EDITORIAL & TOM SEGEV: The failure of Zionism

The failure of Zionism

Israel apologists, in defending Israel’s war on Gaza, repeatedly return to the same question: what would you do? Is Israel not acting in exactly the same way that any other country would when under attack?

Implicit in this question is the notion of Israel as a stable, democratic, fundamentally peaceable nation whose only serious problem is the hostility of its neighbors.

The fact that Israel has existed in a near perpetual state of war since its creation is treated as being descriptive of the region in which Israel exists and not descriptive of Israel itself.

At the same time, look anywhere else on the planet at any government and any nation whose political system is profoundly molded by warfare and it is clear that relentless war and sustainable democratic governance are incompatible.

Any nation that perpetually focuses on threats from outside, simultaneously rots from within.

When thoughtful, open-minded Israelis such as Tom Segev have reached the conclusion that peace is no longer possible — that the best that Israelis and Palestinians can hope for is better conflict management — isn’t it time to declare the Zionist project a failure?

To say that Zionism has failed is not to suggest that the state of Israel can or should be dismantled but to say that Israel will never become what it was hoped to be.

Without this recognition of failure, Israel will remain in a state of paralysis. In its state of partial birth it will become progressively more disfigured.

Peace is no longer in sight

At the end of the 10th day of Israel’s operation in the Gaza Strip, I was zapping between Israeli, Arab and international TV channels. The pictures grew more gruesome from moment to moment. Then a friend called to tell me that Mezzo, a French concert channel, had just started playing “Christ on the Mount of Olives,” a rather obscure oratorio by Beethoven.

It happened that I had been on the Mount of Olives a few hours earlier with a Palestinian friend whose 11-year-old son, Ahmed, needed some treatment at the Augusta Victoria Hospital. It wasn’t easy to get the two through the Israeli checkpoint separating their West Bank village from east Jerusalem. As we drove up the hillside, we had to navigate around burning tires that Palestinian protesters had left on the road. We were not hurt, but Ahmed was scared.

As I listened to the Beethoven on Mezzo for a while, I was doing what more and more Israelis tend to do these days, even as the atrocious events in Gaza continue: escaping the news and taking refuge in cultural and other non-political activities. That escapism reflects the new Israeli fatalism.

I belong to a generation of Israelis who grew up believing in peace. At the end of the Six-Day War of 1967, I was 23, and I had no doubt that 40 years later, the Israeli-Arab war would be over. Today, my son, who is 28, no longer believes in peace. Most Israelis don’t. They know that Israel may not survive without peace, but from war to war, they have lost their optimism. So have I.

The latest operation in Gaza was expected and practically inevitable; the timing seemed perfect. Palestinian Hamas rockets fired from Gaza had been falling on southern Israeli towns with increasing frequency after an Egyptian-backed ceasefire expired; public pressure on the government to act mounted as the general elections scheduled for next month drew closer. Israel took advantage of the Bush administration’s last days in office; the holiday season kept the international community uninterested for a few days; and the clear skies over Gaza allowed for uninterrupted air strikes.

Most Israelis believed that the operation would be short and decisive, but many feared a repetition of the disastrous adventure in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Israelis are very spoiled. We like our wars to be short and successful.

Like any other country, Israel has a duty to defend its citizens. While the latest operation may never make it into the official count of Arab-Israeli wars, it is already another round in an endless continuum of reciprocal violence. They hit us, we hit them and vice versa; they usually miss, we usually don’t.

From my perspective, the immediate blame for the latest events rests with Egypt, for it was Egyptian corruption and inefficiency that enabled Hamas to smuggle its rocket arsenal into Gaza. Yet there is a sad familiarity to all this. Apart from the conflict’s cruelty — particularly toward civilians, including numerous children — the present eruption is most likely to be remembered as yet another step in a long march of folly that began in 1967.

Following the Six-Day War, the Israeli government contemplated moving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza and resettling them in the West Bank. That could have made the present situation infinitely less convoluted. But the plans remained on paper because some of the most powerful members of the Israeli government, including the right-wing leader Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, believed that the West Bank should be reserved exclusively for Jewish settlement.

This was probably the worst mistake in Israel’s history. With nearly 300,000 Israelis living in the West Bank today and an additional 200,000 living in the formerly Arab part of Jerusalem, it is almost impossible to draw sensible borders and achieve peace.

In addition to the staggering difficulty of pulling out of the West Bank and sharing Jerusalem, there is the Palestinian demand for “the right of return” to Israel proper for the Palestinian refugees who fled or were driven out of their homes during the fighting in 1948-49. Many of them and their descendants live in Gaza.

