The false claim that Israel is bound to lose either its Jewish or Democratic identities
By Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser
In his first interview as Secretary of State, Antony Blinken told Wolf Blitzer on CNN on February 8, 2021, that President Biden strongly supports the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since “it is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and the only way to give the Palestinians a state to which they’re entitled.” This mantra is repeatedly articulated by many leaders and opinion-shapers around the world and especially in the United States, Europe, and the Israeli left. If Israel refuses to accept the two-state solution, more or less in the version promoted by the Palestinians and their supporters, it will have to choose between being Jewish and being democratic. This line of argument first appeared in a 1977 essay by the late-U.S. Undersecretary of State George Ball, “How to Save Israel in Spite of Itself,” in Foreign Affairs. It was prominent in President Carter’s bestselling book Palestine – Peace not Apartheid, and has been adopted by policy-makers and pundits since then as an unrefuted motif.
This judgment states that if Israel does not accept a Palestinian state and sticks to the status quo, it would inevitably have to either integrate the Palestinian population as part of a one-state solution and thus lose its Jewish majority and Jewish identity or, alternatively, deprive Palestinians of full citizenship and full rights and then lose its democratic nature and transform into an apartheid regime. According to this logic, since the Palestinians decline any two-state solution that is not based on the 1967 lines with minor land swaps and eastern Jerusalem as their capital and a solution to the refugee problem based on their “claim of return” – without Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people – then Israel must accept these principles to escape the dangerous fate that awaits it.
Secretary Blinken and many of those who parrot this message do so out of concern and friendship for Israel and also out of their conviction that, as Blinken emphasized to his Israeli counterpart, “Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy.” They may well be convinced that this is a correct and true forecast – or at least a highly plausible assessment – and thus feel obliged to save Israel from such a problematic fate. Some are worried that Israel might not understand the danger by itself because, in their opinion, Israel is not attentive enough to the good advice they give and because they fear that Israel is under the influence of messianic extremists at home or powerful political forces in the United States. They feel obliged to urge Israel to adopt these policies to save itself, and some think that if not, pressure on Israel would have to be applied.
Some, especially among left-leaning Israeli groups, think that to avoid such a bitter destiny, Israel should act unilaterally and not link the end of the occupation to reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. Even if it has to maintain some military presence in the areas for security reasons, Israel should uproot the Jewish communities in the West Bank as soon as possible to pave the way to ending the occupation entirely.
Other proponents of this message are less friendly to Israel and are motivated more by their commitment to the Palestinian cause and out of their belief that such a solution to the conflict is required because it is in line with what they believe to be international law. Others, including some who consider themselves Israel’s friends, see the Palestinian cause and the UN resolutions supporting it, such as UNSCR 2334 that was promoted by the Obama administration, as just reasons why Israel should heed their advice.
Wobbly Legs on which the “Save Israel” Message Stands
Two weak arguments are proffered by those who seek to convince the “stubborn and self-destructive Israelis” to save Israel.
According to the first opinion, this doomsday scenario is inevitable because, in their view, the status quo is unsustainable. They are convinced that there is no way that Israel will be able to “control” the Palestinians forever, not even for a short period, without facing the need to choose between Israel’s Jewish character and its democratic identity.
The second argument states that, regardless of how long it might take before this choice becomes realistic, the current situation in which Israel rules over the Palestinians is corrupting Israeli soldiers engaged in the practice of occupation and is poisoning the soul of the entire Israeli society, which tolerates the occupation and represses its guilt. Therefore, the proponents of this view feel that it is in Israel’s best interest to end the occupation with alacrity.
This logic is based on several unfounded assumptions. First, it assumes that the relevant areas Israel took under its control in 1967 are “Palestinian territories” or, as the United Nations and many others look upon them, as “OPT” – an acronym for “Occupied Palestinian Territory” or “territories.” This supposition is based on a plethora of annual, legally flawed, politically-generated, non-binding UN resolutions adopted by an automatic majority that arbitrarily determined that the territories are Palestinian. There is no legal or historical basis to back up such an assumption. This postulation is also built on the claim that the population of these areas in June 1967 was Palestinian as if the history of these lands began only then. Another assumption is that because Israel is the stronger party in the conflict, it can afford to take security risks and should be the side that makes the first move. Moreover, they claim that Israeli security concerns could be met from within the vulnerable and exposed 1967 lines, with some minor modifications.
