Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin, the new President of Israel, is ardently opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. He is instead a proponent of Greater Israel, one Jewish state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. He professes to be mystified that anyone should object to the continued construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank: “It can’t be ‘occupied territory’ if the land is your own.”
Rivlin does not have the starched personality of an ideologue, however. He resembles a cheerfully overbearing Borscht Belt comedian who knows too many bad jokes to tell in a single set but is determined to try. Sitting in an office decorated with mementos of his right-wing Zionist lineage, he unleashes a cataract of anecdotes, asides, humble bromides, corny one-liners, and historical footnotes. At seventy-five, he has the florid, bulbous mug of a cartoon flatfoot, if that flatfoot were descended from Lithuanian Talmudists and six generations of Jerusalemites. Rivlin’s father, Yosef, was a scholar of Arabic literature. (He translated the Koran and “The Thousand and One Nights.”) Ruvi Rivlin’s temperament is other than scholarly. He is, in fact, given to categorical provocations. After a visit some years ago to a Reform synagogue in Westfield, New Jersey, he declared that the service was “idol worship and not Judaism.”
And yet, since Rivlin was elected President, in June, he has become Israel’s most unlikely moralist. Rivlin—not a left-wing writer from Tel Aviv, not an idealistic justice of the Supreme Court—has emerged as the most prominent critic of racist rhetoric, jingoism, fundamentalism, and sectarian violence, the highest-ranking advocate among Jewish Israelis for the civil rights of the Palestinians both in Israel and in the occupied territories. Last month, he told an academic conference in Jerusalem, “It is time to honestly admit that Israel is sick, and it is our duty to treat this illness.”
Around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Rivlin made a video in which he sat next to an eleven-year-old Palestinian Israeli boy from Jaffa who had been bullied: the two held up cards to the camera calling for empathy, decency, and harmony. “We are exactly the same,” one pair read. A couple of weeks ago, Rivlin visited the Arab town of Kafr Qasim to apologize for the massacre, in 1956, of forty-eight Palestinian workers and children by Israeli border guards. No small part of the Palestinian claim is that Israel must take responsibility for the Arab suffering it has caused. Rivlin said, “I hereby swear, in my name and that of all our descendants, that we will never act against the principle of equal rights, and we will never try and force someone from our land.”
Every Israeli and Palestinian understands the context of these remarks. In recent years, anti-Arab harassment and vitriol have reached miserable levels. The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who treasures his fragile ruling coalition above all else, is more apt to manipulate the darkling mood to his political advantage than to ease it.
“I’ve been called a ‘lying little Jew’ by my critics,” Rivlin told the Knesset recently. “ ‘Damn your name, Arab agent,’ ‘Go be President in Gaza,’ ‘disgusting sycophant,’ ‘rotten filth,’ ‘lowest of the low,’ ‘traitor,’ ‘President of Hezbollah.’ These are just a few of the things that have been said to me in the wake of events I’ve attended and speeches I’ve made. I must say that I’ve been horrified by this thuggishness that has permeated the national dialogue.”
Rivlin is no political innocent. A former speaker of the Knesset—like Netanyahu, he is a member of the Likud—he was a clubhouse pol, a backslapper, a vote trader. But he was never a first-rate campaigner, and in his long career he lost more than a few elections. His distinguishing quality, according to an endorsement from the left-wing daily Haaretz, is “niceness.” Niceness has never been a common quality in the Knesset. Screaming is. So is interruption, insult, epithet, storming out, and an occasional shove or thrown glass of water. After years of intra-party quarrels with Rivlin, Netanyahu went to great lengths to crush his Presidential hopes, pushing alternatives such as Elie Wiesel, who was neither interested nor eligible, not being a citizen of Israel. This time, however, niceness paid off for Rivlin. In his bid to become President—a largely but not entirely ceremonial post that is chosen by the Knesset—he won support from Arab legislators who appreciated his courtesy, and from right-wingers like Naftali Bennett and Danny Danon, who join him in a desire to make the West Bank a part of Israel proper.
Despite Rivlin’s satisfaction at achieving a lifelong goal, his mood when we met was not untroubled. As always, he began with a long story about the Rivlin legacy—a grand patriarch’s determination, in the eighteenth century, that his family leave Lithuania for Jerusalem—but he was soon enveloped in the details of what he refers to as “the tragedy we are now living in.”
“The extremists are talking too loudly, and everyone is convinced that only he is on the right side,” Rivlin told me in one of our conversations. “It’s not just Jews against Arabs. It’s the Orthodox versus those who don’t think they can keep all six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Bible. It’s rich people versus poor people. At some point, something came over Israel so that everyone has his own ideas—and everyone else is an enemy. It’s a dialogue among deaf people and it is getting more and more serious.”
Rivlin is careful to point out enmity among Arabs as well as among Jews. Hamas, he says, is a nightmare for the people of Gaza above all. But in his speech at the Jerusalem conference he made it plain that he was talking mainly about his own tribe. He despairs of hate speech on the Internet, of politicians and prominent rabbis condoning anti-Arab violence and rhetoric. “I’m not asking if we’ve forgotten how to be Jewish,” he said, “but if we’ve forgotten how to be human.”
Israeli politicians often speak of the country’s singularity as “the sole democracy in the Middle East,” “the villa in the jungle.” They engage far less often with the challenges to democratic practice in Israel: the resurgence of hate speech; attacks by settlers on Palestinians and their property in the West Bank; the Knesset’s attempts to rein in left-wing human-rights organizations; and, most of all, the unequal status of Israeli Palestinians and the utter lack of civil rights for the Palestinians in the West Bank. A recent poll revealed that a third of Israelis think that Arab citizens of Israel—the nearly two million Arabs living in Israel proper, not the West Bank—should not have the right to vote.
The reasons for the curdled atmosphere are many: the persistence of occupation; the memory of those lost and wounded in war and terror attacks; the Palestinian leadership’s failure to embrace land-for-peace offers from Ehud Barak, in 2000, and Ehud Olmert, in 2008; the chaos in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon; the instability of a neighboring ally like Jordan; the bitter rivalries with Turkey and Qatar; the regional clash between Sunni and Shia; the threats from Hezbollah, in Lebanon, from Hamas, in Gaza, and from other, more distant groups, like ISIS, hostile to the existence of Israel; the rise of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe and its persistence in the Arab world; a growing sense of drift from the Obama Administration. All these developments have pushed the country toward a state of fearful embattlement. The old voices of the left, the “pro-peace camp,” have too few answers, too few troops. And so Netanyahu, the champion of a status quo that favors settlers and the Likud, retains his perch. His strategic vision seems to be a desire to get from Shabbat to Shabbat. He has been Prime Minister longer than any of his predecessors except David Ben-Gurion.
During the Gaza war this summer, as the death toll reached twenty-one hundred Palestinians and seventy-one Israelis, and leaders around the world expressed indignation at the scale of the Israeli response to the Gaza rockets, nearly all the rallies in the country were pro-war, shows of national solidarity with the families of the Israeli dead, with the Israel Defense Forces. Some rising young ideologues in the Likud assailed Netanyahu as indecisive, weak, unwilling to “go all the way.”
Expressing doubts about the proportionality of response, even documenting the human consequences of that response, was, in this charged atmosphere, taken as deeply suspect. The images of carnage and destruction in Gaza that were so common around the world were rare on Israeli television or in mainstream dailies like Yedioth Ahronoth, where the emphasis was on rockets, tunnels, and honoring the I.D.F. When Yonit Levi, the lead anchor of the Channel 2 evening news, delivered straightforward reports about deaths and casualties in Gaza, she was rewarded with a Facebook page on which thousands of people demanded that she be removed from the airwaves, and text messages that were so threatening the police had to get involved.
Meanwhile, right-wing groups came to workplaces in Israeli cities that were known to employ Arabs and denounced them and the owners. Palestinians in Jerusalem told me they were afraid to take public transportation, to visit markets and malls. “This has been the most dehumanizing ordeal in my experience,” Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former legal adviser for the Palestine Liberation Organization, told me. “All you hear about is the idea that Palestinians ‘don’t value human life,’ ‘they have a culture of martyrdom,’ ‘they use their children and women as human shields.’ The idea is not that Israel is doing this but that we are doing this to ourselves. ”
One morning during the war, before I went to call on Rivlin at the Presidential residence, I was reading Haaretz at Caffit, a café in the German Colony of Jerusalem. Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, was still hunting for the Hamas operatives who in June had kidnapped and killed three Israeli teen-agers—Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frankel. The crime had outraged the nation. Shin Bet had in custody a twenty-nine-year-old settler named Yosef Haim Ben-David, who was a suspect in the retaliatory murder of a Palestinian teen-ager named Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Police had found Abu Khdeir’s body in the Jerusalem Forest; he had been bludgeoned and burned to death. Ben-David, the owner of an eyewear shop who lived in a West Bank settlement called Geva Binyamin, told the police that he and two friends were so enraged by the murder of the three Israelis that on the day of the funeral they wanted to “harass an Arab or vandalize property or beat somebody up, nothing specific.”
Ben-David and his friends stopped at a station to fill bottles with gasoline. As he told his interrogators, “We were hot and angry, and decided we’d burn something of the Arabs’.” At first, they looked for an Arab shop to burn. “Then we talked and decided to take it up a notch,” he went on. “We said, ‘They took three of ours, let’s take one of theirs.’ And we decided to pick someone up, to kidnap him, beat him up, and throw him out.”
The friends drove to the neighborhood of Shuafat. It was after 3 A.M., but it was Ramadan, and many Arabs were out on the streets well before the morning meal. Ben-David and the others spotted a skinny sixteen-year-old boy along a main road: Abu Khdeir. He was studying at a vocational school to be an electrician. Two of the Israelis got out of the car and asked for directions to Tel Aviv. Abu Khdeir did not speak Hebrew well; they closed in on the boy, and shoved him in. One of the Israelis started to choke him. Ben-David yelled, “Finish him off!”
“He started to gurgle,” Ben-David told the police. “At some point he stopped struggling.”
They drove to the Jerusalem Forest, and then Ben-David hit Abu Khdeir repeatedly in the head with a crowbar. Finally, the men dragged him out of the car, and as Ben-David rained blows on him he shouted, “This is for Eyal, and this is for Naftali . . .” Then they poured gasoline over Abu Khdeir and set him on fire. The postmortem determined that Abu Khdeir was still alive as he burned.
The Israelis then drove to a nearby park. Ben-David confessed that they began to feel remorse. “I was in shock,” he told the interrogators. “We’re Jews, we have a heart. Afterward we talked about it and . . . each one poured his heart out and we regretted doing it. I told them . . . ‘This is not for us. We erred, we’re compassionate Jews, we’re human beings.’ Then we got depressed.”
This spirit of rage and resentment is, as Rivlin observes, no longer confined to the outer fringe. In the mid-eighties, Meir Kahane, a Brooklyn-born rabbi who led both the Jewish Defense League in the United States and the Kach Party in Israel, won a seat in the Knesset. Kahane trafficked in baldly xenophobic rhetoric, but, by 1988, Kach had been banned by the Knesset as a racist party and barred from most media outlets. Today, the mainstream right-wing party Likud has moved so much farther to the right that its old “princes,” such as Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, who had been opponents of a Palestinian state but advocates of democratic norms, were voted out of the leadership in 2012. The Party’s dominant young voices include hard-liners like Danny Danon, who, as deputy defense minister, disparaged the Gaza operation as “feeble”; another Likud legislator, Moshe Feiglin, has called himself a “proud homophobe” and has vowed to build a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount and “fulfill our purpose in this land.” Netanyahu’s principal coalition partner, Avigdor Lieberman, has demanded that Israeli Arabs take loyalty oaths. Naftali Bennett, the leader of Jewish Home, a settler-dominated party, speaks of at least a partial annexation of the West Bank.
“There’s been a sea change in Israel,” Bennett told me recently, with distinct satisfaction. “Something dramatic happened with Gaza. People realize now that the whole notion of a Palestinian state, of handing over land to another Arab entity, won’t work. Nine years ago, we pulled out of Gaza and took out all the Jews. The result is that Gaza became Hamastan, a fortress of terror. As much as we wanted to separate, terror has a way of running after you.” Bennett hopes to succeed Netanyahu as Prime Minister.
More explicitly jingoistic and racist elements now operate closer to the center of Israeli political life. Some well-known figures in the religious world speak openly in an anti-democratic rhetoric of Jewish supremacy—“strength and victimhood all melded together,” as one Israeli friend put it to me. (When a group of rabbis told their followers not to rent property to Arabs, Rivlin called the edict “another nail in the coffin of Israeli democracy.”) Yoav Eliasi, a rapper who calls himself HaTzel (the Shadow), led a group of fellow-fanatics who broke up a peace demonstration in Tel Aviv. One of the groups that accompanied the Shadow was Lehava (Flame), an association of religious extremists who see it as their mission to battle assimilation. Lehava tries to break up weddings between Muslims and Jews. Similar groups comb through Facebook looking for left-wing sentiment among Israeli Jews; when they find it, they send letters to their employers demanding that the lefties be fired.
Assaf Sharon, a young liberal activist and academic who went to a yeshiva in a religious Zionist settlement, told me that a few years ago he had helped stage a demonstration after settlers attacked Palestinians near Jerusalem. As soon as the small rally began, a group of young right-wing thugs were all over them. “We were thirty, they were seventy, and they had chains and knives and sticks,” Sharon said. “I had my nose broken. Some had limbs broken. The police were there, but there were no prosecutions. Now these same guys come to Tel Aviv, to Haifa. They are very hot-tempered, excited hooligans, and it is all anti-Arab. Their slogan is ‘A Jew Is a Blessed Soul, an Arab Is a Son of a Whore.’ ”
When Rivlin was the speaker of the Knesset, he tried time and again to quash legislation that he felt was discriminatory and anti-democratic, including a measure designed to prevent the boycotting of any Israeli institution or commercial product. “Woe betide the Jewish democratic state that turns freedom of expression into a civil offense,” he wrote in Haaretz at the time. The law “threatens to catapult us into an era in which gagging people becomes accepted legal practice.” As the speaker of parliament, he repeatedly defended the rights of Arab legislators who had been shouted down and threatened with expulsion. When one Arab member, Haneen Zoabi, was attacked in the Knesset as a “traitor” for participating in the flotilla from Turkey protesting the Israeli blockade of Gaza, Rivlin demanded that she and her allies be allowed to speak “even if what they say hurts me.”
Last year, Rivlin denounced fans of Beitar Jerusalem, the soccer team of the city’s right wing, after they held up signs reading “Beitar Forever Pure” to protest the signing of two Muslim players from Chechnya. Rivlin, a Beitar supporter, said at the time, “Imagine the outcry if groups in England or Germany said that Jews could not play for them.”
Had a Jewish left-wing critic made the sort of statements that Rivlin has, he would not wait long before being denounced as a “self-hater.” A non-Jew could expect to be branded anti-Semitic. Because of his conservative bona fides, Rivlin cannot easily be dismissed. “Rivlin may turn out to be the most influential President in Israeli history,” Avishai Margalit, a liberal philosopher and a founder of Peace Now, told me. “He is a true believer but genuinely non-racist, not merely tolerant. He has sincere respect for the Arabs, which is so rare in so many circles. Of course, as the Russian adage goes, Influence moves like the knight in chess—forward and then to the side, never in a straight line. So we’ll have to wait to see what impact Rivlin really has.”
Rivlin’s central allegiance is to the career and thought of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, who was the patriarch of the Revisionists, the most militant and militarist stream of early Zionism. Unlike the leaders of mainstream Labor Zionism, Jabotinsky recognized the deep, irreconcilable interests of the Arab presence in Palestine. Insisting on the superiority of the Jewish claim on the land, he foresaw the inevitability of confrontation: “Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized,” he wrote in his 1923 essay “The Iron Wall.” “That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of ‘Palestine’ into the ‘Land of Israel.’ ”
This is where Ruvi Rivlin’s legacy becomes more complex. Although Jabotinsky considered himself a liberal and a democrat, his nationalism was so fierce that he occasionally betrayed an admiration for Benito Mussolini. Rivlin is no doubt sincere when he says that he would give Arabs full civil rights in a Greater Israel, but he can be viewed as the more benign face of a right-wing one-state ideology. Others on the right who talk of one state want mainly to sanctify the annexing, in some form, of occupied territory. As Margalit puts it, “The rest really believe in apartheid in the West Bank. They believe in full surveillance, full dominion, something resembling a Stasi state as in that film ‘The Lives of Others.’ ”
The one-state/two-state debate is highly fraught not least because of proximity. Too much history, too little land. This is not India and Pakistan; the map of Ireland is a veritable continent compared with Israel and the Palestinian territories. Gaza is about as close to Herzliya as Concord is to Hanover; the West Bank, as Israelis are quick to point out, is seven miles from Ben Gurion Airport. Any two-state solution with a chance of working would have to include federal arrangements not only about security but also about water, cell-phone coverage, sewage, and countless other details of a common infrastructure. Talk of a one-state solution, limited as it is, will never be serious if it is an attempt to mask annexation, expulsion, or population transfer, on one side, or the eradication of an existing nation, on the other. Israel exists; the Palestinian people exist. Neither is provisional. Within these territorial confines, two nationally distinct groups, who are divided by language, culture, and history, cannot live wholly apart or wholly together.
To most Israelis and many Palestinians, a one-state solution is no solution at all. It seems like the by-product of left-leaning desperation or right-leaning triumphalism. Even many of those who know that a two-state peace settlement is far from imminent believe that a binational state represents not a promise of democracy and coexistence but a blueprint for sectarian strife—Lebanon in the eighties, Yugoslavia in the nineties. And yet the idea has a rich history.
Many of the early Zionists either failed to recognize the Arab population in what they regarded as their future homeland or willfully ignored it. Others made a Realpolitik assessment about the urgent need for a refuge from European anti-Semitism, in the wake of the Dreyfus affair and pogroms in the Russian Empire. In effect, many of those early Zionists adopted the illusions of Mark Twain, who, when visiting Palestine in 1867, saw only “a silent, mournful expanse,” and those of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who spoke about “a land without a people for a people without a land.”
David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, and the other leaders of mainstream Zionism failed to reckon with the Arabs directly in their field of vision. One Zionist faction that did recognize the dilemma was the Revisionists, led by Jabotinsky, who was born in Odessa and had a reputation as a poet, playwright, novelist, and electrifying polemicist. “The tragedy is that there is a clash here between two truths; but the justice of our cause is greater,” he argued in 1926.
On today’s right, the one-state vision encompasses greater Jerusalem and the West Bank but discounts Gaza, not least for demographic reasons. Who wants to deal with poor, furious Gaza, to say nothing of its million-plus population? Besides, Gaza, unlike the West Bank, is not rich with Biblically resonant cities and sites.
Caroline Glick, who is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, a conservative English-language daily, and was a member of the Israeli negotiating team from 1994 to 1996, recently published “The Israeli Solution: A One State Plan for Peace in the Middle East.” Glick is not prone to equivocation. Her columns and Facebook page make her views plain: “The Death of Klinghoffer” is “anti-Semitic smut,” an “operatic pogrom.” The Obama Administration wants to “screw the Jews in Israel.” She is a voice from the part of the population that sees a peace deal as impossible and Israel as noble and friendless, destined to go it alone in a treacherous world.
“We don’t have anything to talk about with the Palestinians,” Glick told me over lunch in Jerusalem. “There was never anything to talk about. . . . We have been trying to do this since 1993. It’s lunatic, trying to pretend away reality in order to reach a deal attractive on prime-time television. In the messiest political situation ever. It’s stupid. It’s childish. I want to incorporate Judea and Samaria into Israel. I want to be done with this nonsense.”
Glick grew up in Hyde Park, Obama’s old neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. She immigrated to Israel in 1991. Like many Israelis, she finds the moralizing of foreigners oppressive. “It’s evil to concentrate on Israel,” she said. “I am not saying we are pure as the driven snow—you can’t be if you are a sovereign nation—but there is no rational way of explaining that obsession, that unswerving gaze, that desire to spend billions of dollars to stigmatize our country and leaders. There is an unhealthy obsession with Jews and power. People coming in and committing these slanders are the ones responsible for the deaths of those Palestinians. They encourage Hamas to do this.”
Like Netanyahu, Glick sees a Palestinian state as little more than a staging ground for assaults on Israel. “The border will be permeable,” she said. “Jerusalem will be divided and people will walk in the Damascus Gate and then through the Jaffa Gate and murder people. There is no way of securing the country. If you look at what’s happening in Syria and Iraq and everywhere else, people like Abbas”—Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority—“would share the fate of Qaddafi. His corrupt sons would all be shot by a firing squad, and we would have a situation where we would be facing a jihadist enclave in the middle of Israel.”
The left-wing version of a one-state, or binationalist, idea emerged at around the same time as Jabotinsky’s version, when a small collection of left-wing intellectuals, many centered at the Hebrew University, insisted that the ethical principles of Zionism demanded ethical behavior toward the Arabs. The group, called Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), supported the idea of shared political power in Palestine. Its members were deeply influenced by Ahad Ha’am, an early Zionist thinker and essayist who emphasized a cultural-spiritual revival in Palestine rather than a majority-Jewish state. In his travels to Palestine, Ahad Ha’am warned that if the Zionists failed to act justly toward the Arabs there would be trouble: “The natives are not just going to step aside so easily.” Decades later, Martin Buber, a philosopher and leader of Brit Shalom, warned of excessive nationalism in Zionist thought and counselled against the creation of a “tiny state of Jews, completely militarized and unsustainable.”
The idea of two states for two peoples came together in official form in 1936, when Lord Peel was charged by the British Mandate with investigating unrest between Arabs and Jews. His commission set out the initial boundaries of partition. By the time the United Nations voted in support of partition, in 1947, the binational idea, and its array of supporting factions, including Brit Shalom, had dissolved. The surrounding Arab states rejected partition and invaded the new state of Israel, which emerged victorious.
The reappearance of a one-state discussion in Israel came out of frustration over the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank following the Six-Day War and the failures to gain an agreement with the Palestinians. Meron Benvenisti, who was the deputy mayor of Jerusalem from 1971 to 1978, years when Israel kept expanding the city, spoke out against the occupation of lands won in the 1967 war and what he saw as Israel’s broader intentions. By the early eighties, he concluded that the leaders of both Labor and Likud were complicit in the ever-widening construction of settlements throughout the territories and were making it impossible to lay any groundwork for Palestinian independence. Benvenisti established an organization to study the situation in the West Bank, and, in a book of essays published in 1989 called “The Shepherd’s War,” he warned that the occupation was becoming “irreversible.” The settlers, including the most bourgeois, state-subsidized suburbanites, had coöpted the language and spirit of the kibbutzim of the early state; the settlers were the new pioneers. Benvenisti derided the term “occupied territories,” because it assumed a temporary passage of history; it promoted a comforting notion about “when peace comes.” In the meantime, he saw that the Palestinians—in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, in Gaza, in Israel, in the refugee camps abroad, and in the diaspora—were thoroughly splintered in their day-to-day aspirations, their political leaderships, and their identities.
“What Israel did, through the logic of an occupier, was to divide and rule—so much so that the British would have been green with envy the way the Israelis have succeeded,” Benvenisti told me one evening in East Jerusalem. The settlements are so established, he said, that even if, magically, an Israeli and Palestinian agreement based on the 1967 borders could emerge, it would swiftly collapse. “A Palestinian state based on such a plan is going to be a collection of Bantustans,” he said, echoing the view of many leading Palestinian thinkers and politicians. “It’s not going to be viable. The irredentist urges, if they are squeezed and suffocated by Israel, will rise up again.”
Benvenisti is no less brutal about liberal Zionists. “They have these demonstrations against the ‘fascistization’ of Israel,” he said. “A Palestinian Arab listening to them crying now would laugh. They know that the two-state solution is in itself racist.”
We talked for a while about David Grossman, one of Israel’s best novelists and a leading voice against the settlements and occupation. Benvenisti shrugged. For him, Grossman’s tribe of liberal Zionists is deluded. “All your enmity and anger is directed at the settlers,” he said. “But what is your role as an Israeli in perpetuating it and benefitting from it? Grossman says that occupation is the source of all evil. This is not true. The problem is the privileged condition of the Jewish ethnic group over the others, those defined as the ‘enemies,’ the ‘terrorists.’ You divert attention, so that it is easier to define, and you restrict your anger and fight a battle that to me is irrelevant. For the Israeli left, it is important that the game [of negotiations] goes on because it soothes their consciences. They are serious people. But they are serious in trying to salvage the Zionist creed. They need to remain Zionists, and for them the definition of Zionism is a Jewish state. They insist on seeing the beginning of the conflict in 1967. They can’t cope with 1948.”
I asked Benvenisti how his vision of one state would work. “Sometimes it is enough to be a diagnostician,” he said. “When you get into prescriptions, people tend to dismiss the diagnosis.”
My conversation with Benvenisti took place on a late-summer night in the courtyard of the American Colony, a beautiful old hotel in East Jerusalem. The next morning, as if to underline the excruciating proximities of the conflict, I crossed the street and called on Sari Nusseibeh, a professor of Islamic philosophy who was the longtime president of Al-Quds University and once an adviser—a particularly moderate adviser—to Yasir Arafat. Nusseibeh comes from one of the grandest of Palestinian families. His relatives hold the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He has always been overmatched by the fiercer voices around him. Now he appeared to have come very close to giving up.
On a broiling day, we sat in his cool anteroom drinking tea with his wife and daughter. “The classical two-state solution is exhausted,” he said. “I’d like it to be working, but I don’t see it working. The wheels of history are grinding much faster than our ability to think or our ability to impose our ideas on history.”
Nusseibeh did not give in easily to defeatism. His liberalism, his alliances over the years with like-minded Israelis—a decade ago, he sketched out a peace agreement with Ami Ayalon, a former chief of Shin Bet—never made him popular in the Palestinian resistance. But, with the collapse of John Kerry’s recent attempt to forge an agreement, the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships had proved, yet again, utterly unable to advance; Hamas, despite its weakness, had regained a place in the center of the Palestinian consciousness; and the entire region was inflamed, which was a pretext for Israel to stand pat. And so Nusseibeh has switched his focus from two states to something more limited and basic: the civil rights of Palestinian Arabs both in the occupied territories and in Israel proper.
When I mentioned that I had seen Meron Benvenisti the previous evening and that he had given up on a two-state solution more than thirty years ago, Nusseibeh replied, “In the eighties, Meron was already telling us that the settlements were developing in a way that was irreversible. We thought Meron was an Israeli agent trying to dissuade us from a Palestinian state! But then we began to see the new geography, the infrastructure of roads and roadblocks and checkpoints that was being built. It all became tangible.”
Nusseibeh was also hard on his own leadership. “In the eighties, the idea of a Palestinian state seemed beautiful,” he said. “It would be free and equal, with no occupation. Today, not as many people are enthused about it. People are disappointed by our failures—our internal failures, too. We used to think we would be the best and most democratic state in the Arab world, but now we are like the worst state in Africa. The older generation failed to translate the idea into reality.”
The instability throughout the region, meanwhile, conspires against any Israeli leap of faith. “The Arab world, the Muslim world, seems to be falling apart,” Nusseibeh said. “I grew up thinking there was something solid in the Arab world except for the Palestinian situation. Now all of these governments have failed. My generation grew up thinking that Muslims were tolerant. Now it’s scary, something totally different, a monster growing up all around you. Somehow it is less dangerous for the Palestinians here. It’s safer for people here than in the Arab world, if you take Gaza away. Under occupation, your land and your resources are taken, there are no rights, but we generally don’t live in fear.”
In the West, the one-state idea has been boosted over the years by academics such as Edward Said, Tony Judt, John Mearsheimer, and Virginia Tilley, and by activists such as Ali Abunimah, the Palestinian-American co-founder of a Web site called Electronic Intifada. In Palestine, polls differ radically, but nearly a half century of occupation and a crushing sense that a one-state reality is effectively the status quo have pushed more people to support binationalism. Ahmed Qurei, a central player in the Oslo process, is among the Palestinian politicians who have given up on a two-state solution.
One night, I went to Ramallah to call on Husam Zomlot, a high-ranking adviser in the Abbas government. Zomlot’s father was born in a village near Ashkelon and, as a toddler, fled in 1948 to Gaza. The family thought that they would be able to return home. They were among hundreds of thousands of refugees who could not. Zomlot’s father became a successful textile manufacturer, but, during the conflict in 2006 over the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the I.D.F. bulldozed his factory. He went abroad and watched the bombing of Gaza on television. “He sits in London watching his grandchildren going through the same experience that he went through as a refugee,” Zomlot said.
When I asked Zomlot about a one-state solution, he laughed. Zomlot would love to commute from Ramallah to Haifa and teach—“and live like a human being”—but conceded that such a commute is beyond discussion, a fantasy. “There is only one government that controls this state now, and it has a plan to colonize the rest of historic Palestine,” he said. “This is not a racial dispute, it’s not sectarian like in Iraq, and it is not straightforward occupation like America in Afghanistan. It’s a displacement and a replacement exercise. This is what we live every day. On a mass scale sometimes and gradually at other times, like now, but it has never stopped since 1948.
“For the last forty-seven years, there’s been an international consensus about a two-state solution,” he went on. “So how do you throw that away? Can you? Why would I as a Palestinian want to compromise my nationality—and heritage and identity and distinctiveness—and then create a hybrid identity when I see the fate of the Palestinians in Israel? Look at their fate. Look at them in recent weeks. Sacked from workplaces. Verbally assaulted. In their own state! When the Israeli foreign minister”—Avigdor Lieberman—“comes out and says, ‘I want to get rid of these people, through transfer, or exchange,’ excuse me, do I want willingly to live under such a culture and mind-set and state? No, I don’t. There is no glimpse of hope of being an equal citizen under such an ideology. Israel has not moved to the right. It has gone to a madhouse! Why would I want to serve an Israeli flag or vote for the Knesset or serve in the Israeli Army?”
One evening, I met with Rivlin’s predecessor, Shimon Peres, who, at ninety-one, presides at a peace center named for him in Jaffa. Peres, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Oslo process, now sees his life’s work receding into impossibility. His frustration is deepened by Netanyahu’s contempt for the Palestinian leader, Abbas, and by the chilly relations between the Israelis and the Obama Administration. Peres has always been a smooth operator, selling optimism door to door in Western capitals, but he seemed to have nothing in his sample case. Still, he rejected Rivlin’s alternative. “One state is nonsense,” he told me, adding, “Czechoslovakia had a divorce and they were better off.”
The Palestinians are well aware that no Israeli government would consider a binational alternative in which they were in the majority. The history of Jews living as a minority in Arab states is not a pretty one. Edward Said, when he was asked in 2000 by a writer from Haaretz what would happen to a Jewish minority in a binational state, replied, “It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know.” What persists is the one-state reality, the status quo, and, with it, the corrosive rhetoric and behavior that has turned Ruvi Rivlin into an unexpected prophet.
Toward the end of the recent war, I went to a peace demonstration on Rabin Square, in Tel Aviv. This is where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot to death, in 1995, by Yigal Amir, a religious-nationalist fanatic. Several years after the killing, Amir told his mother, from prison, that had he not murdered Rabin “there would have been a Palestinian state for a while already, no Jewish settlements, we would have lost everything.” The demonstrators carried signs in favor of peace. David Grossman made a speech. But it was a small and listless affair.
“In the nineties, I thought our problem would be solved before South Africa’s,” Peres had told me. “There were economic sanctions, but what really brought down the Afrikaners was the sense of isolation. Suddenly, they had nowhere to go.” Peres, of course, opposes any boycott of Israel, but his concern was clear. Many Israeli friends have remarked on the élite in the country—doctors, artists, engineers, businesspeople; call it two hundred thousand people—who provide Israel with its economic and cultural vibrancy. That élite is no less patriotic than the rest, but if its members begin to see a narrowing horizon for their children, if they sense their businesses shrinking, if they sense an Israel deeply diminished in the eyes of Europe and the United States, they will head elsewhere, or their children will. Not all at once, and not everyone, but there is no denying that one cost of occupation is isolation.
In the meantime, Ruvi Rivlin is paying another kind of cost. Following his trip to Kafr Qasim, members of the resentful right have circulated on social media and various Web sites a Photoshopped picture of him wearing a red kaffiyeh. This brand of vitriol is reminiscent of the days, two decades ago, when fanatics demonstrating against the Oslo peace accords brandished pictures of Yitzhak Rabin wearing a kaffiyeh or a Nazi S.S. uniform—the sort of images that appealed to his assassin. Last week, at a service commemorating the nineteenth anniversary of Rabin’s death, Rivlin, who opposed the accords, gave a speech celebrating Rabin’s courage and leadership. Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, his daughter, and a former member of the Knesset, called on Netanyahu to condemn the harassment of Rivlin. Then she turned to Rivlin and said, “It is true you did not come from the same background, and we do not share the same political views. But we have always been members of the same sect, for whom the rules of democracy are sacred and from which we may not deviate under any circumstances.” ♦
Rick S Geiger - Call Me @585-230-5511