Last night Al Jazeera aired a combative interview with the Israeli historian and former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami (Diana Buttu, Avi Shlaim and Paul Charney were also present as secondary panellists.) It is well worth watching. For those who don't have time do so, and to make it easier to quote from, I've summarised and transcribed the most interesting bits below. Ben Ami was there to defend the legitimacy and importance of 'liberal Zionism,' and because he is someone with integrity the incoherence of that position became, over the course of the evening, painfully clear.
The discussion began by examining the establishment of Israel, which entailed the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians. Unfortunately, when asked about the ethnic cleansing, Ben Ami equivocated:
Mehdi Hasan (MH): 700,000 Palestinians left what is now Israel. They didn't just all run away out of choice. In many cases they were driven out. Do you accept that you would not have the Jewish majority and the Jewish state today without that original act, what the Palestinians call the nakba, the catastrophe?
Shlomo Ben Ami (SBA): History offered different options. 1947 [i.e. the UN Partition Plan] was one option. You could have had an Israeli Jewish state without expulsion.
MH: But without expulsion, you wouldn't have had a Jewish majority.
SBA: This fact of history is today one of the major reasons that the Israeli right of centre is ready to engage in a peace process, in order to give away lands in the West Bank. The fear of a demographic doomsday... has always been one of the central issues in this process.
MH: And would you accept that the Jewish state was built on an act of ethnic cleansing, then?
SBA: Well, there were elements of ethnic cleansing, there is no doubt about it. The story of Lydda, no? Of Lod. So there were obviously cases. And there were many other cases where the country was bisected by war, and people ran away out of fear. I don't believe there was a Master Plan.
MH: Let's assume that it was all an accident. Let's assume the Palestinians all ran away out of choice. You didn't let them come back. It's all very well acknowledging the history and saying, 'that was unfortunate, this may have been ethnic cleansing,' but I'm asking you: you say today that 'I am an ardent Zionist'—that's part of the legacy of Zionism.
SBA: Well, I accept it as it is.
MH: But you don't say, 'I don't want to, therefore, take the tag of an ideology that produced that.'
SBA: I'm trying to reconcile the price that was paid by everybody in this conflict with a decent state of affairs. That is what [it] is to be 'liberal' today.
In other words, in 1947-48 there were some expulsions, but they were not inevitable and nor were they the product of systematic policy. Contrast this with what Ben Ami writes in his book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace (Oxford, 2006). There, he described the ethnic cleansing as the product of the objectives and ideology of the Zionist movement, and rejected the argument that it was merely a contingent outcome of the war. While there were no 'precise instructions' from the political echelon for ethnic cleansing, he wrote, there did not need to be—it was understood. Moreover, had there not been an ethnic cleansing, Israel as a state with a secure Jewish majority could not have come into being. To quote from Ben Ami's book:
[Israeli historian Benny Morris's] thesis about the birth of the refugee problem being not by design but by the natural logic and evolution of the war is not always sustained by the very evidence he himself provides... (p. 43)
Plan D... was a major cause for the exodus, for it was strategically driven by the notion of creating a Jewish contiguity even beyond the partition lines and, therefore, by the desire to have a Jewish state with the smallest possible number of Arabs. (p. 44)
The philosophy of transfer was not a marginal, esoteric article in the mindset and thinking of the main leaders of the Yishuv. These ideological constructs provided a legitimate environment for commanders in the field actively to encourage the eviction of the local population even when no precise orders were issued to that effect... (p. 44)
Ben-Gurion did not have to issue particular orders for expulsion. Rather, he established the strategic-ideological framework of the war effort. 'Certainly there will be great changes in the composition of the population of the country,' he said in the wake of the Arab exodus from west Jerusalem and later from Haifa. (p. 45)
There seems not to have been any precise instructions, not any Cabinet decisions. There was only an ideological predisposition, a mental attitude, a supporting cultural environment within which military commanders initiated or encouraged the eviction of the Arab population. (p. 45)
The [Israeli] army... played a major role not only in defining the borders of the Jewish state, and in the expulsion of refugees, but also in preventing their return after the end of hostilities... There was hardly any opposition in the government to this decision... Israel's formal rejection of the refugees' claim for return... is the real defining moment of the conflict. For the flight of refugees, even their dispossession, has throughout history been a concomitant of war, and in many cases they were allowed to return once the hostilities ceased. The novelty this time lay in the refusal to even consider their return. The new state could by no means reconcile its existence and national development with the return of the dispossessed refugees.... (p. 46)
Ben Ami's position as expressed last night—that Israel was born in sin, and that being a 'liberal' Zionist today means trying to ameliorate and compensate for the legacy of that sin by establishing a Palestinian state, is, if not just, still one that merits a measure of respect, particularly given how embattled it is within Israeli politics. But he should not attempt to minimise the gravity of that sin, the true dimensions and character of which he has elsewhere acknowledged.
Paul Charney of the UK Zionist Federation was at the debate representing the right wing of the Zionist spectrum, and the derision with which his contributions were received by the audience illustrated how little pro-Israel apologetics now resonate. An amusing foot-in-mouth moment came when, having tied himself into rhetorical knots, Charney found himself associating Israel with the British National Party:
MH: Do you accept that Arab citizen in Israel are treated differently to Jewish citizens in Israel?
PC: I accept that Israel has some way to go for all its citizens to be 100% equal in its society, not in the law, but in the society, and that takes time—
MH: What does that mean, 'not in the law'?
