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Identity: The Quest for Israel’s Future
Part autobiography, part concise political treatise
By Emanuel Shahaf Posted in Non-fiction 5 min read
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There is no doubt that Israel’s current crisis highlights a considerable number of faults in the system of government in use here since the state’s inception, some of them severe. Our problem with the justice system was known early on and the appeal to write a constitution, already in the Declaration of Independence, was there for a reason. We nevertheless decided to ignore it out of self-interest and political expediency and we still don’t have one. Our problematic electoral system has made life difficult for us in the last decades until it essentially failed recently and left us with no clear decision, three elections in a row. And there are more…

Although in its short life the State of Israel has endured many crises, even severe crises, we never before encountered a combined, multi-systemic health-economic-governance crisis like the one the country is going through these days. And this is without even touching on our conflict with the Palestinians which remains unresolved and may spark a major crisis of its own at any moment, potentially causing even more harm. We are on the brink of an abyss and if we do not embark on a real governmental revolution, one that will allow us to deal rationally and in a democratic way with the difficult problems Israel has, both in terms of overall vision and appropriate governance, we will not be able to build a decent future as an Israeli Nation.

Our present system of government served the Jewish and democratic State of Israel, which in reality is a bi-national state with a 20% Arab minority, not too badly for 19 years until the amazing victory of 1967 disrupted our progress materially. In addition to major territorial expansion, it brought about the growth of messianic political movements that wanted to maintain Jewish control over the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. At the same time, political developments in its wake failed to bring about the political moderation and flexibility required to adequately deal with the large Palestinian population that came to live under our sovereignty. The bi-nationalism in Israel that we have ignored over the years keeps haunting us and along with the occupation of the West Bank, the events of Earth Day (1976) and the October 2000 riots have led some Israeli Arabs to discover and foster their Palestinian nationality. We are left with a bi-national or even a multi-national reality between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River but with a system of government that serves first and foremost and with clear preference, in large parts of the territory, the Jewish majority.

The Declaration of Independence on the basis of which we established the State of Israel referred to a National Home for the Jews, with equal rights for minorities. Nevertheless and despite having been in control of large minorities of Israeli Arabs and also Palestinians over many years, the State of Israel never fully lived up to the ideal of equality expressed in the DOI and continues to serve first and foremost its Jewish population. In addition, while in practice the entire territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River remains under our control, we lately (2018) legislated a law declaring Israel to be a Jewish Nation State. Neither the Declaration of Independence, nor any other constituent document of the State of Israel mentions this definition and it certainly would not have been accepted by the UN in the 1947 Partition Resolution. This foolhardy piece of legislation further emphasizes the distinction we make between Jews and non-Jews in the territory under our control. Under these circumstances and in order to maintain democratic norms, there is really to alternative but to re-establish the State of Israel as a civic state with an Israeli nationality, a concept probably closer to what our founding fathers had in mind in the first place.

As someone who grew up in a multicultural environment and lived for significant periods in 5 different cultures, two Protestant, one Jewish, one Muslim and one Catholic, I do have perspective. In addition, 21 years of service in the Israeli security establishment have helped me to understand what others are slowly coming around to realize: The State of Israel can only thrive as an egalitarian and civic state with recognized borders that should be determined soon. Practically speaking there will probably not be a Jewish and a Palestinian State here, side by side, because politically this option no longer exists even if on the ground it may appear that is still exercisable.

The implications are far-reaching. In my autobiography “Identity – The Quest for Israel’s Future”, I describe the personal and political path that led me to propose, together with my friend and associate Arieh Hess, the implementation of a single civic state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River (excluding the Gaza Strip) with a constitution and regional government, an Israeli federation that preserves a Jewish majority. It meets most of the criteria that are really important to us and the Palestinians can relate to it positively as well. But just as it was in 1948, it is first and foremost the Jews who will have to decide, make the decisions and implement them. We did it once. We can do it again. The truth is that we have no choice. The State of Israel, as we established it in 1948, no longer serves the needs of the people of the Land of Israel and its structure is obsolete and causes severe problems – the sense of security that many of us still perceive, is highly deceptive. We must reestablish the State of Israel as a civic state with recognized borders, for a better future for all of us.

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