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Who Needs a Jewish State?

October 10, 2004

The second intifada, or Palestinian war on Israel, is 4 years old. Although it has featured guns and suicide bombs, it has failed just like the first intifada, in 1987-93, which featured rocks and Molotov cocktails. For every dead Israeli, there are three dead Palestinians. Thousands have been injured. Thousands more have been turned into refugees by Israel's unsubtle policy of avenging suicide bombs by destroying the houses of the bombers' relatives. The Palestinian economy -- near totally dependent on wages from jobs in Israel -- is a shambles, as Israel quite understandably has become choosier about who it lets in.

The headlines have obscured one remarkable positive development: Israel's acceptance in principle of a Palestinian state. Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- the most anti-Arab of all Israeli politicians -- accepts it, in principle. In fact, he is building a barrier that looks like his idea about where Israel's border with this state should be.

Palestinian leaders are flummoxed. And some of them are abandoning the two-state solution -- Israel and Palestine, side by side -- in favor of a one-state solution: a single, secular state in which Jews and Arabs would live in democratic harmony. This idea is percolating through the Western intelligentsia and even into left-wing circles in Israel.

So what is the problem? It's that such a state would not be Jewish. The premise of Zionism -- the premise of Israel -- is that Jews need and deserve their own state. Israel has always been slightly disingenuous about this, boasting that Arabs living in Israel proper (i.e., not the disputed territories) enjoy full civil equality. This is possible only because so many Arabs fled or were driven out when the Jewish state was declared in 1948.

A single state encompassing Israel and the disputed territories would reinvent this problem. It would bring the descendants of many 1948 refugees back into the fold, along with other Arabs. The higher Arab birthrate would make Jews a shrinking minority.

Many Americans might ask, so what? The United States prides itself on being a melting pot of different races, ethnicities and religions. But most countries are more like Israel. They define themselves ethnically or religiously or (like the surprising new states that popped up out of the dying Soviet empire) by some ancient and long-suppressed geographical chauvinism. Nations are, in political scientist Benedict Anderson's memorable phrase, "imagined communities," and the imagination takes many forms.

Good fences make good neighbors, as Robert Frost famously put it. In 1947, the same year Britain abandoned Palestine, it also left the Indian subcontinent. But first Britain divided the area into two nations: India for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims. The result hasn't been blissful. But there hasn't been an all-out war for 33 years. A one-state solution would have been nastier.

Israel must remain a Jewish state, and to do that and be a democracy as well, it must always have a Jewish majority. That has been a limit on the imperial ambitions of some of Israel's less-attractive leaders. It is also a limit on what the world and the Palestinians can expect Israel to accept.

It took the Israelis decades to accept the idea of a Palestinian state next door. They saw it as a staging ground for conquest and elimination of the Jewish state. The "single-state" solution would achieve that same illegitimate goal by more decorous means.

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