Israel has always been more than just a place on a map. From the beginning, it has existed as a series of promises as well as a geographical location: a promise of being a place where Jews can live, a promise of being a place that will keep Jews safe, and a place that secures the Jewish people’s democratic ideals. Implicit in those promises has always been a threat: that if any of them were ever broken, Israel would no longer truly be Israel. It would just be a place on a map that happened to be labeled with that name.
Theodor Herzl, one of the founders of modern Zionism, once told a gathering of Zionist leaders that "those of us who are today prepared to hazard our lives for the cause would regret having raised a finger if we were able to organize only a new social system, and not a more righteous one." As the American Zionist leader Louis Lipsky wrote in the 1946 forward to Herzl's 1896 treatise "The Jewish State," Zionism "had to become a movement of democracy."
Ze'ev Jabotinsky, a Russian-born Zionist who is considered a father of the modern Israeli right, argued that Jews' experiences as a besieged minority made democracy and pluralism essential values. "Democracy means freedom," Jabotinsky wrote. "The Jewish State will have to be such, ensuring that the minority will not be rendered defenseless."
For the first decades after its founding, it was those promises of physical security that seemed hardest to keep, as Israel and the Jews who lived there faced threats from hostile neighbors. But now Israel faces a very different sort of threat: a threat that it will abandon the democratic principles that have been part of its foundation since the earliest days of Zionism.
Quietly, gradually, an internal crisis has grown so great that it threatens the survival of Israel as we know it today: Jewish, democratic, and an accepted member of the community of nations. If something does not change, then that Israel cannot survive. An Israel that is undemocratic, that is isolated in the world, and that exists counter to the ideals of its founders will take its place. It will retain the Israeli flag and national anthem, it will stamp "Israel" on its passports, but it will not be Israel as Zionists like Herzl and Lipsky — and millions of Jews who believed and still believe in their vision — hoped and intended.
Israel's path away from democracy
This trajectory has been clear for some time. The US and much of the world saw this year's electoral victory of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — after a campaign that disdained peace, vilified the country's Arab minority, and alienated Israel's Western allies — as a watershed event. But the truth is that Netanyahu's reelection changed nothing, other than dispelling the polite fiction in the United States about the direction in which Israelis are choosing to take their country.
Netanyahu's reelection merely reflected trends that have been building in Israel for years: a growing and increasingly extreme political right, a resistance or outright hostility toward peace, a willingness to forgo international acceptance, and even a certain hesitation toward the more difficult aspects of democracy.
"Israel is galloping toward an anti-democratic, bi-national future saturated with hatred and racism," the Israeli columnist Ravit Hecht wrote in Ha'aretz in March.
And that gets to what makes this all so troubling: even if Israelis oppose this result, and highly prize their democracy and international acceptance, the choices they are making as a nation, over and over, point increasingly in that direction.
Israelis cannot say they were not warned, nor that warnings have come only from liberals and peaceniks. The alarm Ben-Gurion sounded in 1967 has gone off many times before and since.
"[Even] after the formation of a Jewish majority, a considerable Arab population will always remain in Palestine," Jabotinsky, the early Zionist leader whose ideas inform today's Israeli right, wrote in the years before Palestine had become Israel and Palestine. "If things fare badly for this group of inhabitants then things will fare badly for the entire country. The political, economic and cultural welfare of the Arabs will thus always remain one of the main conditions for the well-being of the Land of Israel."
Yuval Dishkin, the former head of Israel's shadowy internal security service Shin Bet, warned in 2013 that unless Israel could find peace with the Palestinians, and soon, "we will certainly cross the point of no return, after which we will be left with one state from the river to the sea for two peoples. The consequences of such a state for our national identity, our security, our ability to maintain a worthy, democratic state, our moral fiber as a society, and our place in the family of nations would be far-reaching."
Israel's unwillingness or inability to reconcile its Jewish identity with its democratic ideals, or to reconcile its military occupation of Palestinians with its place in the international community, puts the nation as it exists now at real risk. Unless Israel can change, it is heading down a path whose steps and ultimate destination appear increasingly, terrifyingly clear:
- Bit by bit, Israel will continue to trade away its democratic values and its international support to maintain its occupation and settlement of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza, the Palestinian territories it has dominated since 1967.
