Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Monday, April 16, 2012

Synthetic Liberal Zionism

Last week I picked up a 1985 biography of Zionist leader Haim (traditionally spelled Chaim but pronounced Khaim) Weizmann covering his early period as a Zionist leader up to the outbreak of World War I. I read it with one eye on the past and one eye on the present and future--looking for what Weizmann could teach me about leadership and policy.

Weizmann was a young man when Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, first emerged on the scene as a charismatic savior for Eastern Jewry in 1895. Weizmann joined the new Zionist movement and soon emerged as the first internal Zionist opposition leader to Herzl while he was a leader of Russian Jewish students in Central Europe. He founded the Democratic Faction, which unfortunately soon collapsed because of a lack of common ideology and policy. Weizmann sided with the Russian Zionist opposition to Herzl in the Uganda controversy of 1903-04 when Herzl proposed that the Zionists accept a British offer to settle Jews in British East Africa (today's Kenya) as a "night shelter" to avoid any more being killed and injured in pogroms in Russia. Weizmann sympathized with Herzl's reasons for accepting the British offer, but realized that lacking his own base he would have to settle with the Russian Zionists who opposed the offer. By the time of Herzl's premature death from a heart attack in July 1904 Britain was in the process of withdrawing the offer due to opposition from white settlers already within the colony.

But Weizmann, like Herzl, appreciated the importance of Britain to the future of the Zionist movement. Even though his English was quite poor (he spoke German, French, and Russian in addition to Yiddish and Hebrew) he moved to Manchester, England to take up a position as a lecturer in chemistry. 

The first wave of Zionism from 1882 to 1897 consisted of a move to settle Palestine with Jews as farmers. A number of new settlements were established but Jews still remained only a small minority within the overall population. Herzl came along with the idea of winning a charter for Jewish colonization of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire in exchange for helping to solve the Ottomans' financial problems. He spent the rest of his live vainly trying to convince the Ottomans to grant a charter through both direct approaches to the Sublime Port in Istanbul and to the capitals of the other great powers in Europe. 

From 1906 to 1910 Weizmann led a fight within the Zionist movement to create a synthesis of "practical Zionism"--settlement activity--with "political Zionism"--diplomacy--as he saw the two as reinforcing one another. This synthesis was dubbed "synthetic Zionism" and became the policy of the labor Zionist movement until statehood in 1948. From the Uganda offer to the Balfour declaration in November 1917, which was when Weizmann won a charter for settlement in Palestine, was the low point of the modern Zionist movement. 

Likewise, the period from the collapse of the Oslo process in October 2000 to the present and the near future is the low point of liberal Zionism. The Labor Party and Meretz collapsed within Israel losing three quarters of their strength within the Knesset compared to 1992. George W. Bush briefly paid lip service to mediating a two-state solution before he turned away in 2003. Barack Obama, the new hope of the Israeli Left, made a few speeches and then abandoned the issue to deal with more immediate concerns at home and abroad (the Great Recession, health care, two wars).  

The only real positive aspect of this period was the emergence of J Street in 2008-09 as an alternative to the hawkish AIPAC lobby that supported the Israeli government of the day, and was secretly pro-Likud. J Street, like Herzl's World Zionist Organization, is fixated on the big end goal of American mediation leading to a two-state solution. According to a senior J Street member, the organization doesn't do policy. Its function is purely agitprop (agitation and propaganda or lobbying). Likewise in Israel the Left has remained focused on the failed peace process to the exclusion of all other issues. 

Today we need a new synthetic Zionism or synthetic liberal Zionism. This new synthesis should within Israel emphasize economic and social issues that will allow the parties of the Center-Left to rebuild and recover their lost strength. In the United State it should avoid calling for American mediation until a policy is developed that will give such mediation a good shot at success. This means looking at other peace processes similar to that in the Middle East--such as the effort to win the independence of Namibia by ending South African occupation and the Northern Ireland peace process.  Peace processes in which outside mediation and pressure combined with internal opposition led the ruling parties to change their approach and negotiate seriously. 

AIPAC developed its own spin-off think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in order to build credibility for its policy prescriptions. As soon as it is financially strong enough to launch its own think tank concentrating on Israeli politics, Palestinian politics, and comparative peace process analysis, J Street should do so. This, along with the building of grassroots chapters, is the American equivalent of practical Zionism today.

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