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Op-Ed: Democratic Crisis or Jewish Catastrophe?

Originally posted in Haaretz (Hebrew)

What will Israel’s future look like without a two-state solution? The discourse around this issue frequently boils down to a threatening scenario: “Without a solution, Israel will be forced to choose between a Jewish state and a democratic one.” There are two problems with this threat. First, the public to whom it is directed is not worried about a “Jewish state that is not democratic.” Second, this alternative – a non-democratic Jewish state – is not viable in the long run. Relating to it as a realistic option is misleading and damages efforts to persuade opponents of the two-state solution.

The argument underpinning this well-known discourse sounds simple enough: Without an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, a one-state reality will develop between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. If democratic rights were granted to all the Arabs in this area, the Jewish majority guaranteeing its Jewish character would disappear. On the other hand, if a decision is made to maintain Israel’s Jewish character, it would be necessary to withhold civil rights from the Palestinians, including the right to vote and to have an equal say in defining the state’s identity. In the first case, the Jewish state disappears; in the second, the democratic state disappears.

President Obama expressed this logic in a warning to the Israeli public: “I have not yet heard a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution.” Obama, along with many others, are astonished that what seems to them like iron-clad logic doesn’t penetrate Israel’s armor, and has little traction in the local discourse. Had they double-checked the two problematic assumptions at the core of their argument, they might have sought a different avenue of persuasion.

The first problematic assumption is that the majority of Israel’s Jewish citizens wish to maintain a democratic Israel under any circumstance. The second is that Israelis truly have the option to be a Jewish state that is also undemocratic. These are two highly shaky assumptions. The Jewish majority, that allegedly insists that Israel remain democratic, does not always hold that commitment at the top of their priorities. Concurrently, controlling the area between the river and the sea without granting full rights to the Palestinians is not a viable option at all.

The experience of South Africa tells us that countries that aspire to be Western cannot deny civil rights to a substantial number of people under their authority – it is simply not possible in today’s free modern world. Just as the South African apartheid regime collapsed, Israel too would be unable to withstand the combined weight of international pressure, sanctions, and isolation for very long.  The free world will turn its back and distance itself from an Israel that betrays the values of liberty and equality. Israel will not be able to live alone by its sword forever in the midst of a hostile Muslim ocean.

If Israel does not end the occupation, the Palestinians will ultimately acquire voting rights. Israel’s attempts at procrastination, offering financial benefits, and fantasizing about Palestinian autonomy cannot ultimately save the day. It is therefore wrong to argue as if Israel must decide between being a “Jewish state” or a “democratic state.” Israel doesn’t have the option to sustain a Jewish and non-democratic state between the river and the sea.

There is a paradox here: if Israel chooses to be more Jewish and less democratic in order to keep its ancestral homeland, it will condemn itself to the loss of its Jewish character. If Israel, under international pressure, would be forced to grant equal rights to the Palestinians under its rule, its fate would be sealed. It would no longer be possible to divide the land. The number of Jews to be evacuated from their homes in the West Bank would be too large, forcing upon Israel an irreversible binational reality.

We have witnessed this suicidal pattern in the condition submitted during the peace negotiations demanding Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Such insistence is an obstacle to reaching an agreement – while that very agreement is the only way to prevent Israel from losing its identity as a Jewish state. That identity depends on a significant Jewish majority within recognized borders and has little to do with any Palestinian declaration. The irony is that those who claim to be the defenders of Israel’s Jewishness are the very ones who will be to blame in the erosion of its Jewish character.

Many of the Israelis who wish to maintain the West Bank under Israeli control – or fail to see the urgency of reaching territorial compromise – have no problem with denying the Palestinians democratic rights in order to maintain Israel’s Jewish character. Therefore, the choice they are being challenged with – “a democratic state or a Jewish state,” – is not painful to make. They prefer a Jewish state and are not perplexed by the sacrifice of its democratic values, especially if the denial of rights relates to non-Jews. The more religious or right wing they are, the more Israelis prefer to settle such contradictions of values by opting for a “Jewish” state rather than a “democratic” one. Their great mistake lies in the assumption that it is possible to maintain, in the long run, an Israel that is simultaneously Jewish, undivided, and undemocratic.

The real challenge of the supporters of the two-state solution is to expose this fallacy. In other words, two-staters must find a way to convince their opponents that continuing the occupation will lead not to a democratic crisis, but to a Jewish catastrophe. The argument that Israel will cease to be democratic in the absence of an agreement simply doesn’t work — Israelis must be convinced that without an agreement Israel will cease to be Jewish.