- Eventually that occupation will lead to the utter collapse of Palestinian self-rule in the occupied West Bank. Israel, having committed to the occupation, will more forcefully assert its rule there in the style of an overt colonial power, alienating a Western world that has foresworn colonialism.
- Finally, the Jewish democracy Israelis fought to create and preserve will become a state in which Palestinians lack fundamental rights. Perhaps this culminates with the realization of the Israeli far right's dream of annexing the West Bank, thus declaring Israel an apartheid state, or perhaps Israel never takes this formality. In either case, the result is an undemocratic Israel and a pariah state.
Israel's occupation of the West Bank is turning Israel into a very different kind of country
There has always been tension in the idea of a "Jewish democracy," of a state that grants democratic rights to all while also privileging a certain demographic group. This tension is surmountable — Israel is not the first democracy with a certain religious or ethnic identity — but the occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza heightens it, increasingly to the point of forcing Israel to choose between a Jewish and a democratic state.
Israel's occupation in the West Bank, now ongoing for nearly half a century, has developed a system of authoritarian control there so pervasive that it has come to affect political institutions within Israel proper. The state, by trying to simultaneously uphold democracy within Israel and authoritarianism in the West Bank, has drifted in its core mission and nature.
The mechanisms of Israel's transformation can be subtle, but they are pervasive. When the Israeli political psychologists Daniel Bar-Tal and Izhak Schnell sought to examine what the occupation did to Israelis, they found that its impact was profound and far-reaching.
"The consequences of occupation are evident in all aspects of Israeli life, including its political, social, legal, economic, cultural, and psychological spheres," Bar-Tal and Schnell wrote in their 2012 collection of Israeli academic research into this question. "Occupation has shaped Israel's national identity as a whole."
Some of those effects are personal: the researchers found, for example, that spousal abuse has risen as Israeli soldiers accustomed to the daily brutalities of enforcing military occupation come home.
But many effects were much broader and more troubling. The needs of maintaining occupation are "seriously hampering, if not reversing" the "process of self-democratization of the state," according to a chapter in a 2012 study authored by Tamir Magal, Neta Oren, Daniel Bar-Tal, and Eran Halperin.
In other words, their research found, Israel is trading its democracy, piece by piece, to maintain the occupation of the West Bank — even if no one has made a conscious decision to do so. Israeli political institutions such as the court system, police, and even education system have been gradually engineered less to perform their designed functions of upholding democracy and more to enforce and administer an inherently undemocratic occupation.
As the occupation stretches on, Israelis are forced to choose between a Jewish democracy that surrenders its control over the Palestinians, and a country that maintains both its Jewish identity and its control over Palestinians by adopting a nationalist Jewish supremacist state.
Israeli politicians do not like to acknowledge this choice, except for those on the far right who champion an anti-democratic supremacist state and those on the further, unpopular left who warn it is increasingly inevitable. Benjamin Netanyahu, certainly, has long maintained that Israel should not allow a Palestinian state — effectively advocating permanent control of the West Bank and authoritarian control of Palestinians — but also that Israel is and should forever remain a liberal, pluralistic democracy.
But Netanyahu, like many other right-wing Israeli politicians, has long advocated and enacted policies in the West Bank that are authoritarian. Israeli voters have, if narrowly, supported him. A minority in Israel, and to a lesser degree in the US, are starting to point out where that leads.
"For years we have been hearing that Israel will either end the occupation or cease to be a democracy," Noam Sheizaf wrote at the left-leaning Israeli site 972mag.org after Netanyahu's election victory. "Could it be that the Jewish public has made its choice?"
Israelis do not necessarily see themselves as making a choice between democracy and permanent occupation. Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University, has described an Israeli ideological divide that is much wider and more profound than the divide between, say, American Democrats and Republicans.
One side, Ezrahi has said, champions "the Enlightenment ideal of progress" and "a deep sense of the limits of military force, and a commitment to liberal-democratic values." And the other, "founded on a long memory of persecution, genocide, and a bitter struggle for survival, is pessimistic, distrustful of non-Jews, and believing only in Jewish power and solidarity."
In October, the Israeli Democracy Institute published its most recent findings on Israeli attitudes toward their state and its future. What it found was alarming.
