As still another war rages between Hamas in Gaza and Israel, a debate has revived between critics and defenders of Israel about whether Israel is a “settler-colonial state” created by emigres over the objection of the native inhabitants. The debate has implications for the way people view Hamas’s October 7 attacks against Israelis, but it is also relevant to understanding what the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is really about and how it should or can be resolved.
Those who describe Israel as a settler-colonial state contend that Jews are interlopers in what was Ottoman and British Palestine; they think the Hamas attack and Israeli reprisals have to be understood in that “context.” As a long-term solution to the conflict, they advocate the “decolonization” of Israel. At the extreme, this could mean a Palestinian-dominated or even Islamic state (buttressed by the right of all refugees to return). But most Americans who voice the slogan “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” including Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, advocate a secular democratic or binational state in which Jews and Palestinians would have equal rights. In either case, Israel would no longer be “the nation state of the Jewish people,” as Israel’s Knesset decreed in 2018.
The opposing position, which is commonly held by many pro-Israel organizations including AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as by many liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, is that Israel is definitely not a settler-colonial state but is instead the reincarnation of the ancient home of the Jewish people. The pro-Israel groups insist that Israel’s Jews are entitled to live in a Jewish state by virtue of their heritage and of the anti-Semitic violence they endured in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust. At one extreme, Israel’s revisionist and national religious parties, and some sympathetic Republicans in the United States, contend that this state should stretch from “the river to the sea.” But most American liberals, while vehemently rejecting decolonization, favor a “two-state” solution in which a Palestinian state, composed of the West Bank, would adjoin Israel.
My contention is that both sides of this debate, which pit, roughly speaking, anti-Zionists against pro-Zionists, are wrong. The opposing stances obscure the nature of the conflict and the possibility of its resolution. My argument, based on the research I conducted in writing my 2014 book Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, is that Israel was founded as a settler-colonial state, but that this indisputable fact about its origin doesn’t justify either particular terrorist attacks or what is called “decolonization.” The ideal solution to the conflict would be two adjoining states, but for the foreseeable future, no solution of this kind is in sight.
First, a word about the meaning of colonialism. Beginning in the fifteenth century, European states began establishing colonies overseas. Colonialism was a subset of imperialism, where a country didn’t only seek to dominate through proxies a less developed country to extract its resources, but where its citizens actually emigrated to those countries in order to establish colonies and eventually a state of their own. The United States, Canada, and Australia were founded by settlers who established colonies and who displaced or killed off the natives in the course of establishing their own state. The political scientist Louis Hartz edited and wrote part of a book about these settler-colonial projects entitled The Founding of New Societies.
Advocates of Zionism can be found in the early nineteenth century, if not before, but the Zionist movement originated in the late nineteenth century. In the 1880s, Britain’s Baron Edmund James de Rothschild established Jewish colonies in what was then referred to as “the Holy Land.” Rothschild’s efforts were organized by the Jewish Colonization Society and were championed by the Lovers of Zion, a Ukrainian group that was organized in reaction to the Russian pogroms and was led by Leon Pinsker. Pinsker contended that the only way Jews could escape from the antisemitism bred by the virulent nationalism sweeping Europe was to establish a nation of their own elsewhere. In 1895, Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl turned a long appeal to the Rothschild family into a book, The Jewish State. In advocating for a state, Herzl also sought the support and advice of Cecil Rhodes who had established British colonies in southern Africa (Rhodesia was the colonial state that preceded Zimbabwe). Herzl justified his efforts on the standard grounds of European imperialism. A Jewish state, he argued, would be “an outpost of civilization against barbarism.”
In 1917, Chaim Weizmann successfully lobbied the British to adopt the Balfour Declaration, which committed the British, who were to take over the Holy Land from the Ottomans and establish British Palestine, to sponsor there a “national home for the Jewish people.” The British didn’t commit themselves to a creating a Jewish state, but Weizmann and other leading Zionists had exactly that in mind: a Jewish state that would become part of the British Commonwealth along with South Africa, Canada, and Australia. The leading Zionists of the early and mid-twentieth century sought to create settler-colonies within Palestine that would become the basis of a Jewish state.
There are two reasons why it is important to recognize that Israel, like the United States, originated as settler-colonial state. The first has to do with the Arab, and then after 1947, the Palestinian opposition to Zionism and then to Israel as a Jewish state. It was the same opposition to Western encroachment and foreign rule that could be found throughout Asian and African countries and that after World War II became the basis of armed national liberation movements. One need only look at the population figures in Palestine to understand why Zionism aroused fury among the Arabs who could trace their own lineage in the area back 1,400 years.
In the 1880s, when the first colonies were formed, Jews made up only 3 or 4 percent of the inhabitants of what would become Palestine. Most of them were Biblical scholars funded from abroad. The rest of the inhabitants were Arab Muslims and Christians. In 1922, even in the wake of the boost given Jewish statehood by the Balfour Declaration, Jews made up only 11 percent of the population. In 1947, on the eve of the United Nations decision to partition the country, Jews still made up only 32 percent of the population. In the partition, which the Arabs rejected, Jews got 55 percent of the land, including the most economically viable areas, and the Arabs only 40 percent, with the rest under UN control. In retrospect, it could be argued that the Arabs and Palestinians would have been better off now accepting the UN plan, but history doesn’t work that way.
