The two state-solution in Israel-Palestine is dead, and its erstwhile champions—liberal Zionists and foreign diplomats, mainly—are clinging to an obsolete political program, leaving the field wide open to the Israeli right and far-right to shape reality as they please.
These forces have already been shaping reality for a while, entrenching the military occupation and inextricably integrating the settlement enterprise in the occupied West Bank with the economy and society of Israel proper. There's no way now to deconstruct the settlement project without sending cracks running throughout Israel within its pre-1967 borders. To this extent, the liberal Zionist vision of partition has been outmanoeuvred and defeated by its opponents.
But liberal Zionism has also fallen victim to its internal contradictions and double standards. It's a cardinal flaw and original sin: convincing itself that the cataclysm of 1948, when Israel's nation-state was entrenched through widespread and systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, can be sidestepped by tidying up one of its aftershocks, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, by creating a Palestinian state on a mere 22% of historic Palestine's territory.
The Israeli right, meanwhile, has always insisted that the Palestinians' fundamental contention was with the existence of Israel as established in 1948. While undoing 1948 is unthinkable and compromising merely on 1967 wouldn't solve the problem, successive right-wing governments opted to contain the consequences, doing their utmost to strengthen the Israeli presence and the military's control between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Such governments have been in power in Israel from 1977 until today, with only minor interludes. The price of this kind of conflict management is there for all to see—in more than five decades of harrowing headlines, photographs, and statistics. But worse may be to come: As the postwar liberal world order cracks at the seams and new bars for violence (Syria) and brazen expansionism (Crimea) are set, the tantalising prospect of finishing the job begun in 1948 by means of formally annexing the occupied territories and expelling all or most of their Palestinian inhabitants is mesmerising to many on the Israeli right.
There's little doubt if former US President Donald Trump had won a second term, the annexation of at least part of the West Bank would have begun in earnest. Although talk of mass ethnic cleansing (in polite right-wing circles, the preferred Orwellian term is "transfer") is still relegated to a relatively small minority of even today's hardened Israeli right, it's all too easy to see the practice would be applied if Palestinians offered significant resistance.
The steadily worsening status quo can go one of two ways: either annexation with reduced rights for Palestinians—a formalised apartheid—or a rapid descent into horrific violence on a scale not seen since 1967 or even 1948. The only path liberal Zionism has to offer, meanwhile, is a return to the Oslo process of the early 1990s—in other words, time travel. If it is to survive, it urgently needs to offer a path forward.
This bleak (but all-too-convincing) reading of today's reality and the vivid (but less convincing) suggestion for a way forward bookend Omri Boehm's Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel—named after the city that, in Boehm's mind, enjoys the kind of Palestinian-Jewish coexistence he'd like to see across the land.
Assuming there's any future, or practical value, in resuscitating liberal Zionism after more than two decades of consistent electoral failure in Israel and increased polarisation in diaspora communities, this is the most honest and ambitious liberal Zionist text to be published in decades.
It is certainly a world apart from the overrated 2014 opus by Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which acknowledges the Nakba while actively endorsing its rewards. ("If it wasn't for them," Shavit writes of Israeli troops who ordered and carried out massacres and expulsions, "I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, me, my daughter, and my sons to live.").
But despite Boehm's best efforts, the policy proposal he presents is a model that disintegrates as soon as one peels away the buzz of spending a day in Haifa's pleasantly bilingual city centre.
Before getting to Haifa, however, Boehm revisits Oslo—not the city but the abortive two-state process of the 1990s, which still frames how many observers view the conflict today. The opening chapters elegantly and swiftly dispense with this tainted prism.
The list of things Boehm gets right is long: He is correct that the two-state solution is well and truly dead and that mass ethnic cleansing is metastasising from a fever dream to a tangible possibility. He is entirely correct that the "peace camp" elevated one particular approach—two states—to a kind of religion and has undermined itself by superstitiously refusing to explore any other resolution, even as the feasibility of the two-state plan withers away.
He is correct that the foundational traumas of both communities—the Holocaust and the Nakba—need to be confronted by Palestinians and Israelis, respectively, not because the two events are symmetrical or identical but because the trauma they engendered in each community is too fundamental to keep stoking, whether deliberately or by ignorance.
