The collapse of Zionism

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By ILAN PAPPÉ*

Whether people welcome the idea or fear it, Israel's collapse has become predictable. This possibility should inform the long-term conversation about the future of the region

1.

The Hamas attack on October 7 can be compared to an earthquake hitting an old building. The cracks were already beginning to appear, but are now visible in its very foundations. More than 120 years after its inception, could the Zionist project in Palestine – the idea of ​​imposing a Jewish state on an Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern country – be facing the prospect of collapse?

Historically, a multitude of factors can make a state founder. It can result from constant attacks from neighboring countries or a chronic civil war. It may follow the collapse of public institutions, which become unable to provide services to citizens. It often begins as a slow process of disintegration that gains momentum and then, in a short period of time, topples structures that once seemed solid and firm.

The difficulty lies in identifying the first indicators. Here I will argue that they are clearer than ever in the case of Israel. We are witnessing a historical process – or, more precisely, the beginning of one – that will likely culminate in the fall of Zionism. And if my diagnosis is correct, then we are also entering a particularly dangerous juncture. For once Israel realizes the magnitude of the crisis, it will unleash fierce and uninhibited force to try to contain it, as the South African apartheid regime did during its final days.

2.

A first indicator is the fracture of Israeli Jewish society. Currently, it is made up of two rival camps that cannot find common ground. The fracture arises from the anomalies in the definition of Judaism as nationalism. While Jewish identity in Israel has sometimes seemed little more than a subject of theoretical debate between religious and secular factions, it has now become a struggle over the character of the public sphere and the state itself. This is being fought not only in the media, but also on the streets.

A camp may be called the “State of Israel.” It comprises more secular, liberal and mainly, but not exclusively, middle-class European Jews and their descendants, who were instrumental in establishing the state in 1948 and remained hegemonic within it until the end of the last century. Make no mistake, your defense of “liberal democratic values” does not affect your commitment to the system of apartheid which is imposed, in various ways, on all Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Their basic desire is for Jewish citizens to live in a democratic, pluralistic society from which Arabs are excluded.

The other camp is the “State of Judea,” which developed among settlers in the occupied West Bank. He enjoys growing levels of support within the country and constitutes the electoral base that ensured Benjamin Netanyahu's victory in the November 2022 elections. His influence in the upper echelons of the Israeli army and security services is growing exponentially. The State of Judea wants Israel to become a theocracy that extends throughout historic Palestine.

To achieve this, it is determined to reduce the number of Palestinians to a minimum, and is contemplating the construction of a Third Temple in the place of al-Aqsa. Its members believe this will enable them to renew the golden age of the Biblical Kingdoms. To them, secular Jews are as heretical as Palestinians if they refuse to participate in this effort.

The two camps began to clash violently before October 7th. In the first weeks after the attack, they appeared to put aside their differences in the face of a common enemy. But that was an illusion. Street fighting has reignited, and it is difficult to see what could possibly bring about reconciliation. The most likely outcome is already unfolding before our eyes. More than half a million Israelis, representing the State of Israel, have left the country since October, an indication that the country is being swallowed up by the State of Judea. This is a political project that the Arab world, and perhaps even the world at large, will not tolerate in the long term.

3.

The second indicator is the Israel's economic crisis. The political class does not appear to have any plan to balance public finances amid perpetual armed conflict, in addition to becoming increasingly dependent on American financial aid. In the last quarter of last year, the economy fell by almost 20%; Since then, the recovery has been fragile. Washington's pledge of $14 billion is unlikely to reverse that. On the contrary, the economic burden will only worsen if Israel follows through on its intention to go to war with Hezbollah while increasing military activity in the West Bank, at a time when some countries – including Turkey and Colombia – have begun to apply economic sanctions.

The crisis is further worsened by the incompetence of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who constantly funnels money to Jewish settlements in the West Bank but appears incapable of managing his department. The conflict between the State of Israel and the State of Judea, together with the events of October 7th, is, however, causing part of the economic and financial elite to move their capital out of the state. Those considering reallocating their investments make up a significant portion of the 20% of Israelis who pay 80% of taxes.

4.

The third indicator is the Israel's growing international isolation, as it gradually becomes a pariah state. This process began before October 7, but has intensified since the start of the genocide. It is reflected by the unprecedented positions adopted by the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. Previously, the global Palestine solidarity movement was able to galvanize people to participate in boycott initiatives, but failed to advance the prospect of international sanctions. In most countries, support for Israel remained unwavering among establishment political and economic.

In this context, the recent decisions of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court – that Israel may be committing genocide, that it must stop its offensive in Rafah, that its leaders must be arrested for war crimes – must be seen as an attempt to cater to the views of global civil society rather than merely reflecting elite opinion. The courts have not eased the brutal attacks on the people of Gaza and the West Bank. But they have contributed to the growing chorus of criticism directed at the Israeli state, which increasingly comes from above as well as below.

5.

The fourth interconnected indicator is the sea change among young Jews around the world. After the events of the past nine months, many now seem willing to abandon their connection to Israel and Zionism and actively participate in the Palestinian solidarity movement. Jewish communities, particularly in the US, have already provided Israel with effective immunity from criticism. The loss, or at least partial loss, of this support has major implications for the country's global standing.

AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) can still rely on Christian Zionists to provide assistance and bolster its membership, but it will not be the same formidable organization without a significant Jewish constituency. The power of the lobby is eroding.

6.

The fifth indicator is the weakness of the Israeli army. There is no doubt that the IDF remains a powerful force with cutting-edge weaponry at its disposal. However, its limitations were exposed on October 7th. Many Israelis feel that the military was extremely fortunate, as the situation could have been much worse if Hezbollah had joined in a coordinated attack.

Since then, Israel has shown that it desperately depends on a US-led regional coalition to defend itself against Iran, whose warning strike in April saw the deployment of some 170 drones as well as ballistic and guided missiles. More than ever, the Zionist project depends on the rapid delivery of enormous quantities of supplies from the Americans, without which it could not even fight a small guerrilla army in the south.

There is now a widespread perception of Israel's unpreparedness and inability to defend itself among the country's Jewish population. This led to a huge push to remove the military exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews – in place since 1948 – and begin recruiting them by the thousands. This is unlikely to make much difference on the battlefield, but it reflects the scale of pessimism about the army – which in turn has deepened political divisions within Israel.

7.

The final indicator is the renewal of energy among the younger generation of Palestinians. It is much more united, organically connected and clear about its perspectives than the Palestinian political elite. Given that the population of Gaza and the West Bank is among the youngest in the world, this new cohort will have immense influence on the course of the liberation struggle.

The discussions taking place among young Palestinian groups show that they are concerned with establishing a genuinely democratic organization – whether a renewed PLO, or an entirely new one – that will pursue a vision of emancipation that is antithetical to the Palestinian Authority's campaign for recognition as a state. . They appear to favor a one-state solution over the discredited two-state model.

Will they be able to mount an effective response to the decline of Zionism? This is a difficult question to answer. The collapse of a state project is not always followed by a brighter alternative. Elsewhere in the Middle East – in Syria, Yemen and Libya – we have seen how bloody and prolonged the results can be. In this case, it would be a question of decolonization, and the previous century has shown that postcolonial realities do not always improve the colonial condition. Only the agency of Palestinians can move us in the right direction.

I believe that, sooner or later, an explosive fusion of these indicators will result in the destruction of the Zionist project in Palestine. When that happens, we should hope that a robust liberation movement will be there to fill the void. For more than 56 years, what was called the “peace process” – a process that went nowhere – was in fact a series of American-Israeli initiatives in which Palestinians were invited to speak out.

Today, “peace” must be replaced by decolonization, and Palestinians must be able to articulate their vision for the region, with Israelis invited to speak out. This would mark the first time, at least in many decades, that the Palestinian movement would take the lead in defining its proposals for a post-colonial, non-Zionist Palestine (or whatever the new entity would be called).

In doing so, you will probably look to Europe (perhaps to the Swiss cantons and the Belgian model) or, more appropriately, to the old structures of the eastern Mediterranean, where secularized religious groups gradually transformed into ethnocultural groups that lived side by side in the same territory.

Whether people welcome the idea or fear it, Israel's collapse has become predictable. This possibility should inform the long-term conversation about the region’s future. It will be forced onto the agenda as people realize that the century-long attempt, led by Britain and then the US, to impose a Jewish state on an Arab country is slowly coming to an end.

It was successful enough to create a society of millions of settlers, many of them now second and third generations. But their presence still depends, as it did when they arrived, on their ability to violently impose their will on millions of natives, who have never given up their fight for self-determination and freedom in their homeland.

In the coming decades, settlers will have to abandon this approach and show their willingness to live as equal citizens in a liberated and decolonized Palestine.

*Ilan Pappé, Israeli historian, is professor at the University of Exeter (UK). Author, among other books, of The ethnic cleansing of Palestine (sundermann). [https://amzn.to/4cfeCoj]

Translation: Samuel Kilsztajn.

Originally published on the blog of New Left Review.


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