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The Real Existential Threat Facing Israel

Jonathan FreedlandFilmed at Jewish Book Week 2013

It's often said that Israel faces "an existential threat", the phrase usually used to refer to the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.  Without dismissing that fear, here I look at what I regard as the far greater threat to Israel's existence - the country's apparently permanent grip on the territories it gained in the year of my birth, 1967.

Jonathan Freedland writes a weekly column for The Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Times and the New York Review of Books and presents BBC Radio 4′s contemporary history series The Long View. He was named Columnist of the Year in the 2002 and writes thrillers under the nom de plume of Sam Bourne.

I need to talk today about a bitter and ancient rivalry that pits two tribes against each other locking them in a fierce permanent enmity that seems to enlist generation after generation in hatred and loathing – but I’m sure you’ve thought enough about the Arsenal/Spurs match so we will talk about something else! The billing for JDOV is the Jewish talk of our lives and this is meant to be the Jewish talk of my life and in a way it is, in two ways actually. The first is that the issue I am going to talk about is one I have written about, reported on and truth be told cared about for all of my adult life. Second it relates to a situation that has persisted literally throughout my life because I was born in 1967 and the relevance of that will become very clear I hope. I should also say that I am making an assumption about all of you, I am assuming most people here want Israel not only to survive but also to thrive, not only to have a right to exist which is the usual formulation, but also to flourish, I’m guessing that like me many of you will have strong family ties to the country and that you somehow even if you don’t have family ties, you feel bound up with its fate, so that is my starting assumption. The title refers to the real existential threat to Israel and that phrase ‘existential threat’ particularly in the last few years has been banded around a lot. Usually it’s understood to be a threat to the very existence of the state of Israel and usually it’s applied particularly by the Prime Minister of Israel to a nuclear armed Iran and I don’t mean to play down that threat when I say the possibility and threat of a nuclear Iran is the potential threat, could happen but it’s potential, the existential threat I have in mind today is real, current and not theoretical in any way at all. It is not a new argument I’m going to be or am making but it has become more urgent than ever, although some will say is already too late. To frame it and make it clear we have to begin with asking ourselves, what was the purpose of this country called Israel, unusual in the family of nations for being created deliberately in an act of political will. So what was the purpose ? In a way the word to use here is the dream, the D is the three initials – DOV the dream of those first Zionists, was quite simple, it was the self-determination of the Jewish people and that meant creating a national home where the people would rule themselves, a state in other words which is both Jewish and democratic, that was that founding Zionist dream, and it was understood by them that if you were to take away either part of that equation, the Jewish bit or the democratic bit that the dream would evaporate that the project would fail, so that was their starting point. The observation I’m going to make, the O of JDOV is that that combination has been under threat for at least four decades, in fact for my entire life time. The numbers are very hard to come by and are very disputed but the bottom line is that Israel currently determines the lives directly or indirectly of about 5.5 million Palestinian Arabs in the territory of what used to be called historic Palestine, between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean sea, the land that people call and refer to as historic Palestine. The number of Jews in exactly that same territory is roughly there about 5.9 million. These two numbers are very close together, they may be closer than the number I said, some people say they are more or less equal and certainly the trend is for these two numbers to be converging, that is in the territory of Israel proper, the West Bank and Gaza take them together and I include Gaza there because despite the withdrawal in 2005 Israel has control of who and what goes in and who and what comes out, has control of the air space, the seas , the waters and de factor control of the borders such as they are. In the West Bank the point is more obvious nearly two and a half million Palestinians live there and they have no democratic say over those who ultimately determine their lives not the Palestinian Authority, which is Israel. Now Israel is confronted with a choice, if it a democracy, it should obviously give everybody under its authority a say and a vote. The trouble is, if that happens the state will no longer be Jewish, you’ve seen the numbers it’ll be a bi national state, in fact the way the numbers are going very likely to sooner or later be an Arab state with a Jewish minority. On the other hand if it wants to be Jewish it means denying those people a vote indefinitely and then it won’t be democratic, the other half of this equation, it’ll be a state where one half rules another half and eventually the numbers will change and you may have a state where the minority are ruling a majority, that’s why 2 Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have both warned that there is a possibility perhaps imminent of a South Africa style situation, their words not mine, in fact I don’t intend to make that parallel myself, means you get into a debate about the words, labels, rather than substance itself. But when two Prime Ministers, more on the dove-ish left are saying