The Middle East peace process is finished. It did not die:
it was killed. Mahmoud Abbas was undermined by the President
of the Palestinian Authority and humiliated by the Prime
Minister of Israel. His successor awaits a similar fate.
Israel continues to mock its American patron, building illegal
settlements in cynical disregard of the "road map."
The President of the United States of America has been reduced
to a ventriloquist's dummy, pitifully reciting the Israeli
cabinet line: "It's all Arafat's fault." Israelis
themselves grimly await the next bomber. Palestinian Arabs,
corralled into shrinking Bantustans, subsist on EU handouts.
On the corpse-strewn landscape of the Fertile Crescent,
Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, and a handful of terrorists
can all claim victory, and they do. Have we reached the
end of the road? What is to be done?
At the dawn of the twentieth century, in the twilight of
the continental empires, Europe's subject peoples dreamed
of forming "nation-states," territorial homelands
where Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Armenians, and others might
live free, masters of their own fate. When the Habsburg
and Romanov empires collapsed after World War I, their leaders
seized the opportunity. A flurry of new states emerged;
and the first thing they did was set about privileging their
national, "ethnic" majoritydefined by language,
or religion, or antiquity, or all threeat the expense
of inconvenient local minorities, who were consigned to
second-class status: permanently resident strangers in their
But one nationalist movement, Zionism, was frustrated in
its ambitions. The dream of an appropriately sited Jewish
national home in the middle of the defunct Turkish Empire
had to wait upon the retreat of imperial Britain: a process
that took three more decades and a second world war. And
thus it was only in 1948 that a Jewish nation-state was
established in formerly Ottoman Palestine. But the founders
of the Jewish state had been influenced by the same concepts
and categories as their fin-de-siècle contemporaries
back in Warsaw, or Odessa, or Bucharest; not surprisingly,
Israel's ethno-religious self-definition, and its discrimination
against internal "foreigners," has always had
more in common with, say, the practices of post-Habsburg
Romania than either party might care to acknowledge.
The problem with Israel, in short, is notas is sometimes
suggestedthat it is a European "enclave"
in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late.
It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century
separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world
of individual rights, open frontiers, and international
law. The very idea of a "Jewish state"a
state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive
privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded
is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is
In one vital attribute, however, Israel is quite different
from previous insecure, defensive microstates born of imperial
collapse: it is a democracy. Hence its present dilemma.
Thanks to its occupation of the lands conquered in 1967,
Israel today faces three unattractive choices. It can dismantle
the Jewish settlements in the territories, return to the
1967 state borders within which Jews constitute a clear
majority, and thus remain both a Jewish state and a democracy,
albeit one with a constitutionally anomalous community of
second-class Arab citizens.
Alternatively, Israel can continue to occupy "Samaria,"
"Judea," and Gaza, whose Arab populationadded
to that of present-day Israelwill become the demographic
majority within five to eight years: in which case Israel
will be either a Jewish state (with an ever-larger majority
of unenfranchised non-Jews) or it will be a democracy. But
logically it cannot be both.
Or else Israel can keep control of the Occupied Territories
but get rid of the overwhelming majority of the Arab population:
either by forcible expulsion or else by starving them of
land and livelihood, leaving them no option but to go into
exile. In this way Israel could indeed remain both Jewish
and at least formally democratic: but at the cost of becoming
the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic
cleansing as a state project, something which would condemn
Israel forever to the status of an outlaw state, an international
Anyone who supposes that this third option is unthinkable
above all for a Jewish state has not been watching the steady
accretion of settlements and land seizures in the West Bank
over the past quarter-century, or listening to generals
and politicians on the Israeli right, some of them currently
in government. The middle ground of Israeli politics today
is occupied by the Likud. Its major component is the late
Menachem Begin's Herut Party. Herut is the successor to
Vladimir Jabotinsky's interwar Revisionist Zionists, whose
uncompromising indifference to legal and territorial niceties
once attracted from left-leaning Zionists the epithet "fascist."
When one hears Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert,
proudly insist that his country has not excluded the option
of assassinating the elected president of the Palestinian
Authority, it is clear that the label fits better than ever.
Political murder is what fascists do.
The situation of Israel is not desperate, but it may be
close to hopeless. Suicide bombers will never bring down
the Israeli state, and the Palestinians have no other weapons.
There are indeed Arab radicals who will not rest until every
Jew is pushed into the Mediterranean, but they represent
no strategic threat to Israel, and the Israeli military
knows it. What sensible Israelis fear much more than Hamas
or the al-Aqsa Brigade is the steady emergence of an Arab
majority in "Greater Israel," and above all the
erosion of the political culture and civic morale of their
society. As the prominent Labor politician Avraham Burg
recently wrote, "After two thousand years of struggle
for survival, the reality of Israel is a colonial state,
run by a corrupt clique which scorns and mocks law and civic
morality." Unless something changes, Israel in half
a decade will be neither Jewish nor democratic.
This is where the US enters the picture. Israel's behavior
has been a disaster for American foreign policy. With American
support, Jerusalem has consistently and blatantly flouted
UN resolutions requiring it to withdraw from land seized
and occupied in war. Israel is the only Middle Eastern state
known to possess genuine and lethal weapons of mass destruction.
