocations from Hamas or Hezbollah.
Preventing this is the immediate problem, but there is an even bigger one on the horizon: in order that the State of Israel can continue to fulfill its function as the sustaining force of the Jewish people, it must continue to be a Jewish state, constitutionally and essentially, and not just an ordinary state that happens to have a Jewish majority.
Anyone who does not support that objective should not be part of the governing body of the state, whether they are Jewish or Arab.