Opinion: When Right Becomes Left — and Right?

The idea of a single state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, in which Jews and Arabs live together, has been a third rail in Jewish political discourse since the creation of the State of Israel. It stands in stark contrast to the vision of two contiguous states, Jewish and Arab, based on the principle of partition and embedded in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of Nov. 29, 1947. It is this latter vision that has anchored Israeli policy for decades, up to and including the present government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That is why the growing calls for a one-state solution by advocates of the Palestinian cause have raised alarm bells, provoking fears of the delegitimization of Israel as a Jewish state.

And yet, a cursory survey of the past reveals that the idea is not foreign to Jews, not even to Jews who considered themselves Zionists. Some 80 years ago, a small group of Central European Jews, a good number of whom were professors at the new Hebrew University, organized themselves as Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace). The group asserted, in its manifesto of 1930, that it was a Zionist movement based on the Balfour Declaration, the British document from 1917 that declared Palestine “a national home for the Jewish people.” Brit Shalom represented, however, a different sort of Zionism. Palestine should be “neither a Jewish State nor an Arab State” but a binational state in which Jews and Arabs receive equal rights. Nor must there be, according to the group, a Jewish majority in Palestine, as other Zionist groups insisted.

Brit Shalom’s career was short-lived; it was founded in 1925 and lost steam by 1933. Its core ideas never won a large audience, though they did continue to be advanced by a few notable figures up to 1948, including the philosopher Martin Buber and the American-born Judah L. Magnes, as well as the socialist Zionist movement, HaShomer HaTsair. Since that time, a small cluster of Israeli Jewish intellectuals have held on to the idea — for example, those associated with the Communist break-away group Matzpen, as well as a number of academics today such as Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin and Yehouda Shenhav.

This is what makes all the more surprising — indeed, stunning — the re-entry of the idea of a single state between the Jordan and Mediterranean in Israeli public discourse.  Politicians unmistakably identified with the right side of the Israeli political spectrum have begun to advance their own version of a single state between the Jordan and Mediterranean. (A similar idea has also been proposed of late by Asher Lopatin, a modern Orthodox rabbi from Chicago.) To be sure, not all notions of a single state are binational, for the latter implies recognition of the collective existence and rights of two nations. This is not what the right-wing one-staters have in mind.  Most of them advocate a single state that will remain Jewish as a formal legal matter, but would provide full civil rights for Arabs as individuals, regardless of which side of the Green Line they reside on.

An opening salvo in this new campaign was launched by an old stalwart of the Likud party, Israel’s former Defense and Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, in an opinion piece in Haaretz from June 2. Arens called for the extension of Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank in return for full rights of citizenship for Palestinians dwelling there. The logic of this position is two-fold: First, Arens believes that it would be both impracticable and immoral to uproot Jewish settlers from those areas he prefers to call Judea and Samaria; and second, he believes that Arabs in a Jewish state require and deserve full rights. In fact, he argues that the Arab (and overwhelmingly Muslim) minority in Israel has yet to receive such rights, for which Arens blames, in the first instance, the Israeli government.

A long article in the weekend supplement of Haaretz from July 16 made clear that he is not alone. A diverse range of thinkers on the right, including Knesset Speaker Reuven (Rubi) Rivlin; Likud MK Zippi Hotobeli; former director-general of the settlers’ group Yesha Uri Elitzur; and former MK Hanan Porat, from the religious Zionist Mafdal party all expressed their support for one version or another of a single state. At the heart of their thinking is the desire to overturn the long-standing logic of partition, which would require the evacuation of tens of thousands of settlers, in order to create a Palestinian state. Those interviewed in the article also expressed serious moral and political qualms about the ongoing occupation and the goal of separation. Thus, Rivlin declares that “I would rather that the Palestinians be citizens of this country rather than divide the land.” Elitzur, for his part, is concerned that “an entire population is under the control of Israel, but does not have rights of citizenship in Israel. This is unacceptable on a permanent basis.” Porat undermines another taboo of Israeli Jewish political discourse by insisting that “there is nothing threatening about a ‘state of all its citizens,’ ” which is usually seen as the antithesis of a state of, by, and for Jews. Meanwhile, Hotobeli issues a sharp rhetorical blast by claiming that Israel’s 43-year control of the West Bank has meant that “we have been transformed from occupiers to murderers, to put it bluntly.”

This striking set of positions from a segment of the Israeli political elite has a bottom-up parallel: dialogue between settlers and Palestinians on the ground in the West Bank. The organization Eretz Shalom (Land of Peace) has begun to arrange gatherings in which the two groups meet to talk about matters of common interest. The goal of the gathering is not to solve ultimate political questions. As one of the leaders of the group, Emily Amrousi, states: “We will [one day] discuss the question of one state, but in the meantime, it’s possible to talk of one land.”

In fact, this recent trend from the Israeli right in fact has deep roots in the Zionist past, and not only in the narrow circles out of which Brit Shalom developed its binational agenda. The grand architect of the ideal of a single state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan (and beyond) was none other than Vladimir Zev Jabotinsky, the founding father of Revisionist Zionism and revered mentor of the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. As late as 1940, Jabotinsky was advancing his vision of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority, but one in which the premiership would rotate between Jew and Arab, and in which “the Jewish and the Arab ethno-communities shall be recognized as autonomous public bodies of equal status before the law.”

The present-day heirs of Jabotinsky who advocate a single state do not yet have clear answers to very difficult questions: How to preserve a Jewish majority so that the state remains Jewish, as is their declared wish? How to entice Palestinians to buy into the plan? How to entice Jews to share their state more fully with Arabs? How to balance group rights with individual rights? What to do with Gaza, which is not included in any of the neo-one-staters’ plans? And what happens if and when Arabs become a majority in this state?

These difficult questions notwithstanding, the boldness of this current of thought can serve as a catalyst to revive an otherwise moribund policy debate devoid of fresh ideas. Perhaps the anxiety generated by discussion of a single state by credible and security-conscious Israeli politicians will prompt advocates of the two-state solution — in Israel and in Palestine — to assume more urgency and take the very difficult steps that will be necessary for it to be realized (e.g., Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, compromise on Jerusalem, Palestinian acceptance of Israel’s right to exist and surrender of the demand for a right to return to Israel).  But it is not just the competition of ideas that is important here. If it turns out that the two-state vision cannot be realized — a sad and ever more likely possibility — it is important to have a ready and publicly debated alternative so as to avoid lapsing back into another convulsion of bloodshed born of stasis. Taboo as it is, the revived one-state idea may just be one among several such alternatives.

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA.

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