Can Israel retain its Jewish and democratic status? - opinion

My hope is that the Palestinians will recognize we are here to stay, and that when the day comes, we will have a government in a position to begin the process of finding an end to this conflict.

 HAMAS ABIDES by its charter: Graffiti depicts Hamas fighters firing rockets, in Khan Younis, May 30. (photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
HAMAS ABIDES by its charter: Graffiti depicts Hamas fighters firing rockets, in Khan Younis, May 30.
(photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)

Reading the May 19 editorial in The Jerusalem Post, “Two States” brought back memories of the late past chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Baron Immanuel Jakobovits, who served as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. The Post editorial was not far removed from the (now defunct) daily Evening Standard front page May 1991 interview with Jakobovits, where he spoke out against Israel fighting to hold on to the disputed Arab territories. 

He said that Jewish law required that the Israelis should leave much of the West Bank. He believed that trying to rule over the Palestinians would lead to the destruction of Judaism. Jakobovits was taken to task by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, as well as by leading members of the community.

The Jerusalem Post editorial made me think back to how my own views have evolved since living in Israel. In my former Diaspora life, I chaired the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) UK, and then the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. During those years, 1981 to 1994, I tended to view Israel as a country that had to be defended against all outside criticism. Yet I clearly remember viewing Jakobovits’s perception as making sense.

Growing up in the Bnei Akiva youth movement and blessed with a father who loved Israel, it is easy to comprehend that, following my first visit to Israel in 1957, I was sure this is where I wanted to be. A country where Jews were the majority seemed like perfection. 

The point that Jakobovits made was whether it was possible for Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state with a majority of Jewish citizens, while it controlled an area where the vast majority of the residents were Arabs without rights within Israel itself.

Barak, Clinton, Arafat at Camp David 311 AP (credit: AP)Barak, Clinton, Arafat at Camp David 311 AP (credit: AP)

True, it was the Palestinian leadership who turned down the opportunity of an independent Palestinian state initially in 1947, when it rejected the UN Partition Plan. This was followed by the rejection of the Clinton/Barak/Arafat negotiations in July 2000, when Arafat walked away and the Second Intifada began. Then came prime minister Ehud Olmert’s landmark concessions for peace, again rejected by the Palestinians under Mahmoud Abbas.

Today, the Palestinian leadership is divided between the West Bank and Hamas. Hamas abides by its charter to eliminate Israel, and the PA’s leader Mahmoud Abbas appears too weak to begin talks with Israel.

YET, IN spite of this, is it time for Israel to be talking about an end of conflict with our neighbors?

The Magazine sought the view of Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at King’s College London, who responded:

“In principle, of course, Jews do not seek or wish to rule over another people. Therefore the West Bank and Gaza should be ruled by Palestinians. My understanding is that Gaza is in fact ruled by Palestinians. The West Bank could either be run by Palestinians or, alternatively, Jordan itself could become a Palestinian state where 70% of its population is Palestinian. Then much if not all of the West Bank could be ceded to Jordan. 

“In 1987, Shimon Peres, as foreign affairs minister, had tried to arrange a peace agreement with King Hussein of Jordan at which Israel would transfer responsibility for the West Bank to Jordan, but this was vetoed by prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.

“But before agreeing to a separate state, Israel would need to be sure that it would not be a failed or terrorist state like Syria, Gaza or Yemen, whose problems could spill over into threatening Israel’s security. 

Also, it would be an end state, not merely a phase – the second part of which would be the elimination of Israel from the river to the sea. Therefore, the Palestinians would have to accept that all causes of conflict had been resolved. I believe this is what Arafat refused to do in 2000.

If these two conditions could be met, I believe that the majority of Israelis would accept a two-state solution. But these conditions seem not to be available now.”

“If these two conditions could be met, I believe that the majority of Israelis would accept a two-state solution. But these conditions seem not to be available now.”

Vernon Bogdanor

THE QUESTION is: If the conditions were available, would we have a government in a position to talk about an end to the conflict? Currently, we possess a government that embraces right, left and center which, against all odds, has survived virtually one year. 

It is the first government in Israel that includes Ra’am, an Arab party, whose leader Mansour Abbas states categorically that he recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. For sure this is good news, as is the fact that the Arabs, who make up 21% of the population, have representation in our government. 

Our Arab cousins are an important factor contributing to the country by holding prestigious positions throughout Israeli society. Our health system would have difficulty surviving without their input.

The current government is also the first that was able to pass a budget following three years, prior to its election, when the country was forced to operate without a budget. Yet because of its disparate ideological views, the government cannot make any decision that might result in its fall.

Historically, Israel’s proportional representation electoral system, with its low threshold of 3.25%, time and again results in a government where the majority is ruled by the minority. Surely, the time has come to think seriously about increasing the threshold. While we may never become a two-party country, at least we will reduce considerably the usual 40+ parties that vie to enter our parliament.

Back to the beginning, recalling Jakobovits’s view and why I identified with it then, and even more so today. I came to Israel because it is a Jewish country where I would no longer be part of a minority, but part of the majority. I came here because I knew it was the place where it is okay to be Jewish; a place where religious or not, you know when it is Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. A place where, religious or not, you know it is Yom Kippur, when the roads are empty and a feeling of quiet, peace and holiness encompasses us all. Jakobovits wanted to ensure that the one and only Jewish state retained a Jewish majority, together with being a democracy.

My hope is that one day the Palestinians will recognize we are here to stay, and that when the day comes, we will have a government in a position to begin the process of finding an end to this conflict. 

The writer is chairperson of Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association. She is also public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society. The views expressed are hers alone.