Meron Benvenisti died last month. He was 86 years old and one of those select Israelis deemed worthy of obituaries in the international press. It’s possible to compile an impressively varied list of the roles he played in his lifetime: deputy mayor of Jerusalem, founder of the West Bank Data Project, journalist, historian, polemicist, political scientist, archaeologist.
But Benvenisti should be remembered primarily as a public intellectual, as a man who thought out loud about the nature of democracy in Israel. His ideas were often challenging for Israelis on both right and left. He was arguably a prophet not without honour, save in his own country. Benvenisti was seen as a ‘dove’, a critic of what he termed the cult of moledet, the love of the homeland, a man who was willing to give time to thinking from the Palestinian point of view. He was also the object of criticism from the left because of his attitude towards the occupation and the notion of a two-state solution to the conflict.
The public intellectual, Edward Said wrote, ‘confronts orthodoxy and dogma’ and is in ‘lifelong dispute with all the guardians of sacred vision or text.’ Benvenisti was never afraid to utter the unutterable and perhaps it was his ideas in relation to democracy and Israel that led to him having something of the status of a Cassandra doomed to utter unpalatable ideas beyond what Chomsky called ‘the framework of thinkable thought.’ So as demonstrations resumed at Balfour and beyond this week, it is interesting to recall some of his thinking on the subject.
It is heartening to witness the fact that Israelis of all ages are willing to take to the streets, week after week, to protest against Netanyahu. They speak out about the corruption and the threats to the democratic infrastructure of the country that he embodies. They have refused to go away in the face of increasing threats of violence and police intimidation. Their energy, determination and creativity offer the potential for a genuine turning point.
But Netanyahu – for all his innumerable faults – is one man. He is an easy target. His removal – whilst being highly desirable – is not the solution to the fundamental problems facing ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’ If you end up with Naftali Bennett and the continued exclusion of Palestinians from the debate, what has changed? The demonstrators deserve our plaudits for refusing to let Netanyahu off the hook but the whole notion of defending Israeli democracy – as Benvenisti would have pointed out – is problematic.
Benvenisti was sensitive about criticisms which labelled Israel an apartheid state but for him the very idea of a ‘Jewish-democratic state’ was oxymoronic. He identified Israel as a herrenvolk democracy – ‘a master-nation’ state where the minority is disenfranchised. ‘We are a country that behaves like a full-blooded democracy, but we have a group of serfs, the Arabs, to whom we do not apply democracy,’ he told Ari Shavit in 2012.
He kept a close eye on the occupation through his West Bank Data Project. When settlement in the occupied territories had reached what he considered to be a point of no return, Benvenisti concluded – prematurely, some critics have argued – that two-state solutions were no longer viable. After 1967 ‘a status hierarchy of superior-subordinate groups was institutionalised.’ For him, the only way forward, in the light of the settlement reality of facts on the ground, was to consider an unpartitioned country, a single state within the land of Mandatory Palestine with ‘an equality of respect’ for all citizens.
The anti-Netanyahu movement is a broad church and there are many within it who appreciate the corrupting force of occupation. Netanyahu, however, has become the dominant focal point for opposition on the left whilst the Coronavirus crisis and ‘peace’ deals with the UAE and Bahrain have created a distraction from the real democratic crisis. The temporary removal of annexation from the agenda has done the left no favours. Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ had the potential to bring things to a head in terms of forcing us to ask the most difficult questions about democracy in Israel.
Two-state solution thinking in the form of Oslo and an illusory notion of ‘process’ have normalised the occupation and maintained the status quo of oppression and ongoing settlement activity for over fifty years. It is increasingly difficult to present Israel as ‘a light unto the goyim’ in this context. Netanyahu and Trump have taken possession of the two-state approach and diluted it. Trump’s maps showed the reality of any proposed Palestinian ‘state’: an archipelago of Bantustans.
Benvenisti argued for one state. Perhaps he had a point. Annexation of all the land conquered in 1967 is the desired goal of large sections of the right in Israel (there are differences of opinion over Gaza). If this were to happen it would have the potential to produce a broader body of opposition, not just in the form of international condemnation, but through a local movement that fights for democratic rights and equality for all those who dwell here. Fantasies of transfer aside, the demographic ‘problem’ of the Palestinians of the occupied territories is not going to go away. The notion of Eretz Israel can be appropriated by the left. Full annexation would lead to a state which would be faced finally with the question of what to do with its Palestinian residents. A conflict between two nations would become a struggle for citizenship and civil rights. This is not to wish away the idea of a genuine Palestinian state but to acknowledge that it is nowhere near happening. It is also to recognise what years of settlement, alongside negotiation in the name of a two-state solution, have done for Palestinians and Israeli democracy.
Peter Beinart’s recent public reassessment of the two-state solution – ‘the goal of equality is now more realistic than the goal of separation’ – has reignited the debate. Perhaps it is time to think more radically in the spirit of Benvenisti – to rethink a debate about democracy that largely excludes the Palestinians and ignores the occupation, the looming elephant in the left’s too-comfortable room. The one-state argument currently lacks significant support from both Israelis and Palestinians and is itself no easy fix, but it is a different way of thinking and radical ideas always need time to take root. Netanyahu might be gone tomorrow but unchanged, the occupation will continue to gnaw away at any lingering ideas of democracy.
Like Beinart, Benvenisti is an example of someone whose ideas about Zionism and the nature of the State of Israel underwent a profound change. As he revealed to Haaretz: ‘I went to Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra in the 1950s and experienced the transcendent feeling of working in the banana groves without noticing that in order to plant the banana trees, I was uprooting olive trees, thousands of years old, of a Palestinian village. During that whole period … I did not understand the meaning of what I was doing.’ Benvenisti eventually arrived at the conclusion that a solution must include ‘equal respect’ for our Palestinian neighbours. The idea of one state was a way forward.
If we want to fight for democracy in Israel then yes, in the current moment the battle has to be about Netanyahu. The demonstrators have recognised this. But if all this effort is to lead to real change then we must bring the Palestinians into the equation and get beyond what could be seen as a wilful blindness on the left.
Benvenisti’s passing is a loss for free thinking but the demonstrations provide hope. They can be the start of something new, something bigger. Here are people willing to speak out and take to the streets. We need to harness the energy of this moment. Movements can gather momentum and broaden their agenda. Perhaps we can begin to address more fundamental issues pertaining to democracy in Israel and move away from notions of nationalism towards the idea of civil rights. Amongst a newly politicised generation there are those who have already experienced a Benvenisti-like epiphany echoing that moment of perception back in Rosh Hanikra. There are some who are already choosing to fight what is truly eroding democracy here. Netanyahu must go. But the occupation will still be there when he disappears and sooner or later, Israel will need to address the issue of democratic citizenship and human rights for all those who live between the river and the sea.