Israel and Buridan’s Ass

With Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon’s recent pronouncement that this Israeli government would never accept a Two State Settlement, an old paradox comes to mind regarding a Paradox of choices

Buridan’s ass is an illustration of a paradox in philosophy in the conception of free will.


It refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other.[1] The paradox is named after the 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan, whose philosophy of moral determinism it satirizes. A common variant of the paradox substitutes two identical piles of hay for the hay and water; the ass, unable to choose between the two, dies of hunger.”

Wherein Israeli Democracy finds itself in the position of the Ass…

Because of The Occupation of the West Bank, Israel faces some existential questions regarding its character as a State. With Danon’s pronouncement, the nation needs to decide what path it wants to go down. Is Danon right, despite protests from upper echelon Likud / Betainu ministers and officials, that there is a large enough group of MK’s that would block any agreement for a Two State Solution and at the very least will maintain the “status quo” indefinitely? OR Will Israelis reject the One State Solution or continuation of the status quo and force new elections in the face of some very serious existential questions?

One of these questions regards the nature of Israel’s democracy. Here I would pose three points of view regarding that. Now remember, according to Israel’s Declaration of Establishment

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations….


WE APPEAL – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.

The very call for “Jewish Democracy”.

The above paragraphs from the Declaration of Establishment lay out some of the founding democratic principles of the founding of the State of Israel. The Declaration promises equal rights, full and equal citizenship to all Israelis, be they Arab or Jew. It doesn’t talk about second class citizens, and it doesn’t support disenfranchisement. So given that – here are the concerns to Democracy

If Israel actually does formally reject the Two State Solution what are its options as a Democracy. Well, one route being discussed is that should Israel annex the West Bank, the Arab population living in the West Bank would have every civil right that Jewish citizens of Israel would have but that they would NOT have the right to vote in National elections. In other words, approx 2.7 million Palestinians (other reliable estimates put the numbers at 2.6 million) would be disenfranchised and have no vote for the leaders of their nation.

Just this would mean that Israel as a nation would be turning away from both its Declaration of Establishment AND it’s commitment to Democratic processes. One source of pride for Israel is that it can rightfully point out that it is a Liberal Democracy in a sea of Autocratic and Theocratic regimes that have no interest in human rights and/or democratic processes. Sure Egypt just voted, but, then their government put forth changes in political process which would hamstring those same democratic processes. Yes Lebanon has some form of strange Democracy but honestly, only as much as Hizbollah and their Iranian allies allow.

So, with the absorption of 2.7 Million Palestinians the demographic representation of Israel would change from 75.4% Jewish (6.042 million Jews to 1.658 million Palestinians out of 8.018 million people) to having a population of 10,618,000 and the demographic split would be approx. 57% – 43%.

OF that 43% of the population, more than half of that figure would have no voice in the election of their nation’s leaders.

This brings us to the second part of the equation, with Birthrates, Aliyah (and Yeridah) the Jewish population of Israel is growing at approximately 1.8% per year as compared to the Arab population with was growing at 2.4%, this would eventually create a Jewish MINORITY in Israel (which would not bode well for long term stability as minority states don’t tend to last for that long in today’s world), most likely within three decades.

In either case, whether or not the Arab population of Israel is allowed to vote, with the full annexation of The Occupied Territories, Israel as a democratic nation as envisioned by it’s founders would cease to exist either in the near term or thirty years from now.

For some, the nature of Israel as a democracy is simply not that important. It is obvious through their advocacy and policies that they don’t see the Israel in those terms and that the existence of Israel first and foremost as a Jewish State trumps anything else. For them, this is the reality of the Occupation and re-settlement of “Eretz Yisrael”.

One should then ask – What part of Israeli society do they represent? Well if one uses the election as a guide – the advocates of One State (or at least advocates of a de facto One State better known as the Status Quo) hold 43 seats in the current government out of 120 total seats. According to a recent Panels poll they would hold 42 seats if elections were held today (and the neo-Kahanist Otzma L’Israel would cross the electoral threshold and gain three seats).

For a bit of perspective, the advocates of Two States (in some form IF you count Yesh Atid – who seem to endorse the idea if not completely willingly), now hold 42 seats but would hold 54 seats in a new election. I don’t count the Arab parties here because none of them nor Hadash (A mixed Arab and Jewish party) advocates for anything but a Palestinian One State Solution.

Then of course, it is important to think of the ramification of this. IF Israel, decides to annex and allow full democracy (something I think they should do IF they decide to annex – because I am strong believer in “be careful what you wish for”, AND I am a huge fan of democracy as a system of government), then Israel would cease to be the National Homeland and State of the Jewish people. It would be a democracy and who knows how that would end (Personally, I believe that it would be full of strife and eventually force a Two State solution).

OR if Israel maintains the Status Quo or annexes (per Danon and the Right) then Israel would in effect cease to be a democracy, and would face the incredible problems that ruling over a sizable minority, a minority that doesn’t have full civil rights, presents. Not too mention that in this case annexation goes against the very foundation of democratic government of the State.

