Israel, Democrats and the problem of the Middle East
The tragedy of the Middle East is that there are no viable solutions.
The status quo? While a lot of Jewish Israelis can live with the status quo, the message of last month’s bloody conflict was that Palestinians cannot. And not just Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. What came as a shock was the bitter communal violence between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Many Israeli Arabs find the status quo intolerable, and so do ultra-nationalist Israeli Jews.
The “Abraham Accords” promoted by the Trump administration were predicated on the status quo. Small, oligarchical Gulf Arab states would normalize relations with Israel in order to realize the benefits of trade, investment and tourism. Palestinian issues would simply be ignored. The Palestinians’ response? “We will not be ignored!”
A two-state solution? That has long been seen as the only viable option by U.S. presidents and many Israeli and Arab leaders. President Donald Trump said to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018, “I like a two-state solution. That’s what I think works best.” Trump added, oddly, “I don’t even have to speak to anybody, that’s my feeling.” After last month’s cease-fire, President Joe Biden said, “We still need a two-state solution. It is the only answer.”
But without any discernible peace process, the two-state solution seems to have become less and less realistic. Given ongoing settlement activity and annexations, Israel appears to be moving closer and closer to a one-state outcome. The prospective new Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, has called a Palestinian state “suicide” for Israel and has supported Israel’s annexation of much of the occupied territories. Israel is unlikely to accept a hostile state on its own borders, especially one likely to harbor terrorists. Few Israeli settlers in the West Bank would agree to live under the authority of a Palestinian state. In 2014, Bennett warned Israel’s Arab citizens not to become a “fifth column” – traitors working for the enemy.
A one-state solution would be difficult to sustain as long as Israel defines itself as a Jewish state. To give up that identity would be an unacceptable betrayal of Zionism, Israel’s founding ideology. The alternative would be to treat Arabs as second-class citizens without the same political rights as Jewish citizens. That would be a betrayal of democracy.
Expel the Palestinian population? Some Israeli extremists have talked about it. Just imagine a Jewish state carrying out a policy of ethnic cleansing.
With one state becoming more likely, the Palestinian political movement has been moving away from the idea of a national liberation movement and closer to the idea of a civil rights movement. American liberals know how to respond to civil rights movements. They have been doing it for decades — in the United States, in South Africa and all over the world. Americans who sympathize with the Palestinian cause see it as a human rights cause. Which it is, given the often brutal and discriminatory policies of the Israeli occupiers. But it is more complicated than that. Much more. Hamas lobs missiles at Israeli population centers, and Palestinian terrorism is a constant threat.
President Biden is a traditional Democrat, and Democrats have been staunch supporters of Israel ever since President Harry Truman made the U.S. the first nation to give Israel de facto recognition minutes after the new nation was proclaimed in 1948. Biden has followed that tradition. The deputy White House press secretary said President Biden “categorically rejects the description of Israel as an apartheid state or as engaging in terrorism.”
For its first 20 years, Israel was seen as a country of the left. Many of its leaders came from the European socialist tradition. The Soviet Union was a strong supporter. The leading party was the Israeli Labor Party. The kibbutz movement was clearly identified with the left. All that changed with the 1967 war, when Israel conquered and occupied previously Arab territories. Starting in 1967, Israel came to be identified more and more with the international right.
At the same time, the Democratic Party has moved to the left. As a result, Israel supporters in the Democratic Party have been thrown on the defensive. Younger and more liberal Democrats — including many progressive Jews — have become openly critical of Israel. It used to be the case that the one place where you could always find bipartisan support for Israel was in the U.S. Congress. But some congressional Democrats have become outspoken in their criticism of Israel.
Despite President Biden’s efforts, Israel — like every other issue in American politics — has become more partisan. Democrats were outraged when Netanyahu accepted an invitation from the Republican Speaker of the House to address Congress — a move that President Barack Obama’s White House denounced as a breach of protocol.
A Politico-Morning Consult poll taken last month showed 51 percent of Republicans more sympathetic to Israel and only 3 percent pro-Palestinian. Among Democrats, 12 percent said they supported Israel in the conflict, while 18 percent supported the Palestinians: 70 percent of Democrats said they either supported both sides equally or had no opinion. Among self-described liberals, support for the Palestinians outweighed support for Israel 24 to 10 percent. While Democrats have not become pro-Palestinian, support for Israel has declined sharply in President Biden’s party.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once told me in an interview that a true Zionist wants three things: a Jewish state, a democracy and Greater Israel (all the land promised to the Jewish people in the Bible, including the occupied territories). “We can have any two of the three,” Sharon said, “but not all three.” If Greater Israel were a Jewish state with a large Arab population, it could not remain a democracy. A democratic Jewish state could not include Greater Israel for the same reason. If Greater Israel were a democracy, the Jewish state would not survive, and the dream of Zionism would be lost.
Sharon believed that the only way a Jewish state could survive was to give up the idea of Greater Israel. He supported Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, for which he is still reviled by many Israeli nationalists. Look how it turned out.
I once spoke to an American Jewish congregation and reported what Sharon said. To my surprise, the rabbi responded that “Sharon was wrong.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because,” the rabbi explained, “in the Torah [the first five books of the Bible], God clearly promised the Jewish people a Jewish state and a Greater Israel. But the word ‘democracy’ is never mentioned.” An undemocratic Israel?