Ben-Gurion and Begin agreed: No sovereignty without citizenship for all

There are one or two clusters [of Palestinian residential areas] where you don’t have to extend sovereignty; [their residents] will remain Palestinian subjects, you might say, but [overall Israeli] security control will apply there.

Benjamin Netanyahu on his plans to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley, May 2020.

At the time of writing, these plans are up in the air. The dramatic COVID-19 spike has swept all other matters off the prime minister’s agenda for the short-term. He may also be getting cold feet in the face of unremitting opposition from the Arab world, European allies and the blue half of the American political map – which may well be back in the White House come January.

Nevertheless, what’s clear is that Netanyahu has embraced a formula which departs radically from that of his predecessors – either Labor or Likud; a departure which (like much else that he’s said and done in the past twelve months) seriously threatens Israeli democracy.

A look back at two years, and two prime ministers from the two sides of Israeli politics, will illustrate the point.

1948

In April of 1948, one month before the British Mandate came to an end and the State of Israel was declared, the Zionist movement’s ‘Situation Committee’ produced a report. Chaired by David Ben-Gurion himself, the committed was charged with preparing for statehood by setting out in detail a blueprint for administering a country: which ministries would be needed and what should their budgets be; what services would be required and where, etc. What is notable – apart from this impressive demonstration of forward planning – is that the report relates very specifically to the Arab minority that the Zionist leadership fully expected to be citizens in the new Jewish state.

The war inflicted on the Jews by the Arab states and the indigenous Palestinian Arab population did lead to a mass Arab exodus – some expelled, some fleeing of their own volition. But despite the phalanx of anti-Zionist ‘historians’ making good money explaining how the Zionists always intended to ‘ethnically cleanse’ Palestine, serious scholars can access the documents of Ben-Gurion’s Situation Committee and see that the original Zionist plan for state-administration did include, very deliberately, the provision of citizenship and equal rights to the Arabs within the borders of the new Jewish state.

So, Israel was established as a Jewish and democratic state. But what if Ben-Gurion had decided something different? What if he’d said: Jewish Tel Aviv will be sovereign Israel but Arab Jaffa won’t be; the Jewish neighborhoods of Haifa will be Israel, the Arab ones will be ‘autonomous enclaves’; we’re still going to have ultimate authority over the Arabs but they won’t be Israeli citizens?

This is essentially what Netanyahu’s annexation plan for the Jordan Valley looks like. Democratic Israel would be establishing a decidedly undemocratic regime in the West Bank. There are those who rebut this by arguing that it will simply be a continuation of the status quo, with Palestinian enclaves surrounded by Israeli settlements. They are missing the point. The current situation is that the territory remains disputed, pending a peace agreement. Israel and its supporters have long made the case that this will be the situation until the Palestinians abandon their rejectionist position and we can reach a final arrangement; it is the messy compromise which only continues because the Palestinians say no to every peace offer. But if Israel is now saying, this is the final arrangement – sovereign Israeli territory where the Jews are, and stateless Arabs in permanent enclaves – we are in a different situation entirely.

How will Israel’s professional diplomats and pro-Israel activists on campuses defend this? As former head of Israeli military intelligence Amos Yadlin says:

Israel has succeeded in convincing its friends around the globe that its hold on the West Bank is the result of Palestinian refusal to accept any and all peace plans, and a necessity due to security considerations.
Annexation, though, will put Israel in the shoes of the one that refuses peace.

He says something else also. He calls the move anti-Zionist. Israel the day after annexation, will not be the Israel envisaged by our founders. Just read Herzl, or Ben-Gurion, or Jabotinsky. In fact, especially Jabotinsky, for whom democracy and civil rights were non-negotiable.

And so, from Ben-Gurion, let’s move to the other side of the political map, to Jabotinsky’s disciple Menachem Begin.

1977

Today’s Likud keeps using Begin as a model for annexation because he applied sovereignty to the Golan Heights as prime minister. What they never mention is the far more pertinent case of his plans for the West Bank.

Dan Meridor, former Likud minister and Begin’s cabinet secretary discussed this recently:

[Begin] said this is our land, we have a right to it and we claim it, but there are other claims: Jordan and Egypt (the PLO was not relevant then). If I want peace, this is my offer: let’s leave the question of sovereignty open, I don’t apply my sovereignty, you don’t apply yours… The people there, Arabs, will have to choose. If they want to stay Jordanian let them stay Jordanian and vote for the Jordanian Parliament; if they want to become Israelis they can become Israelis. And Begin said: ‘we don’t want to be Rhodesia, or South Africa’.

Starting with Begin and continuing with Netanyahu until a few months ago, no Likud prime minister has proposed annexing even parts of the West Bank, despite the ‘Greater Israel’ ideology of the party. Why? Because the party was also committed to liberal democracy, and once you say this territory is no longer disputed, but is officially Israel, you have to give the Palestinians the option of Israeli citizenship.

“We don’t want to be Rhodesia” said Begin. Indeed we do not. The former British colony (now Zimbabwe) was then an apartheid state every bit as much as its southern neighbor.

Hirsh Goodman, an Israeli journalist originally from South Africa, was nuanced enough to state, in his recent cri de cœur against annexation that Netanyahu’s plans “may not be apartheid, which was a seminal and unique event”, but nevertheless “it would be separation under one sovereignty by ethnicity—and that is a red line I cannot cross.”

So not apartheid, but pretty damn close. And that would be an absolute betrayal of what Israel was always supposed to be.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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