How Americans Enable Israel's 'Jewish or Democratic State' Delusion

American Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro recently charged that Israel employs a double legal standard in the West Bank: one for Israelis and another for Palestinians. No one can question Shapiro’s friendship toward Israel. His worrying observation reflects the frustration of many Americans who are true friends of Israel and yet deeply concerned about its future. Their typical warning is that without a two-state solution Israel will ultimately have to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic state. They commonly refer to this as the “Israeli choice.” But they continually ignore their own, American, dilemma: Can the U.S. live with an Israeli decision that favors a Jewish state over a democratic one?

The U.S. is currently reluctant to outline the actual policy implications stemming from Ambassador Shapiro’s dire observation. Leaving this American choice unanswered nurtures the illusion held by many Israelis that a “non-democratic Jewish state” is a viable option. After all, America has denounced it only rhetorically. When this illusion evaporates, and America makes its ultimately obvious choice, Israelis will wake up to a grim reality. By then, too many settlers will reside in the heart of the West Bank, and it will be too late to achieve a two-state solution. Israel will end up a binational state, no longer able to sustain its Jewish identity.

The logic of the argument presently voiced by many Americans is simple: Since the population under current Israeli control (between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River) is divided almost equally between Jews and Palestinians, Israel cannot have it both ways. To maintain its Jewish character, Israel will have to deny voting rights to the Palestinians. It will cease being a democracy. But if it gives Palestinians voting rights, it will no longer be Jewish.

Although this argument has some currency, it is ineffectual and misleading. It is ineffectual because it mistakenly assumes that Israelis must be terrified at the prospect of losing their country’s democratic nature. And it is misleading because it incorrectly implies that Israel has the option of being a “non-democratic Jewish state.”

The reality is different. Israelis who vote for right wing and religious parties will opt for what they consider “Jewish values” when they conflict with “democratic values.” Yet, they are the ones who need to be convinced to support a two-state solution, and they are definitely not impressed with the either/or argument. When pressed against the wall, they will opt for a “non-democratic Jewish state.”

So, the urgent task of Israel’s true friends in America is to clarify why a “non-democratic Jewish state” is not a viable option, and refrain from unintentionally implying — as they do now — that it is. The task is especially relevant for American Jews who have a distinct interest in preserving Israel’s Jewish nature and whose voice holds extra credibility in Israel.

The consequences of the apparent tragic Israeli choice must be clarified before it is too late. The world will not tolerate the indefinite disenfranchisement of the Palestinians. It will insist that Israel grant them equal rights. In that sense, Israel’s fate will be no different from that of South Africa. Left with no option to achieve an independent state, the demand for equal rights in a single state will eventually become formal Palestinian policy. Europe will probably be first to support this paradigm. Ultimately, the U.S. will also join the growing global consensus.

Israel will not be able to withstand the pressure. The liberal democratic western world, on which Israel is highly dependent, may have responded sluggishly to the Palestinian demand for an independent state. This will certainly not be the case when the demand is for equal rights under the law, one of the West’s fundamental values.

Many in Israel are blind to the centrality of democratic values in the American political DNA. They do not see the day when these essential American principles will prevail over internal tactical considerations and over the Israeli government’s apparent wish to prolong the “temporary” occupation forever.

Israelis have difficulty imagining the U.S. supporting equal voting rights for the Palestinians when the two-state option ceases to exist. That truth must be delivered to them by their American friends, with their American Jewish brothers and sisters leading the way.

Isn’t it one’s duty to share such a crucial truth with a best friend?

Ambassador Avi Gil, a former Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is currently a Senior Policy Advisor for The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and a Senior Fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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