Akiva Eldar Trashes Israeli “Binational State”

Akiva Eldar is hands-down one of the finest columnists writing for Israeli newspapers today.  Along with Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Alex Fishman and a few others, he shines light into places many Israelis would prefer not to look.  He is a national journalistic treasure, though one that few Israelis would recognize as such.

But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t falter, as he has in his current column, The Defeatism of the Left.  The problem?  Eldar is a throwback to the Salad Days of liberal Zionism.  Not the weak-kneed, inconsistent liberal Zionism of people like Ethan Bronner, Gershom Gorenberg and others like them, but rather a real, principled Zionism represented by figures like Yitzhak Rabin (not that I’m idealizing him), Lova Eliav, Matti Peled, and other throwbacks to an earlier era.  With them, it might’ve been possible to have a real two state solution back in the day.  But “the day” has long passed.  The lions of old like Eldar cannot give up on their dreams, even though political circumstances, including the rise of the Israeli permanent far-right majority, have left them in the dust.

As I’ve written here recently, I’m somewhat reluctantly coming to the conclusion that a binational or unitary state is the only possible future for Israel.  Eldar can’t cross that threshold.  He cannot give up on the dream of a Jewish state with a permanent Jewish majority.  I wouldn’t mind his nostalgic embrace for a concept thay may’ve outlived its usefulness.  But what I reject is Eldar’s misguided argument against the binational state.

Essentially, he says that because we Jews fatally abused the Palestinian minority for six decades when we were the majority, when they become the majority in this new binational state, they’ll do the same to us:

The desperate leftists propose joining together two hostile communities with a bloody feud between them and endless prejudices about each other. For 64 years the Jewish community realized the Zionist vision using discriminatory immigration and residential laws, unequal division of resources and hegemony over religious and national symbols. For 45 years a Jewish minority has deprived the Palestinian collective in the occupied territories of political rights and violated the dignity, property rights and freedom of movement of millions of human beings.

What will happen when the Palestinian minority in the binational state becomes the majority?…What will we do then, when the Palestinian majority exercises its right to vote?…The Palestinian parliament can copy the behavior of Israel’s Knesset in the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Eldad era.

Is anyone willing to guarantee that the Palestinians won’t replace Israel’s Law of Return…with a law enshrining the Palestinian right of return? Can anyone guarantee that they won’t turn the Jewish National Fund into the Palestinian National Fund; replace the blue and white flag with a black, white and green flag with a crescent moon on the side, and replace “Hatikva” with…“Biladi, Biladi?” Who will light the torches on Mount Herzl on Independence Day? Or perhaps the government of Israstine will ban ceremonies marking the Jews’ temporary victory.

Why wouldn’t they give funding preference for schools in Arab local councils, rename the Israstine international airport after Yasser Arafat and change the name of Ariel University Center of Samaria to the Arab University of the West Bank? We’ve been riding them for decades, why wouldn’t they want to turn the tables on us? At best we’d come out of it with only a few broken ribs.

…Is [Knesset speaker Rivlin] genuinely willing to cede his place on the daïs to Knesset Speaker Ahmed Tibi and settle for interjections from the Jewish opposition parties’ back benches? True, “United Jerusalem” will not turn into “United Al Quds” during his term; that irresponsible mortgage, taken out by him and his friends on the new Zionist left, will be paid by all of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Now, without a constitution or other safeguards I have no doubt this would be true.  Long-term suffering always nurses grudges in ethnic states (viz. the former Yugoslavia).  If we throw all the Palestinians and Jews together in a single state without spelling out rights and responsibilities in a legal document, then certainly vengeance and payback would become the order of the day.

But instead of Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia or Soviet Union, places which never resolved these ethnic rivalries, leading to massive bloodshed and even genocide, why not look to other states like Northern Ireland, Switzerland or Canada, which have, however imperfectly, addressed many of these issues?

An Israeli constitution would spell out the rights of all ethnic groups.  It would protect religious liberty.  It would guarantee political and economic rights to majority and minority groups.  Both sides have a stake in guaranteeing rights of the minority because in the beginning the Jews will be the majority.  But in decades, the Palestinians could become the majority. With proper safeguards, neither side need feel its rights, position or status would be endangered.

There certainly will be mistrust given the history between the two peoples.  Just read the comment threads here for right-wing Israeli dismissal of such plans.  But knee-jerk derision is not a real response.  It’s a defense against thinking the unthinkable.  Unfortunately, thanks to the ultranationalists of Likud and the settler right, Israel has no choice but to “boldly go” (as the Star Trek voice-over narration once intoned) where no Zionist has gone before.  Ultranationalism is a dead-end, literally.  Two states are dead on arrival.  The only way forward is a binational or unitary state.

Another quarrel I have with Eldar is his turning this into a battle with the Israeli left.  While members of the Zionist left like Avrum Burg began to abandon classical Zionism as early as five or ten years ago, Nahum Barnea has shown this isn’t an issue of the left.  Barnea, no leftist, recently told Israeli TV news that he was reluctantly coming to the conclusion that partition cannot work and a binational state was the only path to justly resolve the conflict.

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