The idea of a binational state has repeatedly reared its head throughout the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was already circulating, in various guises, during the 1920s and 30s among the Brit Shalom (“The Alliance for Peace”) group, led by Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem, before falling victim to military confrontation. It surfaced in the wake of the Six-Day War, this time under the auspices of the plo, which demanded the dissolution of the “Zionist entity” for the sake of what the official euphemism called “a secular and democratic Palestinian state” where there would be no place for Jews who arrived in Israel after 1948. It was also embraced by some figures of the American literary left. With the signing of the Oslo Accords, it seemed to have vanished for good. But the second Intifada infused it with new life: The resurrection of the binational project is one of the many consequences of the dramatic fiasco at the Camp David negotiations during the summer of 2000.

Today, however, it is not within the Palestinian camp that the idea is most audible, but in the margins of the political debate in Israel and . . . in the writing of Tony Judt (see “Israel: The Alternative,” New York Review of Books, October 22, 2003), who adorns it with the attire of novelty and the noble allure of the “unthinkable.” It is odd to see this epithet attached to an idea that is almost a hundred years old and which has never ceased to be “thought,” despite never having been applied. Here it is back on the agenda.

Mr. Judt, in any case, is neither the first nor the most inspired of the recent travelers in the realm of the unthinkable. The originality of his article is not in the solution he proposes; it consists in the arguments he musters in defense of his proposal and, even more so, in his way of linking the Israeli question, and more generally the question of the nation-state, to the passions of our time and the air we breathe.


A lesser evil?

Several months before his article appeared, in August 2003, the readers of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz had the binational project explained to them by two respected figures of the Israeli left. One of them, Meron Benvenisti, once deputy mayor of Jerusalem responsible for relations with the local Arab population, is one of the men who has toiled most to bring about a reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. An engaging, passionate personality with deep family roots in the Zionist movement, it isn’t as if Benvenisti, at the age of 70, had turned into a furious ideologue who favored the disintegration of Israel.

His reflection proceeded from three fundamental observations. The first is that the development of settlements in the West Bank has created an irreversible trend that precludes a return to the situation before 1967. Mr. Benvenisti has been predicting this since the 1980s. At that time, however, the settlements amounted to barely 20,000 persons; today the estimate is 230,000. And that which to him seemed impossible 20 years ago is all the more so today.

From this observation flows a second one: The irreversible situation produced by the extension of the settlements has already created a binational reality which any political solution should take into account. All the more so, given a third observation: that the debacle at Camp David and the bloody confrontations that almost immediately followed have tragically brought Israelis and Palestinians back to their attitudes of 50 years ago, thus consuming all avenues of compromise which they believed they were so close to achieving: “Both sides have in fact given up their mutual recognition, when we have begun again to consider the Palestinians as a terrorist entity, and they to look at us as aliens.” In this respect, Mr. Benvenisti shows himself almost as hard on the Israeli left as on the right: “This whole problem of the Arabs annoys the people on the left, is too complicated for them, exposes them to a moral dilemma and a cultural embarrassment: this is why they want this horrible wall . . . which is a violation of this land, why they flee Jerusalem, why they flee the countryside and the landscape to crowd together in Tel Aviv.”

In this disenchanting picture, the dominant, decisive fact that prescribes, so to speak, the future is the demographic element: The entanglement of Jewish and Arab populations on the territory that extends from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean renders literally inapplicable the creation of two distinct national states, says Mr. Benvenisti. “Since Zionism excluded the idea of eliminating the Arabs, its dream has become unrealizable. For this land cannot accommodate two sovereignties within it, and will never be able to do so.”

In other words, a binational reality prescribes a binational solution. Between the 3.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza, the 1.2 million Israeli Arabs, and the some 5 million Jewish Israelis, it is thus necessary to imagine a new framework of cohabitation. Mr. Benvenisti envisages a structure that is both federal and cantonal — he speaks of “ethnic cantons” — where each people could lead an autonomous existence. The plan, he admits, is still embryonic and nebulous, but the general direction seems clear. “What I propose doesn’t make me rejoice. . . . I cling to the fragile hope that, perhaps, a common purpose may emerge . . .; that we will learn perhaps to live together; that we will understand perhaps that the other is not the devil.”

