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The Jews’ Right To Statehood: A Defense

By Ruth Gavison

A new look at Zionism from the perspective of universal rights.


The third period, which includes Israel’s War of Independence and its immediate aftermath, was one of decisive victory for one side and crushing defeat for the other. When the smoke of battle had cleared in early 1949, the new State of Israel controlled a much larger area than had originally been allocated to it by the UN plan, and the remaining territories were seized by Jordan and Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs left the Jewish territory either voluntarily or under duress. Many Arab villages were ruined or abandoned.15 The Arab minority that remained in Israel was placed under military rule.
In the Palestinian narrative, this chain of events is known as al-nakba, the “Catastrophe,” the formative experience upon which the Palestinians’ dream of return and the restoration of the status quo ante is founded. The official political expressions of this ambition have changed over time: There are major differences between the language of the Palestinian National Covenant as approved in 1968, the PLO’s declaration of 1988 accepting the UN partition plan (albeit with reservations), and the 1993 Oslo accords, which recognized Israel’s existence and agreed to peaceful relations. Despite the progress implicit in each of these declarations, however, nowhere has the Palestinian movement given up on its dream of return. The centrality of this issue is impossible to understand without a closer look at the events of 1947 through 1949.
There is no doubt that the consequences of this period were tragic for the local Arab population. This is not to say, however, that the exclusive or even prime responsibility for this tragedy rests on Israel’s shoulders. Indeed, it is encouraging that a tendency has developed in recent years, both in the academy and in the Israeli public, to examine more critically the events that occurred both during and after the War of Independence. There is, it seems, a growing awareness that no good can come of bad history. Fortunately, while these examinations may shatter the myth of moral purity that Jews have ascribed to their side in the war, they may also reinforce the more substantive Jewish claims. The Arabs themselves bear a great deal of responsibility for the region’s miseries during this period, which were brought on by a war which they themselves declared. After all, the purpose of the war was to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state. If the Arabs had won, they would not have allowed such a state to come into being. The Jews, therefore, had no alternative but to fight to defend their state.16
After the war, Israel signed cease-fire agreements with Jordan and Egypt that did not reflect the UN partition map. Nor could they have: The Palestinians lacked any official representation with which to reach a postwar settlement. More importantly, the war had rendered irrelevant the vision of two democratic nation states, living side by side under joint economic administration. In light of the Arab states’ refusal to recognize Israel, no settlement on the issues of Palestinian statehood and refugee absorption could possibly have been reached.
Inthefourth period, between 1949 and 1967, Israel had full jurisdiction over its new borders. Immigration, largely from Europe and from Arab countries, dramatically altered the country’s demographic balance: Whereas the pre-1947 Jewish majority was a bare 60 percent in its territory, the State of Israel soon boasted a Jewish population nearing 80 percent.17 During these years, the state consolidated control over its territory through widespread nationalization of land, including “public” lands that had been used by Palestinians, as well as abandoned areas. The enraged Palestinian community, now under military rule, was unable to mount an effective protest.18
The results of the war brought an end to the symmetry between Arabs and Jews. Palestinian Arabs did not achieve statehood, and their communities suffered a major setback, while Zionism made a critical transition from having the moral liberty to establish a Jewish state to having a moral right to maintain it and to preserve its Jewish character.
The regional war that broke out in 1967 marks the beginning of the fifth period, a period that has continued, in one form or another, until today. The Six Day War was another attempt by the Arab states to transform the political reality in the region through the destruction of the Jewish state. Once again their efforts failed, and Israel’s overwhelming victory included the seizure of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
One important consequence of the Six Day War was the revival among Jews of a controversy that appeared to have been settled with the partition plan and the establishment of the State of Israel: The controversy regarding those territories that had once been part of the historic land of Israel but did not fall within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. In the face of the Arab refusal to negotiate with Israel after the Six Day War, intensive Jewish settlement began in some of these territories. In the years that followed, important political developments continued to affect the territories’ status: Israel imposed its civilian law on the whole of Jerusalem (immediately after the war) and on the Golan Heights (in 1981), yet refrained from doing so in the other areas it had seized. The Sinai Peninsula in its entirety was returned to Egypt as part of the Camp David peace accords of 1978, and Jordan waived its claims to the West Bank in 1988 and signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. The peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan only exacerbated the conflict between Jews and Palestinians over the fate of the strip of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River–what Jews call the “land of Israel” and Palestinians call “historic Palestine.” On both sides there are advocates of a unified sovereignty over the entire area, with each side claiming the right to total control. Others call for division of the land into “two states for two peoples,” and still others seek the creation of a single binational, democratic state for the entire area.19 None of this, however, undermines the basic justification for having a Jewish state in that part of the land in which the Jews constitute a large and stable majority.
In the final analysis, it is impossible to ignore the profound changes that have occurred in the last hundred years with respect to the balance of Jewish and Arab interests in the land of Israel. True, both moral and practical considerations suggest that Israel should give up on maximalist claims to sovereignty over the entire area west of the Jordan River. A situation in which both Jews and Palestinians can enjoy national self-determination in part of their historic homeland is better than the present asymmetry between them.20 At the same time, however, justification for the existence of a Jewish state in part of that land is stronger now than it was in 1947. This is not because of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust or the guilt of the nations of the world, but rather because Israel today hosts a large and diverse Jewish community with the right to national self-determination and the benefits that it can bring. The need to recognize the trauma of Palestinian refugees does not justify a massive uprooting of these Jews, nor does it justify the restoration of the demographic status quo ante between Jews and Arabs, or otherwise restoring the state of vulnerability which both communities endured.
While we cannot ignore the history of the conflict, neither can we ignore the reality that has taken hold in the intervening years. Nowhere is this more important than in considering one of the basic Palestinian claims, according to which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians should be allowed to relocate to Israel through recognition of what is known as the Palestinian “right of return.” In evaluating this claim, one must first recall that a necessary condition for the existence of a Jewish state is the maintenance of a Jewish majority within its borders. It follows that Israel must not extend its sovereignty over a sizable Palestinian population, and that it must continue to maintain control over immigration into it. This control, and the Jewish majority in Israel, will both be undermined by recognition of a “right of return.” It is therefore crucial to see that behind all the talk about rights and justice, the “right of return” necessarily means undoing the developments in the region since 1947, and undermining the existence of a Jewish state.21
A Palestinian state alongside Israel, however, would help address the claims of Arab Israelis to the effect that Israel must give up its national identity because only then would Arab citizens enjoy full equality within it. It is true that Arabs cannot enjoy a sense of full membership in a state whose public culture is Jewish. This is especially the case so long as there is a violent, unresolved conflict between their people and their state. At the same time, however, the sense of not being full partners in the national enterprise is the lot of national minorities in all nation states. This complaint should be distinguished from demands for civic and political non-discrimination for Arabs as individuals, and recognition of their collective cultural, religious, and national interests, which Israel should provide.


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