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Fear of Palestinian majority drives attacks on single democratic state

For those who always saw a so-called two-state solution as a means of preserving Israel as a ‘Jewish and democratic’ ethno-state, goodbye is the hardest word to say.

As the Israeli government consolidates a de facto, single state that all its predecessors since 1967 helped forge, those urging ‘separation’ from the Palestinians are sounding desperate – especially in their attacks on calls for a single democratic state, to replace today’s apartheid status quo.

Three op-eds recently published by Israeli newspaper Haaretz in the space of a week are a case in point – and they all share something in common: fear of a Palestinian majority.

On 11 January, Haaretz columnist David Rosenberg lashed out at the idea of one democratic state, which he described as “no solution at all”. The “Palestinian version” of a single state “sounds appealing to Western ears”, Rosenberg acknowledges, “a country where everyone has equal rights”.

“But”, he continued, “behind that lovely vision is the expectation that demographic trends would soon lead to a Palestinian majority”, adding that this “would certainly be the case if the new state allows even a limited Palestinian right of return”. Tellingly, however, Rosenberg does not clarify why a Palestinian majority undermines the ‘lovely vision’ of a democratic state. It’s just assumed.

In a piece published by Haaretz the same day, Eric H. Yoffie, American rabbi and former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, slammed what he called “dangerous” calls for a single state from both “the Jewish hard right and the Jewish hard left”.

Here, Yoffie disingenuously lumped together, on the one hand, the vision of a formally and proudly apartheid single state proposed by those on the pro-annexation Israeli right, and on the other hand, those advocating a solution shaped by the principles of civic self-determination and equality.

Opposition to the former is a given. But what’s so terrible about the latter? Because it would mean an end to “the Jewish state of Israel” (my emphasis) through the “unification of two hostile cultures”. For Yoffie, there is no possibility of a democratic single state: “the Jewish minority in Israel/Palestine [will be subjected] to chaos, powerlessness, and eternal civil war”.

A few days later, meanwhile, yet another op-ed, this time by Hebrew University-based academic Gadi Taub, warned that “the option of a non-Jewish democracy is purely theoretical”.

In reality, “an Arab majority” means “an Arab government”, Taub wrote, “which according to a relatively optimistic forecast would resemble the corrupt dictatorship of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas” but would probably “be much worse, something like the Hamas regime in Gaza”.

Rosenberg, Yoffie and Taub are not alone in viewing a Palestinian majority as an apocalyptic prospect – it is an anxiety that animates many an advocate of ‘separation’; as former Labour and Meretz politician Yossi Beilin put it in 2012: “I want a Jewish majority in [Israel] forever. If there is no line between us and them there will be a Jewish minority controlling a Palestinian majority”.

Or take Amos Oz, also writing in Haaretz, in 2015: “If there will be one state here, it will be an Arab state, from the sea to the Jordan River. If there will be an Arab state here, I don’t envy my children and my grandchildren”. Again, Oz feels no need to explain why this would be so terrible.

Such attacks on the vision of a single democratic state betray an inability to decouple self-determination and ethnic statehood, and, to put it bluntly, racism: Palestinians, or just ‘Arabs’, are deemed intrinsically incapable of democracy.

The echoes of white South Africans’ fears before the end of the apartheid regime are clear, and instructive. There, the argument that self-determination (for whites) necessitated domination ultimately lost, because it was both unsustainable and deemed morally unacceptable internationally.

In 2007, Israeli demographer Arnon Soffer told The Guardian: “We have to do everything to keep Israel as a Jewish state…They [Palestinians] use words like ‘democracy’, but if they are in power, it is the end of democracy. We have to stop being naïve”.

As discussion of, and calls for, a single democratic state grow, this kind of apologia for the status quo will be heard more often. But then Israel’s political class will be in the situation they have always feared, and are ill-equipped to deal with: a globalised struggle of apartheid vs. democracy.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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