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A Talk With Tzipi

At the end of a week of meetings here in Jerusalem with, among others, five senior Cabinet ministers, sundry Knesset members and several Palestinians, it is not the sprawling nature of the issues nor even the matter of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s unilateralist intentions that most concerns me. Quite to my surprise, it is an old issue, one that’s been implicit in the saga of the Jewish state since before its inception, one we’d supposed could be fudged indefinitely, one that now — right now — is as close as we can get to a keystone.

I’d not met Israel’s new foreign minister, 48 year-old Tzipi Livni, before. But I’d heard how popular and, indeed, respected, she is here. Now I can see why. In a wide-raging conversation about Israel’s situation and its government’s options, she never lost either her place or her cool. The issue, as she puts it, is how to ensure Israel security as a Jewish democratic state.

That seems, at first glance, a remarkably straightforward formulation. But here is where it gets a bit tricky — actually, quite intricate and even problematic. I want to be very careful in what I write, because I am here putting together remarks from different parts of the conversation and the connection between those parts that was so striking to me may not have been the foreign minister’s intention. That said, I believe what comes next is an accurate representation of her view.

Israel faces a serious international effort to delegitimize it. That effort derives its fuel and its prospect of success from the international community’s inability to comprehend the meaning of the term “Jewish state,” and its consequent conclusion that the term is inherently racist. In turn, that makes a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians immediate and urgent. If the peace process is permitted to stagnate, the case for a Jewish state will continue to weaken.

To her credit, Livni did not place this problem in a left-right context, as she might well have. She did not say that informed liberal opinion around the world has difficulties in understanding what is meant by “a Jewish state” and how the idea can be rationalized in a modern, liberal way. She did not refer to the rumblings of support these last several years for a binational state. She merely stated her grave concern.

Out of that concern, the problem Israel faces takes on not only new urgency, but also very specific geography. We’ve known for some time that the revolutionary move of Israel’s center and center-right toward a two-state solution has been fueled principally by what has come to be known as the demographic argument.

It is, in retrospect, remarkable that it took the system so long to face the issue squarely, to understand that an Israel reaching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River would quite soon lose its Jewish majority, hence be required either to function as an apartheid state or to accept its demise as a Jewish state. That is specifically and explicitly the core understanding that caused Ariel Sharon, Olmert and Livni to abandon their historic commitment to the retention of the territories Israel captured in 1967 and to opt for a two-state solution.

Now, if that is how you come to endorse a two-state solution, there can be no discussion of a Palestinian right of return. The Palestinian right of return — here Livni is especially emphatic — is a right to return only to the new Palestinian state. Otherwise, the deep underlying purpose of creating a Palestinian state is vitiated. That purpose, from Israel’s perspective, is the enabling of Israel’s secure existence as a Jewish state.

There are, to be sure, other reasons for wanting Israel out of the territories, and there is, of course, the pesky matter that the Palestinians may be dead serious about not bargaining away their claimed right of return. But it is the issue of the Jewish state that is the heart of the matter.

So far, Livni. Where does her argument take us?

Of course the issue of being a Jewish democratic state is the heart of the matter. And why not? It was one thing, in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, to claim that the Jewish people needed and were entitled to a homeland. Back then, one surely did not need a sophisticated intellectual argument; the humanitarian imperative was quite sufficient.

But these days, the only way to insist on the humanitarian argument is to exaggerate the threat of contemporary antisemitism. So we need a more serious argument, one more in keeping with the current condition of the Jewish people.

We need another thing as well. We need a Jewish state that appears to be managing its distinctive form of ethno-religious nationalism constructively. Alas, there is ample evidence that in key areas, Israel is in fact botching the job. Specifically, the persistent scandal of Israel’s treatment of its very substantial Arab minority — roughly 20% of its citizen population — provides ongoing evidence that Jewish nationalism is not, in fact, benign.

Democratic nations may and often do deviate from democratic norms without begetting challenges to their legitimacy. But they cannot systematically offer a coherent national minority the crumbs off their national table without facing serious challenge — without being thought by others to be, in a word, racist.

It will not do, as some suggest, to wait until peace before turning to the vexing issues of what inclusion means in a Jewish state. Nor, for that matter, will it do to remove the settlers from the West Bank to the Galilee as part of a “Judaization of the Galilee” project, thereby exacerbating the tensions between being a Jewish state and being a democratic state. Far too much — the Jewish state itself — is at stake.

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