So, how does Israel solve this problem – how does it (as Buridan’s ass in the paradox) choose a path out of this? Well, in one respect it could drop all pretense of being a democracy, declare an end to democratic processes except for some individuals and watch what happens. Maybe nothing happens and no one cares, but I would assess that this is irresponsible thinking at best, more likely purely delusional. The problem of course with this is that at least half of their populace (and polity) fully disagrees with this, thus setting off their own issues. Also, is it realistic to think that there would not be repercussions from Israel’s trading partners and main ally, The United States? I think the obvious answer is no. There will be repercussions and harsh ones at that.

This would be the same for the solution that the Hard Right advocates which is to, expel the Arab population. Now, how would that go over with Israel’s own population, the rest of the world, and with their key ally the United States? Somehow, I don’t think that would float well. The idea of wholesale ethnic cleansing would not sit well with most Israelis, and for sure would bring on international isolation on the order of North Korea not to mention immediate war with its neighbors and with no ally to back it. Further, that would be a “step too far” for even the moderate Right (if that term makes sense). Even they wouldn’t support that.

At the same time, Israel is faced with the very real issue that the other side (the Palestinians) don’t seem to be able to step back from their maximalist demands. While advocates for the Palestinians cite a 55% acceptance of a Two State Solution amongst the Palestinian Polity and general support for the Arab League revised offer, no one mentions the issue of “Right of Return”, which would create an Arab Majority in Israel (and thus end Israel as the National Homeland and State of the Jewish People) should Israel even accept that agreement.

Polls of the Palestinian Polity show no willingness to compromise on their claimed “Right of Return” to Israel proper. A clear 70% of Palestinian respondents polled put “Right of Return” to Pre-1967 Israel as either the first or second priority for a new Palestinian State. So while, there is “acceptance” of a Two State Solution amongst the Arab populace, it is two states of Palestine and Israel run by Palestinians. Given that, why would Israel accede to any demands that the Palestinians make?

Where can Israel go at this point? Danon brought the issue public, but he represents a sizable minority of the Israeli populace. IF Israel takes the path laid out by Danon (either annex or maintain the status quo, Israeli democracy dies. Even if Israel takes Naftali Bennett’s path (as laid out in HaBayit HaYehudi’s platform), they kill their democracy because in the end ruling over Autonomous land areas really is not the same thing as those people in the Autonomous area’s creating their own nation.

At the same time, capitulation to Arab demands would not bring peace either. It might work with some of the nations that are already in a treaty with Israel, and perhaps some of the Gulf States might be more willing to deal, but the hardliners in Lebanon, and Syria (no matter who wins the Civil War there) would never go for it and really neither would the Palestinians. SO the nation faces existential questions in this regard as well.

Still, inactivity only would result in further problems. The American Government is offering their full backing to at least getting the Peace Process going again. It is my belief, that the current Israeli administration should completely reject Danon’s statements and work with Secretary Kerry and the Obama Administration to get discussions moving if for nothing else than both sides to lay out clear and final goals in an international setting.

In my mind, Israel should offer the Olmert map of 2007-08, a map that would guarantee Israeli security as well as would maintain the neighborhoods and areas built up in the post 1967 period and at the same time allowing the Palestinian polity a better chance at full representation for themselves. Also, I think that Israel should at least discuss at least Autonomous Palestinian control over neighborhoods and Muslim sites in Jerusalem. In return, Israel should settle for nothing less than complete Palestinian renunciation of their “Right of Return” to any parts of Israel and that there needs to be a full peace treaty with full economic and societal relations between the two nations.

Of course the question is, is this realistic in today’s climate of mutual mistrust and (judging by some of the comments posted in discussion forums) hate? I don’t know. It has not been really tried. Olmert never presented his final map to Palestinian President Abbas. A “final take it or leave it” discussion dealing with tricky issues like Jerusalem and Palestinian “Right of Return” has never been had in an international forum. But those are the two thorniest issues and the two issues that need to be settled for there to be long lasting peace.

Should the Palestinians reject this, then I believe it is incumbent upon the Israelis to simply create borders that would guarantee Israeli security and at the same time would allow the Palestinians to create their own separate and distinct state from Israel thus removing any demographic issues and threats to Israeli Democracy and too the nations founding principles.

I believe this is the only way that Israel can maintain it’s democracy without having to compromise itself in an unhealthy manner. In the end, this is up to the Israelis. Are they willing to make the hard choices that nations face? The one thing is that they simply can’t be like Buridan’s ass and simply do nothing until the situation becomes far more dire.

About the Author
Jon Segall is creator of the blog The Progressive Zionist. Jon has lived in Israel and studied Israeli and American Policy in the region. Currently Jon, is re-learning Hebrew, and is an active practitioner of the Israel Self Defense Martial Art Krav Maga.