When asked whether the state of Israel should privilege its Jewish identity or its democratic one, only 24 percent of Israeli Jews said "both." That is a precipitous decline from 48 percent in 2010. Israeli Jews, then, increasingly see those two ideas as in tension. The idea that Israel can be both is now held by less than a quarter of Israeli Jews.
While only 39 percent of Jewish Israelis believe Israel should privilege its Jewish identity over its democracy, it is the most popular position. This view is particularly popular among Israel's rapidly growing Ultra-Orthodox population.
Israeli Jews are revealing their declining support for democracy in other ways. For example, 63 percent of Jewish Israelis say Jews should not have more rights than Arab Israelis — not a very large majority, but a majority.
The Israeli Democracy Institute points out, though, that 74 percent of Jewish Israelis say that "crucial national decisions on matters of peace and security should be made by a Jewish majority." Sixty-one percent say Jewish Israelis should be the group that decides on governance and economic issues.
In other words, a majority of Jewish Israelis express an abstract desire for democracy, but many do not support enacting it in practice. Rather, they want a state that gives Jews greater political rights and authority.
It is hardly surprising, then, that Israelis continue to elect right-wing governments that make it quite clear their policy is to keep Palestinians under a perpetual occupation that denies them basic rights. Even the political center-left, which nominally supports a peace deal, has campaigned on economic issues because it knows the policy of peace has been largely rejected by voters.
Israeli democracy, already conditional, is becoming more so
Assaf Sharon, co-founder and academic director of the left-leaning think tank Molad, told me that Israel is at risk of something subtler but more fundamental than the erosion of democratic institutions: erosion of the idea that democracy is worthwhile in the first place.
Sharon sees the risk of a growing "majority dictatorship" in Israel. "It's an erosion of some core democratic understandings," he said. "You can see how these nationalistic trends are seeping into the culture, into the education system, into people's subconscious."
In late 2014, Netanyahu and other members of the Israeli right put forward a bill that seemed, to much of the world, intended to force Israelis to privilege their Jewish identity over their democratic identity. Called the "nationality bill," it would have declared Israel as "the national state of the Jewish people." But about a quarter of Israel's citizenry is non-Jewish. Many of those are ethnic Arabs who would otherwise be considered Palestinian (many identify as such). The bill would not deny them any legal rights, but it would announce them as somehow not a part of their own country.
That implied exclusion of Arabs was reinforced during the final days of Netanyahu's reelection campaign, when he sent text messages warning that "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls," funded by "foreign money." That Netanyahu likely meant it as a cynical ploy to get out the vote is not the point. The point is that it was effective, promoted by a party that has the levers of power and has used those levers before to marginalize the country's largest minority.
Members of the Israeli left are concerned that they could be the next to be marginalized, and it is easy to see why. Forty-six percent of Israelis support a law banning public criticism of the government, according to the Democracy Institute's findings. New Israeli public school textbooks are teaching Israeli children that their country is meant to be more Jewish than it is democratic. Israeli sociologist Idan Yaron found recently from his research observing high schoolers, "The students think that being left-wing is almost worse than being an Arab."
As an early hint of the restrictions to come, right-wing political leaders have been seeking to restrict NGOs that they see as hostile to Israel by barring them from receiving certain sorts of funding, at times by circumventing the country's own attorney general and supreme court. In 2013, members of Netanyahu's Likud Party put forward a bill to impose higher taxes on NGOs based specifically on whether they took political positions deemed anti-Israel, and in 2014 proposed a bill restricting them from registering to operate in Israel at all.
Israel's occupation of the West Bank is becoming permanent
There are, broadly speaking, two possible answers on the table for what Israel should do about its conflict with the Palestinians. One, pushed by the international community, is to strike a peace deal that would withdraw Israel from the occupied territories and allow the creation of a Palestinian state. The other, pushed by an Israeli far right that is a political minority but to which Netanyahu is electorally beholden, is to maintain permanent control of the territory or even annex it outright.
Netanyahu opposes both, driven by political calculation and by an earnestly held Revisionist Zionism that says Jews can only achieve security through complete victory against their enemies. But neither his politics nor his ideology provides an answer to what to do about the conflict. And in his years in power, he has shown no indication of any strategy other than managing the situation, gradually expanding settlements without changing the West Bank's fundamental balance, and occasionally going to war in Gaza without re-occupying it.
While most Israeli voters oppose anything as extreme as annexation, they by and large support Netanyahu's approach of maintaining the status quo. About one-third of Israelis voted in 2014 for a political party that officially rejects a Palestinian state. While large numbers of Israelis say they desire a peace deal in theory, most oppose the most basic concessions that would be necessary to achieve one.
The right wing's hold on power seems iron-tight, but even if something cataclysmic did happen — an economic shock, say — to return the center-left to power, it is difficult to imagine such a government overseeing a viable peace deal without public support. When the center-left Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attempted this, in 2008, the terms he offered were unclear and his political standing so troubled that even President George W. Bush discouraged Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas from accepting.
It's not hard to see why Israelis are so unenthusiastic about peace. The Palestinian terrorism of the Second Intifada deeply scarred Israeli society and left Israelis, even those who do care about the human rights of Palestinians, hesitant to take steps to restore them, fearful of more terror. Israel has achieved such dominance in the conflict that they are in the driver's seat, and they are not much interested in upending a status quo that seems to be working for them.
"This is something the Palestinians had been saying for a long time: it's actually irrational for the Israelis to change anything right now," Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, told me. "The costs of the occupation are very low."
Because many Israelis have politically disengaged from the conflict, that has left the small but motivated and influential settler movement to drive policy on the ground.
Hebron, deep in the West Bank, is an instructive example: 500 Israeli settlers, though they make up only 0.3 percent of the population, compelled their government to reach a 1997 agreement that guaranteed them 20 percent of the land and full-time military protection. The settlers use the soldiers as cover to torment Palestinians, a naked attempt to push them out block by block, and to construct ever more infrastructure that is meant to justify a permanent presence.
If you speak to mainstream Israelis in, say, Tel Aviv, many of them will look down on the settlers in far-off-seeming Hebron as kooks and extremists. And yet, it is those 500 settlers who have effectively set the Israeli policy of occupying Hebron.
This is, in some ways, a microcosm of Israel's drift into a permanent occupation that most Israelis do not want.
In 2005, as the Second Intifada raged, Israeli leaders announced they had no choice but to forcibly withdraw all settlers from the Palestinian territory of Gaza.
Israelis debate whether such a thing could be possible in the West Bank, whether the government could once more drag the settlers out by their heels. But the right-wing parties that now dominate Israeli politics rejected the Gaza withdrawal at the time — Netanyahu called it "evil" — and now point to it as a disaster, blaming Hamas's takeover of the territory on the withdrawal. They do not support reproducing this in the West Bank.
That means the perpetuation of the status quo, and that has consequences.
"Perpetuating the status quo is the most frightening of the possibilities," Thrall said. "The status quo isn't stasis — it's steadily making it more difficult to withdraw in the future, and certainly making it more costly to withdraw."
If withdrawing from the West Bank is politically and operationally difficult now, it will only get harder; and if the settlements in the West Bank are making a Palestinian state less viable now, Palestinian independence will only become less possible.
The deepening entanglement of Israel and Palestine — in which Israel either sacrifices its democracy and its international standing to keep Palestinians disenfranchised or allows Palestinians equal rights, thus preserving Israeli democracy at the cost of its Jewish identity — becomes more likely, and harder to avert, each day that passes.
Palestinian rule will collapse, forcing Israel to withdraw or to dig in deeper
The most extreme outcome is that Israel would declare one day that it was absorbing the West Bank as Israeli territory. This is highly unpopular with Israelis, but even if Netanyahu or whatever governments follow him never intend a policy of annexing the West Bank, the settler movement has enough political weight and momentum that at some point, years or decades in the future, annexation could become a foregone conclusion.
Perhaps a more likely endpoint of permanent, ever-deepening occupation is that Israel will come to resemble a 19th-century-style colonial power ruling over the Palestinians.
The Palestinian government in the West Bank is the Palestinian Authority. It services Israeli security needs, is funded by foreign governments such as the US (at Israel's insistence), and allows Israel a high degree of control with only a moderate investment of resources.
