The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace at Last
By Bernard Avishai
Harcourt, 304 pages, $26.
The old adage notwithstanding, everyone judges a book by its cover. When the cover features a subtitle that promises to tell us how lasting peace can be achieved for Israel, the skeptical reader can be forgiven for thinking that the author — or the author’s publisher — has overreached. All the more so if the author is Bernard Avishai, a sympathetic yet pointed critic of Israeli society and politics.
Avishai’s “The Tragedy of Zionism” argued in 1986 that Israel’s “Jewish democracy” was not truly democratic, precisely because the institutions that were created to ensure the state’s Jewish character now served the undemocratic purpose of furthering Jews’ interests at the expense of the state’s Arab citizens. “The Hebrew Republic” updates this earlier critique and spells out, as the subtitle indicates, Avishai’s belief that secular democracy and global enterprise will bring Israel peace and prosperity. The critique is spot-on, and the analysis of why secular democracy and Israel’s deepening integration into the global market will be beneficial is intriguing. But the discussion of how to bring about this state of affairs is disappointingly thin, undermining the subtitle’s assertion of inevitability. As clear as the why might be, the how remains, alas, out of reach.
Avishai provides an excellent dissection of how the basic structure of the state’s institutions and laws cast Israeli Arabs as second-class citizens, which feeds a growing resentment among this burgeoning portion of Israel’s population. For example, segregated settlements and unequal access to land are rooted in pre-state Zionist efforts to concentrate land in Jewish hands, policies that have survived to this day.
Avishai also shows masterfully how these same institutions and laws fostered the emergence of the national-religious right and the Haredi community as outsize political forces. These are the groups that most strenuously oppose equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens and are the most resistant to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. In discussing the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which are increasingly seen as the greatest obstacle to peace, Avishai writes “to focus on the settlers’ post-’67 fanaticism is to evade the implications of Israel’s most enduring consensus.” That is, the same institutions and laws that privilege Jewish landholding over Arab claims were applied to the captured territories after the Six Day War.
In time, however, the various groups that Avishai identifies as Israel’s political center have come to see a two-state solution as a pressing need in order to stave off the coming Arab majority in de facto Greater Israel. In a very apt formulation, Avishai notes that the center is caught between paradigms of Munich and South Africa: On one hand, it fears that negotiations with the Palestinians will end in a disastrous appeasement; on the other hand, it recognizes that Israel’s continuing control of the territories is uncomfortably coming to resemble apartheid.
Given this piercing critique of the status quo, what does the author prescribe? Avishai proposes the creation of a secular democracy that he calls the Hebrew Republic. The republic would be a recasting of the entire framework of the state, which would give Israeli Arabs full, meaningful citizenship and hence a stake in a real Israeli democracy. At the same time, it would undercut the political influence of the religious political parties that perpetuate the internal inequalities between Jew and non-Jew and have gridlocked the peace process.
Specifically, the republic would have fixed borders that would be the result of a process of demilitarization, a freeze on settlements and land exchanges in cases where settlers could not be moved. East Jerusalem would be the Palestinian capital and West Jerusalem the Israeli capital, with Israel’s security guaranteed by NATO forces. Israel would have a constitution with a bill of rights “guaranteeing all of its citizens an impartial state apparatus,” Israeli nationality would be recognized as the only civil status, and the Law of Return would be replaced by immigration laws more consistent with those of European nations. The state would guarantee equality of property rights and reduce the status of such quasi-governmental institutions as the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund. It would “retain its national symbols and anthem, but also add to them so that all citizens might more easily identify with the state.” State and religion would be separate. Hebrew would be the national language, but all children would learn Arabic and English from first grade on. Avishai argues that these changes are not remarkable: They merely bring Israel up to European standards.
Avishai maintains that Israel’s traditional us-against-the-world mentality, reinforced by institutional arrangements that ensure internal inequalities and lack of peace, stifles the major source of Israel’s economic prosperity — namely, knowledge-based enterprises integrated into the global economy. And Israel’s global knowledge entrepreneurs are exactly those who are best positioned to lead Israel to the Hebrew Republic.
This is the most interesting, novel and problematic part of Avishai’s analysis. Drawing on his extensive experience as a business consultant and professor of business, Avishai persuasively points out flaws in Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertions that the economy has thrived despite the lack of peace during the past eight years. Venture capital investment may have been hot in Israel, but investment in production, which has a more lasting impact on the economy, has been lackluster. Moreover, what Israeli high-tech businesses need to expand in a global market is good relationships with foreign businesses that can provide them with knowledge of other businesses, as well as referrals to still other businesses, so that these enterprises can capture new customers. Foreign companies have been reluctant to engage in Israel, and this is precisely because of the lack of peace. By the same token, more and more Israeli businesspeople are choosing to leave the country because the uncertain political and military climate is bad for business.
Avishai claims that both Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs envision economic union between Israel and Palestine, and with the European Union, as their best bet to create the conditions for sustained prosperity and peace. Not surprisingly, both groups are also worried about their respective brain drains, which have negative political as well as economic consequences: Support for more moderate policies erodes, extremists are emboldened and economic deprivation fuels further extremism, all in a kind of political-economic death spiral. Furthermore, the author sees the expansion of prosperity based on high-tech as fueling a demand for semi-skilled labor that will help boost the abysmal employment rates of both Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.
Some of Avishai’s insights are delightful. For example, he notes that the Israel Defense Forces’ famous culture of “egalitarianism, presumptuousness, restless ambition, impudent creativity” makes it an ideal “finishing school” for an industry that relies on innovation, creativity and team-based problem solving. Likewise, his discussion of the cultural dimensions of the Hebrew republic is admirably subtle.
Yet it is not clear exactly how the republic can be established. Entrepreneurial interests may indeed be consistent with the policies that Avishai argues are needed in order to bring equality, stability and prosperity to Israel and peace with Palestine. But the entrepreneurs seem disinclined to lead politically. Moreover, as Avishai notes, this cosmopolitan elite, particularly its younger members, is increasingly abandoning the country in favor of North America or Europe. Change, according to Avishai, will have to come from the outside. America and the rest of the world must force both the Israeli and Palestinian governments to take dramatic steps. Avishai points out that the gradualism endorsed by both governments leaves them vulnerable to the extremists on both sides, who use the downtime to do their mischief.
Avishai may have identified the logic that would lead to Israeli prosperity and to peace with the Palestinians; however, relying on outside intervention as the motivating force to create the necessary conditions may be as unrealistic as it is disheartening. Yes, it is hard to imagine that the Israeli and Palestinian elites will themselves take the bold action required. But it is also unclear just what would compel America and Europe to agree on measures that Israeli and Palestinian leaders themselves resist. Avishai may be pointing the way to the Promised Land, but it is difficult to imagine a Joshua emerging to take us there anytime soon.
Joel Streicker is a critic and translator living in San Francisco.