Why Liberal Zionism is now an oxymoron: Confessions of a former Liberal Zionist

I used to consider myself a staunch Zionist. I thought the creation of Israel was a necessary good. Necessary, because the Holocaust demonstrated that anti-Semitism was entrenched part of the world, even in an advanced industrialised country with a strong liberal tradition like Germany. And good, because Israel has become an immensely successful country, with a flourishing economy, strong tech sector, religious tolerance, liberal democracy, and even great food. Against the odds, Israel has overcome overwhelming opposition to its existence from throughout the region. It has won almost every war it has fought. Now, it is more secure than ever. Netanyahu says Israel is here to stay. And no one doubts him.

In recent years, Israeli politics has taken a rightward turn, and understandably so. Peace talks have stalled, with most Israelis blaming a hopelessly corrupt and intransigent Palestinian leadership. Hamas is the undisputed leadership in the Gaza strip, and will remain so for the foreseeable future despite the ruinous effects of Israel and Egypt’s blockade. Hezbollah remains a permanent feature of the Lebanese political and military landscape. Despite Rouhani’s attempts at rapprochement, Iran is as belligerent as ever; Khamenei and the Guardian Council remain utterly hostile to Israel, and will increase in wealth and influence due to the West’s lifting of sanctions and unfreezing of assets. Geopolitically, the only good news is the demise of ISIS. This has benefited the centre-right Likud, as well as smaller rightwing parties; the religious ones have also benefited from the relative increase in the ultra-Orthodox population.

So I accept why Israelis feel the way they do. While I’ve long been critical of aspects of Israeli policy, I thought Israel had the moral high ground due to the wider security situation in the Middle East. But now, I don’t think it’s possible to say either side has the moral high ground, assuming morality can be a consideration in complex geopolitical conflicts (a discussion for another time). The Israeli government no longer shows any signs of a commitment to a two state solution. Lately, it has not declared where it wants the borders to be. West Bank settlements continue to expand, to change the ‘facts on the ground.’ While there occasionally are instances of Palestinian terrorism, and more frequently, violent unrest, that doesn’t justify the bizarre and cruel policy of house demolition, nor the lack of serious commitment to improving the West Bank’s infrastructure and economy. Rather than deliver the urgent reforms needed, the Israeli government’s strategy is to manage the status quo as successfully as possible, knowing the international community will grow weary of pushing for change. This has been immensely effective. Israel has better relations with the Arab world than ever. The economy is growing fast, even if there remain problems with an undereducated ultra-Orthodox population. Even many Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship, knowing that Palestinian statehood is unlikely to materialise.

But while Netanyahu may be incredibly successful, partly because of an inept and divided opposition, that doesn’t make him right. He is fundamentally a very authoritarian character, relentlessly funding Israel’s domination over what should be future Palestinian territory. He has cracked down on refugees from East Africa, refusing to acknowledge that they come from regions torn apart by war, famine and drought. For political gain, he has fostered an ethnic, exclusionary conception of Jewish nationhood, alienating non-Jewish Israelis. He is also in coalition government with far-right parties that explicitly oppose Palestinian statehood and advocate annexation of West Bank Area C.

Now none of this excuses the Palestinians’ faults. The Palestinian leadership routinely endorses violence and indoctrinates children to believe vitriolic anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic propaganda. Like the Israeli government, they have refused to define precisely the territory they want for a Palestinian state. And their proposals for East Jerusalem are unrealistic. Because it contains some of the holiest sides in Judaism, it will have to be internationally administered territory, not the exclusive preserve of Palestine. My overall point is that given Israel’s military, economic and geopolitical success, the Palestinians’ faults no longer excuses Israel’s.

Who have the moral high ground doesn’t determine likely future outcomes. In the future, the Israeli polity will be ever more conservative, caused by the occasional outburst of Palestinian terror and the failures of the peace process. Gaza will remain desperately poor as long as Hamas remain in charge. And no agreement will be made on the West Bank; the settlements’ rapid growth and surprisingly low Palestinian birth rate will continue to complicate matters. A usual Epicurean call for moderation is my conclusion, though it seems utterly futile in regards to this issue.

  • It is interesting to understand where you started from regard to Israel, Owen, and how your thoughts have evolved. Although not Jewish myself I have been a member of two liberal Jewish organizations in America, which has given me a bit of an insight into another, seldom referred to, Jewish point of view, which is one of anger and dismay that Israel has been taken over by illiberal RussianJews and extreme religious groups who enjoy the good things Israel can offer but who do nothing except pray. The worst of it is that the government party has become, allegedly, very corrupt from Netanyahu and his wife downwards. This is not what (mainly) young and educated people want ( in the US anyway) and is regarded as a betrayal of an ideal. And I haven’t even mentioned the Palestinians. Just to state all this is to invite vitriolic comments, so that even free sleech is endangered. As Trump would say, “ Shame!”