It is not difficult to enumerate the reasons for which this project appears eminently unrealistic. If the cohabitation of two states is truly doomed, how can one believe that a “cantonal federation” would be more viable? If hatred and mutual distrust have indeed attained such depths, the binational solution seems still more chimerical than any other project of separation. As to the question of whether the situation in the Territories should be considered irreversible, a subject of endless debate in Israel, it is by definition an unresolvable question and will remain so until the day when a peace treaty is concluded between the two sides — or a unilateral decision to leave the Territories is taken — impelling the Israeli government to face the obviously formidable challenge of evacuating some of the settlements. This question cannot be answered with anything resembling certainty because a clear majority of Israelis, even today in the midst of the Intifada, remain favorable in principle to such an evacuation; because many of the Israelis living beyond the Green Line, essentially for economic reasons, will leave if the Knesset orders their departure; and finally, because the ideology of Greater Israel has collapsed in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, except for the most obdurate among the settlers — who will most probably refuse to leave or even resort to the use of arms. In short, the question of the settlements does not depend, not exclusively, on what happens today on the ground; it depends above all on the dynamic of the future peace or disengagement process — one needs only to observe the trends of Israeli public opinion from Oslo to Camp David — and on the political resolve it requires. To dissolve the state of Israel into a vague binational project on the uncertain premise that nothing can be done about the settlements is to confuse the problem with the solution — at an unfathomable price.

But there exists an ultimate reason, in fact the very first one, that makes such an outcome illusory: No one, or almost no one, wants it, either on one side or the other. Those Palestinians who continue to advocate for dialogue with Israel remain committed to the two-state solution, and the most radical who refuse it do not need any arguments besides their radicalism in order to reject any binational idea. In Israel itself, hostility to this approach is one of the rare subjects of national consensus.

A proposition that provokes such a universal rejection is, by definition, politically unrealistic, even assuming it could be viewed as desirable. If, however, Meron Benvenisti continues to brandish it and to explore its premises, it is not because of some sort of academic doggedness, but because he considers it, wrongly in my view, to be a lesser evil — and an inevitable lesser evil.


The situation

But for tony judt, a binational denouement is not only inevitable; it is eminently desirable. Doubtless, in the past, the solution of two states was possible, even just — Mr. Judt is good enough to admit that; but it seems to him today neither feasible nor above all desirable. And it is not only the situation on the ground that leads him to remit the two-state solution to the catalogue of obsolescences. It is the essence of the state of Israel, of what it has always been in reality: It is its very existence; it is the nature of the Zionist project that Tony Judt considers in hindsight problematic — historically, morally, politically, culturally.

With regard to the situation on the ground, for the years to come Mr. Judt envisages only two plausible scenarios: either the advent of Greater Israel, rid of the Palestinians through ethnic cleansing, or a binational state. Meron Benvenisti believes the dream of Greater Israel to be definitively compromised not only because reality made it impossible, but because he considers the Israelis morally and practically incapable of expelling 3.5 million Palestinians from their homes and lands. Tony Judt, who apparently knows better, does not exclude such a possibility, “either by forcible expulsion or else by starving [the Palestinians] of land and livelihood, leaving them no option but to go into exile”: The history of this last quarter of a century, he speculates, proves that ethnic cleansing of this amplitude is by no means “unthinkable.”

The appropriations and expropriations perpetrated by the settlers, or even sometimes by successive Israeli governments, are reprehensible and have been severely condemned in Israel itself. The recent destruction of olive fields gives an ominous foretaste of what the most extremist of the settlers are capable of doing. But to criminalize a priori all Israelis by declaring conceivable or even likely a generalized ethnic cleansing of which they would be, if not the direct perpetrators, at least the accomplices, or the helpless bystanders, is to subordinate uncertain facts to a preconceived opinion.

Mr. Judt’s use of facts is often inaccurate and nearly always biased. He describes as “heavily armed” the quarter of a million Israelis who reside beyond the Green Line, which makes improbable in his eyes their eventual consent to leave the Territories; many of them “will die — and kill — rather than move.” The facts, however, present quite a different picture: One part of these supposed fanatics, some 40,000, live in towns adjacent to Jerusalem, which various peace plans, including the Geneva Accords, envisage remaining under Israeli sovereignty; and if one believes the polls, most of the others, as I said, will abandon the territories that are returned to the Palestinians once the Knesset decides they should. How then should one estimate the number of those who would refuse to leave over their — and others’ — dead bodies? A few hundred, according to some estimates; a few thousand, suggest others — which is already too many, but clearly not enough for Mr. Judt, who pins that label of irredentist zealotry on a quarter of a million people, including women, children, and the elderly.

