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Opinion | Benjamin Netanyahu and the Death of the Zionist Dream



From the 1920s onward, the Zionist movement was split into two groups that put forward rival ideas of the Jewish state, one liberal, the other right wing. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father and its longest serving prime minister, was the leader of Labor Zionism, the liberal vision; Zeev Jabotinsky was the founder of Revisionist Zionism and the spiritual father of the Israeli right. Mr. Ben-Gurion embodied the liberal Zionist dream of a free, independent and egalitarian Jewish state. Mr. Jabotinsky was an ardent Jewish nationalist who laid claim to Jewish sovereignty over the whole of the territory between both banks of the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Although he led the opposition to mainstream Zionism, Mr. Jabotinsky was, in fact, the main architect of the strategy that guided the entire movement in the confrontation with the Palestinians — the strategy of the “iron wall.” This strategy consisted of two stages: First, build an iron wall of Jewish military power to compel the Arabs to recognize that the Jewish state was there to stay. Then negotiate with the Arabs about their rights and status in Palestine. The essence of the strategy was negotiations from strength. The risk inherent in it was that military superiority would lead to diplomatic intransigence.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who won a fifth electoral victory last week in an election that was essentially a referendum on his leadership, is in many ways the heir to Mr. Jabotinsky’s legacy. His father, Benzion Netanyahu, was Mr. Jabotinsky’s secretary and the editor of the Revisionists’ daily newspaper, HaYarden; his party, Likud, is the successor to the post-independence Revisionist party, Herut.

With last week’s victory, Mr. Netanyahu is now on course to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, surpassing Mr. Ben-Gurion. By trouncing his left-wing opponents and beating a challenge from a new centrist party, Mr. Netanyahu gained more than just another term in office: He secured a fresh mandate for his idea of Greater Israel.

And so it might seem that the Revisionists have finally after nearly 100 years won the fight over what Zionism will look like. But in reality, Prime Minister Netanyahu is more conservative and more extreme than the founder of the movement. Mr. Jabotinsky’s attitude toward the national aspirations of the Palestinians was, in his own words, one of “polite indifference.” Mr. Netanyahu’s attitude is one of active and unrelenting hostility. Mr. Jabotinsky would have been a tough negotiator; Mr. Netanyahu is a non-negotiator.

Mr. Netanyahu is the proponent of the doctrine of permanent conflict. He rules out the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians because he is not prepared to concede their most basic demand: an independent Palestinian state over the West Bank and Gaza with a capital city in East Jerusalem. Far from seeking to bridge the gap, he actually deepens it by turning a political dispute into a clash of civilizations. No Israeli leader before him ever demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. When Mr. Netanyahu demanded in 2009 that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he knew that no Palestinian leader, however moderate, could possibly accept it. Politics and religion are an explosive mixture, and by emphasizing the religious aspect of the conflict, he makes it more intractable.

Nothing illustrates Mr. Netanyahu’s vision of Israel more clearly than the Nation-State Law passed by the Knesset last July. It states that the right to national self-determination in the country is “unique to the Jewish people.” It demotes Arabic from it status as an official language. It allows the state to differentiate among its citizens on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion. It is the polar opposite of Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, which promised social and political equality to all of Israel’s inhabitants regardless of religion, race or sex.

Israel’s redefinition of itself as an exclusive, ethnocentric Jewish state is now enshrined in law. Mr. Netanyahu has left no room for doubt that this is precisely how he views the country that he has just been re-elected to lead. “Israel is not a state of all its citizens,” he wrote a few weeks before the election. “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people — and only it.”

Three days before Israelis went to the polls, Mr. Netanyahu announced his intention, if re-elected, to formally annex the Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank. The timing was no doubt determined by electoral expediency. But if legislation does follow, it seems likely that it will be with the blessing of President Trump, who has already obliged Mr. Netanyahu by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. Annexation of part of the West Bank will sound the death knell of the two-state solution, and it may well ignite a third Palestinian intifada.

Since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, Israeli society has been moving steadily to the right. Mr. Netanyahu’s last four governments were both a consequence and a cause of this drift. Mr. Ben-Gurion formed moderate center-left coalition governments by excluding the Communist Party and Herut, the forerunner of the Likud party. Mr. Netanyahu is currently in the process of forming a coalition government with what he calls his “natural partners” — the ultraright, nationalist and religious parties. When fully formed, this government may well have the dubious distinction of being the most reactionary, racist government Israel has ever had. Mr. Netanyahu will go down in history as the prime minister who officially turned Israel into an apartheid state and unceremoniously buried the liberal Zionist dream.

Despite their serious ideological differences, both branches of the Zionist movement were, historically, united in their conviction that Israel must remain both Jewish and democratic. They also shared a common vision about Israel’s place in the world. Mr. Ben-Gurion frequently employed the biblical phrase about Israel being “a light unto the nations.” Mr. Jabotinsky’s most prized quality was “hadar,” dignity.

Mr. Netanyahu is incapable of holding the moral high ground at either the personal or the political level. At home he faces a pending criminal indictment for corruption. Abroad, he projects the image of a militaristic and increasingly authoritarian state. His recent success at the polls is not a victory for the Revisionist vision of the state. It is a victory for darker and more sinister forces that could end up by jeopardizing the entire Zionist project.

David Ben-Gurion is turning in his grave. And so is Zeev Jabotinsky.

Avi Shlaim is an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University and the author of “The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.”

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