that, then we should listen. Moreover, this is not some remote far off that in the distant future, this headline is from this morning’s yediot achronot newspaper ‘Ministry launches Palestinians only buses, the transportation ministry of Israel sets up designated bus lines for Palestinian passengers in the West Bank’ and it then quotes a bus driver “from what we were told starting next week, there will be checks at the check point and Palestinians will be asked to board their own buses”’ separate buses for Palestinians, separate buses for Jews, today’s newspaper. The driver then says to Yediot “Obviously everyone will start screaming apartheid and racism now”. Well they will and that is part of this existential threat too, because if Israel becomes a pariah nation the world won’t tolerate that. We’ve got to experience that and we know that. It’s a moral threat too, I don’t pretend that all the first Zionists wanted Israel to be a moral state for some it’s enough to just be a normal state like everyone else, but all occupations do corrode the morality of the occupier. This penny often drops with the politicians after they leave office before, not before, the two I mentioned are examples, the latest is Dan Meridor,the minister in charge of the existential threat that’s usually talked about, the atomic threat of Iran who says “ if we continue in the same path we are on today, without clear borders in the end we will have one state, from Jordan to the sea and this in my eyes represents a threat to the entire Zionist vision” that’s a Likud minister, a Likud prince in fact he was always known as, it’s not that complicated, you can either hold the territories Israel won in the year of my birth 1967, or you can be a Jewish democratic state but you can’t be both. It does seem as a kind of act of madness, collective madness because Israel after 1949 after the War of Independence was done, after the armistice lines were settled had 78% of this territory historic Palestine, originally it was going to be 50/50 but Israel ended up after the war that the neighbors started with 78% and the situation now is that 78% is being risked because of the desire to have 100%, for the sake of that extra 22% Israel could lose the whole thing and that is why even recently Ehud Olmert warned, there could be just ten years left, he wasn’t saying ten years left for a two state solution, he was saying ten years left for Israel itself. That’s the warning. That’s why you see even avowed Zionist Thomas Freedman in the New York Times and Geoffrey Goldberg a good eminent Israeli American journalist talking about self – destruction or in Freedman’s words saying Israel is on a ‘course of national suicide’. Now I know the counter argument to all these, that there’s no partner on the other side, and I would say to that that Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad may not about to be the elected chairs of the Hadassah organisation, but they’re about as moderate representatives as you’re going to get. But behind that question is an assumption that somehow a Palestinian state is a reward to the Palestinians for good behaviour, that we would be doing them the favour in the Israeli narrative. But once you realise that it’s actually in Israel’s own existential interest to make sure that this land is partitioned as it was always meant to be, once you realise it is in Israel’s own interest to end this permanent grip of the West Bank then actually you stop thinking of it as a favour to the other side and you start thinking this is something that Israel needs to do for its own sake urgently if there is to be an Israel left. Some would say it’s only temporary, this will all be sorted out and this occupation is only a temporary thing. When something is as old as I am, a 46 year long occupation, twice as long as Israel was without those territories, then it becomes hard to call it temporary. Some will say we need that territory for security reasons, military purposes and I would say about that that no military threat is as potent as this one to the very existence of Israel as a Jewish democratic state. Those external threats can be dealt with but this one is existential and when people say it will be a terror state on the border, that’s always a possibility you cannot give guarantees about that, there is a world of difference dealing with an external threat from behind an internationally accepted border. Israel is in this unique situation in the world , where it still has no internationally recognised borders. Some people on the left will come the other way and say well alright what’s the worst that can happen it will be a binational state. My answer is if the Czechs and the Slovaks couldn’t manage it, if they couldn’t live in one shared national home, then how could we expect two nations still bitterly locked every day in conflict to manage it. Put simply if these two couldn’t divorce, why on earth would we expect them to get married and that is what the possibility of a binational state should be. So what should we all do? What is the V, the vision in JDOV? My view is that the last piece in this jigsaw that has never been seen, the voice that hasn’t been heard, belongs to us, the Jewish diaspora. We have not yet spoken about this. Israel claims and always says it acts and speaks in the name of the whole Jewish people, well the diaspora now has to make clear, I think, that it stands with Israel that it will always be there to defend Israel, but that it can no longer defend this permanent grip of those territories which threaten the state of Israel’s own existence. If I am right then Israel’s very existence is at stake. But if Howard Jacobson the novelist, who has already been referred to, is right, that Israel represents somehow a version of ourselves, then this whole issue is existential for us too, and that’s why my vision is that after years of thinking about it and talking about it, we will finally act. Many thanks.

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