The dilemma of a Jewish and a democratic state
David Newman on the Israeli debate about peace
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: I had a conversation a few years ago with Uri Dan, who was a journalist, an Israeli pundit, and a close friend and advisor to Ariel Sharon. In a very candid moment which was off the record, Dan said to me, we’ll keep talking about a two-state solution, but the truth is we believe that the West Bank was given by God to the Jewish people, and sooner or later it will be part of Israel as part of a Jewish state. And this idea of a greater Israel and a greater Israel that just continues to be a Jewish state, certainly there’s sections, very powerful sections in Israeli society that have believed it. Do they still? And from the Palestinian point of view, I think there’s a great belief here that, you know, talk and talk and talk, but Israel actually doesn’t want a legitimate Palestinian state as a real country.
DAVID NEWMAN, PROFESSOR, BEN-GURION UNIVERSITY: Well, I think there is a danger of that. There are some people who say a person like Olmert just wants to show to the world that, you know, he is interested in a two-state solution; when the American administration asked him to go to peace talks, he’ll go there; but in his heart of hearts, he’s not really in favour of it. But, of course, it’s very difficult to know to what extent people like Olmert and Sharon have really changed their colours, or whether it’s just a ploy and a strategy to delay and to delay and to delay. But in the long term, delaying doesn’t serve the cause of Israel; it doesn’t serve the cause of having a state which has a clear Jewish majority; it doesn’t serve the cause of a state which has to employ all of its resources and its soldiers and its army to controlling a civilian population of over three million people who clearly don’t want it there. So it’s not in Israel’s interests to continue to delay in this respect. And, how many people are still convinced that this is the land God gave to us—the West Bank, Judea, Sumeria—and therefore we can never give up an inch? I think that group of people is getting smaller, but it remains very vociferous, it remains a very highly active and mobile and ideologically orientated opposition to the government. And therefore the amount of media it gets and the amount of coverage it gets tends to be disproportionate to its real influence within the wider Israeli population.
JAY: The idea of a state in any modern sense of the word, a modern democratic state that’s either based on one specific religion or ethnicity, seems quite at odds with the idea of democracy. How do Israelis who are modern and cosmopolitan and want to consider Israel democratic, how do they get their heads around this idea that all of this has to start with the assumption that there’s a Jewish state?
NEWMAN: Well, I think that’s a bit of a dilemma that’s faced Israel not just since 1967, ever since it came into creation in 1948. Israel prides itself at one and the same time as being both a Jewish state and being a democratic state. And given the context of conflicts and given the context of what was for a long time existential threats, then I think Israel’s democracy is pretty strong, at least vis-à-vis the Palestinian or Arab population that resides within the sovereign boundaries of Israel, although there too there are some problems.
JAY: Can those who control the most power in Israel, can they really live with a legitimate Palestinian state, contiguous, with, controlling its own borders, an actually vibrant economy?
NEWMAN: That’s the question that the whole of the Israel population is concerned with. But the right wing is concerned with the fact that they don’t want to relinquish the West Bank with Gaza, or whether there would be a viable or a non-viable state on the other side. But as far as the grassroots of Israeli population go, people who are centre, people who are left of centre, they’re prepared to give up a tremendous amount in terms of territory and other issues if they could be convinced that by giving the Palestinians a state, there would be security and safety on the streets. If there were no armies on the border, no Katyusha rockets coming over the fence, and no suicide bombs at the supermarkets and on the buses, you would find that the vast majority of Israeli population would be prepared to make huge compromises for that. The only problem is the experience of the past ten years has tended to sway Israelis in exactly the opposite direction.
JAY: A lot of people have said that until both societies have kind of an internal struggle to resolve what they really want, not much will happen. Well, an internal struggle has happened amongst the Palestinians. It’s still not clear who will emerge as the real leadership there. Abbas, I think his popularity is rather low as I understand it, and so is Olmert. But Israel doesn’t seem to be going through the same kind of internal struggle. In other words, is the majority opinion in Israel, which seems to want a two-state solution, really ready to take on those in Israel who are adamantly against it?
NEWMAN: I think that’s a very, very important question, because we saw what happened when the settlements were evacuated in Gaza. And though some people said, look, it went quite smoothly and quite easily, the fact remains that what happened in Gaza is not what will happen in the West Bank if and when an Israeli government decides to get up and evacuate all or most of the settlers there. Number one, in Gaza there were seven thousand; in the West Bank there is a quarter of a million. And in the West Bank, of course, are the idealogical heartland of the settler movements who are most vehemently opposed to any form of withdrawal. And I think one of the things that Israel tends to back down from is the fact that they know that if and when that day comes, there is going to be some very major civil disruption within society. And I think a lot of Israelis who are prepared to move back to the Green Line, who are prepared to evacuate settlements in the name of peace, are very worried about what the implications could be for the internal social harmony within Israel.
JAY: When I quoted Prime Minister Olmert, in the beginning he referred to the possibility of a South African-type struggle for equal voting rights. But much of the world already sees the Israeli occupation as something like a South African apartheid, many people thinking it reaches similar states of brutality at times. There’s campaigns to boycott Israeli goods, to boycott Israeli academics and universities. How do Israelis feel, especially general popular opinion, that world opinion sees Israel in such a light?
NEWMAN: Well, I think it’s amazing that actually Olmert used that term of South Africa, because what Israeli governments and leaders have done over the years, and lots of people like Olmert, people on the left who were quite critical of occupation, have always tried to distance themselves as much as possible from any form of comparison between Israel and South Africa, you know, saying that, yes, there’s an occupation, but we’re not an apartheid state: we don’t discriminate against a person because he or she is an Arab or a Palestinian; and people, certainly Arabs within Israel itself, have rights—political rights, economic rights, etcetera, etcetera, and they’re represented in the Israeli parliament. But Israel can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that increasingly larger groups in the world see Israel in that way for as long as there is a situation of occupation. And what they say to Israel is you can either be a democracy or you can be an occupying power, but you can’t try and be both at one and the same time. And certainly if the democracy works out in such a way that the two populations achieve parity, and Israel wants to argue that it is a democracy, and therefore it has to give equal right to everybody living under its rule, it can’t try and pretend to be that democracy if people don’t have the equal rights. And Israel will lose its whole Jewish character, its whole Jewish majority, if it does that.
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