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Israel at 65: Is Zionism still alive?

Legitimate Zionism ends at the 1967 borders, one state is not an option and time is running out for the two-state option

When I came on aliya to Israel from New York in 1963 as a graduate of the progressive Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, I believed that I was fulfilling the Zionist dream, the Jewish right to national self-determination.

I was helping to build the homeland of the Jewish people, and as a kibbutz member, participating in the life of community which was not only a cornerstone of the Zionist enterprise but also a role model for humanity.
Dancing at a typical kibbutz holiday in the fields

It was a much more innocent time than today. There was no television – it would only arrive in 1968 – and the labor movement, which built the country and most of its institutions, was still the dominant force in Israeli politics as it had been ever since the pre-state days (the right-wing Likud party led by Menahem Begin would only assume power for the first time in 1977). There was no occupation, and all of the progressive forces around the world identified with Israel.

Zionism – part of a worldwide movement for change

Around 1967-68, there was an English language magazine in the country called Israel Magazine that had the brilliant idea of creating an issue devoted to “The Kibbutz”, written entirely by kibbutzniks.

I was asked to write an article about what motivated me to come from the Diaspora and join a kibbutz.

Among other things, I wrote that I felt I was part of a worldwide movement to change the world, what is known today as Tikun Olam, symbolized by the May 1968 demonstrators in France and throughout Europe, Danny the Red (Daniel Cohen-Bendit), Joan Baez, the anti-Vietnam war demonstrators and the counter-culture in America, etc.

The editors decided that my article, and all of the other articles written by kibbutz educators, economists, artists etc., was “too radical,” and they decided to write their own articles about the kibbutzim while paying us a “kill fee” for not publishing our own pieces.

Things changed

The turning point was clearly 1967, the Six Day War and the beginning of the occupation.

Today, some of my friends in Israel are saying that if the extreme right and the settlers in the occupied territories are claiming that what they are doing and advocating is the epitome of Zionism, then they will no longer call themselves Zionists. I disagree, and say that there is a struggle over the meaning and fate of the Zionist enterprise, and we should not give up on the term.

Settlement activity is post or anti-Zionism

What the right and the settlers are doing is post-Zionism, or even anti-Zionism. Legitimate Zionism ends at the 1967 borders, the Green Line, which is recognized by the entire international community, including the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and the 22 member states of the Arab League in the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, backed by the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. This legitimacy is predicated on the understanding that there is also a Palestinian right to national self-determination, and that the resolution of the conflict between the two national movements is partition, the two-state solution.

Settlement activity in the Occupied Territories only serves to undermine this legitimacy and the Zionist enterprise as a whole.

An Israeli settlement in the West Bank

Living in denial

Today, as we celebrate Israel’s 65th anniversary, we have many things to be proud of: 10 Nobel Prize winners, the revival of the Hebrew language and a thriving Israeli culture, a world-class innovative hi-tech industry, a vibrant democracy (inside the Green Line), major institutions of higher education, the successful absorption of masses of immigrants from around the world, a younger generation which was capable of generating a protest movement for social justice, and much more.

However, since the public discourse focuses primarily on “sharing the burden” (of defending the country, income-producing work, taxes etc.), the growing economic gap between the upper and lower percentiles, the system of government, the challenge of the Iranian nuclear program and the uncertainties (not the opportunities) created by the Arab Spring, by ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we are essentially living in denial.

No resolution of the conflict, no Israel

Prof. Yehoshaphat Harkaby
Prof. Yehoshaphat Harkaby

In the late 70s during the early stages of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, Prof. Yehoshaphat Harkaby, a former head of Israeli Military Intelligence, asserted that without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there was no future for the State of Israel and the Zionist enterprise.Prof. Harkaby had been the man who called attention to the Palestinian National Covenant, warning that its goal was to eliminate Israel. Harkaby’s views changed dramatically after Egyptian President Sadat arrived in Israel in 1977, demonstrating that peace was indeed possible.

Two weeks ago at a conference at Tel Aviv University devoted to a new book entitled “Palestine – a state in the Making?” edited by Dr. Ephraim Lavie and Prof. Yitzhak Gal, I heard a similar statement about the dangers to Israel’s future made by Dr. Ron Pundak. Pundak is one of the architects of the Oslo Accords and the Israeli Co-Chair of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum (a network of about 60 Israeli and 40 Palestinian peace and human rights organizations), and he said that if we lose the two-state solution, the State of Israel would not survive.

I agree, we have a window of opportunity in the near future to salvage the Zionist enterprise and also to fulfill the Palestinian right to national self-determination via the two-state solution, a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel.

This window was cultivated by President Obama’s recent visit to Israel and Palestine and emphasized in his speech before Israeli students in Jerusalem.

President Peres meets President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry
President Peres meets President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry

One state is not an option

As Israel celebrates its 65th anniversary, it’s not clear how long this window of opportunity will last. Some say months. I assume we are talking about a year or two.

After that, particularly if settlement activity continues and no significant diplomatic progress is made, we may lose the two-state option. That doesn’t mean that the alternative is a one-state solution.

The realistic alternatives to a two state solution are either Greater Israel – the State of Israel and the West Bank dominated by Israel in essentially an apartheid-like manner, which would undermine Israeli democracy and be a recipe for constant rebellion – or the outbreak of violent conflict between the two nations, which might soon assume the nature of an extremely dangerous religious rather than national conflict – between Jews and Muslims rather than just between Israelis and Palestinians – which could threaten regional and international stability.

Meanwhile, the window of opportunity is still open – but for how long?

About the Author
Hillel Schenker is Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv