Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to preach about the exceptionalism of Israel’s democracy. He recently proclaimed proudly to a large crowd of young, North American Jews on Birthright, “I want you to take everything you see and share it with others. Tell others about the miracle of Israel, this rare and thriving democracy in the Middle East.”
By many accounts Bibi has every right to brag. The first seed planted by Herzl and fellow early Zionists more than a century ago has blossomed into a free, sophisticated, and institution-driven democratic society that should make all Jews proud. Furthermore, Israel’s democracy has endured wars of attrition, annihilation, two Intifadas, and constant pressure from a region weathered by autocratic rulers and military coups.
However, Israel’s status as a full-fledged democracy, in pursuit of equality for all citizens is not definite or inevitable. Due to the paralysis of the current government to forcefully articulate its vision for the West Bank (Judea & Samaria) and a failure of leadership to separate from the Palestinians, calls for a “One-State Solution” on both sides grow louder each passing year. Under this political environment and a slow drift toward a binational state, Israel’s democratic future is anything but guaranteed.
I am keenly aware that as an American Jew I do not vote in Israeli elections, serve in the IDF, or call Israel my home. It is not my place to lecture Israelis on their own internal politics or security.
However, I as well as Jews around the world have a stake in Israel’s Jewish and democratic future. That is why I have committed to launching the Chicago chapter of IPF’s Atid, a network of rising Jewish young professionals committed to advancing a pragmatic approach to two-state discourse within the American Jewish community. We seek to dial back the polarization and toxicity surrounding this topic, to drive a narrative of collaboration and security-based policy informed through our Israeli partners.
Let me be very clear; within the pre-1967 lines Israel is a first-rate democracy, and the reason why Americans see shared values with Israeli society. It is when Bibi and other pro-Israel advocates skip over or pretend to ignore the enormous burden of controlling the Palestinian populace and territory in the West Bank that the virtuous claims of Israel’s egalitarian democracy become murky. Altogether, 2.5 million Palestinians in Judea & Samaria have no voice in the Israeli government which controls vital aspects of their daily life such as where they can build homes or start businesses, while their own PA has not had fair or representational elections since 2005.
A Jewish state must by definition have a strong and secure Jewish majority, a reality that remains elusive if Israel does not achieve an eventual and much needed divorce from the Palestinian territories. An indefinite military occupation of the West Bank with no end in sight will have erosive and catastrophic effects on Israeli democracy that will be irreversible if not addressed from a security perspective now.
If we as passionate Zionists cannot identify this issue as a major demographic and moral challenge facing Israel, then we have forgotten the sole mission of Zionism: to empower Jews with the ability to control their own destiny. The current Israeli government is allowing the pervasive terror and instability in the region and the divided, corrupt Palestinian polity to shape its own future. This is the antithesis of Zionism and contrary to what Israel’s founders envisioned for the country.
Fortunately, due to the collaboration of Israel Policy Forum (IPF) and Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS), a pragmatic set of policies and initiatives has been developed to prevent this slide into a “One-State” abyss and instill confidence in those who believe in Israel’s Jewish and democratic future. If all steps are taken together, this initiative, focusing on steps Israel can take unilaterally in the absence of a formal negotiating process, has the opportunity to change facts on the ground and create a paradigm shift between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
I am no peacenik or under the illusion that separation from the Palestinians is possible today. I am also not naive to believe the PA is ready for statehood or currently has the ability to secure its borders or provide security for its citizens. Yet, the lack of a willing partner on the other side does not provide Israel an excuse for inaction. As the 265 former generals of CIS representing the highest echelons of Israel’s security establishment have written, “Israel must take independent action to restore security to its citizens and preserve conditions for a future agreement.”
These steps include completing the much needed security barrier in the West Bank, halting all settlement construction outside the main non-controversial blocs, granting the PA greater control over economic development in Area B and C, and making clear Israel’s intentions to a gradual military withdrawal from agreed upon Palestinian territories at the conclusion of a political agreement. Each of these measures as well as several others addressed in Security First, preserve the viability of future separation into two political entities while strengthening Israel’s international and regional standing. They make Israel’s intentions for Judea & Samaria perfectly clear and place onus on the Palestinians to prove their commitment to a future political settlement.
I know many friends reading this column will disagree with me and argue Israel can never withdraw from any of Judea & Samaria, while others believe the occupation must end immediately. Yet, I believe what unites both the left and right in the Diaspora is our passion and deep devotion to Israel’s security and future well-being. As Jews in the Diaspora, we must decide what role we want to play in keeping David Ben Gurion’s vision for Israel alive. Will we remain silent or work with our Israeli partners advocating for a state that is equally Jewish and democratic?
What keeps me up at night is not whether one day Israel will cease to exist, it is whether she will continue to thrive as the light upon nations we know and hope it to be.