For many long-time observers, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not what it used to be. Populations now begin to clash. Palestinian terrorists murder Jewish teenagers. Israel gets drawn into and enters into asymmetrical armed conflicts. Whipped up by raw appeals to religion and nationalism, Palestinian teenagers murder Jewish parents in front of their children, or run over pedestrians. What is this supposed to lead to? Jewish terrorists torch mosques and churches, incinerate Palestinian homes. A teenage boy is murderedin cold blood and his body burned. A Palestinian family slaughtered while they were sleeping. Marauding vigilantes go after Arab passerby in West Jerusalem or attack leftwing demonstrators, settler vigilantes harass Palestinian farmers and attack Jewish human rights workers under the eye of Israeli soldiers. There are openly racist incitement by members of Parliament, drafts of anti-democratic legislation, official witch hunts against left wing NGOs, banning books from high school curricula, all in the absence of a viable political opposition.
What is happening to the State of Israel? What’s on view is a complete unhinging of Israeli and Palestinian politics. Where is the state, where is the political leadership in either community? It used to be that, in the Arab world, Israel was only mentioned as “the Zionist entity.” I do not know how far back that expression goes. But it was still in circulation in the 1970s and into the 1980s, back when the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was still in its infancy, and when there were very few Jewish settlers living in those territories newly conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Come what may and warts and all, once upon a time there was a State of Israel, not an “entity. The territory it occupied was defined as a coherent state by internationally recognized borders, with one people, more or less on one side of a border, and other people on the other side of the line, in Egypt or Syria, or on the West Bank and in Gaza who, for the most part, rejected the existence of the state.
It has been some 50 years since the occupation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza and some 40 years of intensive Jewish settlement. After that long passage of time and with no end in sight of Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza, it might be time to stop talking about the State of Israel as a coherent state and to revive the term “entity,” although oddly enough one encounters it only rarely nowadays in the Arab world, where the Iranian threat, not Israel, is considered by most Sunni dominated states to be the chief concern.
Why call the State of Israel an “entity” and what is one supposed to mean by it? The logic is actually simple once one comes to a correct definition of terms. Until the government of Israel acts to determine it otherwise, the State of Israel can be considered neither “democratic” nor “Jewish,” not even a “state.” Rather it might make more sense to refer to a single entity, a “binational entity,” exercising sovereign control over two unequal component parts — the State of Israel as such, defined historically by the 1967 borders and by legitimate organs of government, and the occupied West Bank under the political and military control of the former.
–Without defined territorial borders and without a more or less unified society and national culture, a more or less common ethos connecting all of its citizens into a more or less working compact, the State of Israel can barely be considered, if at all, a “state” in the modern sense of the term. In the current configuration the State of Israel and the occupied West Bank merge into one sovereign “entity” defined by Israeli control, territorial contiguity, and the deep intertwining of two separate national populations more or less equal in size and unequal in rights.
–Without a clear demographic majority in the territories controlled by the State of Israel, that entity already today certainly cannot be considered a “Jewish.” By “Jewish state,” at a minimum one would have to have meant a national entity with a majority Jewish population, society, and culture. Israel is in no way a bi-national “state.” But if Israel consists of two national groups under the total area of its sovereign presence and control, then that entity is already a “bi-national,” even if the “state” is not.
–That this entity consists of large group of disenfranchised Palestinians enjoying unequal citizenship inside the 1967 borders or no citizenship at all in the West Bank and Gaza, the entity controlled by the State of Israel and that is gradually taking over the governing institutions the state as a complete territorial unit cannot be considered “democratic” except only nominally.
People who argue back and forth for and against the idea and the future of a two-state or a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ignore the entity-like nature of the current confabulation. Arguing here against the one state idea, Gershon Gorenberg observes that society and politics in West Bank-Palestine, no less than in Jewish-Israel, are structured upon the idea and program of national self-determination. Pluralistic democracy and the idea of a “bi-national state” is on barely anyone’s agenda apart from a handful of Israeli leftists (also some rightwingers) and promoters of Palestinian rights in the west. But the State of Israel and the territories under its control already constitute a “bi-national entity,” which turns out to be incoherent, violent, and unstable.
With family, friends, and professional contacts in Israel and connections that go back a lifetime, as an American Jew and Jewish Studies professor, as a liberal-left Zionist, I can only speak for myself as a concerned and committed and deeply implicated bystander. Like many liberal and leftwing supporters of a two-state solution, I am not convinced that this bi-national condition is necessarily permanent. But nor am I unconvinced, It could be that the occupation is irreversible, for as long as the far right Israeli political leadership continues to lead the country assuming they can “manage the conflict” while entrenching settlements. My own sense is that this bi-national entity will not be able to withstand the deep internal contradictions and broadening international pressures to which it will be increasingly subject.