He is correct that to make a binational arrangement palatable to Israelis, it would need to be plausibly Zionist in some shape or form, and what would today be recognised as binationalism has a long history in Zionist thought, from Theodor Herzl himself all the way to Menachem Begin, the first revisionist Zionist prime minister and the progenitor of the Israeli right we know today—who suggested offering Palestinians full citizenship as late as 1980.
Boehm overstates the present-day importance of these roads not taken and, in Begin's case, the good faith they were entertained in. But he is largely correct that making the same offer to Palestinians today would be a non-starter because Israel is now defined as the ethnic state of the Jewish people, not a Jewish nation-state in the European sense. A Palestinian immigrant to Italy might become Italian, but even a Palestinian with an Israeli passport will never become part of the group for whom the state exists. (This has been made all the more explicit with the 2018 passage of the "Jewish Nation-State Law," which openly prioritised one community over another, but in practice, this has always been the case.)
Indeed, as Boehm points out, many people who identify as Jewish are also excluded or discriminated against, beginning with children of mixed marriages and those who convert to Judaism through any avenue other than Orthodox.
The book's real troubles commence when Boehm starts to grasp for a solution—beginning with the rather limited parameters he sets. Without much explanation or consideration of alternatives, he appears to take for granted that liberal Zionism and liberal democracy are each desirable in their own right and should be reconciled. Much of the book is preoccupied with saving liberal Zionism from itself (by offering it a vision compatible with its values and transcending the expired two-state solution) and rescuing liberal democracy from nationalism by creating two overlapping liberal, one-person, one-vote democracies entwined in a confederation.
Unfortunately, the book does not ask if, perhaps, liberal Zionism is such a spent force that it now only has an auxiliary role to play, with the actual compromising and state-building more likely to be carried on by each community's nationalist advocates, or if, indeed, the ideal of liberal democracy is remotely up to the task of transforming a convoluted ethnonationalist conflict—especially with pragmatic alternatives like consociational power-sharing yet to be seriously explored.
In the service of this project he—like others before him—summons the ghosts of binationalists, especially of the pre-state era, from Ahad Haam and Martin Buber to Zeev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion in their earlier years. Boehm spends some time asserting this Zionism of yore, with its express preference for Jewish self-determination over exclusive Jewish sovereignty, is somehow the true form of Zionism while everything that followed is a regrettable and—somehow—reversible deviation. But he spends no time at all explaining why any Israeli today would care about Ahad Haam or pre-premiership Ben-Gurion—or indeed choose the Zionism that failed to materialise over the one that triumphed and has shaped the only Israel they have ever known.
There are two more important omissions in the book, both glaring and alarming. The first is a serious exploration of who the communities entangled in the conflict are, and what they desire. Rather than the monolithic question of what (dwindling) percentage of each community supports a two-state solution, Boehm omits how the different subgroups that compose the two national communities are invested in the various aspects and mechanisms of the status quo—materially, politically, culturally, and even emotionally—as well as how each of those needs can be engaged to forestall further segregation or ethnic cleansing.
Apart from an examination of Palestinian politician and Israeli parliamentarian Ahmad Tibi's admittedly landmark speech acknowledging the trauma of the Holocaust, Palestinian voices are absent from the book. Granted, the book's subtitle is "A Democratic Future for Israel," but this hardly lends gravitas to Boehm's consideration of a shared future, certainly a future shared among equals. And there is no exploration of how to win over, or even defeat, the players Boehm identifies as spoilers, be they Palestinian militants or Israeli ultra-nationalists—the groups that managed to derail the peace process even before they seized power across most of the territory between the river and the sea.
The arrangement Boehm desires will need to be negotiated, it seems, between centre-left leaders of a resurgent liberal Zionist camp and something like the Palestine Liberation Organisation—in other words, a parity not seen in Israel-Palestine since the 1990s. Ironic, considering Boehm's castigation of today's liberal Zionists for clinging to a departed past.
A more serious flaw still is the failure to articulate a compelling reason for Israelis to entertain a departure from the status quo. Israel is currently more secure, more stable, and more prosperous than at any point in its history.
