Despite its claim of reasonableness and practicality, the liberal Zionist approach is an increasingly irrelevant presence on the Israeli political horizon.
Frustrated by Israeli settlement expansion, excessive violence, AIPAC maximalism, Netanyahu’s arrogance, and Israel’s defiant disregard of international law, various Jewish responses claim to seek a middle ground. Israel is criticized by this loyal opposition, sometimes harshly, although so are the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and activists around the world. Both sides are deemed responsible in equal measure for the failure to end the conflict. With such a stance, liberal Zionists seek to occupy the high moral ground without ceding political relevance. In contrast, those who believe, as I do, that Israel poses the main obstacle to achieving a sustainable peace are dismissed by liberal Zionists as either obstructive or unrealistic, and at worst, as anti-Israeli or even anti-Semitic.
Listen to the funding appeals of J Street or read such columnists in the New York Times as Roger Cohen and Thomas Friedman to grasp the approach of liberal Zionism. These views are made to appear reasonable, and even just, by being set off against such maximalist support for Israel as associated with AIPAC and the U.S. Congress, or in the Times context by comparison with the more conservative views of David Brooks (whose son currently serves in the IDF), who published a recent ‘balanced’ column lionizing Netanyahu, “The Age of Bibi” [Jan. 2, 2014]. Of all the deformed reasoning contained in the column, perhaps the most scandalous was comparing Netanyahu to Churchill, and to suggest that his story has the grandeur that bears a resemblance to Shakespeare’s MacBeth, an observation that many would find unflattering. Of all Netanyahu’s qualities remarked upon, Brooks astoundingly finds that “his caution is the most fascinating.” According to Brooks, Netanyahu deserves to be regarded as cautious because he has refrained from attacking Iran despite threatening to do so with bellicose rhetoric. I would have thought that Netanyahu’s inflammatory threats directed at Iran, especially as combined with covert acts including inserting viruses to disable its nuclear program and assassinating Iranian scientists, would seem reckless enough for most observers. Since Brooks fails to mention the murderous attacks on Gaza, there is no need to reconcile such aggressive behavior with this overall assessment of caution.
At the core of liberal Zionism is the indictment of the Palestinian leadership for “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity”, to recall the self-serving quip of the Israeli diplomat, Abba Eban. Roger Cohen would have us believe that prior to the collapse of the April negotiations, the U.S. Government had presented a framework agreement acceptable to Tel Aviv but that the Palestinian Authority irresponsibly and unreasonably rejected. And not only rejected, but the PA behaved in a manner that was provocative and signed some international agreements as if it already was a state. [“Why Israeli-Palestinian Peace Failed,” Dec. 23, 2014] This spin comes from Netanyahu’s chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, who is presented by Cohen as the voice of moderation, as the self-proclaimed champion of ‘two states for two peoples.’
Livni, who is the leader of a small party called Hatnua, which is joined in coalition with a revamped Labor Party headed by Isaac Herzog, contesting Likud and Netanyahu. Cohen never inquires as to what sort of state she would wish upon the Palestinians, which on the basis of her past, would be thoroughly subjugated to Israeli security demands as well as accommodating the bulk of settlements and settlers while rejecting the rights under international law of Palestinians in relations to refugees.
When Livni was asked by Cohen whether she would suspend Israeli settlement expansion so as to get direct negotiations started once more, she indicated that she would, “at least outside the major blocs.” Cohen calls her party ‘centrist,’ which is one way of acknowledging how far Israeli politics have drifted to the right in recent years. A reading of the leaked documents of the secret negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel represented by Livni showed how disinterested Israel seemed to be in two states for two peoples at that time of far less extensive settlement encroachment, as well as her overt rejection of the relevance of international law to the diplomatic process. [For a collection of the leaked documents showing Livni’s role see Clayton E. Swisher, ed., Palestine Papers: The End of the Road (2011)]
This expresses a second element of liberal Zionism, that despite everything the two state solution is confirmed over and over again as the only path to peace. As such, it should be endlessly activated in accordance with the Oslo formula that keeps the United States in the absurd role of intermediary and continue to insist that any Palestinian reference to rights under international law is an obstacle to peace. After more than 47 years of occupation and over 20 years of submission to the Oslo approach it would seem that it is past time to issue a certificate of futility, and the failure to do so, is for me a sure sign of either bad faith or extreme denial.
