Avi Shlaim on Liberal Zionism, the ‘Dead’ 2-State Solution, and Colonial Pizza

This article is published in Mondoweiss.

Avi Shlaim, one of the leading Israeli “New Historians” (along with Ilan Pappé and Benny Morris), is an incredibly principled and thorough scholar. Although he is soft-spoken, he ceaselessly and bravely raises his voice in opposition to those who spread lies and propaganda in defense of Israel.

Al Jazeera journalist Mehdi Hasan held a debate with former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami in February 2014. Hasan’s program Head to Head features a variety of very high-quality debates that are, by leaps and bounds, significantly more diverse and balanced than those that occur in the US corporate media and Dr. Shlaim, a lifelong liberal Zionist who now identifies as a “post-Zionist,” was one of the three members of the panel accompanying the debate. In the short segment, the quiet professor succinctly exposes the reactionary contradictions inherent in liberal Zionism.

Debates about liberal Zionism and the two-state solution vs. one-state solution were reinvigorated with the March 2015 re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu. Bibi was sworn in on the promise that there would never be a Palestinian state. Netanyahu, now in his fourth term, has a substantial base of support, and his opposition to a Palestinian state clearly resonated with the Israeli public. If Bibi completes his present term, he will be the longest-serving prime minister in the history of Israel—ruling even longer than Israeli Founding Father David Ben-Gurion.

This mass support, throughout years of rule of the right-wing Likud government, has led some to lament “the end of liberal Zionism.” As can be seen in the following segment, nonetheless, others, like Prof. Shlaim and more, have argued that liberal Zionism scarcely even existed in the first place.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat remarked that “Netanyahu has done everything possible to bury the two-state solution.” Shlaim on the other hand—along with scholars such as Ilan Pappé, Rashid Khalidi, and more—has long argued that the two-state solution was already dead in the first place, and that liberal Zionism has in fact never lived up to its promises of democracy, inclusivity, and equality.

Liberal Zionism

Ben-Ami is one of the most prominent liberal Zionists. He is about as progressive as Zionists get. Shlaim indicates at 7:19 in the segment that

Professor Ben-Ami represents the most liberal strand within the Zionist movement, and he represents the views of a handful, maybe a few percent, of the Israeli population. But mainstream Zionism has never been liberal. The gap between the lofty Zionist ideals and the reality of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians on the ground has always been so huge that Zionist leaders filled it with hypocrisy and humbug.

Although Ben-Ami considers himself a man of the Left, he hardly lives up to these values in the debate. Throughout the segment, the former Israeli foreign minister fails to address the criticisms that Zionism is inherently racist and discriminatory, as it inevitably preferentially treats one ethnic and religious group above all others.

The cornerstone of Ben-Ami’s argument is that Palestinian citizens of Israel are treated equally under Israeli law, just not in Israeli culture. Palestinian-Canadian lawyer Diana Buttu, at 21:16 in the video, calls the ex-minister’s claim that Israeli Palestinians are treated the same as Israeli Jews under law “absolute rubbish” and draws attention to some of the overtly discriminatory laws non-Jewish citizens face.

Leading Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and Adalah have documented “more than 50 Israeli laws enacted since 1948 that directly or indirectly discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel in all areas of life, including their rights to political participation, access to land, education, state budget resources, and criminal procedures.” At 22:11, Ben-Ami acknowledges “That is true. That is a reality, and it is not a reality that should be condoned,” yet still firmly insists on the importance of maintaining a demographic majority.

In Ben-Ami’s view, Israel is far from perfect, but it is gradually moving to the left, toward greater equality. Avi Shlaim takes issue with this position, stating at 20:06

I would like to disagree with Professor Ben-Ami when he says that Israel is less and less discriminatory. I think that is the exact opposite of the truth. Because, ever since the breakdown of the Camp David summit, Israel has been moving further and further to the right. And today we have a prime minister who embodies the most right-wing, xenophobic, exclusivist, and racist brand of Zionism. And his government is an extremely chauvinistic government, which not only is opposed to any withdrawal on the West Bank—in other words, it is opposed to peace with the Palestinians—but it is also increasingly discriminatory toward the Arab minority within Israel.

Later, at 31:03 in the debate, Hasan bluntly asks the former Israeli minister, “Do you see Palestinians as a demographic threat?” Ben-Ami turns his head away and sits in silence for a few seconds, before the host asks again, “Do you use that language?” The liberal leader replies ambiguously, yet effectively in the affirmative: “It does not respond to the original plans of Zionism.”

Hasan continues prompting, asking what percentage of Palestinians would be “too much” for Israeli society. The leading liberal Zionist responds simply maintaining that the state must maintain a Jewish majority. He proceeds to argue that Israel is not a “special case,” asking how many Muslim immigrants would be “too many” for the UK (although Muslim immigrants are not indigenous to Europe and 80% of them were not ethnically cleansed from their land in 1948). Hasan emphasizes that Israel “is a special case; it is the only democracy that defines itself on ethnic grounds.”