A more extreme version of this logic claims that Israel has already crossed the point where it had to decide between its Jewish character and its democratic nature and has, in fact, already become an apartheid state. This approach is adopted by Israel’s enemies and those who delegitimize it, such as the BDS movement, groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and radical groups in Israel who ostensibly claim to be human rights NGOs, and even by some members of the left-leaning group Commanders for Israel’s Security.
The remedy proposed by these groups is unilateral separation, namely, uprooting most of the Israeli communities from “the OPT,” even without an agreed settlement of the dispute. Some self-proclaimed pundits believe that is not going to be enough, since Israel had already lost its democratic nature within the 1948 boundaries, and especially in light of the way it treats its Arab citizens. These sophomoric “thinkers” see the only option as being that Israel would cease to be the nation-state of the Jewish people and become the state of all its citizens.
The Reaction of Most Israelis and Their Real Aspirations
Most Israelis consider these warnings about the inevitable need to choose between being Jewish or being democratic and the urgent messages to Israel to save itself as misguided, dangerous, patronizing, condescending, and undemocratic, as well as indicative of gross ignorance of the situation in Israel and disregard for the rights of the Jewish people.
The messages of the more radical groups are seen by most Israelis as offensive, hostile, anti-Zionist, and even anti-Semitic. Most Israeli voters lean more and more toward parties that reject these exhortations.
This does not mean that Israelis prefer the status quo. Most would gladly change it by reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, but an agreement that would guarantee a different outcome than the one demanded by the Palestinians and their supporters. The people of Israel insist on an agreement that includes Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, as well as one that really addresses Israel’s security concerns.
Others prefer to change the status quo with Israel becoming the sovereign authority over much of Judea, Samaria, and the Jordan Valley, more or less along the principles enunciated in President Trump’s vision for peace and prosperity. Specifically, those areas are necessary for Israel’s security, including the Israeli communities in these areas.
Despite all of the above, virtually no one in Israel envisages a situation where Israel takes complete control and extends its sovereignty over the towns and other densely populated Palestinian areas, namely Areas A and B in Judea and Samaria and Gaza, thus turning the Palestinian population living there into Israeli citizens in a way that threatens the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel.
This reduces as absurd and irrelevant the entire demographic calculus often used by those concerned about Israel losing its Jewish majority. It also renders irrational and immaterial the entire debate of how many Palestinians live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and how many of them live in the areas taken from Jordan in 1967 (2-3 million?) or Gaza (more than 2 million?).
Get the Facts Straight
Most of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza already live under Palestinian rule, and no one intends to dismantle the two entities that govern them. These two are the Palestinian Authority that functions as the ruling entity for the Palestinians living in the areas that Israel took from Jordan in a war initiated by Jordan in 1967, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip that Israel had taken from Egyptian military control in 1967, and which Israel evacuated entirely in 2005 after transferring rule over the Palestinian population to the Palestinian Authority in 1994.
In these areas, the PA and Hamas respectively make all the political decisions, carry out elections at their own will, issue their own laws, and care for the needs of the population, with the exception of decisions that may affect Israel’s security. As a matter of fact, they are preparing to conduct elections for their independently elected governing bodies in the coming months in their territories – if they decide to proceed with the election process they have embarked on, which is still uncertain.
This renders as wrong and misleading the argument often used by Israel’s opponents, as well as occasionally by its friendly critics, that Israel employs two different legal systems in Judea and Samaria – one for Israeli citizens and one for Palestinians. The law in the area retained by Israel pursuant to the Oslo Accords (specifically area C, in which there are no sizeable Palestinian population centers) is based on already existing Jordanian and British mandatory laws, with additional orders issued by the Israeli military commander, who is considered by both international and Israeli law to be the legal authority controlling the area. Israeli citizens present in the area are subject, on a personal basis, to Israeli law, and Palestinians living there are subject to Palestinian laws issued by the Palestinian Authority, with the exception of regulations that pertain to Israel’s security, which is under Israeli responsibility, according to the Oslo accords.
The number of Palestinians living in area C under direct Israeli control is negligible, and if Israel were to extend its sovereignty over parts of that area, they would likely prefer to adopt the same arrangement that applies to the Arab population of eastern Jerusalem, namely, to become Israeli residents enjoying full rights of social security, freedom of movement inside Israel, and all the other advantages Israel has to offer, while at the same time remaining citizens of the Palestinian entity.
