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Robert K. Lifton

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Zionism at Risk

Posted: 07/05/11 07:34 PM ET

I am a Zionist. Like most Jews living in the United States and elsewhere in the world, I believe in the indispensability of a Jewish state as an ultimate haven and as representative of the Jewish people, whose long history of pogroms, mistreatment as second class citizens, mass expulsions and the extreme horror of the Holocaust demonstrates a need for a state of their own. Even before the recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, as a teenager I rode the New York subways soliciting contributions for the Jewish National Fund to purchase land in the Yishuv. After the establishment of Israel, I supported the state and its institutions in many ways, including political activities, contributions and investment. Like other Jews, I took great pride in the enormous accomplishments of the Israeli people in building a successful modern state on what had been farmland and living up to its promise by accepting close to one million Soviet Jews and integrating them into its society.

However, that promise now faces a serious threat. This comes not in the form of foreign militaries, Palestinian terror or economic instability, but in the very persons who purport to support it. The alliance of aggressive nationalists and religious expansionists is endangering the dream of Zionism as conceived of by Theodore Herzl and shared by millions of Jews. Through their overzealous efforts toward expansion, in which they seek to extend Israel's jurisdiction over the biblical "whole land of Israel" -- the Territories gained in the 1967 Six-Day War -- they are endangering the Zionist foundations of that land.

For many years, I have been concerned that Israel not put at risk its Zionist purpose in an effort to expand its reach into the Territories. During my tenure as President of the American Jewish Congress, starting in 1988, we argued that in view of the demographics of Palestinian and Israeli population growth, among other factors, Israel would not be able to continue as both a Jewish and a democratic state if it attempted to annex the Territories as part of the state of Israel. AJCongress members and I were reflecting our inchoate feeling that the Zionist enterprise to which we were committed was threatened by the ambitions of Israel's government, led by then-Prime-Minister Yitzhak Shamir, to extend Israel's outreach to parts of the West Bank and Gaza. The settlement program has been an instrument of that policy. Since that time, Israel's Prime Ministers, including even Sharon and Olmert on the right, have understood the threat to a Jewish state that the desire to incorporate the Territories represented. They also recognized that the settlements, originally conceived of as defensive enclaves against Israel's potential enemies, in some cases could represent a burden on the military's ability to defend Israeli citizens.

The Palestinian leadership, for years bereft of ideas other than violence and intifada, which left them with little support outside the Arab states, is now seeking to exploit the opening that Israeli expansionists have left them. As noted by the perceptive Palestinian writer Rami G. Khouri: "Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, Palestinians seem to be making a strategic shift in their mode of confrontation with Israel, from occasional military attacks toward a more non-violent and political confrontation." Khouri then lists the dimensions of the "signs of Palestinian political struggle." These include "the Palestinian insistence to ask the UN General Assembly to vote this September on recognizing a Palestinian state within the borders of the lands occupied by Israel in 1967 (West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem)," and "the continued development of the global movement for a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with its obligations under international law and conventions" According to Khouri, the Palestinians seek to send "a single integrated message that finds resonance around the world: Israel's practices against the Palestinians continue to reflect a combination of criminality and impunity that are totally unacceptable, and people of conscience everywhere are taking action to force Israel to comply with its legal obligations." He goes on to say, "Israelis and Zionists complain that this is a campaign to delegitimize Israel. That is accurate."

Other Palestinian intellectuals are taking another strategic tack; calling for the formation of a bi-national state encompassing Palestinians and Jews alike. They already argue that the present circumstance of Jewish control of Palestinian lives without Palestinian representation is a form of apartheid. Certainly, if there were such a bi-national state governed only by Jews, the apartheid label would fit. If it were governed by democratic vote, it would not be a Jewish state, thus ending the Zionist endeavor. This is far too high a price to pay for clinging to the concept of a "Greater Israel."

It is in the hands of Mr. Netanyahu and his government to take the actions that save Zionism. He has said that he supports a two-state solution. His nationalist and religious coalition will be difficult to carry along to a two-state solution that is within the range of acceptability to the Palestinians. Netanyahu now has to demonstrate the flexibility and ability to negotiate a deal with the Palestinians that will gain sufficient support from the Israeli people in any referendum that he may want to rely on. At the same time, the Palestinians must find a way either to reform or bypass Hamas, which stubbornly continues to call for the destruction of the state of Israel and thus makes it impossible for any Israeli leader to make a deal. (See my blog "The Palestinians at the Cross Road of History Must Take the Right Path.") Until they do that, it is likely that the United States can stop the U.N. Resolution from passing in the Security Council. This will help buy time for the Israeli government. At some point, though, the Palestinians will improve their strategic position further by eliminating the Hamas obstacle. Israeli leadership should prepare now for that time with a peace program that recognizes the tension between expansionist nationalism and Zionism and ensures the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state consistent with the Zionist imperative.

Mr. Lifton, a businessman and political activist, is writing a book entitled "Life's Lessons and Stories from a Member of The 'Greatest Generation.'"