In 1948, Israel’s founders had much more in mind than the mere creation of a state. In the words of historian Daniel Gordis, they sought to “transform the existential condition of the Jew.” Two thousand years after the Roman conquest of Judea, Zionism was both a mechanism of national revival and a response to a world that had made Jewish statehood a humanitarian imperative. Jewish sovereignty would not solve the ancient problem of antisemitism, but it could provide Jews with a place to escape to during their gravest trials.
In the decades since its establishment, Israel has achieved its raison d’être—and much more—against steep odds. When five Arab armies waged war against Israel upon its establishment, the CIA concluded that “the Jews will be able to hold out no longer than two years.” Seventy-five years on from 1948, Israel has not only survived, but thrived. It has served as a safe haven for Jewish refugees from Ethiopia, the Soviet Union and a host of other countries ravaged by virulent forms of antisemitism. So too, Israel has become a military powerhouse and its technology sector has become the envy of many developed countries. From drip irrigation to the cherry tomato, the world today is replete with Israeli innovations; there is no country in the history of mankind that has contributed as much to the fields of technology, agriculture and the creative arts as the Jewish state.
Put simply, Israel’s story is a miracle made possible by its most pragmatic heroes — and jeopardised by its most dogmatic zealots. When David Ben-Gurion accepted UN resolution 181, which partitioned Eretz Yisrael into separate Jewish and Arab states, he knew that Israel could not survive with an Arab majority — or even a large Arab minority. Forty-five years later, Yitzhak Rabin made the difficult decision of recognising the Palestine Liberation Organisation and ceding parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He did so as part of a process that many hoped would lead to Palestinian statehood alongside Israel. Both leaders were motivated by the same objective—Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state—and both understood that separation with the Palestinians was sine qua non.
Binyamin Netanyahu is no such leader. Though far from an ideologue, Netanyahu has embraced the country’s settler movement to maintain his iron-clad control of the premiership. Since he began his second term in 2009, the numbers from places such as Eli and Ofra—that is, isolated settlements outside of the major blocs—have grown from less than sixty thousand to more than one hundred thousand. The reality of all these years of construction has brought Israel closer to the dreaded one-state solution: indeed, the death-knell of Israel as the Jewish and democratic state its founders envisioned.
As of late 2022, over seven million Jewish Israelis and seven million Arabs, including both Arab Israeli citizens and Palestinians, reside in the land encompassing Israel proper, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Worse still, higher Palestinian fertility rates almost guarantee an Arab majority in Eretz Yisrael over the next few decades. In this intolerable scenario, Israel will be forced to either grant only half of its population the right to vote or risk becoming a de facto Palestinian state with a Jewish minority. Therein lies the threat posed by Netanyahu and his right-wing apparatchiks to the prospect of long-term peace, as well as Israel’s fundamental character and identity.
A one-state solution is a prescription for not only continued bloodshed (as Palestinians will not give up their legitimate national aspirations and Jewish Israelis will not acquiesce to living as minorities in a binational state), but the end of the liberal Zionist dream. Though Israel’s founders fought hard to establish their state and fought even harder to defend it ex post facto, its existence is today threatened—at least partly—by messianic settlers and their shrewd interlocutors (or rather, interlocutor). True, the primary threat to Israel’s survival is not Netanyahu, but a potentially nuclear Iran and its terrorist proxies. Iranian leaders such as Ayatollah Khamenei have derided Israel as an unwanted “cancerous growth” that needs to be usurped. They have also developed a perturbing nuclear program and bankrolled the genocidal terrorism of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
In light of the territorial maximalism of Israel’s most daunting foes and the brutality of the October 7th (and other) attacks, Netanyahu’s unwillingness to give up the West Bank is neither unsurprising nor unreasonable. The intransigence of Hamas, and its so-called moderate rival, Fatah, makes it more difficult—in fact, impossible at this moment—for Israel to even contemplate withdrawal either on a unilateral basis or as part of a negotiated settlement. A Palestinian state would, in the words of former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, serve as nothing less than a “fortress of terror.”
Yet at the same time, Israel’s leaders must preserve the possibility of separation with the Palestinians in the meantime for its very survival depends on it. For example, an end to settlement construction east of the security barrier is a major policy step that could keep the prospect of two states alive until Palestinian leaders are willing to negotiate. Likewise, financial incentives should also be offered to Israelis living in isolated settlements to move back into the major blocs or within green-line Israel. These measures will prove controversial with Israel’s public, especially the virulent settler movement, but heroic leaders in the past have been able to build broad-based national support for similar policies when they have framed the stakes as being about security and Israel’s survival.
A great novelist named Amos Oz once wrote: “Even unavoidable occupation is corrupting occupation.” Israel cannot relinquish the West Bank any time soon, but its leaders still face a historic choice. A one-state disaster would not only produce endless bloodshed amongst neighbours who have no respect for democratic traditions or the concept of minority rights, but it would also force Israel to yield its fundamental character. Israelis paid a heavy price to preserve who they are. They fought successive wars and, despite their unforgiving neighbourhood, emerged as both a refuge for Jews everywhere and as the only democracy in the Middle East. A two-state solution—which Netanyahu has made infinitely harder to achieve—may fall on deaf ears after the horrors of October 7th, but it remains the only solution that honours the Zionist dreams of our forefathers. The stakes could not be higher: Israel has ushered the most prosperous and secure period in Jewish history — and all of us have a responsibility to nurture and protect it.