By turning a blind eye, the US has effectively scuttled
its own increasingly frantic efforts to prevent such weapons
from falling into the hands of other small and potentially
belligerent states. Washington's unconditional support for
Israel even in spite of (silent) misgivings is the main
reason why most of the rest of the world no longer credits
our good faith.
It is now tacitly conceded by those in a position to know
that America's reasons for going to war in Iraq were not
necessarily those advertised at the time. For many in
the current US administration, a major strategic consideration
was the need to destabilize and then reconfigure the Middle
East in a manner thought favorable to Israel. This story
continues. We are now making belligerent noises toward Syria
because Israeli intelligence has assured us that Iraqi weapons
have been moved therea claim for which there is no
corroborating evidence from any other source. Syria backs
Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad: sworn foes of Israel, to
be sure, but hardly a significant international threat.
However, Damascus has hitherto been providing the US with
critical data on al-Qaeda. Like Iran, another longstanding
target of Israeli wrath whom we are actively alienating,
Syria is more use to the United States as a friend than
an enemy. Which war are we fighting?
On September 16, 2003, the US vetoed a UN Security Council
resolution asking Israel to desist from its threat to deport
Yasser Arafat. Even American officials themselves recognize,
off the record, that the resolution was reasonable and prudent,
and that the increasingly wild pronouncements of Israel's
present leadership, by restoring Arafat's standing in the
Arab world, are a major impediment to peace. But the US
blocked the resolution all the same, further undermining
our credibility as an honest broker in the region. America's
friends and allies around the world are no longer surprised
at such actions, but they are saddened and disappointed
all the same.
Israeli politicians have been actively contributing to their
own difficulties for many years; why do we continue to aid
and abet them in their mistakes? The US has tentatively
sought in the past to pressure Israel by threatening to
withhold from its annual aid package some of the money that
goes to subsidizing West Bank settlers. But the last time
this was attempted, during the Clinton administration, Jerusalem
got around it by taking the money as "security expenditure."
Washington went along with the subterfuge, and of $10 billion
of American aid over four years, between 1993 and 1997,
less than $775 million was kept back. The settlement program
went ahead unimpeded. Now we don't even try to stop it.
This reluctance to speak or act does no one any favors.
It has also corroded American domestic debate. Rather than
think straight about the Middle East, American politicians
and pundits slander our European allies when they dissent,
speak glibly and irresponsibly of resurgent anti-Semitism
when Israel is criticized, and censoriously rebuke any public
figure at home who tries to break from the consensus.
But the crisis in the Middle East won't go away. President
Bush will probably be conspicuous by his absence from the
fray for the coming year, having said just enough about
the "road map" in June to placate Tony Blair.
But sooner or later an American statesman is going to have
to tell the truth to an Israeli prime minister and find
a way to make him listen. Israeli liberals and moderate
Palestinians have for two decades been thanklessly insisting
that the only hope was for Israel to dismantle nearly all
the settlements and return to the 1967 borders, in exchange
for real Arab recognition of those frontiers and a stable,
terrorist-free Palestinian state underwritten (and constrained)
by Western and international agencies. This is still the
conventional consensus, and it was once a just and possible
But I suspect that we are already too late for that. There
are too many settlements, too many Jewish settlers, and
too many Palestinians, and they all live together, albeit
separated by barbed wire and pass laws. Whatever the "road
map" says, the real map is the one on the ground, and
that, as Israelis say, reflects facts. It may be that over
a quarter of a million heavily armed and subsidized Jewish
settlers would leave Arab Palestine voluntarily; but no
one I know believes it will happen. Many of those settlers
will dieand kill rather than move. The last
Israeli politician to shoot Jews in pursuit of state policy
was David Ben-Gurion, who forcibly disarmed Begin's illegal
Irgun militia in 1948 and integrated it into the new Israel
Defense Forces. Ariel Sharon is not Ben-Gurion.
The time has come to think the unthinkable. The two-state
solution the core of the Oslo process and the present
"road map"is probably already doomed. With
every passing year we are postponing an inevitable, harder
choice that only the far right and far left have so far
acknowledged, each for its own reasons. The true alternative
facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an
ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated,
binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.
That is indeed how the hard-liners in Sharon's cabinet see
the choice; and that is why they anticipate the removal
of the Arabs as the ineluctable condition for the survival
of a Jewish state.
But what if there were no place in the world today for a
"Jewish state"? What if the binational solution
were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable
outcome? It is not such a very odd thought. Most of the
readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have
long since become multiethnic and multicultural. "Christian
Europe," pace M. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, is
a dead letter; Western civilization today is a patchwork
of colors and religions and languages, of Christians, Jews,
Muslims, Arabs, Indians, and many othersas any visitor
to London or Paris or Geneva will know.
Israel itself is a multicultural society in all but name;
yet it remains distinctive among democratic states in its
resort to ethnoreligious criteria with which to denominate
and rank its citizens. It is an oddity among modern nations
notas its more paranoid supporters assertbecause
it is a Jewish state and no one wants the Jews to have a
state; but because it is a Jewish state in which one communityJews
is set above others, in an age when that sort of state
has no place.
