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Priyankar Kandarpa

Towards a Moral, Jewish, Democratic State

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - MAY 13:  (ISRAEL OUT) Israelis wave their national flags during a  march next to the Western Wall on May 13, 2018 in Jerusalem, Israel. Israel mark Jerusalem Day celebrations  the 51th anniversary of its capture of Arab east Jerusalem in the Six Day War of 1967. One day before US will move the  Embassy to Jerusalem.  (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
Waving the flag. Photographer: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

At the end of the precious few good-faith discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I notice both sides will always end with the same two words: “It’s complicated”. It reminds me of times when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators at the ill-fated Taba Summit in 2001 were asked to prepare a ‘joint narrative’ of 1948 to form the preamble and basis for the resolution of the Palestinian refugee question. In the account of Ghaith Al-Omari, a brilliant Palestinian jurist and pragmatist, the two sides could not even agree whether 1948 was a good or bad year.

While anyone who purports to host a perfect answer to any of the questions of the century-long Israeli-Arab tragedy is either grandiloquent or foolish, in my eyes it is more important for Zionists like myself to focus on one critical challenge: the establishment of a morally scrupulous, Jewish and democratic state.

A Complex History

You might wonder why I say the ‘establishment’ of such a state rather than the strengthening of it. After all, Israel exists as a fact of life today and the Jewish people are not going to go anywhere. But this runs into two shortcomings. First, to an extent, as long as Israel rules over the Palestinian people and exercises claims over the entirety of Judea and Samaria/the West Bank, the claim to being a Jewish democracy comes under threat. Occupations, as such, are not illegal. Even if they are prolonged, as long as they are temporary, they are acceptable. This is rapidly proving elusive in Israel-Palestine: the governing coalition has made it clear that it intends to hold onto the West Bank into eternity.

Second, being faithful to the historical record, even before the occupation, Israel was not a liberal democracy. I am no Revisionist Zionist myself (I will always prefer Yitzhak Rabin to Yitzhak Shamir), but for most of Israel’s earliest years, the Labour-led governments of Ben-Gurion, Sharrett, Eshkol and Meir had security services surveil the nascent political right. The Arab citizens of Israel remained under military rule until November 1966, just seven months before the Six-Day War which brought with it, rule over the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Occupation and the Moral Fabric of Israel

The final question comes to the rather provocative term I used at the beginning of my description: “morally scrupulous”. What does this mean? To anti-Zionists, it is utterly impossible for Israel to be morally anything; they view the Jewish people’s self-determination in the land to which they belong as an anomaly and aberration. I obviously disagree with such statements (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this), but will add one provision. The debate about whether Zionism is here to stay or not is, to an extent, irrelevant: Israel is a fact of life, whether anti-Zionists like it or loathe it. It is in Israel’s own interest and capability to keep it this way.

The occupation, however, corrodes this. Not only does it bring about the prospect of a binational state (which is either a pollyanna or an invitation to civil war, depending on which one-stater you speak to), but it hurts the moral fabric of Israeli society. From the often hideous incitement that has become routine on Channel 14 to the horrific spectacle of the Gaza Resettlement conference; it is clear that what ought to have been a temporary occupation, wherein Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza would simply constitute leverage for a final peace agreement with the entire Arab world, now risks becoming permanent. The pre-7 October status quo seemed good enough for Israelis of all political stripes; the Change Government of Bennet and Lapid did nothing serious to change it, and the Left could never challenge Netanyahu’s claims that he was Mr. Security. As a result, even conversation about the need for peace became at best an unnecessary nuisance, and at worst, leftist ‘post-Zionism’ and utopianism.

Then, on 7 October, Hamas launched a brutal and horrific murder spree across southern Israel, taking over 200 people hostage. As a result, it is patently clear that Hamas no longer has a right to exist. Putting aside the Judith Butler nonsense, nobody serious can argue that Hamas’s actions constituted anything close to rightful resistance; it was simply an orgy of ‘kill an Israeli as you find them’. Israel rightfully has pursued a campaign to dismantle Hamas’s military and free hostages. But in a government led by messianic radicals who failed their own people on that fateful Simchat Torah, and dominated by the occupation’s most corrosive elements in Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, Orit Struck, and Zvi Sukkot (among many others), flagrant violations of international humanitarian norms have become a given.

The Allies may have launched bombs against Dresden, but after the Second World War, Israel was one of the first countries to sign onto the Fourth Geneva Convention. Putting aside whether settlements necessarily violate the Convention (an opinion that Legal Aide to the Foreign Ministry Theodor Meron warned of when the first post-1967 West Bank settlement of Kfar Etzion was built), there are clear obligations under international law when it comes to war:

“Article 55: To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population”.