Should the occupation continue, as seems inevitable, then the PA is doomed to collapse. Though the Palestinian Authority was initially created by the Oslo Accords in the 1990s as a step toward Palestinian independence, it has since been distorted it into the opposite: a tool of perpetuating Israeli control. Palestinians are not blind to this.
"Among Palestinians, the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority is at a real nadir," Thrall said. He warned that rapidly growing numbers of Palestinians are questioning the "entire Oslo structure" of partial Palestinian self-rule under the Israeli occupation. "More are arguing that it's not worth it," he said. "Their voices are getting louder."
The Palestinian Authority will either collapse under the political weight of enabling Israel's occupation — opening up a vacuum that would almost certainly be filled by violent extremist groups — or begin gradually withdrawing from its cooperation with Israel and its acknowledgment of the Oslo Accord rules governing the occupation.
In either case, the outcome would likely be the same: forcing Israel to replace the Palestinian Authority that is a buffer between the occupation and regular Palestinians with a more direct form of Israeli rule. In other words, Israel would find itself governing Palestinians directly — absorbing the West Bank in all but name — or perhaps governing them through local tribal or political leaders, though that would be likely to collapse, as well.
"This was attempted in the past," Thrall said of the latter option. "It was something called the Village Leagues, in the late '70s and early '80s. It eventually failed in large part because Palestinians regarded those leaders as traitors."
The colonial powers of the West discovered the hard way, in the early and mid-20th century, that conquest and rule of a foreign population was ultimately unsustainable. The British found this first where it had attempted direct rule, such as in India, and later where it attempted indirect rule not so unlike the Village Leagues — principally in the Middle East, including its Mandate in Palestine, where it was unable to control either Palestinians or the Jewish Zionists whose militias fought them.
The British were able to withdraw from both India and the Middle East, back to their homeland far away in Europe. The Israelis may not believe they have that option, both because of the settler communities continuing to grow in the West Bank and because of their fear of a hostile Palestine on their border. Looking at Hamas-controlled Gaza, it is not difficult to understand Israelis' concern.
When the inevitable collapse of the Palestinian Authority forces Israel to choose between withdrawing entirely and replacing the Palestinian Authority with more direct rule, it seems likely that Israel would not choose withdrawal.
Whether that means attempting to administer the West Bank as a 21st-century colonial power, or to simply annex it altogether, it would have dire implications for Israel's democracy and its place in the world — both of which are already at risk.
Israel's slow withdrawal from the community of nations
It's difficult to overstate how crucial the Western world's support has been to Israel, first in championing the 1947 United Nations process that declared Israel and Palestine to be sovereign states, then in providing Israel with military support against its hostile neighbors, and now in providing it diplomatic protection against an international community that might otherwise isolate Israel and perhaps even attempt to impose its withdrawal from the Palestinian conflict.
Many in Israel, misreading the repeated American and European demands that it find peace with the Palestinians, have concluded that Western support is already gone. They're wrong, as Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders know. But if current trends continue, and particularly if the occupation continues on its path toward disaster, then Israel could indeed lose much of its international support.
American support for Israel, at first a realpolitik Cold War effort at containing Soviet influence in the region, is today popularly enshrined is the US political system. But the bipartisan consensus in support of Israel, first formed in the 1980s and 1990s, is becoming a partisan issue.
This polarization is coming from both parties but is driven by Republicans. Increasingly important Democratic constituencies — younger voters, black voters, Latino voters — support Israel at lower rates than do other American demographic groups, meaning that Democrats have less incentive to pursue pro-Israel policies. Republicans, sensing political advantage, are working to turn Israel into more of a partisan issue.
When Republicans arranged Netanyahu's recent speech to Congress to decry President Obama's Iran policy, for example they forced Democrats to make a choice: attend the speech and side with Netanyahu, or skip the speech and side with your president. Many Democrats chose not to attend, something that previously would have seemed unthinkable.
This is not to say that Democrats, much less overall US policy, will become in any way anti-Israel. Presidents, particularly, tend to maintain broad continuity in foreign policy regardless of party. Rather, the vigor of American support is likely to cool. The US may come to support Israel more in the same way it supports, say, Taiwan or Poland; an ally, sure, but one of many.