He takes the same liberty with the facts in reproaching the Bush administration for alienating Syria and Iran in order to back the interests of the Israeli government. Here is a curious assertion that espouses the thesis of President Assad of Syria, for whom, equally, everything would be rosy between the United States and Syria were it not for the evil Zionist enemy. But it so happens that the American administration — and the American press, even those most hostile to the war in Iraq — do not share this view. They accuse Syria of having let hundreds of fedayeen cross the border in order to attack American troops in Iraq; of seeking for years to produce, acquire, and traffic in unconventional, chemical, and biological weapons, as well as long-range missiles; and of supporting and financing not only the Lebanese Hezbollah, but other international terrorist groups. In any case, the change in attitude of Washington towards Damascus owes much more to the effects of September 11 and to the fallout from the invasion of Iraq than to the manipulations Mr. Judt attributes to the Israelis and their supporters on Capitol Hill.

But the problem for Tony Judt is not in bringing Syria to change its ways or Iran to renounce its nuclear program. It is to explain how and why the state of Israel should make itself disappear for the sake of a binational entity.

On the “how,” he proves singularly hasty and still more vague than — if not as candid as — Meron Benvenisti. The little he says in this regard is disproved by the picture he paints of the situation in the Territories. If the quarter of a million Israelis who live there are as “heavily armed” and radicalized as he contends, how exactly does he see them cohabiting with their Palestinian neighbors in the same state? And how does he envisage the existence of what would become a Jewish minority in a binational entity extending from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea? By what miracle can he imagine that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad will give up Jaffa, Haifa, and Safed and convert to the noble principles of liberal democracy? Turgot explained to Louis xvi that with a good educational system, in less than a decade the French people would all become enlightened philosophers. But Turgot, at least, had a plan. Tony Judt contents himself for his hypothetical binational state with a “brave and relentlessly engaged American leadership,” the presence of an international peacekeeping force, and the emergence of a new political class uniting (I suppose) Jews and Arabs in the peaceful management of the affairs of the polity.

That is where his meager proposals end, and the least one can say is that they don’t come with a guarantee of success. Mr. Judt, who proclaims himself in American circles a disciple of Raymond Aron and who has made a profession of denouncing the irresponsibility of intellectuals — especially when they happen to be French — here turns himself into a promoter of the “literary politics” that Aron, precisely, and Tocqueville before him dismissed with utter scorn. Who could believe that on this land, blood-stained by the alternating rhythm of suicide attacks and implacable reprisals, an international force or an American resolve could bring about or maintain the binational utopia born of his fantasy? Who can imagine that one could impose on two peoples a future that no one or almost no one wants? On the basis of what recent experience could one recommend introducing in the war-torn Middle East a project that has failed regularly in Europe and elsewhere? As Mr. Judt’s critics have observed, a state where the Jews will be destined to form a minority will not be binational; it will be a national Palestinian state that Jews will leave en masse, assuming that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad will give them the chance.


“Bad for the Jews”?

But tony judt sticks to his idea and gives his reasons, on which he proves somewhat more expansive. The first and the most extravagant in this extravagant text is contained in one sentence: “The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for Jews.” The conduct of the Jewish state, he writes, affects the way in which others see the Jews; and the increased incidence of attacks to which Jews are subject in Europe and elsewhere “is primarily attributable to misdirected efforts, often by young Muslims, to get back at Israel.”

Here as well Mr. Judt is at odds with the facts. It suffices to consider France, where the largest Jewish community in Europe coexists with the largest Muslim population. The brutality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is obviously not foreign to the wave of anti-Jewish attacks that have taken place on our territory, as well as to the assaults, denunciations, and insults that have become almost everyday occurrences and which seemed unimaginable not too long ago. But it is impossible to isolate these dramatic incidents from two factors noted by all fair-minded observers. These outrages, to begin with, are part of a long history of urban violence, not always particularly anti-Semitic, which is related to the difficulties with integration that confront the Muslim population. This violence does not date from the Intifada and is in danger, alas, of not ending with it, for it is aimed at all the French, Jewish or non-Jewish. The Middle East crises certainly made Jews privileged targets, which gave to these attacks, by the nature of things, a new and all the more troubling significance: that in many cases it is fueled by Arab anti-Semitism taught and encouraged — hence the second factor — by professional preachers, often of foreign origin. This new type of anti-Semitism — for a long time misunderstood and underestimated both in Europe and in Israel — is widespread throughout the Arab world, backed by autocratic and corrupt regimes as an outlet for popular frustration which is meant to draw attention away from their own failings. One can find its echo as well in many Palestinian textbooks which were published not since the outbreak of the second Intifiada, as one might suspect, but during the euphoric period that followed the Oslo Accords.