“Article 59: If the whole or part of the population of an occupied territory is inadequately supplied, the Occupying Power shall agree to relief schemes on behalf of the said population, and shall facilitate them by all mans at its disposal.”

“Article 60: Relief consignments shall in no way relieve the Occupying power under any of its responsibilities under Articles 55, 56, and 59.”

Therefore, when I see discussion on conditioning the transportation of aid to the Gaza Strip on Palestinians living there declaring they are no longer refugees, ghoulish protesters blocking the Nitzana and Kerem Shalom crossings, and a host of government ministers opposing even one morsel of aid to enter Gaza; it is deeply shocking. These rules ought to be followed by all signatories to the Geneva Conventions, even if the enemy is worse than the Nazis and its civilians hate the occupying power with a passion. And this is even true if the enemy-in this case the vile death cult of Hamas-engages in a barbarous atrocity that the Jewish people have not seen since the Holocaust.

Let us just see how much this moral fabric has been frayed in the course of this war. There is little to no initiative from Israel to open more border crossings to aid from North Gaza. In fact, it seems as though Israel is only too open to allowing third countries to take up the job it needs to follow through with under the aforementioned laws, be it the United States building a floating pier or the Emiratis and Jordanians building field hospitals. Israel’s most fervent supporters internationally have spread the so-called ‘Pallywood’ conspiracy theory, suggesting the sights of horrors in the Gaza Strip are entirely staged. One Israeli TV presenter has even said he wants war crimes. This is a very long way from Aharon Barak’s famous declaration that Israel, as a democracy, should fight with one hand tied behind its back.

Unsurprisingly, of late Israel finds itself in bad company. The choice of the former Mayor of the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim as Ambassador was sufficiently problematic that even Giorgia Meloni’s Italy wouldn’t accept him (and keep in mind, she views her ‘Brothers of Italy’ party as, in her own terms, no different to the Likud of Israel or the Republican Party of the USA). It looks as if he will be dispatched to Budapest instead, not that Hungary is much of an improvement. In the halls of the US Congress, we see Republican congressmen like Andy Ogles and Chuck Fleischmann declaring, “Goodbye to Palestine!” and “Kill ’em all”. In the United States, unconditional support for Israel risks becoming the rallying cries of evangelical rapture-mongers who seek the eventual conversion of Jews to Christianity and a select few American conservatives who feel they know better than Israel’s own security and military establishment, rather than the bipartisan consensus that has existed since the late 1960s.

A Difficult Message

I am not going to pretend to convince those who believe Israel ought not to fight with one hand tied behind its back, or for those who engage in the euphemistic discourse of ‘voluntary immigration’. If your vision of justice does not encompass strict respect for international law not as accommodating, but essential for the existence of Israel, then none of what I have said so far will make any sense.

Israel is surrounded by danger. To the north and northeast, there is the profoundly evil Syrian dictator and Hezbollah, both of which are in varying degrees under Tehran’s growing influence. The Houthis in Yemen risk disruption to Israeli commerce altogether. But let us not forget that neither Jordanian nor Egyptian societies are especially Zionist; in fact, passionate opposition to the Jewish state remains deeply entrenched despite peace treaties and generous Israeli water supplies. It will be decades before a peace of two peoples will be achieved. I am in my twenties and I doubt it will happen in my lifetime.

But even faced with these threats, Israel must always act with the right moral scruples, entrenched in what the world understands to be the rules of combat. This all may seem lofty and impractical but mind you, Israel is the start-up nation. It is the country of possibility, which built out of the sands of the Near East one of the richest and most prosperous economies in the world. It defeated multiple invading Arab armies simultaneously on three separate occasions. Hamas’s attack has shown a deep loathing and hatred toward Jewish people and the State of Israel. But it did not spell the end of the Jewish state.

Israel undoubtedly has the capability to manage the deep traumas of 7 October and wage war in full compliance with requirements under international humanitarian law, and to mitigate (and hopefully reverse) the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. Mass hunger, the spread of disease, looting, and a collapse of civilian order – none of this had to happen. It was a combination of political decisions by the government such as the seemingly inexplicable tacit consent for protesters to block aid crossings, and a culture of dehumanisation that has pervaded right-wing media that violates the raison d’être of a Jewish state: a moral homeland for a lost people to return to.

When the war began, I hoped Israel would be able to look itself in the mirror fifty years from now and say, “Where Hamas proved themselves barbarous and evil, Israel took the high ground.” I worry this is not the case. If not for the sake of lofty principles but for the moral fibre of Israeli society, I hope this changes.

About the Author
Priyankar Kandarpa is an ardent supporter of Israel's existence as a secure, moral, democratic state to fulfill the original mission of Zionists to ensure the Jewish people a truly recognized, legitimate place among the nations. He closely researches matters regarding the so-called 'Permanent Status' issues and the history of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. He studies History and Politics at the University of Oxford.