Secondly, if a permanent status agreement cannot be reached between Israel and the Palestinians, the existing status quo is far more stable and sustainable than the doomsday prophecy repeated by those who try to warn Israel. In fact, this status quo solves ongoing day-to-day tensions between the two parties. While Palestinians may feel obliged to express their political commitment to change such a status quo, they nevertheless appear to realize that they cannot achieve their desired end-state, or alternatively, they are unwilling to pay the price of forcing a change. Therefore, they consider it to be a tolerable situation.
What the Palestinians Want
The Palestinian Authority and Hamas aspire to see the present status quo replaced by a Palestinian state over all the pre-1967 territories, with an Israeli readiness to accept a “right of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their original homes” (even if this right would be implemented only marginally), but they are unprepared to accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people since they are committed to the struggle against Zionism until its demise in line with the Phases Plan adopted by the Palestinian National Council in 1974.
While they realize that they do not have the military and political power to impose such a solution on Israel, they have no intention of adapting their goal to enable an agreement that may be acceptable to Israel. Furthermore, from a domestic political point of view, they cannot afford to make such a change after propagating this narrative to their population for more than 100 years.
Maintaining the status quo, on the other hand, enables them to avoid paying the heavy price that any such move – either total confrontation with Israel or changing their narrative – may entail, and this provides them with many benefits. It allows them to keep presenting themselves as eternal victims who are entitled to international attention and political and financial support. It gives them the opportunity to keep fighting a never-ending conflict with Israel while absorbing Israel’s limited military response that reflects Israeli reluctance to change the status quo.
Israel, too, prefers the status quo for several reasons. Even if Israel wanted to, it does not have the political power, whether internationally or locally, to force its conditions on the Palestinians or to convince them to change their narrative. Israel’s leadership and security establishment tend to refrain from risking the stability of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which enables Israel to avoid the need to govern the Palestinian population in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
To a large extent, such a status quo is what former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had in mind when he concluded the Oslo agreements in 1993-1995. His vision, as he detailed in his last address to the Knesset in October 1995, included a Palestinian entity that is less than a state, that provides the Palestinians with self-rule, Israeli military control of the Jordan Valley in the widest meaning of the term, Israeli responsibility for its own security throughout the area, an ongoing settlement presence, and Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel.
Most Israelis are not troubled by any moral and psychological impact of a prolonged “occupation.” Most Israelis serve in the IDF and they recognize it as an inevitable part of defending themselves against a permanent and ongoing threat in their own backyard. What troubles Israel is the military buildup of the Palestinian terror organizations in Gaza, the hostile actions taken by the Palestinians in the international legal and diplomatic spheres, and the ongoing incitement to terror and hate by the Palestinians, manifested, among other things, by their “Pay to Slay” policy of paying handsome salaries to convicted terrorists and their families.
However, none of these Palestinian actions constitute a good enough reason for Israel to change the status quo. Instead, Israel’s actions are usually intended to restore and maintain the status quo and deal with deviations from it. For example, despite the growing threat from Gaza and the repeated indiscriminate launching of rockets against Israeli civilian targets, Israel’s military efforts focus on strengthening its deterrence to restore the status quo ante and not bring about a fundamental change in Gaza. When Israel had the option of extending its sovereignty to additional territories in Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley in mid-2020, Israel ultimately chose to maintain the status quo and preferred to establish normal relations with several Arab states instead, because even the supportive Trump administration was hesitant to allow a unilateral extension of Israeli sovereignty.
Clearly, Israel prefers to refrain from prejudicing the existing status quo and replacing it with a worse situation for its security and interests, as suggested by those who claim to be concerned over Israel’s future.
The Importance of the Abraham Accords
The stability of the status quo was strengthened considerably by the “Abraham Accords.” The thesis that normalization of relations with the Arab world cannot happen until Israel makes progress towards an agreement based on the PA version of the “two-state solution” was proven wrong. That thesis, previously considered an essential condition that would require Israel to change its policy and opt for an agreement based on the Palestinian and Western/international demands, essentially evaporated.