Israeli Ethnocracy

Paul Charney, Chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland—whose views are representative of those of many mainstream Zionists—uses European anti-immigrant sentiment to defend Israeli’s policies, contending at 33:27 that, “If you said in Britain today that you would open your borders to immigration from around the world, you would have riots.”

Previously, in the debate, at 19:24, Charney conceded “I accept that Israel has some way to go for all its citizens to be 100% equal in its society, not in the law, but in the society, and that takes time.” He stressed that Israel’s treatment of minorities is not much different than the treatment of minorities “in every democratic society the world.”

The host pushed back, pointing out that, in Western liberal democracies, it is not mandated that specific ethnic groups must remain in the majority. Charney countered stating “You will see parties like the BNP talk about different races and different minorities.”

Bewildered, Hasan commented “So you are comparing Israel to the British National Party, a far-right, fascist party?”

Shlaim then addresses the contradictions in Israeli democracy at 32:26, averring

Israel within its pre-1967 borders is a democracy, a flawed democracy, but Israel plus the occupied territories is most emphatically not a democracy; it is an ethnocracy where one ethnic group dominates over the other.

Ethnocracy is a concept developed by Israeli scholar Oren Yiftachel. Tel-Aviv University law professor Aeyal Gross discusses Israel’s particular strand of ethnocracy in leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Israel already identifies itself constitutionally as a Jewish state, thus associating itself with only some of its citizens. As a result, a comparison to other democratic nation-states fails. The separation between the element of nationality (Jewish) and the element of citizenship (Israeli), and identifying the state by its nationality – anchored solely in the Jewish religion – disaffiliates 20 percent of the nation’s citizens.

No such definition exists in democratic states where the citizenship and nationality element overlap, as in France. Nor does it exist in states that constitutionally recognize the existence of several national communities but are built on partnerships and equality among them, as in Belgium and Canada.

So, for example, if the United Kingdom had declared that it is the state of the English, and the Scots and other groups were a minority within it that would only receive rights as individuals, the Union would have collapsed long ago. But in Israel, even the “softened” versions of Elkin’s bill determine that the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people, a perception that identifies the state with one ethnic and religious group, and reinforces its status as an ethnocracy, not a democracy.

The Two-State Solution “Is Dead as a Dodo”

Dr. Shlaim details critical problems with mainstream Zionism at 29:09 in the debate. He argues Israel is only concerned with its own security, and that it continues to colonize Palestinian land while claiming it wants to negotiate.

Paul [Charney] privileges Israel’s security. For him, what matters above everything else is Israel’s security. He completely ignores Palestinian rights, both individuals rights and collective rights. Now the trouble with the Israeli concept of security, Israel wants 100% security for itself, which means zero security for the Palestinians.

And I would say that the American-sponsored peace process since 1991 is an exercise in futility, because it is all process and no peace.

Benjamin Netanyahu pretends that he wants to negotiate with the Palestinians, but he keeps expanding Israeli settlements. He is like a man who pretends to negotiate over the division of a pizza, and he keeps eating it.

Shlaim appears so benign when he speaks, but he steadfastly calls pundits out on their mendacity. In this comment, he openly condemns the man sitting next to him—the chairman of one of the UK’s most prominent Zionist organizations—but his delivery is so calm and reserved, it hardly seems like an insult (Paul even finds himself nodding his head in agreement during the first two sentences, before he realizes where they lead).

In light of this political reality, Shlaim further explains why he has abandoned any hopes for a two-state solution, and even for Zionism itself. In the debate, Ben-Ami claims that Israel will eventually end its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories and help to create a Palestinian state. Shlaim finds this idea to be wholly incorrect. At 32:50, he states unequivocally

All my life I supported a two-state solution, but now I believe that the two-state solution is dead. It is dead as a dodo. It is as dead as the Oxford dodo, which you can see at the entrance of the Pitt Rivers Museum not very far from here. [The audience laughs.] And Israeli governments destroyed the two-state solution, systematically destroyed the basis for a viable Palestinian state.

Buttu, the only Palestinian on the panel, takes issue with the idea that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians only began in 1967. She resists the liberal Zionist notion that a return to pre-1967 borders would be a solution to the conflict. At 16:16, she reminds viewers

It is important to keep in mind that between the period of 1948 and 1967, which people are trying to idealize as being the great years of Israel, Palestinians who were citizens of that state were living under military rule.

In Buttu’s view, the one-state vs. two-state solution debate is no longer necessary, as Israel has already turned historic Palestine into one state. Hasan asks Charney if he considers “Palestinians immigrants in their own land.” The chairman of the British Zionist Federation skirts around the question and, after being asked a second time, replies at 33:44 “Non-Israelis, which is fundamentally part of Judaism, are limited in the amount of people that can come into Israel.” Buttu interjects at 33:52

This is precisely the face of Zionism, the fact that Israel comes to me and now I am considered to be an immigrant to that country. This is precisely the ideology.

The problem with Israel is that it views me either as a demographic threat or as a security threat.

And if you look at Israel today, it already is one state. It is no longer a question of whether it is going to be one state; it is one state. The problem today is that it is apartheid. That is what we are living under.