PC: That means that just [as] in every democratic society around the world minorities are treated, in some circumstances, differently to the majorities, including in this country here.
MH: Really? In this country people... are defined as an ethnic group and treated differently?
PC: You will see parties like the BNP talk about different 'races' and different 'minorities'—
MH: So you're comparing Israel to the British National Party, a far-right fascist party?
PC: I'm comparing Israel to a conglomerate of democratic parties, just like the UK.
(What he was trying to say, I presume, was that in the UK no less than in Israel legal equality has not eliminated racist attitudes and behaviour at the level of society, as the existence of the BNP demonstrates.)
Ben Ami also claimed that in Israel Jewish and Arab citizens enjoy legal equality, despite suffering social discrimination. However he quickly backed away from this. After Diana Buttu, former legal advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), listed some of the laws that discriminate against Israel's Arab citizens, Ben Ami acknowledged their existence and explained them as the inevitable product of Israel's definition as a Jewish majority state—such discrimination is, he admitted, 'inherent in a movement that wants [a] demographic majority.'
Mehdi Hasan pressed him on this point:
MH: Do you see Palestinians as a 'demographic threat' to Israel? Do you use that language?
SBA: It does not respond to the original plans of Zionism.
MH: What proportion of the Israeli population, in an ideal world, in Shlomo Ben Ami's ideal, would be Palestinians?
SBA: I don't, I mean, it's a—
MH: It's an important question. If you're going to talk about demography, how many Palestinians are too many?
SBA: I don't... I don't know, 20%? I can't say, I don't know—
MH: If it was 51% Palestinian, would that be a problem for you, as a liberal Zionist?
SBA: I guess not, but as a whole, the state needs to have a Jewish majority, because that was the initial idea, this was the essential—
MH: You're contradicting yourself. You're saying 'I guess not' to 51%, but 'the state needs to have a Jewish majority.'
SBA: You are discussing with me mathematics! I am talking about the principle.
MH: I'm asking about the principle! I'm saying, in a Jewish state with a 'demographic threat'—or 'demographic race' is the phrase you use in your book—how many Palestinians is too many?
SBA: *gesturing to audience* How many Muslims do you want in Britain? You are trying to turn Israel as a special, special case...
MH: It is a special case. It's the only democracy that defines itself on ethnic grounds.
SBA: There are others who do not define, but who do it in practice. For example, the Arab states are not Muslim?
MH: I don't think the Arab states have ever claimed to be Western liberal democracies.
Ben Ami's discomfort here comes from the fact that he's trying reconcile the irreconcilable. Using violence and law to engineer an ethnic majority at the expense of the rest of the population does not square with the values of those in the UK and U.S. who consider themselves liberal. For liberals, Noam Chomsky's articulation of the relevant principle is not controversial:
If a state is Jewish in certain respects, then in these respects it is not democratic. That much is obvious. If the respects are marginal and merely symbolic—the colour of the flag, the timing of state holidays, and the like—the departure from democratic principles is not serious. If the respects are significant, the problem is correspondingly severe.
If Israel's artificial Jewish majority were to be defended with any plausibility it would have to be as a justified departure from liberal norms, not as an expression of them.
On the diplomatic process, Ben Ami described continued bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians as a 'waste of time,' because 'I don't see an Israeli government in the foreseeable future that will meet the minimum requirements of the Palestinians for statehood.' (Alas, the Palestinians are at present so weak that it may not need to.) He urged, as an alternative, an internationally imposed settlement:
If the current paradigm continues, where the two parties are supposed to reach a settlement, there will not be a solution. A solution has to have an ingredient of imposition. It has to come from the international community. What you need is a peace plan that would become the internationally accepted interpretation of [UN resolution 242].
In fact, an internationally accepted interpretation of UN 242 already exists, and is annually reaffirmed by an overwhelming majority of United Nations member states.
As in his book, Ben Ami insisted that Israel and the Palestinians take 'shared responsibility' for the failure to end the conflict. In particular, he claimed that at the 2001 Taba negotiations, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak wanted a deal but was rebuffed by then-Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat. Diana Buttu, who like Ben Ami was present at Taba, rejected this account:
Taba didn't really differ very much from Camp David. The Israelis... [still] wanted the Ariel bloc, you still wanted Ma'ale Adumim, you still wanted to take large swathes of Palestinian land, there was still no recognition that Palestinians have a right to return to their homeland, there was still no compensation that was going to be paid.'
Prominent Israeli 'New Historian' Avi Shlaim also rejected the narrative of 'shared responsibility,' as applied to Israel's establishment:
Whichever way you look at the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, it involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians.
Shlaim added that, in his view, Israeli rejectionism has already doomed prospects for a two-state solution:
All my life I supported a two-state solution. But now I believe that the two-state solution is dead. It's dead as a dodo. It's dead as the Oxford dodo which you can see at the entrance to the Pitt Rivers Museum not very far from here. And Israeli governments destroyed the two-state solution—systematically destroyed the basis for a viable Palestinian state.
Asked about a one-state solution as an alternative to two-states, Ben Ami responded that the real alternative was unilateral Israeli withdrawal (most likely—although he didn't say this—to the Wall):
If we go back to the demography question, I think that if the two-state solution doesn't work, you will see a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the bulk of the West Bank, precisely because of the demographic issue. Why did Sharon disengage from Gaza and dismantle the settlements that he himself had created? Because of demography.