Once the pragmatic Arab states accepted the status quo, they realized that linking normalization that serves their vital interests to a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would not materialize made no sense and harmed their interests. They realized that any chance that Israel would accept a change in the status quo that harmed its interests was virtually nonexistent.
Those who are committed to changing the status quo at almost any price are mainly those who want Israel to be erased from the map, such as Iran and some radical Sunni players.
The American position for a long time was that a solution is necessary and possible, and consecutive administrations tried their best to bring the parties to agree on a two-state solution. It appears that the Biden administration realizes that though reaching an agreement would be an outstanding achievement, it is beyond reach, and hence it focuses its efforts on improving the status quo with a view of keeping the two-states option viable.
In this context, the U.S. declares that it opposes any unilateral step taken by the parties that may harm the possibility of reaching a two-state solution in the future and plans to focus on improving the standard of living of the Palestinians. However, it is not clear how they are going to do that as long as the Palestinians keep promoting their struggle against Israel in international forums and support terror and, in so doing, materially breach the Oslo agreements.
Another problem with the false threat that Israel may lose its Jewish or democratic identity if the status quo is not changed to meet Palestinian demands is that those who make this threat believe that it is Israel’s responsibility to change the situation. Quite often, as mentioned above, the proponents of this idea claim that since Israel is the stronger party to the conflict, it should make the bigger and first move, and it can afford to take risks.
This approach is misleading and ignores the reality that the main obstacle to reaching a settlement to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is the Palestinian narrative. According to this narrative, the struggle against Zionism until its demise is the core identity of the Palestinian people.
The Dangers to Israel of Withdrawal from the West Bank
Accepting the premise that Israel should withdraw from Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley is dangerous for many reasons.
Firstly, it would make defending the areas remaining under Israeli sovereignty considerably more difficult for obvious topographic and demographic reasons. Moreover, the new situation would be virtually irreversible, despite Israel’s conventional military advantage. Any claim to the contrary is unrealistic wishful thinking.
The case of Gaza is very telling in this respect, as is the case of South Lebanon and other examples worldwide (from Vietnam to Sinai). Fighting hybrid terror organizations which are heavily armed is not an easy task for any modern army. With Israel’s current presence and freedom of action in Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley, its security forces manage to minimize the level of Palestinian terror. But as long as the Palestinian narrative of struggling against Zionism is unchanged, the threats that may emanate from these territories to Israel remain considerable.
Secondly, it would be counterproductive to securing a stable solution to the dispute in the future. Such a settlement could not be reached without a substantial change in the Palestinian narrative that would reflect an abandoning of their Phases Plan of 1974.
The effort to convince the Palestinians to change their narrative is echoed in Secretary of State Blinken’s references to his expectation that the Palestinians end the incitement and the payment of salaries to terrorists, but it is not central to the Biden administration approach to the conflict, “Pay to Slay,” and the ICC.
Lastly, the entire concept of the necessity to transfer Judea and Samaria and eastern Jerusalem to Palestinian control to protect Israel from losing its Jewish or democratic identity ignores not only Israel’s justified security needs but also the historical and legal rights and aspirations that stand at the core of Zionism. For the Jewish national movement, the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland is based on its historic sovereign presence in its land that extended over all of the areas that were under the British mandate of Palestine. The language of the July 24, 1922, mandate given to Britain was unequivocal, and it still constitutes an internationally legally binding document.
It states that “recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country” and that “The Mandatory shall be responsible for seeing that no Palestine territory shall be ceded or leased to, or in any way placed under the control of the Government of any foreign Power.”
Israel does not deny that the Palestinian people have rights, and it is ready to share the land with them, but it does not regard the lands in question as “Occupied Palestinian Territory.” For Israel, and according to the Oslo Accords, these are disputed lands, subject to bona fide negotiation of their permanent status, and Israel, as the nation-state of the Jewish people, has absolutely no obligation to surrender its rights to these lands voluntarily or its right to live within recognized and secure borders, as recorded in UN Security Council Resolution 242.
There is no reason to worry about Israel losing its Jewish or democratic identities, nor does Israel need to adopt rash and dangerous decisions to avoid such a fake threat.
Those who try to employ such arguments to press Israel to adopt a solution to the conflict that ignores its security needs and its fundamental and inherent legal, historical, and security rights are either wrong or frustrated with the lack of better arguments.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is Director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center. He was formerly Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence.