Frontier State

By Ran Halevi

Why can't Europeans accept Israel's security barrier? Because they don't believe in borders.

Responding recently to an American scholar who was praising what he called “clouded identities,”11 the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua reacted some­what testily: “If asked to define the concept of Zionism in one word, I would choose ‘borders;’ allowed one more word, I would add ‘sovereignty.’”12 By way of an ingenuous and telling illustration, he went on, “Just as every house has a door which opens and closes… so the territorial boundaries of the state determine its sovereignty and responsibility.”13 It was Israel’s misfortune, Yehoshua added, to have been forced in 1967 through an act of self-defense to obliterate the borders that laid out the compass of its sover­eignty, and thus its identity.
I take these words to express something very profound, something that frequently eludes the outside observer, and a good number of Israelis, for that matter: The establishment of discernible borders after the War of Independence, narrow and porous as they were, contributed to the normaliza­tion of Jewish existence and restored to it that which had been a mere prayer throughout the exile—sovereignty, territory, borders.

In Israel today, the aspiration for peace is an integral part of the quest for tangible borders, even if it means constructing, at the risk of provok­ing international discontent, a wall and a barrier. This wall and barrier not only delineate two territories, but represent the political, and above all cultural, abyss between two peoples who ultimately remain more different than their geographical proximity might suggest. Whoever recognizes the validity of Montesquieu’s teaching about the “general spirit” that governs nations—climate, religion, laws, the maxims of the government, examples of past things, mores, and manners”14—must confront a stark truth. Israelis and Palestinians, who live in the same climate, work side by side, engage in trade, discuss their differences, and occasionally even agree on certain matters, nevertheless belong to two nations that are separated by almost everything else: Religion, laws, principles of government, memories, mores, habits of thought, and, above all, the idea of the Other. Reason instructs them to draw together, but the “general spirit” of each people—specifically the way each relates to the idea of democracy, both in terms of government and individual disposition—continues to set them far apart.
One may deplore this situation, and hope that with the passage of time these profound differences will diminish, or at least downsize sufficiently to make a political understanding possible. One may also hold firm to the idea that the absence of democracy in practically all Muslim societies is not an inherent misfortune of their nature; witness the recent elections in the Palestinian territories, and the commitment of certain Palestinian leaders to a negotiated settlement. But democracy is evaluated neither by a strict application of electoral procedures nor by good intentions. Rather, it is evaluated above all by its capacity to become rooted in people’s minds, by the regular functioning of political institutions, and by natural consent to universal suffrage. In other words, it cannot take root in a place where re­course to violence escapes the legal prerogative of the established authority. To deny that today we are a long way off from these elementary requisites would be to hide from the truth.
Such an acknowledgment, of which the security wall is both a conse­quence and a symbol, should not exclude the dialogue, academic coop­eration, or interpersonal relationships for which many men of goodwill sincerely hope. But the best will in the world, to return to Montesquieu, will have little or no bearing on the spirit of a nation. For the real test of Israeli-Palestinian peace pertains to much deeper layers, quite remote from the realm of goodwill: Namely, the relationship that the two peoples have with their political institutions, their manner of thinking, their mores, their passions, their loyalties.
The idea of borders that I have here attempted to illuminate embodies for Israelis both a desire for peace and a wish for separation. It is precisely this association, between peace and borders, that has become for many Eu­ropeans and others today a strange, almost unintelligible notion.

Ran Halévi is director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and professor of political history at the Centre de Recherches Politiques Raymond Aron in Paris. This essay originally appeared in the French journal Commentaire, and is published here with permission.

1. This term, taken from the Journal of Bainville, is cited by Patrice Gueniffeyin his preface to Jacques Bainville’s Napoleon (Paris: Gallimard, 2005), p. xliii, n. 2. [French] For this territorial construction, see Daniel Nordman, Frontiers of France: From Space to Territory in the 16th-19th Centuries (Paris: Gallimard, 1998). [French]
2. Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State, trans. Sylvie d’Avigdor (London:Nutt, 1896).
3. On the first pioneers, called “Lovers of Zion,” see David Vital, The Origins of Zionism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975).
4. I borrow the expression from Alain Dieckhoff, author of a useful summary that describes the successive stages in the territorial strategy of Zionism, “The Ter­ritorial Strategies of Zionism,” Twentieth Century (January-March, 1989), p. 32. [French]
5. For the Arab revolt of the 1930s, see in particular Yehoshua Porath, The Palestinian Arab National Movement: 1929-1939, From Riots to Rebellion (London: Frank Cass, 1977).
6. For comments on the Peel plan and its numerous contradictions, see Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972), ch. 10.
7. The debates stirred up in the Zionist movement by the Peel Commission are analyzed in the detailed study by Shmuel Dotan, Partition of Eretz Yisrael in the Mandatory Period (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 1983). [Hebrew]
8. From Yigal Allon (1918-1980), former commander of the Palmah, holder of several ministerial posts, and one of the eminent figures in the Labor party. The Allon Plan was presented for the first time in July 1967.
9. The Allon Plan and its implications are analyzed in the detailed account of Yerouham Cohen, The Allon Plan (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1973). [Hebrew]
10. Shamir to Arnon Soffer, professor of geography at the University of Haifa, as quoted in Yediot Aharonot, October 19, 2001. [Hebrew]
11. Marshall Berman, “Israel: No Souvenirs,” Dissent (Summer 2004).
12. A.B. Yehoshua, “A Brief Reply to Marshall Berman,” Dissent (Winter 2005), p. 101.
13. A.B. Yehoshua, “A Brief Reply,” pp. 101-102.
14. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. and ed. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1989), bk. 19, ch. 4.

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