In Defense of Liberal Zionism

Noam Sheizaf has responded to Leon Wieseltier’s confession that he’s lost hope the two state solution is achievable within his lifetime. Sheizaf argues that when liberal Zionists take that position, their views are “morally and politically wrong.” This is because liberal Zionists are focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a political issue rather than a humanitarian one. This, in turn, makes them status quo oriented—since the occupation isn’t likely to end any time soon—and therefore morally responsible for its continuation.

There is an element of unrealism that runs through Sheizaf’s piece, one that subsumes the history and contours of the conflict under a laudable anger about the poor treatment of West Bank-Gaza Palestinians. It’s not that the conflict is easy to solve—it isn’t. It’s his argument that liberal Zionism represents an untenable position.

Because they acknowledge the multiple factors behind the occupation, yet condemn its continuation and work toward its ending, liberal Zionists are, in fact, more realistic than often assumed. The first essence of the liberal Zionist position is that the binary division between good and bad, right and wrong, occupation and peace, simply doesn’t reflect reality, and never did.

One can, of course, choose not to be a Zionist, or to be a one-stater. Both, I believe, are legitimate positions. This is the second essence of the liberal Zionist position: that Israel as a Jewish state matters, but not at the cost of immorality or physical destruction of others. This puts liberal Zionists on morally-sound ground.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a humanitarian problem, and the issue of rights is critical to understanding the conflict. But it’s not only a humanitarian or human rights problem. The conflict is not an empty space in which rights and human security are achieved or not.

It is first and foremost a protracted political conflict. It encompasses intangible things like identity and rights, but also tangible things like water and security.

And there is a real history to the conflict. It’s not “hasbarist” to say the Palestinian leadership has been less willing to pursue risky compromises, just like it’s not “pro-Palestinian” to say Israel’s settlement enterprise actively undermines the chances for peace. Nothing in the history of the conflict suggests it has ever been that simple.

This highlights the contradiction in Sheizaf’s piece. He first writes that “Israelis are in power. They can end the occupation with a simple decision. Palestinians can’t.” Yet he later says that “A major part of the problem in the thinking of the Israeli [and Zionist] left is the yearning for a ‘solution’ that will end the conflict on the very same day – a notion strangely parallel to the right’s wish for the disappearance of the Palestinians. There are no quick fixes. That’s not how life, or history, works.”

If it’s naive to assume that Israel can’t end the occupation on its own and make life instantly better for everyone, then it’s also naive to assume that if Israel suddenly left it would be guaranteed safety rather than instability, threat, and terrorism.

The liberal Zionist incorporates these opposing interests. One can in all good conscience believe that what Benjamin Netanyahu and many members of the new Likud electoral list have said is frightening and deserving of fierce condemnation. But one can also applaud the reference in Mahmoud Abbas’s UN speech to the 1967 lines as indicative of his interest in two states, and still denounce the rest as of it as a hateful lecture accusing Israel of all the wrongs in the conflict and absolving Palestinians of the terrible violence they, too, have committed.

Sheizaf might respond that all of this is the problem—perceiving the conflict as taking place within a political context perpetuates the status quo (since it’s obvious the new Israeli government that emerges after January 22 will be even less interested in peace talks), puts too much onus on the repressed Palestinians, and equates their suffering with potential (but not guaranteed) future threats to Israel.

But thinking about the conflict only as a humanitarian issue for Palestinians and ignoring all the other elements that matter for both Israel and Palestinians doesn’t make it easier to solve the conflict—it makes it harder, since it doesn’t allow for solutions to account for both sides’ claims, demands, and needs.

That may not be ideal, but it is how conflict are resolved—unless one adopts a Gilad Sharon-type of argument that claims the strongest power should just win by crushing its opponent. Palestinians, too, sometimes think of the conflict in terms of war and violence: see the menace and intransigence in Khaled Meshaal’s recent speech in Gaza. These are the morally reprehensible and unrealistic positions.

This is why the political framework matters. The conflict will only end when the authorized representatives of both sides agree on a political outcome. Nothing else will guarantee the rights, security, and prosperity of both.

I do share Sheizaf’s concern that too many people—in Israel as well as outside it—are throwing up their hands and giving up because of the hardening of the Israeli position especially. All the evidence points to the fact that Israelis really don’t care that much about the occupation because they are no longer directly affected by it but are affected by other concerns.

But it is up to those who believe in two states—and liberal Zionists do more than many—to continue working to that end, regardless of the difficulties and obstacles in the way. Otherwise, it truly is just an excuse to turn away. And surely we can all agree that that is worse for everyone.

About the Author
Brent Sasley is Assistant Professor in Political Science, at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches Israel and Middle East politics, and works on the politics of Jewish identity