What is baffling is that those like Friedman and Cohen, who surely know better, play this game that never even raises the concrete question of how to reverse a settlement process that now includes as many as 600,000 settlers many of whom are militantly opposed to any kind of solution to the conflict that challenges their present situation. Conveniently, also, this liberal advocacy finesses the claims of the four million or so Palestinian refugees, including almost two million that have been confined to miserable refugee camps for decades, some since 1948. How can one possibly imagine a sustainable and just peace emerging from such a blinkered outlook!
Liberal Zionists also oppose as irresponsible and unhelpful all efforts to challenge this framework, especially any call for holding Israel to account under international humanitarian law for its excessive violence. Alternative futures based on the equality of the two peoples, such as some kind of living together within a single political community are dismissed out of hand, either because of colliding with Zionist expectations of a Jewish state or because after decades of hatred any effort at social integration would be bound to fail. Intriguingly, my experience of many conversations with both Palestinian refugees and Gazans is far more hopeful about peaceful coexistence within shared political space than are the Israelis despite their prosperity, prowess, and far greater security.
In a similar vein, liberal Zionists almost always oppose as counterproductive, activist initiatives taken under the auspice of the BDS Campaign. Their argument is that Israel will never make ‘painful sacrifices’ when put under pressure deemed hostile, and without these, no peace is possible. What these painful sacrifices might be on the Israeli side are never spelled out, but presumably would include disbanding the isolated settlements and maybe the separation wall, both of which were in any event unlawful. The real sacrifice for Israelis would be to give up the completion of the maximal version of the Zionist project, that of so-called Greater Israel that encompasses the entirety of the alleged biblical entitlement to Palestine. For the Palestinians, in contrast, their sacrifice would necessitate renouncing a series of entitlements conferred by international law, pertaining to settlements, refugees, borders, self-determination, sovereignty. In effect, Israel would sacrifice part of its unlawful dominion, while Palestine would relinquish its lawful claims, and the end result would be one of the inequality of the two peoples, not a recipe for a lasting peace.
A final feature of liberal Zionism is to make concessions to the Greater Israel outlook along the following lines: Israel should be allowed to control the unlawfully established settlement blocs; Israeli security concerns should be met, including by stationing military forces within the West Bank for many ears, while any Palestinian security concerns are treated as irrelevant; Palestinian refugees would be denied the right to return to their pre-1967 places of residence; Jerusalem would remain essentially under Israel’s control; no provision would be made to ensure non-discrimination against the 20% Palestine minority living within pre-1967 Israel; no acknowledgement would be made of the past injustices flowing from the 1948 dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their place of residence and the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages, the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people, the nakba, nor the recognition that the nakba is a process that has continued to afflict Palestinians to this very moment.
Despite its claim of reasonableness and practicality, the liberal Zionist approach is an increasingly irrelevant presence on the Israeli political horizon, paralleling the decline of the Labor Party and the peace movement in the country, as well as the ascendancy of the Likud and the politics of the extreme right. The Israeli end game is now overwhelmingly based on unilateralism, either imposing a highly subordinated and circumscribed Palestinian state confined to parts of the West Bank or establishing Greater Israel and giving up any pretense of implementing the formula of two states for two peoples. The fact that liberal Zionism and the diplomacy of the West largely plays along with the discarded scenario of two states for two peoples is nothing more than subservience to a cruel variant of ‘the politics of delusion.’
The denigration of liberal Zionism is not meant to belittle the effort of Jews as Jews to find a just and sustainable solution for both peoples. I strongly support such organizations as Jewish Voices for Peace and Middle East Children’s Alliance, and hail the contributions of Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Ilan Pappe, and many others to the struggle for Palestinian empowerment and emancipation.
Fortunately, Palestinian resistance will likely stymie the two variants of the Israeli end game mentioned above, but much suffering is almost certain to ensue before sufficient momentum builds within Israel and throughout the world for living together on the basis of equality and even solidarity, accompanied by the necessary acknowledgement of past injustices via some kind of truth commission mechanism. After such knowledge, anything will be possible!