A conversation with Israeli intellectual Gadi Taub on the Left, the privileges of victimhood, and Palestine’s One State end game.
The two-state solution is flatlining. The Palestinian government called time of death immediately following President Donald Trump’s decision to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Saeb Erekat, Fatah’s top negotiator, told Haaretz that “the two-state solution is over” and that the Palestinian Authority will begin to pursue a solution of one state with equal rights to all. Even before Trump’s announcement, Fatah officials were quick to dispense morbid metaphors, warning that the embassy move would be a “lethal death blow” and a “kiss of death” to the peace process.
For the moment, let’s not concern ourselves with the fact that each of these proclamations came with implicit (and not so implicit) threats of violence. Prima facie, the message is that Trump’s recklessness forces The Palestinian Authority to recalibrate its strategy in regards to Israel. The PA is compelled to recognize, in other words, that all its efforts towards a two-state solution have been thwarted, and that only a one-state option remains.
Gadi Taub must have gotten a good chuckle out of this.
Taub is a professor of history and media at The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and a monstrously prolific writer (books, columns, TV shows). This Jerusalem-born word monger deploys a soft and disarmingly warm demeanor to make arguments that tend to turn faces red with indignation.
“It’s generally assumed that the Palestinians want to end the occupation,” Taub told me over Skype, “but it’s patently not true. We have tried to end the occupation, we have tried to sign deals—and the Palestinians have consistently refused.”
Taub insists that disagreement on core issues, like the right of return of Palestinian refugees into Israel and the status of Jerusalem, isn’t so much the reason peace talks have failed for decades, but the excuse. The real reason lies elsewhere.
In 2005, despite the uproar among his constituency, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the folding back of all Jewish settlements from within the Gaza strip. Families were uprooted, properties were destroyed. Sharon gambled his entire political capital on a unilateral withdrawal, creating an opportunity for a self-sufficient Palestinian sovereignty.
In 2006 the Palestinians in Gaza held their first elections: Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas’ secular-nationalist party and the political face of the PLO, had been trounced by the militant, eschatologically-minded Hamas. In the months that followed, Hamas embarked on a purge: Fatah offices were ransacked, its leadership arrested and executed. Surviving members fled to the West Bank, where the PLO still runs the Palestinian Authority. These events, according to Taub, have reshaped Abbas’ strategy in relation to Israel.
“Mahmoud Abbas knows that if he signs a deal with Israel,” said Taub, “he is going to be slaughtered like the Fatah in Gaza. The ironic result is that the whole Palestinian Authority now rests on Israeli weapons and Israeli strength protecting it from Hamas. They will not let us out of there.”
What’s more, argued Taub, Abbas holds this line at the expense of his own people’s hope for independence.
“The Palestinian Authority isn’t that sensitive to what its population wants or thinks. It treats its population in a very high-handed way. The PA’s real concern with its own people’s opinion is only in how far it has drifted towards Hamas. This really scares them.”
But there is another reason, according to Taub, keeping Abbas unmotivated to pursue independence: He has grown addicted to what Taub calls “the privileges of victimhood.” These “privileges” include extensive foreign aid and international sympathy from outside and a politically lucrative rallying call from within. Independence would require the PA to give up on all that and to take responsibility over its own economy, security, and the welfare of its people.
“This seems to me something Abbas is clearly trying to avoid,” said Taub. “If you want to sum up the last 25 years, you could say that Israel’s center and left-wing governments have tried to impose a state on the Palestinians—and failed.”
Separation, not peace
Taub is not loved by the Israeli Left, and the feeling is mutual. Labelling himself a “radical centrist,” Taub wears proudly any partisan repudiation thrown at him, no matter which wing it comes from. Still, he seems to reserve a special kind of rancor for The Left.** Taub worries that the Israeli intelligentsia, struggling with its own feelings of guilt over the Palestinian plight, has grown desperate to find a peace partner, even where none exists. “The Left keeps talking about the Conflict in this moral tone, and it gets in the way of thinking clearly about the problems we face,” said Taub.
It’s a frustration he and I share: Too often, cold, practical reasoning gets muddled by the Left’s emotional morality, specifically its attachment to the hackneyed (and specious) dichotomy of victim and oppressor.
Taub quips (in articles and Facebook posts) how the same sermonizers who effuse self-loathing whenever an elderly Palestinian gets delayed at an Israeli checkpoint will turn a blind eye to atrocities Hamas and Fatah regularly perpetrate on their own people. It isn’t Palestinian suffering that the Left cares to soothe, says Taub, only its own conscience. “But politics is not therapy. It’s not about voicing the right position so you feel good.”
On one point, however, Taub and the Left agree: the two-state solution, or at least separation from the Palestinians, is firmly in Israel’s interest. But this isn’t (primarily) because the occupation is “morally corrosive,” as the Left’s lazier commentators are wont to repeat. What’s at stake is Israel’s very existence.