For many years, Israel has adhered to a number of basic assumptions that have never proven right. Some of these theories contributed to the operation in Gaza this time. According to one such assumption, inflicting hardship on Palestinian civilians will make the population rise up against its leaders and choose more “moderate” ones. Hence, when Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, after a short, sharp struggle with its secular rivals in Fatah, Israel imposed a blockade on the strip, pushing 1.5 million Palestinians to the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. But Hamas has only become stronger. And here’s another false Israeli assumption: that Hamas is a terrorist organization. In fact, it’s also a genuine national and religious movement supported by most of the people in Gaza. It cannot be simply bombed away.

The latest violence hasonce again brought reporters from all over the world to the region. Many of them wonder why Israelis and Palestinians don’t simply agree to divide the land between them. Indeed, Israeli leaders support a two-state solution, which had previously been advocated only by the extreme left. Palestinian leaders, though not the heads of Hamas, have agreed to accept this solution. Apparently, only the details of the agreement have to be worked out. If only it were that simple.

This conflict is not merely about land and water and mutual recognition. It is about national identity. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians define themselves by the Holy Land — all of it. Any territorial compromise would compel both sides to relinquish part of their identity.

In recent years, with the rise of Hamas and the increasing militance of some Jewish settlers, this precariously irrational conflict has also assumed a more religious character — and thereby become even more difficult to solve. Islamic fundamentalists, as well as Jewish ones, have made control of the land part of their faith, and that faith is dearer to them than human life.

So I find myself among the new majority of Israelis who no longer believe in peace with the Palestinians. The positions are simply too far apart at this time.

I no longer believe in solving the conflict. What I do believe in is better conflict management — including talks with Hamas, which is a taboo that must be broken. The need for U.S. engagement has led me, along with many other Israelis, to harbor high hopes for the administration of Barack Obama. The Bush administration was mainly concerned with keeping alive a diplomatic fiction called “The Peace Process.” But there really was no such “process.” Instead, the oppression of the Palestinians continued and intensified, even after Israel had evacuated several thousand settlers from Gaza in 2005. More settlements were put up in the West Bank.

The friendliest thing that President Obama can do for Israel in the long run would be to induce her to return to her original purpose: to be a Jewish and democratic country. Rather than design another fictitious “road map” for peace, the Obama administration may be more useful and successful by trying merely to manage the conflict, aiming at a more limited yet urgently needed goal: to make life more livable for both Israelis and Palestinians.

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8 thoughts on “EDITORIAL & TOM SEGEV: The failure of Zionism

  1. SansS

    This is consistently overlooked: Israel has no constitution! No political party in Israel has the influence needed to frame or even propose a formal constitution. This is explained by the opposition from the religious community of Israel.

    The lack of a formal constitution fails Israelis.

    A formal constitution similar in secularism to Turkey’s formal constitution would seem to be a very important piece of establishing an ‘n’ state solution.

    How can parties move forward without the transparency that a formal constitution provides. Governance need to be addressed before land is, otherwise the transfer of land will always be suspect. And it has been.

    The world needs to consider a boycott conditional upon a formal secular constitution. It’s for the interest of Israelis and world peace.

  2. peppino naccarato

    Mr Tom Segev affirms that this conflict commenced in 1967… but he has
    erred… this conflict begins during the creation of the Israeli state in 1948;

    moreover, he blames this recent war on Egypt; he has errred again; he neglects to introduce the humanitarian crisis which has plagued Gaza for 3 years…
    and he also neglects the Israeli Navy attcking fish boats in the Med Sea; in addition, it was on Nov 4 that the IDF entered Gaza and attacked…

    Truth is important: historical and political…



  3. John Robertson

    Zionism has indeed failed, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it ought to be plain by now that it never had a chance of succeeding without the complete dispossession and removal of the non-Jewish occupants of the land of Palestine. Ben-Gurion and the other “pioneers” of his era were deeply steeped in a European nationalism imbued with a quasi-racist and Orientalist sense of the superiority of (white) European civilization and values – a value system that had no place for the Arabs other than as underlings. The post-colonial experience around the globe since the early 20th century has made it plain that colonized peoples ultimately will not put up with control by their colonizers, or by those who would compel them to abandon their homelands in the service of the colonizers’ created sense of “nation.”
    The Zionist project has failed; and it has been, all things considered, a catastrophe for the Middle East. I will not argue that the state of Israel be dismantled or destroyed. But it does need to be reconstructed on the basis of a truly secular and inclusive democracy that accords no special rights or privileges to its Jewish citizens.

