|David Ben-Gurion (First Prime Minister of Israel) publicly pronouncing the Declaration of the State of Israel, May 14 1948, Tel Aviv, Israel, beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern political Zionism, in the old Tel Aviv Museum of Art building on Rothshild St. The exhibit hall and the scroll, which was not yet finished, were prepared by Otte Wallish. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Map of Israel, the Palestinian territories (West Bank and Gaza Strip), the Golan Heights, and portions of neighbouring countries. Also United Nations deployment areas in countries adjoining Israel or Israeli-held territory, as of January 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|State Department Telegram to Diplomats and Consulates on the de facto recognition of Israel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|English: Flag of Israel with the Mediterranean sea in the background, in Rishon LeZion.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Shlomo Ben Ami (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
I watched what seemed to me rather a sad event the other night, on AlJazeera TV, when a former Foreign Minister of Israel, Shlomo Ben Ami, bravely confronted an audience at Oxford University as he tried to reconcile the principles of Zionism, of which he said he was an ardent follower, with the liberal political principles he normally espouses.
I say it was sad because Mr. Ben Ami is to all appearances a reasonable and decent man, and it was almost like blood sports to watch him desperately trying to reconcile himself argumentatively to the reality of Zionism as it is practised in Israel today. To a detached observer, he seemed to be trying to defend an indefensible case: and his problem was that he had to admit the indefensible aspects of his case.
It was part of a programme called Head to Head in which a well-known British journalist Mehdi Hasan, grills people with usually controversial views for the better part of an hour. The previous such programme I saw featured the Egyptian-American feminist Mona Eltahawy, who launched into a spirited attack on the position of women in Islamic societies. Great to watch, and certainly unusual, and I found it encouraging and salutary to hear such views being expressed in a field of opinion that normally is somewhat monolithic and beyond discussion.
For his Ben Ami interview Hasan had a back-up panel comprised of Paul Charney, a solicitor who heads the Zionist Federation of Britain and Ireland and who presented himself as an “Israel-right-or-wrong” sort of guy; Avi Shlaim, Iraqi-born emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford, and one of the group known as the “new historians” who have broken with the orthodox view of the history of Israel; and the Canadian-born Palestinian lawyer and activist Diana Buttu, formerly an adviser to the PLO, and now a much-sought-after expert on Palestinian affairs by liberal-leaning Western think tanks. I remember with delight an occasion on which Ms.Buttu visited Canada and was granted an interview with Peter Mansbridge. As Mansbridge trotted out all the worn cliches of the Western position on the Palestinians, Ms. Buttu, ever so politely, but firmly, chewed him up and spat him out before our eyes.
Hasan asked Ami right off the top how he could reconcile his liberalism with his advocacy of a doctrine, Zionism, which “at its core fundamentally privileges one ethnic group, presumably at the expense of another ethnic group.”
Ben Ami’s reply was that there were special circumstances in the foundation of Israel that had to be taken into account. But, generally, the nation had great international credibility after its foundation in 1948, and he personally would have preferred if they had made an agreement with the Palestinians at that time so that both sides, living side-by-side could get on with their lives.
“I agree there is a fundamental anomaly in the creation of the state of Israel,” Ben Ami said, “but I believe with enlightened leadership it should be possible to square the circle.” He said that before the 1967 war Israel was already a viable state in the Middle East, with international legitimacy, but it lost that legitimacy when it became a colonial power ruling over a captive population. To Hasan’s suggestion that for Israel to claim to be a Jewish state, and a democracy, was an oxymoron, Ben Ami replied: “No, it is not an oxymoron. It could be a Jewish state in which the majority is fully and unconditionally respectful of the minority.” He said not only Israel, but many nations, in fact, most nations, were born in blood. The difference in the case of Israel is that it took place in the age of mass media.
Shlaim, responding to the same line of questioning, said Zionism and liberalism, per se were not in contradiction, not necessarily. Ami belonged to the most liberal stand of Zionism, a small group. “Zionism has never been liberal, but the gap between the theory of the rule of law, and the way Zionism has treated the Palestinians has always been so huge that it has been filled with hypocrisy and humbug.”
Ben Ami said the Palestinian population of Israel was equal in law to the Jewish population, but “history offered different options.” Challenged to deny that Israel was founded on an act of ethnic cleansing, he said, “there were elements of ethnic cleansing, but I do not believe it was according to a master plan.” When Hasan asked how many Palestinians would be acceptable as citizens of Israel, he reluctantly agreed that 51 per cent might be okay, but added Israel had to remain the homeland of the Jewish people, and asked if a Palestinian could become Prime Minister of Israel he said, “history will tell.” Diana Buttu nodded a negative to that question.
One can see this is a difficult --- indeed, I would think, impossible --- case to argue convincingly. Shlaim contested Ben Ami’s assertion that Israel was becoming less and less discriminatory. “The present Prime Minister embraces a policy that is right-wing, xenophobic, exclusionary and racist, and it is still called Zionism,” he said. He added: “He is like a man who wants to negotiate the division of a pizza, but he keeps on eating.”
Buttu, who has Israeli citizenship, as do her parents, said that her parents had never been allowed to visit their home, just because they are not Jewish. “Israel’s position is that they take the land, claim it as their own, and then make concessions about the land as if it belonged to them.” Asked by a member of the audience why Palestinians should not call on outsiders to divest themselves of Israeli investments, and impose sanctions on Israel, Buttu said she supports the call for sanctions, because “it is the only way Israel is going to get the message that it is not above the law.”
Ben Ami said that in the negotiations in which he had played a leading part at Camp David and after, they had come very close to obtaining an agreement. But Arafat was not willing to settle with a government that was heading into an election, and the chance was lost. At one point they had agreed to accept 100,000 returning Palestiians. “Today, that would be like an immense offer,” he said
“I do not see any Israeli government in the foreseeable future that is likely to meet the requirements of the Palestinians. I am not extremely hopeful of any solution for a two-state solution. Any solution is likely only if there is an element of imposition. Neither side is going to get everything it wants. The present Israeli Prime Minister is obsessed with achieving absolute security, which is a goal impossible to implement, and I am afraid Israel is condemned to perdition if it does no reach a solution of two states living side-by-side.” Shlaim, for his part, said the two-state solution “is as dead as the dodo. And Israeli governments destroyed the two-state solution—systematically destroyed the basis for a viable Palestinian state.”
Part of the sadness of this occasion came not only from watching this decent man struggling to make sense of a senseless situation, but also from one’s own memory of the high hopes held for Israel when it was founded and for many years thereafter, when the Jewish-led state was held up as the place that was making the desert bloom.
This may have been a false image, to a certain extent. The Arab inhabitants had lived there for generations and had worked the land successfully. But that image certainly was a more positive one than the recent images of Israeli bulldozers knocking over ancient olive trees that provided the livelihood for the Arabs, of the smashing of simple Arab houses to make way for Jewish apartment blocks, and of endless restrictions imposed on Arabs by the Jewish army, including the construction of roads on which only Jews are allowed to travel.
Diana Buttu summed up what does seem to be the situation in Palestine now: “there already is one state,” she said, “it already exists. The problem now is apartheid.”