“A one state solution means that at some point the Arabs might become a majority. It means a binational state. And this, too—only in theory. In reality, it would be civil war. It would not be Switzerland, it would be Lebanon, it would be Bosnia.”
But even if, miraculously, the state didn’t collapse, it would still be the end of Israel. A one state solution guarantees a day in which Israel is no longer a Jewish home. “It will be the end of Zionism’s greatest achievement,” said Taub, “of having one place under the sky where Jews are not a minority.”
The Palestinians know this.
“If you listen to the Palestinian discourse,” said Taub, “they know their most effective weapon is demography. And they’re right. But demography is only effective if you have one state. The Palestinians are aware of the fact that if we achieve partition, Zionism will have saved itself in the long run. Abbas doesn’t care to save Zionism. And he certainly does not want to get eaten up by Hamas. So what he does is hinder the possibility of an agreement by persistently demanding things that Israel cannot grant.”
By stalling, Abbas ensures that the Israeli army stays in the territories fighting against Hamas-like insurgencies, while the demographic clock keeps on ticking.
In defense of nationalism
Curiously, some on the Israeli side have recently been sounding the call for a one-state solution as well. The national-religious, far-right party The Jewish Home calls in its platform for the annexation of the disputed territories. In this process, large numbers of Palestinians would potentially have to be absorbed and nationalized. Party members tend to equivocate on whether or not nationalized Palestinians will have the right to vote, although recently at least one member, emboldened by a rightward turn in the Israeli mood, has forgone niceties and stated clearly: they will not.
The Jewish Home party and the Palestinian Authority amusingly converge in supporting the one state for two nations solution, leaving unresolved just the negligible question of who in it will have the right to vote. Put another way, Israel will have to decide whether it prefers to sacrifice its Jewish character or its Democratic regime.
Most Israelis would find both options repugnant. Taub believes they’re also untenable.
Taub touches on this in one of the most clarifying chapters in his book “What is Zionism.” Harking back to Enlightenment thought, he points to the necessary link between individual rights, self-determination, and democracy. The best (if deeply flawed) safeguard to personal rights is a democracy. But democracies are weak without a national identity, without a shared history and lore. These create a solidarity that can shield democracy against a tyrannical majority or civil war.
A Jewish-Democratic homeland, therefore, isn’t the contradiction it’s often presented as; it is in fact, according to Taub, quite probably the only realistic option Jews have for an equal existence among the nations. Preserving the Jewish nation is Israel’s primary raison d’etre, and democracy its primary guarantor.
“Our goal,” concluded Taub, “should be preserving the right of self-determination for us and also, in the long run, for the Palestinians. This can only be done through separation.”
So, if separation is Israel’s best hope, why hasn’t it been pursued unilaterally?
“Netanyahu is hostage to the Jewish Home party, which is heir to a Messianic dream of greater Israel. This dream is anchored not in realistic politics but in the will of God. As for Netanyhu himself, I think he’s hoping that eventually somehow there would be an unbreakable Jewish majority. I don’t think that’s realistic. What I would do—and this government wouldn’t—is completely freeze any settlement building and start, if not physically evacuating, then at least encouraging settlers beyond the security barrier to come back to Israel.”
But as long as Palestinian leaders seem more interested in flipping the political majority within Israel than in consolidating an independent nation-state, the idea of another broad-scale, unilateral Gaza-like settlement evacuation plan would be a tough sell to the Israeli public.
“It would be a huge national trauma. Evacuating thousands of people from their homes, basically expelling them, transferring them. And for what? Last time we did it, we got Hamas at our doorstep.”
The memory of Gaza paralyzes Abbas and invokes resentment among Israelis. Add to that the God-fervor driving the extremes on both sides, and the result is a stalemate, a disheartening Nash equilibrium keeping both sides frozen in their current position. How do we proceed from here?
“We don’t proceed. We should just stay put for now, because there is nothing to do. There’s too much uncertainty in the Middle East right now. All around us, states have collapsed, or are on the verge of collapsing. We can’t afford to lose control of the borders. And so for the foreseeable future we need to stay in the territories. The occupation itself has to continue, the army has to stay in.“
Carefully, but with a desire to trigger Taub, I mentioned the P word. What about peace?
“I don’t talk about peace,” Taub said with the faintest hint of an eyeroll. “The illusion of peace keeps us from thinking about the conflict in clear terms. Our goal should be separation. We are not here to hug anyone.”
** For more on Taub’s love-hate relationship with the Left, try his conversation with his former professor, Mark Lilla, who dedicated his latest book—The Once and Future Liberal—to Taub. And if you’re in the mood for more footnote recommendations, definitely read Lilla’s The Reckless Mind, a succinct and devastating masterpiece in the history of ideas.