Zionist movement or Jewish home?

Israelis and Palestinians must accept that self-determination can no longer be understood in purely territorial terms.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews line up to vote in Bnei Brak, Israel [AP]
Ultra-Orthodox Jews line up to vote in Bnei Brak, Israel [AP]

Do Israel’s elections matter? To answer this question it suffices merely to ask one other: Is there a difference between the Zionist Union (HaMahane HaTzioni), the recently established coalition of relatively liberal parties headed by Labour Party Chief Isaac Herzog and HaTnuah Party chair and two-state negotiator Tzipi Livni, and the Jewish Home (HaBayit HaYehudi), the ultra-nationalist religious party headed by the guitar-strumming “I’ve killed lots of Arabs and I’m okay with that” tech-mogul Naftali Bennett.

Zionist movement or Jewish home? For 100 years the ambivalent relationship between a secular-grounded Zionism that sought to “move” Jews forward into modernity and a tradition-bound Judaism that had a more ambivalent relationship with Judaism’s timeless “home”, has defined Jewish, Zionist and Israeli life. It has led to intense infighting over issues such as the rights of Jewish women, recognition of non-Orthodox conversions and marriages, acceptance of homosexuality, and various other domestic social welfare policies of the Jewish state.

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But on the one issue that overrides everything else – namely whether or not Zionism as a political ideology and practice, and the state of Israel as its political embodiment, would enable the creation of a territorially and economically viable Palestinian state – there is no meaningful difference between the main Israeli parties.

Operating premise

Nor could there be; the operating premise of Zionist and Israeli policy have always been to prevent such a state from coming to be.

No Zionist leader or Israeli prime minister has ever strayed from that path (or at least strayed and lived, as Yitzhak Rabin’s murder reminds us). Netanyahu might have just taken back his already empty pledge to support a Palestinian state, but it was in fact under the Oslo-era Labour-led governments that the West Bank settlements were most deeply entrenched, and the policies of permanent Israeli economic domination vis-a-vis Palestinians was enacted. 

Today, liberals such as Livni, Yesh ‘Atid chair Yair Lapid, and Herzog, are very careful to couch their support for two-states in language and conditions that in fact makes such a solution impossible to carry out. Keeping the main settlements blocs, refusing to deal with the refugee problem, doing nothing to support economic independence for Palestinians, showing no willingness to rollback the last decade’s intrusions into Palestinian East Jerusalem or to lift the deadly siege on Gaza – these define Israel’s national consensus on the question of Palestine.

Indeed, one could argue that the nationalist camp’s Bennett, who advocates annexing the West Bank and giving full Israeli citizenship to Palestinians, has a more pragmatic and potentially far-reaching solution compared with his supposedly more liberal secular election opponents, since despite his “pledgeto do eveyrthing in my power to prevent giving away even one inch of Israeli soil to the Arabs”, the only possible denouement of such a plan is a the very democratic one state solution, including Gaza, which he seems to abhor.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the Bayit Yehudi party [EPA]
Naftali Bennett, leader of the Bayit Yehudi party [EPA]

Focus on the economy

Some commentators (such as the New York Times’ Paul Krugman), are focusing on the economy as the determining factor in this election, as voters cast their ballots based on whom they believe can deal with Israel’s soaring housing costs. It is in fact here that the clue to the future of Israeli politics lies.

To begin with, Zionism has been overpaying for land since for well over a century. It’s one of the strategies through which Jews gained title to otherwise unavailable Palestinian-owned land.

More recently, the rise in housing prices are a natural outcome of Israel’s move to a fully neoliberal economy. In the 1990s, when the main victims were Palestinian citizens pushed out of gentrifying mixed neighbourhoods such as Jaffa, such “market forces” were a convenient way to continue pushing nationalist goals (“redeeming” the land) without having it be official policy.

But the problem with neoliberalism is that it knows no boundaries. Ultimately the dynamics it sets in place, whether steepening housing costs or worsening inequality, can not be kept across the Green Line or within the “Arab sector” in Israel proper. At some point, economic considerations will trump nationalist ones.

Zionism has been overpaying for land since for well over a century. It's one of the strategies through which Jews gained title to otherwise unavailable Palestinian-owned land.


In fact, the very shaping of Zionism as a “militant nationalist movement” century ago that sought to “conquer” both the economy and territory of Palestine was born not out of ideology, but out of the practical needs of young immigrants for jobs and a secure place to live in a territory in which they had no practical roots. 

Unprecedented coalition

And here it is likely the “Joint List“, the unprecedented coalition of leftist, liberal and Islamist Arab/Palestinian parties, who might have the most far-reaching long-term impact.

As coalition head Ayman Odeh expressed in an important recent interview with Al Jazeera, the movement represents  a set of policies based on what could be called the “Haifa model” of joint struggle to “create concrete improvements in the lives of … all oppressed strata in Israel”.

If there is to be a real change in the fundamental dynamics of Israeli politics, it will be when the national religious pragmatism of Bennett and the necessary utopianism of Odeh meet in an enviornment where a critical mass of both Israelis and Palestinians has come to accept that self-determination can no longer be understood in purely territorial terms.

Today’s elections are an important indicator of when that day might arrive, but on their own terms they will likely do little to alter the present international or intercommunal dynamics of violence and domination in Israel/Palestine.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.