This is already leading to policy changes. The Obama administration is threatening to punish Netanyahu's intransigence by withholding support at the United Nations. The US currently grants Israel overwhelming support at the UN; it has issued more Security Council vetoes than any other country, mostly in defense of Israel. It withdrew funding for a UN education agency, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as punishment for merely admitting Palestine as a member. The era of such extreme support may be ending.
That has consequences, particularly as Israel alienates its only other major supporter: Europe.
European leaders, impatient with Israeli foot-dragging on the peace process that they increasingly see as intransigence, have been signaling for years that their support for Israel could lessen. You can see this, for example, in how European countries have changed their votes at the UN in recent years to be less supportive of Israel.
In 2011, United Nations member states voted on whether to accept Palestinians' request for membership in UNESCO. This was largely symbolic, but the symbolism was highly charged. By asking for membership in the UN agency, Palestinian leaders were asking that the world take this small step toward recognizing Palestine as a sovereign state — and, thus, as under hostile foreign occupation. This would elevate a possible case for the world to intervene in the conflict — Israel's nightmare.
Much of Europe, seeing this path as extreme and dangerous, refused to help the Palestinians. Many countries either abstained (yellow) or sided with Israel and the US in voting no (red):
Only 13 months later, the Palestinians bid for "nonmember observer status" in the UN General Assembly, again a symbolic way to raise international pressure on Israel. Again, Israel and the US voted no — but some European countries that had voted no instead abstained, and some that had abstained voted yes:
This trend will only continue as the occupation drags on. It is not difficult to foresee a future in which Israel can rely only on the support of the United States and perhaps a few small states, with American support becoming weaker and more conditional.
If Israel becomes internationally isolated, then it is certainly possible this will be just the shock to the system Israeli voters need to force a withdrawal from the West Bank, however painful.
But it is also possible, as American officials often worry, that the opposite could happen: that Israeli voters and leaders will feel more insecure and more threatened, and will respond by shifting even further to the right, hardening their position in the West Bank and giving up any pretense of listening to Western governments.
There have always been parts of the world that see Israel as a pariah. It may be that Israel itself, seeing the Western support it once prized declining, comes to embrace that view.
There is little hope that the world can change Israelis' minds
Israeli voters will ultimately decide the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and thus of their own country. Yes, Palestinians play a role in the conflict as well, a role that often exacerbates the conflict. But since the end of the Second Intifada and the Gaza withdrawal in 2005, Israel has become so dominant over the conflict that no decisive change can occur without Israel leading the way. Israeli voters do not want their country to lead; they want to maintain the status quo with all its terrible implications for Palestinians and themselves.
This has led many observers, particularly American Jews (and, often, American non-Jews) who desperately wish for an Israel that mirrors their own values, to respond in one of two ways. Either they look for ways to excuse the choices Israelis are making, to downplay their increasingly obvious consequences, as is common on the political right. Or, on the left, an increasingly prevalent view is that Israelis can be saved from themselves by pressuring them into changing their preferences.
This pressure can mean vocally opposing Israeli policies, urging the US to withdrew its diplomatic cover for Israel at the UN, or perhaps even implementing a campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions, along the South African model, meant to make the occupation painful enough that Israelis will throw it off willingly. After all, most Israelis are totally inured from the occupation and do not feel its effects. Perhaps even a change as mild as the European Union withdrawing visa-on-arrival for Israelis — meaning that trips to Europe would require more paperwork — could be enough for Israelis to say "enough."
The truth is that both of these strategies are doomed; each is likely to only further entrench Israelis in their chosen path. Excusing Israeli behavior will give the country's right-wing leaders yet more authority among voters to pursue their anti-peace policies. Increasing the pressure on Israelis would, perversely, likely do the same, by validating an Israeli nationalist right that says the world will never be fair to Israel and the country can only guarantee its survival by going alone and taking a hard line. More isolation and more insecurity will likely only strengthen the forces that oppose peace.
Israelis may have made their decision. They are pushing their country down a path whose destination is clearer every day: undemocratic, isolated, and a hostile occupier of a foreign population. This is not unique in history; many countries have traded away aspects of their democracy or abandoned it completely. There is every reason to believe Israelis will choose to join them.