TORONTO — Israel is in danger of losing its character as a democratic Jewish state, according to Israeli historian and journalist Gershom Gorenberg.
In a recent interview in Toronto, he said three factors threaten Israel’s status as a beacon of democracy in a region of autocracy.
These are its settlement policies in the West Bank, its political system in which state and synagogue are integrated and its unequal treatment of the large Arab minority.
Gorenberg, a 56-year-old Orthodox Jew who made aliyah from the United States 34 years ago, urged Israel to take essential steps to save itself from endless conflict and international isolation.
“It must end the settlement enterprise and the occupation, seek a two-state solution with the Palestinians, separate state and synagogue and ensure that Israeli Arabs are granted civic equality.”
Gorenberg’s recommendations are set forth in his latest book, The Unmaking of Israel (HarperCollins), which a New York Times reviewer recently described as “indispensable” and “closely argued.”
A resident of Jerusalem and a former editor of the Jerusalem Report, he said he wrote the book as a concerned Zionist completely committed to Israel who’s trying to influence its future direction.
Calling Israel a nation with a “divided soul,” Gorenberg warned it is evolving in two diametrically opposing directions. Basic freedoms in Israel have expanded and are flourishing. Yet Israel is following a path that may well lead to “unintended consequences” contrary to its national interests.
Gorenberg, whose last book was The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, claimed that Israel was paralyzed by indecision after the 1967 Six Day War.
In the absence of a clear policy, Israel never made a formal strategic decision regarding the territories it had just conquered. “Israel had to make choices, but the prime minister of the day, Levi Eshhkol, said, ‘My government has decided not to decide.’”
Emboldened by his stance, pro-settlement government ministers, encouraged by outside activists, illegally took the lead in formulating Israel’s de facto policy, he noted.
The Israeli government was advised by the foreign ministry that the construction of civilian settlements in the territories, some on private Palestinian land, was a violation of international law. But Israel ignored this ruling, Gorenberg said.
The presence of Israeli settlements in the territories had a tangible impact, blurring Israel’s boundaries and fostering inequality in the West Bank. While Jewish settlers enjoyed the rights and privileges of Israeli citizenship, Palestinian Arabs were left in limbo, a situation at odds with the principles of democracy.
Gorenberg, whose visit here was sponsored by Canadian Friends of Peace Now, called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resume negotiations with the Palestinian Authority that his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, launched before his resignation.
“The two sides were very close to an agreement. Netanyahu has not been willing to continue these talks. He is doing his best to avoid a two-state solution.”
In Gorenberg’s view, PA President Mahmoud Abbas is reasonable in refusing to return to talks unless Israel agrees in advance to a full settlement freeze.
“Israel is creating facts on the ground,” he said in a reference to its ongoing building program in the West Bank, where a Palestinian state would presumably be established if a peace accord is ever signed.
He warned that Israel will face a dire dilemma in the West Bank if the territory remains under its control. “If you give the Palestinians voting rights, Israel will not be a Jewish state. If you disenfranchise them, Israel will not be a democracy.”
Touching on his second point, Gorenberg said that the intermingling of religion and politics in Israel distorts Judaism and alienates many Israeli Jews.
“There must be a divorce between state and synagogue. Free the state from clericalism and religion from the state.”
He added, “It would be best for the state to get out of the religion business.”
Moving to his third point, Gorenberg said Israel should be a nation in which all its citizens, including Muslim and Christian Arabs, enjoy equal rights. As he put it, “Israel should be a synonym for a shared identity.”
Today, Israeli Arabs, comprising about 20 per cent of Israel’s population, encounter various forms of official and unofficial discrimination, he said.
Citing two examples, he called for equality in government funding for Jewish and Arab municipalities and in civil service hiring.
Due to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israeli Arabs should not be expected to serve in Israel’s armed forces. “But they should perform some kind of national service and thereby contribute to Israeli society.”