Sunday, February 11, 2007

From Normblog:

Israel as an undesirable fact

Tony Judt is quoted in this piece in today's Observer as saying he has never denied Israel's right to exist.

Strictly, this is accurate, at least for all I know. But Judt nonetheless obscures the meaning of what he has argued. Here's his disclaimer:

'I've never said Israel doesn't have a right to exist. I'm not actually sure that anyone in what we would call the respectable political mainstream ever has.'.....'The issue is not whether Israel has a right to exist,' Judt says plainly, 'Israel does exist. It exists just like Belgium or Kuwait or any other country which was invented at some point in the past and is now a fact. The question is what kind of a state Israel should be. That's all.'

Note that Judt's emphasis on the fact of Israel's existence is not to the point. Bob might recognize as a fact the union between his daughter and the ne'er-do-well she's shacked up with, yet not accept it as being a legitimate one - like a marriage - because he believes that this could only have come with his permission, which he hasn't given, and be properly effected in a church, which never happened. In the same way, it's possible to acknowledge the fact of Israel's existence without accepting its right to exist - a viewpoint that I haven't had to invent.

Tony Judt may not have denied Israel's right to exist, but what he has done is to propose that Israel is an anachronism, and that we should 'think the unthinkable' about it: this being that there may be 'no place in the world today for a "Jewish state"', and that the resolution of the problems in the region lies, instead, in 'a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians'. What he recommends, therefore, is that even if it has a right to exist, Israel should not avail itself of that right, but should set it aside by dissolving itself into a wider binational entity. Unlike France or Germany or Sweden etc. - see Michael Walzer's riposte (scroll down) - Israel should forego the right of statehood. It's not accurate, therefore, for Judt to say:

The question is what kind of a state Israel should be. That's all.It isn't all. What he here obscures is that he has put in question the desirability of Israel's future existence as a (majority) Jewish state. A binational state of Jews and Arabs would no longer be just another form of Israel. That's playing with words.

Michael Waltzer takes issue (a bit dated but hardly outdated):

Tony Judt believes that it is a hopeless task to persuade Israeli Jews to remove 200,000 of their fellows from the West Bank and Gaza. So he wants to persuade them instead, all five million of them, to give up political sovereignty and remove themselves from the society of states. The craziness of the proposal is matched, of course, by everyone else's craziness when it comes to Israel/Palestine, but it does have its own peculiar features. Here is a state with the strongest army in the region, with a nuclear arsenal, a flourishing economy that provides (despite today's hard times) a Euro-American standard of living, and the only democratic political system in the whole of the Middle East. And Judt proposes to make it disappear. It is a nineteenth-century nation-state, and the nation-state is, as we all know, an anachronism: away with it!

Ridding the world of the nation-state is an interesting, if not a new, idea. But why start with Israel? Why not start with France—which is, after all, the original nation-state? The French led the way into this parochial political structure that, in violation of all the tenets of advanced opinion, privileges a particular people, history, and language. Let them lead the way out. Or the Germans, or the Swedes, or the Bulgarians, or the Japanese, all of whom have enjoyed those "privileges" much longer than the Jews.

But the real problem with Judt's proposal is not that it unfairly focuses on a single nation-state. Israel is, after all, an occupying power, at war with another people. The real problem is that Judt's proposal would simply replace one nation-state with another. In the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, there will, within a decade or so, be a Palestinian majority. And a Palestinian majority will, sooner or later, make a Palestinian state. This is the explicit goal of Palestinian nationalists, and the recent history of the movement hardly suggests that they have given it up. They would ask the same question I have asked: If the nation-state is to be abolished, why should we go first? (And they would think it no more than marginally better to go second.)

Judt, of course, has another goal in mind. He wants a state in which Jews and Arabs will simply be individual citizens, just like Americans—though with this important difference: that their security and political rights will have to be "guaranteed by international forces." If military power rules in Israel/Palestine, the rights of the Arabs will have to be guaranteed; if numbers rule, the rights of the Jews will have to be guaranteed. Judt must be thinking of some other set of international forces than the ones we know in the world today, which have failed so tragically to guarantee even the minimal safety of Bosnians, Rwandans, Timorese, Sudanese, and—well, it is a long list. What political leader, what political intellectual, in his right mind would entrust the fate of people he cared about to "international forces"?

The truth is that the Jews would rapidly depart from Judt's imaginary post-national state, since its creation (Judt tells us nothing about the creative process) would represent a definitive defeat for Zionism. Or, better, those who were able would depart, and the rest would find themselves a very vulnerable minority in a Palestinian nation-state that would doubtless have (as Judt writes of Israel) "more in common Romania than [its leaders] might care to acknowledge." But I suspect that Romania would be an upscale reference.

So what is the alternative? It seems obvious to me: two anachronistic states are better than one. Judt says that this was "once a possible and just solution." He can't really believe this, given his view of nation-states, but it is kind of him to tell us that the solution preferred by most Israelis and most Palestinians would once have been all right with him. In fact this solution is still both possible and just: two states divided by the 1967 lines, with two privileged peoples, two privileged languages, two privileged histories, two laws of return—the whole anachronistic thing.
The difficulties are as great as Judt suggests—greater, in fact, since he focuses on the policies of the far-right Israeli government and has little to say about Palestinian nationalism or Islamic radicalism. These are the enemies of the historic compromise that seemed so close in 1993 and again in 2000. The greatest threat to the future of Israel as a Jewish state comes from the government of Israel, and the greatest threat to Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza comes from the PLO. Israelis who oppose the settler movement have been greatly weakened by the terrorist attacks; Palestinians who want to co-exist with Israel have been greatly weakened by the steady expansion of the settlements. But all this just sets the dimensions of our political task. Judt's fantasy is escapist, but it offers no practical escape from the work of repressing the terrorist organizations and withdrawing from the Occupied Territories.

Every opinion poll shows that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want the two- state solution. The US government is formally committed to it; so are the Europeans. There is still time to enforce it. And afterward, when the French, Germans, Swedes, Bulgarians, and Japanese begin to worry about their anachronistic politics, Jews and Palestinians will be able to join them.

Michael WalzerProfessor of Social Science
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, New Jersey


I've been wondering about this statement:

"Tony Judt is quoted in this piece in today's Observer as saying he has never denied Israel's right to exist."

Apart from the single-minded callousness of such an assertion (he does not say he does not deny Syria's, or Jordan or Belgium's right to exist, only Israel), could one discern the beginning of a certain, feeble, ignominious attempt at back-pedaling?


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