The anti-Semitic incidents that have multiplied in France and elsewhere over the past three years are evidently related to the current conflict, but they are equally attributable to frustrations and prejudices that have nothing to do with it and predate it as well. In any case, when one burns down a synagogue or attacks a Jew in the street for sins attributed to other Jews, these are not “misdirected” acts (to employ Mr. Judt’s euphemism) but the very essence of anti-Semitism.

Still Mr. Judt doesn’t let up: Israel is bad for the Jews. Bad for the Jews? One may hope this little enormity does not haunt him for long. On what basis is this assertion grounded? To which Jews exactly is Mr. Judt referring here? The Argentinean Jews who recently emigrated to Israel? The million Jews who left the former Soviet Union, where they experienced post-communist anti-Semitism totally unconnected to the fate of the Middle East? The mass of Jews expelled from Arab states during the past half-century? American Jews, whose very support of Israel fuels Mr. Judt with vapors of indignation? And, besides, if Israel is bad for the Jews, can Mr. Judt be so sure that its disappearance will be better for them?

The only valid truth that emerges from this allegation is that Israel is bad for at least one Jew. And since this country obviously poses a problem for Tony Judt, rather than work for its “conversion” — his use of this term is revealing — to a binational entity, it would be simpler and infinitely less costly for Mr. Judt to cultivate his own disagreement rather than project onto the totality of his fellow Jews his own moral discomfort.


An unjust anachronism?

But his preference for a binational solution, to be fair, cannot be reduced to the frustrations he seems to suffer from the bickering about Israel in New York, or the arrogance of the neoconservatives, or the sympathy, which he deems blameworthy, of the Bush administration towards the Sharon government. Besides being “bad for the Jews,” Mr. Judt explains, Israel represents an historical anachronism, founded, what is more, on an original injustice. Several nation-states rose from the ashes of the old empires on the eve of World War i, and their very first action was “to set about privileging their national, ‘ethnic’ majority . . . at the expense of inconvenient local minorities, who were consigned to second-class status.” The creation of the state of Israel not only reproduced this offense, but posed the additional difficulty of having arrived “too late” in a world where borders are open, democracies are pluralist, and there are multiple “elective identities.” This late-blooming nation-state thus embodies the double sin, according to Tony Judt, of both injustice and anachronism.

The legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise was, we know, contested from the outset. But when it comes to legitimacy, it is not ideological posturing but history that is the final judge. The history of Israel’s creation, which is still being written, has not yet produced its moral balance sheet — and thus is incommensurate with the experience of nation-states whose security has been established for centuries. Tony Judt does not contest the legitimacy of the French nation on account of the Frankish invasions, or that of England by stigmatizing the armed expedition of William the Conqueror. But he haggles over Israel’s legitimacy for its supposedly anachronistic character. As Mark Lilla recently noted, as if replying to Judt in anticipation, “all political foundings, without exception, are morally ambiguous enterprises, and Israel has not escaped these ambiguities. Two kinds of fools or bigots refuse to see this: those who deny or explain away the Palestinian suffering caused by Israel’s founding, and those who treat that suffering as the unprecedented consequence of a uniquely sinister ideology.”

The sufferings of the Palestinians, which are not all attributable to Israel, and the condition of the Israeli Arabs do not validate a wholesale denial of the Jewish state but rather impose obligations, moral and political, upon any Israeli government, whether of the right or the left, on which it should be judged — and, if necessary, reprimanded.


The “post-national” perspective

Yet tony judt proposes to make Israel disappear not only for what its government does or does not do, but for what it apparently is: an anachronistic nation-state in a world where the nation-state is doomed to obsolescence. One could object that Israel is not the only or even the latest nation-state born since the end of World War ii; the United Nations directory is full of them. Why then confer on this particular state the “elective” honor of disappearing first? I suppose the reasons cited above are explanation enough.