No standing army menaces its borders; Iran, by and large, is successfully contained; Gulf Arab leadership is rapidly abandoning the Palestinian cause altogether; and contrary to warnings that the world will not stand for an unending military occupation, no external pressure has yet been applied or even entertained by a meaningful player. (If anything, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have successfully demonstrated that the international community won't be provoked into action by violations of international law even graver than Israel's occupation, of which the Israeli right has duly taken note.)
Palestinian armed movements have been debilitated or wiped out, and even Hamas's rocket arsenal is used to jostle for inches around the status quo, not as a strategic game-changer. Nonviolent Palestinian organisations—from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian National Authority to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement—have not managed to put a dent in Israel's comfortable hegemony. The same is true of Europe and the United States.
Boehm is asking for this hegemony to be given up but never articulates a way Israel can be coaxed or coerced to do so. The only motivation the book implies for Israelis to fix a machine that, for them, is already working perfectly appears to be a moral one—a national crisis of conscience about present injustices or apprehension about worse injustices to come.
Israel's ever-growing indifference to Palestinian lives suggests the likelihood of such a moral reckoning is slim. As for the latter, while Boehm is right that a second Nakba may be on the horizon, Israelis collectively recoiling at the prospect is not a given. The first generation of Israelis accepted the Nakba in real-time, and then quietly buried it. The present generation exhumed it, inspected it in the light, and is in the process—as Shavit's book did—of re-embedding it even in liberal national narratives as a somewhat regrettable but necessary evil.
Boehm's take on the Nakba is a significant improvement; he stresses the Israeli need to acknowledge the Nakba to defuse its immense emotional charge. But this utilitarian approach—the promise that once Israel duly acknowledges the Nakba and embeds it into the state's national narrative, Palestinians can be persuaded to let go—is not a call, or even a demand, any Israeli can make. Acknowledging the deed is a start; where to go from there depends, first and foremost (even if not exclusively) on the survivors. More than anywhere else in the book, this is where its unilateralism jars the most.
The book concludes with a back-of-the-napkin solution that, despite lending its title to the book, reads almost as an afterthought. Haifa is quickly sketched as a model of coexistence to aspire to, but little consideration is given to the fact that this coexistence is between a roughly 90% majority and a 10% minority—a vastly different power dynamic with far lower stakes for Jewish Israelis than the almost 50-50 parity in Israel-Palestine as a whole. Nor does it consider the fact that since 1948 and its expulsions, Haifa never had an Arab mayor and considerable socioeconomic gaps between the two populations (beyond a commendable but thin and fragile middle class) exist.
If one were to take Boehm's analogy literally, it's quite plausible Israel would tolerate a 10% Palestinian minority that can freely move anywhere, provided they are barred access to the executive office. But that's barely worth founding a new republic for. Boehm caveats his idealised sketch of Haifa by acknowledging this cohabitation is far from equal; however, without a deeper exploration of what brought about this state of affairs, its political and historical importance is difficult to ascertain.
In fairness to Boehm, this is not at all what he is calling for. His pitch is a confederation of two local governments with separate parliaments ruling over members of their ethnic groups and territorial heartlands while allowing for complete freedom of movement across the space. Unlike groups such as A Land for All, which similarly argues for a confederation, Boehm doesn't grapple with the myriad logistical issues this brings up, from criminal law and taxation to even loftier questions—like accountability for violence enacted during the conflict.
There's no elaboration when it comes to why some institutions would need to be doubled (two parliaments) but others kept joint (the Supreme Court), and it's unclear how a shared identity—which he mentions—is supposed to emerge from a tangled model that segregates some of the most important arenas where political identities can be forged, such as the electoral process. He notes that many two-state scenarios are similarly vague, but demolishing the two-state program only to offer an equally half-baked solution is not a satisfying—or practical—conclusion.
Still, Boehm's book is worth reading—and lending to anyone who believes the two-state solution still lurks just around the corner. It is the most clear-eyed liberal Zionist text in many years, albeit not clear-eyed enough to admit itself a swan song. Perhaps unintentionally, it shows that achieving equality and national sovereignty while trying to straddle both ethnic nationalism and liberal democracy is a fool's errand, however whimsically you rearrange the pieces on the board. But it's not bold enough to change the game completely.
Dimi Reider is an Israeli journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, Haaretz, and the New Statesman, among others. Twitter: @reider
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.