For many years, Israel had a special meaning for the Jewish
people. After 1948 it took in hundreds of thousands of helpless
survivors who had nowhere else to go; without Israel their
condition would have been desperate in the extreme. Israel
needed Jews, and Jews needed Israel. The circumstances of
its birth have thus bound Israel's identity inextricably
to the Shoah, the German project to exterminate the Jews
of Europe. As a result, all criticism of Israel is drawn
ineluctably back to the memory of that project, something
that Israel's American apologists are shamefully quick to
exploit. To find fault with the Jewish state is to think
ill of Jews; even to imagine an alternative configuration
in the Middle East is to indulge the moral equivalent of
In the years after World War II, those many millions of
Jews who did not live in Israel were often reassured by
its very existencewhether they thought of it as an
insurance policy against renascent anti-Semitism or simply
a reminder to the world that Jews could and would fight
back. Before there was a Jewish state, Jewish minorities
in Christian societies would peer anxiously over their shoulders
and keep a low profile; since 1948, they could walk tall.
But in recent years, the situation has tragically reversed.
Today, non-Israeli Jews feel themselves once again exposed
to criticism and vulnerable to attack for things they didn't
do. But this time it is a Jewish state, not a Christian
one, which is holding them hostage for its own actions.
Diaspora Jews cannot influence Israeli policies, but they
are implicitly identified with them, not least by Israel's
own insistent claims upon their allegiance. The behavior
of a self-described Jewish state affects the way everyone
else looks at Jews. The increased incidence of attacks on
Jews in Europe and elsewhere is primarily attributable to
misdirected efforts, often by young Muslims, to get back
at Israel. The depressing truth is that Israel's current
behavior is not just bad for America, though it surely is.
It is not even just bad for Israel itself, as many Israelis
silently acknowledge. The depressing truth is that Israel
today is bad for the Jews.
In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle
and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments
to communication have all but collapsed; where more and
more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel
falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them;
in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism. And not
just an anachronism but a dysfunctional one. In today's
"clash of cultures" between open, pluralist democracies
and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states,
Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.
To convert Israel from a Jewish state to a binational one
would not be easy, though not quite as impossible as it
sounds: the process has already begun de facto. But it would
cause far less disruption to most Jews and Arabs than its
religious and nationalist foes will claim. In any case,
no one I know of has a better idea: anyone who genuinely
supposes that the controversial electronic fence now being
built will resolve matters has missed the last fifty years
of history. The "fence"actually an armored
zone of ditches, fences, sensors, dirt roads (for tracking
footprints), and a wall up to twenty-eight feet tall in
placesoccupies, divides, and steals Arab farmland;
it will destroy villages, livelihoods, and whatever remains
of Arab-Jewish community. It costs approximately $1 million
per mile and will bring nothing but humiliation and discomfort
to both sides. Like the Berlin Wall, it confirms the moral
and institutional bankruptcy of the regime it is intended
A binational state in the Middle East would require a brave
and relentlessly engaged American leadership. The security
of Jews and Arabs alike would need to be guaranteed by international
forcethough a legitimately constituted binational
state would find it much easier policing militants of all
kinds inside its borders than when they are free to infiltrate
them from outside and can appeal to an angry, excluded constituency
on both sides of the border. A binational state in the
Middle East would require the emergence, among Jews and
Arabs alike, of a new political class. The very idea is
an unpromising mix of realism and utopia, hardly an auspicious
place to begin. But the alternatives are far, far worse.
September 25, 2003
 See Burg's essay, "La révolution sioniste
est morte," Le Monde, September 11, 2003. A former
head of the Jewish Agency, the writer was speaker of the
Knesset, Israel's Parliament, between 1999 and 2003 and
is currently a Labor Party member of the Knesset. His essay
first appeared in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot; it
has been widely republished, notably in the Forward (August
29, 2003) and the London Guardian (September 15, 2003).
 See the interview with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul
Wolfowitz in the July 2003 issue of Vanity Fair.
 In 1979, following the peace agreement with Anwar Sadat,
Prime Minister Begin and Defense Minister Sharon did indeed
instruct the army to close down Jewish settlements in the
territory belonging to Egypt. The angry resistance of some
of the settlers was overcome with force, though no one was
killed. But then the army was facing three thousand extremists,
not a quarter of a million, and the land in question was
the Sinai Desert, not "biblical Samaria and Judea."
 Albanians in Italy, Arabs and black Africans in France,
Asians in England all continue to encounter hostility. A
minority of voters in France, or Belgium, or even Denmark
and Norway, support political parties whose hostility to
"immigration" is sometimes their only platform.
But compared with thirty years ago, Europe is a multicolored
patchwork of equal citizens, and that, without question,
is the shape of its future.
 As Burg notes, Israel's current policies are the terrorists'
best recruiting tool: "We are indifferent to the fate
of Palestinian children, hungry and humiliated; so why are
we surprised when they blow us up in our restaurants? Even
if we killed 1000 terrorists a day it would change nothing."
See Burg, "La révolution sioniste est morte."