The West Bank Model Is a Failure

Demonstrators placed a Palestinian flag on top of a house in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh during clashes with Israeli security forces in January.CreditCreditAbbas Momani/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Demonstrators placed a Palestinian flag on top of a house in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh during clashes with Israeli security forces in January. Credit Abbas Momani/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the seven decades of its independence, Israel has developed a unique model of statehood. This model can be understood in various ways, and these have evolved over the years, but any description of it always comes back to two terms: Jewish and democratic.

There is no consensus on what it means for a state to be a “Jewish state,” partly because only one state has ever made such a claim. At the same time, there is no practical consensus on what it means for a state to be “democratic”: Many have put the word — knowing it false — in their official names. The Israeli experiment is to honestly attempt to join these two types of pluralism, Jewish and democratic, to make a modern, progressive state.

The Israeli model, through all its evolutions, involves in its roughest form a state whose symbols are Jewish; whose holidays and calendar come from the Jewish tradition; whose gates are always open to any Jew seeking refuge or a new home; whose government is accountable to an elected parliament; whose administration operates within the bounds of law; whose free market grows and brings in more people from more diverse backgrounds to participate in its activities; and whose people are entitled to the minimum civil and legal protections of a modern free society regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

It was this model that absorbed penniless Jewish refugees from around Europe and Asia and made them, within the span of a generation, into free sovereign people with a North Atlantic standard of living. It was this model that, however imperfectly, absorbed the Arab minority remaining in Israel’s borders after the unsuccessful effort by Arab governments to wipe Israel out at its infancy, and turned them into full citizens with a material and political quality of life arguably unmatched by Israel’s Arab-majority neighbors.

In July, the government enacted an odious nation-state law, which pretends to be a codification of existing Israeli reality. Actually, it makes a crucial change that upsets Israel’s Jewish-democratic balance. It says that “development of Jewish settlement” is a “national value” — settlement including in the West Bank. Why not change this clause to exclude the hyper-controversial West Bank settlement project? This would be a small exclusion involving a small percentage of settlements actually inside the West Bank itself and not involving the settlements outside of it where the vast majority of inhabitants are Jewish. To me, the inclusion of the West Bank settlements points to what the law truly represents: A small minority is trying to make Israeli society as a whole resemble the model of Israeli government in the territories.

Why this is such a disaster takes some understanding of the character of the territories themselves. Fifty-one years ago, after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, it seemed only natural that the very success of its social model could be exported to the newly conquered territories on the West Bank. These were, after all, territories with deep historical and religious significance for the Jewish people. They were won in an entirely justified war against an enemy that made its goal of genocide perfectly clear. And they were necessary to ensure the future security of the Israeli state.

It is possible that bits of this export fantasy were not always doomed to fail. We’ll never know if a different approach could have had different results, so we can assess the settlement project only as it has unfolded, and there is no doubt that it has failed. Israel has not brought the “Israeli model” to the West Bank, not even partly.

What has been created instead in the West Bank is an alternative model of the state. Where in Israel a Jewish majority of roughly 80 percent of the population ensures that the Jewishness of the state, however defined, is never seriously threatened, in the West Bank the Jewish population, even after 50 years of settlement, still doesn’t reach 15 percent. The “West Bank model” may or may not be Jewish, but if it is Jewish, it certainly isn’t on account of demographics.

And there is very little that is democratic about the West Bank model. Consider: 15 percent of West Bankers who are Jewish settlers vote in Israeli elections and the 85 percent of West Bankers who are Arabs can vote in the elections of the Palestinian Authority (when these are actually held). In practice, this means that West Bank Jews are voting for the government of a state they don’t live in but whose army exercises sovereign authority over the territory they do live in.

For West Bank Arabs, it means their democracy is doubly a sham: They can vote for a Palestinian Authority that fails to live up to any minimal standard of democracy, or, for that matter, of governance itself. But they can’t vote in the elections of Israel, the state that actually controls the territory in which they live. Practically, the Jewish minority in the West Bank enjoys a monopoly of civil, political and social rights, and its supremacy is guaranteed by the presence of a large military force from Israel to protect it and its privileges. That is, ipso facto, the West Bank model.

This isn’t even the worst of it. The Jewish minority in the West Bank enjoys a Western standard of living by nearly every measure — income, education, health care, life expectancy, infrastructure, etc. Because of the political situation, because it is dependent for its survival on a corrupt Palestinian Authority, the Arab majority manifestly has no realistic hope of closing the gap. This is simply not the case for the admittedly imperfect relationship between Jews and Arabs inside Israel.

Maybe slight border adjustments could bring the Israeli model to the tiny bits of West Bank land where large numbers of Jewish settlers live. These could be reciprocal if made in the context of an overall peace — but there’s no sign that the Palestinian Authority will do anything other than refuse to negotiate under reasonable terms. Indeed, pointing out the awfulness of the West Bank model in no way absolves the Palestinians of responsibility for their refusal to make any kind of peace with Israel. But the bottom line is this: The Israeli model, such as it is, is not being exported to the West Bank.

Quite the opposite. If there is any future for the West Bank settlement enterprise — not the border adjustments, but the fanatical ideological settlements deep in the territory — it won’t be because of an export of the Israeli model but rather because of an import of the West Bank model into Israel. And this is what the corruptive nation-state law clearly starts to do: secure the power of the far-right wing by making Israel less democratic, more “Jewish,” more tribal, less representative.

The law is only a start: Tellingly, to ensure its passage, certain provisions were edited out of the final bill, including a section to allow the formation of Jewish-only communities that would have effectively denied the mixing of peoples and individuals that is Israel’s aspiration and also its reality. A provision like this gives a good sense of where the bill’s authors want to go next.

For lovers of Israel, this is the time to make our voices heard. Delegitimization of Israel cannot be tolerated from any quarter. It can’t be tolerated from the increasingly vocal Marxist-influenced contingent of the left for whom all oppression is like all other oppression, and for whom the Palestinians have succeeded Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua and Venezuela as vehicles for its utopianism. But the calumnies of the left do not, ever, justify supporting the delegitimization of democratic Israel from Israel’s right-wing government and the messianic idolaters it bows before.

The Israeli model cannot be exported into the West Bank: It is a fact of historical circumstance. The present law — accidentally or not, and probably not — will import the West Bank model into Israel. That will be a catastrophe.

Martin Peretz edited The New Republic for 35 years and taught at Harvard University for nearly a half century.

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