According to Thomas Friedman, both Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama should read the new, acclaimed book by Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit, My Promised Land. I’ve not yet read it but I’ve long been a fan of Shavit’s writing – often achingly despairing and biting in its critique, but always passionately Zionist. I don’t disagree with Friedman’s suggestion, but I would extend the recommendation to the new Leader of the Opposition, recently-elected leader of the Labor Party, Isaac Herzog.

In particular, he should note a critical recurring theme in Shavit’s commentaries: the belief that, from the Oslo Accords onward, we’ve been pursuing the wrong target; we’ve had ‘the means’ and ‘the end’ the wrong way around. It’s not that peace is the goal and the way to reach that is to end the occupation of the Palestinians and give them a state. No. Peace would be great, but it’s not the absence of peace that is at the heart of Israel’s travails, it’s the occupation. The goal should be to find a way to end our control over another people.

The danger usually cited is the demographic threat; that the occupation will lead to a de facto annexation of the West Bank and a one-state solution that will end in an Arab majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. David Ben-Gurion was far-sighted enough to recognize this back in 1949 when he ruled against conquering the biblical heartlands:

“…what kind of state would we have, assuming that we hold elections…? We would have a Knesset with an Arab majority. Choosing between the wholeness of the land or a Jewish State, we chose the Jewish State.”

(After the Six -Day War he was one of the few public voices calling for Israel to relinquish most of the territories it had conquered – all except the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem – even absent a peace agreement with the Arab states.)

This is the most commonly heard argument for why Israel must draw a permanent and final border between itself and the Palestinians sooner rather than later, and is responsible for drawing a number of Greater Israel ideologues towards the two-state idea, including Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and – if we take him at his word – Netanyahu. But there’s another, more fundamental reason.

We need to decide what kind of state we want to be and, no less importantly, how we want the rest of the world to see us. We are part of the democratic world and – though some on the far-religious right would deny this – that is absolutely consistent with the values of Zionism from its earliest days.

Delegates at the pre-state Zionist congresses were democratically elected. What’s more, women had full equality as voters and representatives at a time before women had the vote in the vast majority of the democratic states of the time. (The US, for example, did not introduce women’s suffrage until 1920). The Jewish state depicted in Herzl’s 1902 utopian novel Altneuland was a liberal democracy where all citizens have the vote regardless of gender, race or religion. The narrative features a national election in which a liberal running on a platform of equal rights for all citizens, defeats a far-right racist who believes non-Jews should be denied the right to vote. (The latter is a Rabbi as it happens. If only that wasn’t quite so prescient.)

Our genuine friends in the democratic ‘club’ of which we are a member are not blind to our security concerns. They understand that June 1967 was an existential war of no-choice for us. Many of them also appreciate that a full return to the pre-67 borders leaves us unacceptably vulnerable. But we cannot and will not convince them that we can permanently rule a territory where the Jews have full rights as citizens and the Arabs do not, just because of our religious and historical connection to that territory.

Herzog understands this and knows full well how much damage has been done to our diplomatic standing by the more extreme elements in Netanyahu’s governments – not least our recently re-appointed foreign minister.

Unlike Shelly Yacimovich, he knows that the party of Ben Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin cannot avoid the security and diplomatic arena. But if he wants to be a serious candidate for Prime Minister he has to win back the centrist majority of Israelis who are skeptical of Palestinian intentions but understand that the occupation is bad not just for the Palestinians but also for us.

His grandfather was the State of Israel’s first Ashkenasi Chief Rabbi, and he should not take lightly the prospect of Israel’s departure from the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria; from Maharat Machpela (the Tomb of the Patriarchs) in Hebron, or Tel Shilo, where the Ark of the Covenant was housed in the days before the First Temple. I hope that he will disassociate himself from those on the left who sneer at the profound spiritual connection that so many Jews feel to those pieces of land.

But Zionism was ultimately about liberating a people, not a land. And though it calls for the establishment of a Jewish state, the religious-right does not have the monopoly on deciding what are the Jewish values that underpin that definition. To the question: “how can we part with the land of our forefathers?” one response would be to ask another question, no less informed by a Jewish moral imperative: “how can we hold on to the land when it means denying another people their basic civil rights?”.

Thus far, Herzog seems to be in the camp of those who believe the Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas is serious about forging a lasting peace.

I am more skeptical.

For one thing, I don’t find it in the least encouraging that the Palestinian price just for sitting down to negotiate was the release of murderers responsible for the most barbaric atrocities against Israeli civilians. Either Abbas personally supports what these terrorists did or – more likely – he knows that the Palestinian street views them as heroes and it’s therefore politically astute to treat them as such. So he’s either unwilling or unable to condemn the deliberate slaughter of innocent people in the name of Palestinian nationalism. Neither option is great cause for confidence going into peace talks.

And while one can debate the merits of Netanyahu’s call for the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state, it has had the useful, though depressing, effect of prompting the following, unambiguous Palestinian response: “We will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” So even if a peace agreement is signed, the Palestinians simply do not recognize, however grudgingly, the right of the Jewish people to sovereignty on any portion of this land.

So what is Herzog’s plan if his optimism does indeed prove to be unfounded? The new leader of the left will have to contrast himself with Netanyahu, whose alternative to the peace talks is to maintain the status quo in the West Bank, continuing to alternately appease the settlement movement and the international community in his inimitable way. 

There’s a very good chance that any withdrawal from the majority of the West Bank will have to be done unilaterally, absent a peace agreement. Unilateralism doesn’t have to mean a repeat of Gaza. There are creative solutions out there, and some very serious and security-minded individuals have called for Israel to, gradually and systematically, evacuate settlers outside of the settlement blocs and draw its own border, ending its rule over the Palestinians and separating from them once-and-for-all.

The leader of the Labor Party has traditionally been regarded as the leader of “the Peace Camp.” Herzog should learn from Ari Shavit that while Israel wants peace, what it needs is to find a way to end its 46-year occupation of another people, to free ourselves from the choke-hold that has on our moral values, our future as a democracy and our place in the international community. He should present himself as the leader of the “Jewish and democraric camp”, and act accordingly.