But, in fact, what is the source of this odd certitude concerning the anachronism, the obsolescence, of the nation-state? Mr. Judt’s American critics have brought to his attention that France, the cradle of the nation-state, is still around and that perhaps one should begin there the undertaking of the nation-state’s obliteration. I am astonished that they had to look across the ocean for material proof that the national state still exists. It would have sufficed to invite Tony Judt to look out his own window. If some had doubts about the overwhelming vigor of the American nation-state, the aftermath of September 11 ought to have opened their eyes. Many Americans (and many French) are obsessed by the gripping weight in American culture of multiculturalism, communitarianism, feminism, rights talk, and the soft tyranny of political correctness. But they are much less aware of the intangible reality that circumscribes these phenomena and transcends them without ever bending to their influence: precisely the framework of the nation. The plurality of elective identities, which Mr. Judt takes to be exclusive of the nation-state, can flourish freely in the United States, as in Israel for that matter, precisely because these identities remain strictly subordinate to the sovereignty of the nation-state: They prevent neither America nor Israel from affirming and consolidating blatantly a national identity, from resorting to military force, and from allowing individual and collective differences to unfold. In both countries, all the invocations of rights and all the particular claims end up giving in to political sovereignty, which remains intrinsically superior to any other claim of legitimacy.

In other words more abstract, here are two living examples, America and Israel, where democracy, the nation, and the sovereign state are closely linked. And if so many Europeans today have a hard time acknowledging this “incongruity,” and a harder time still putting up with it, this is because they tend increasingly to detach democracy from the nation and to persuade themselves, against all the evidence, that democracy does not need either the nation or the state in order to flourish.

The wars of the twentieth century have fatally brought the nation into disrepute, and this process has only grown further with European integration. We do not cherish the nation anymore, but we are unable to abandon it because we do not know how and with what to adequately replace it. Political philosophy does not provide us with any practical alternative: neither the tribe, nor the empire, nor the city. Even Europe disconcerts us: It has taken only one plenary session of the Council, enlarged to 25 states — only one! — to make us discover, belatedly, that the European machine cannot offer an adequate substitute for our disaffection with the nation. But this disaffection remains so deeply rooted that many Europeans are less and less inclined to understand those nation-states which are not afflicted by our doubts, and still less to tolerate the use these states make of their monopoly on legitimate force. The detestation of George W. Bush or of Ariel Sharon does not confine itself to what in their policies could be seen as reprehensible — and God knows they may be, in certain respects. Rather it is combined with a sentiment of alienation and frustration in the presence of such fully assumed expressions of national sovereignty — this still-vital constellation of the nation-state and democracy, which so many of us are inclined to disconnect and even to oppose.

Israel offers a mirror, an exemplary case in which we can contemplate and realize vicariously our schizophrenic relationship towards the national question. It is no accident that the more virulent critics, who often happen to be those of the United States as well, are to be found in the ranks of the antiglobalization movement. The type of postnational nihilism they inscribed on their banner contributed to the depoliticization of their approach to politics in general and the Middle East in particular: Israel, in other words, is that nation-state which most immediately vexes their planetary humanism.

Mr. Judt’s article provides a more reasoned illustration of the same phenomenon: He wants to put an end to the anachronism of the Israeli nation-state, which offends his sensibility, without putting any practical content into his binational fantasy. He dresses a subjective opinion in the outward form of a political discussion. But I fear that reality will shun his moral ultimatum.


The only political option available to Israel today is dictated neither by divine providence nor by its military superiority, and not even by the good or bad will of the Palestinians, but by the obdurate ruling of demographics: If Israel wishes to remain a Jewish nation-state, it must retreat, unilaterally if necessary, and the sooner the better, from most of the territories occupied since 1967, including certain Jerusalem neighborhoods. In so doing — and on this, Meron Benvenisti is quite right — Israel will nevertheless not avoid a certain binational reality, since 20 percent (and soon 25 percent) of those living within the Israeli territory are Arabs. Although they participate formally in democratic life, in electing and being elected to the Knesset — a privilege their Arab brothers in neighboring countries have not yet savored — these full citizens — notionally but not in every respect and always full — experience all the ambiguities and difficulties of constituting an Arab minority within a Jewish state. When asked, they express at the same time their natural attachment to the Palestinian cause and their refusal to live in the future state of Palestine: too Israeli to be fully Palestinian, too Palestinian to be simply Israeli. It is with them that Israel must urgently renew a dialogue broken three years ago. While there is still time.

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