  4. able tuno

    when will the world stop israelis and this zionist movement this is fourty plus years and the holocaust was short

  5. Paul

    Of course zionism has failed. There was never any possibility of it doing otherwise. Zionism is, at its deepest core, an ideology that attempts to embrace profound injustice as the fundamental and validating basis for its own legitimacy. Of couse there is no peace. Chronic and pervaisive injustice creates chronic and ever growing disunity and division. These inevitably breed lasting strife. The Zionists refuse to acknowledge the injustice of their most basic premises, preferring instead to think of themselves as the innocent victims of the hatred and violence that they have themselves created out of there own unjust policies. It appears that there is nothing that will dissuade them from dogmatic adherance to their self-defeating ideologies. Worse, it appears the the most hardcore of zionists do not want peace at any level, given how everytime peace comes near, they do whatever it takes to chase it away…be it by assassinating their own peace makers or by committing an endless series of ever-escalating provocations that are intended to produce a violent response by the Palestinians. In its essence, zionism is a form of self-justifying applied sociopathy, perfectly at peace with using either genocide or ethnic cleansing to achieve its ideologically driven goals. Witness the ongoing war crimes of today, and ask how these people differ qualitatively from those malevolent despots of the past who themselves came into positions of power. As was true with all such past despots, the evil works they do today are limited only by available means and by the restraints that are externally imposed upon them from outside. Yet, they portray themselves as the perpetual victims.

    As it sometimes happens in the course of history, the bad guys sometimes manage to get their day in the sun. But they always fail, invariably as a direct consequence of their own self-defeating behaviors, and often, with help derived of the combined countering efforts from external peoples of conscience. Think of it: they always fail. Israel, as a zionist state, will be no different. It is already happening, and they have no one to blame but themselves.

  6. Dan Theodore


    I read your book, “One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate” a number of years ago. While it seemed you strived to be objective, your bias was clearly showing, but that is to be expected in any author.

    One thing that I hope Israelis come to understand is that if they do not make an HONEST piece with the Palestinians and other Arabs they will be in a world of hurt. The USA is a declining empire and will not be able to run cover and financially support Israel for very much longer.

    I sent the below email to an Israeli author in August of 2007. It is now more pertinent than back then.
    You stated in your recent article, Normalizing Injustice, on the Counter Punch web site:

    “In mandate Palestine, Jews constituted little more than 30% of the population and owned just 6% of its land. That statehood endeavour involved the brutal dispossession of another people.”

    It would have been far more enlightening to say that the quadrupling of the Jewish population in Palestine between 1914 and 1941 was mostly due to substantial illegal Jewish immigration from mostly eastern Europe that inflamed the local Palestinian population while the British turned a blind eye to this illegal activity. They, the British, did not follow the Mandate as defined by the Treaty of Versailles and are substantially responsible for the mess we now see in that tortured part of the world. Saying that the Jewish population during Mandate Palestine was “little more than 30%” is disingenuous as that is what it was at the end of the illegal Jewish immigration during the Mandate period. The Jewish population of Palestine, pre-WWI, was about 7% of the total population. During the 20’s and 30’s there was considerable illegal immigration which resulted in the Jewish population growing to 29% of the total by 1941. That is a substantially different perception from the way you stated the Jewish population percentage in your article. When stated in a manner more reflective of an honest review of history, one’s inclination is to feel even more dismayed at what has transpired in that region of the world.

    The American people have very little understanding concerning what has transpired in the Middle East since the end of World War 1. They have been fed mostly propaganda driven by the Israeli state and American Jewish organizations like AIPAC since WWII. The way forward is not more propaganda and war. A more informed American public that has a decent grasp of the historical facts will do more to settle the 100 year enmity between parties that claim land in Palestine/Israel than anything else. If the US government did not give Israel billions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money each year the government of Israel would be forced to honesty work toward settling its differences with the rest of the population in the Middle East. Right now it just talks peace while stealing land as fast as possible with American cover and funding as well as brutalizing the original inhabitants of the area, not a recipe for success.

    The Arabs are not like the Vietnamese. They will not likely forget nor forgive like the mostly Buddhist influenced Vietnamese. The more the IDF brutalizes the Palestinians the harder it will be to reconcile the issues that must eventually be faced and reconciled. America will soon loose its dominance due to its reckless actions internationally and declining economy; a function of diminished productive capacity and imperial hubris. Wall Street adds no value to the American economy. It only takes a non value-added bite. The bill for the US’s profligate behavior will come due and when it does, if the Israelis have not made an honest peace with their neighbors, the future does not seem bright for them. As we sow, so shall we reap.


    Dan Theodore

  7. Ed B

    For a people reputed to be so smart why are Israeli’s so dumb? Delusional is more like it. The total lack of self awareness makes chimpy look downright sensitive. I thought these guy’s came up with golden rule. Zionism isn’t just over as a noble experiment it’s proving to be evil.

  8. Roy Clarke

    The preceeding comments together with the admirably factual ‘One Palestine Complete’ summarise the tragedy now called Israel. As far as ‘blame ‘I would include the criminal thoughtlessness of the Balfour declaration (a reward for Weitsman) and the British exclusive control of the Arab population whilst the Zionists ran their own state. Invasion by controlled immigration. The most disturbing aspect is that any form of reasoned criticism is rejected as anti semitism. Most disturbing

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