Palestinian Arab opposition to Zionism emerged before World War I; afterwards, it fueled riots and rebellions in the 1920s, a long brutal war in the 1930s and two wars in 1947 and 1948, the end result of which was that the state of Israel, from which about 700,000 Arabs had been expelled during the 1947 and 1948 wars, now took up 78 percent of British Palestine. The Palestinians on the West Bank and East Jerusalem became part of Jordan until the 1967 war, when Israel took over all of Jerusalem and the West Bank and established military rule over the Palestinians there. Over the subsequent half century, Israelis have established a new set of settler-colonies on the West Bank, which now boast over 500,000 Jewish inhabitants, with another 220,000 in East Jerusalem. Many in Israel’s government and ruling parties hope to incorporate formally the West Bank into Israel by annexation.
Gaza was seized by Egypt during the 1948 war. It came to house many of the refugees from the new state of Israel. Israel occupied it during the Six-Day War in 1967 and then ruled it until 2005, when it abandoned its settlements there. But Israel retained control over Gaza’s borders, and in 2006, after Hamas seized control of its government in a civil war with rival Fatah—a war that was partly inspired by American meddling—Israel instituted a draconian blockade of Gaza, limiting entrance and exit from its borders, constraining its food and fuel supply, and restricting imports and exports.
Over the last 56 years, there have been constant skirmishes and wars in the West Bank and Gaza. There were two Intifadas and wars between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel in 2009 and 2014. Hamas’s October 7 massacre of Israelis and Israel’s brutal reprisal have constituted only the latest episode in this history of rebellion. If you examine each, it is possible to assign blame to one party or the other. Hamas’s October 7 attack, which clearly involved atrocities and war crimes against Israel civilians, will, I believe, prove self-defeating and destructive for the people Hamas claims to represent. The same might be argued of the Second Intifada, which cemented the rule of the Israeli right wing. But viewed from the larger history of the Holy Land, British Palestine, and Israel and its occupied territories, these events have been a predictable part of a subjugated people’s attempt to get out from under the thumb of another people whom they consider to be invaders and usurpers.
The other reason why it is important to understand Israel’s origins is to understand the evolution of Zionism. By the mid-1920s, the Zionist movement in Palestine had divided into two major competing factions. Labor Zionism, led by David Ben-Gurion, was an offshoot of European social democracy, and viewed Zionism as a variety of what Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell has called “nationalist socialism.” While bent on creating a Jewish state, the Labor Zionists also (fantastically) regarded the Arab proletariat as potential allies. Ben-Gurion and Weizmann, who led the smaller General Zionists and who believed the Arabs would eventually be bought off by the prosperity the Jews would bring, accepted the 1937 Peel Commission plan for a partition into Jewish and Arab states and the 1947 UN plan for partition. The Labor Zionists morphed into the Labor Party and its offshoots, including Meretz, that signed the Oslo agreement in 1993 and have supported a two-state solution.
The Revisionist Party, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, got its name from its opposition to Britain’s carving out Jordan (originally Transjordan) as a separate state from Palestine. The Revisionists wanted Palestine and Jordan as a single Jewish state. They made no bones about Zionism’s colonial aims. Jabotinsky, who was a protege of Herzl, compared the Arabs to America’s Indians and Mexico’s Aztecs. He didn’t see them as junior associates in a Jewish state, but as intransigent and unassimilable foes of a Jewish state who would have to be defeated and subjugated by armed force. “Zionist colonization,” Jabotinsky wrote in 1923, “must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population.” Many of the Revisionists, including Abba Ahimeir, who would succeed Jabotinsky as the party’s leader, admired Italian fascism. (Ahimeir used to call Jabotinsky “Il Duce.”). The Revisionists opposed the Peel plan for partition and the later UN partition plan. After Israel’s founding, the Revisionists eventually morphed into the Likud Party and the national religious parties. In its election manifesto in 1977, Likud advocated Israeli sovereignty “from the river to the sea.”
One reason that the Israeli right came to dominate Israel’s politics is that the composition of the nation and its parties changed. Both the Labor Zionists and the Revisionists were primarily emigres from Europe. They were Ashkenazi Jews, as were most Jews in British Palestine. They and their descendants were fleeing the Europe of pogroms and, later, the rise and triumph of the Nazis and other anti-Semitic parties. But after the creation of Israel in May 1948, Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries began to emigrate en masse—by some estimates as many as 400,000 from 1948 to 1951. Many of them faced discrimination that had been stoked by Arab opposition to the creation of Israel, but others sought a better standard of living or the consummation of their religious views. These Jews, dubbed Sephardic or Mizrahi, now make up a majority of Israeli Jews. These Jews did not see themselves as part of a colonial project in the former British Palestine or as victims of European antisemitism. If they were fleeing from anyone, it was the Arabs and Muslims of the Middle East and North Africa. Many of them rejected any recognition of Palestinian rights either within Israel or in the occupied territories. They formed the bulk of the settlers in the West Bank, where many of them did see themselves as “pioneers” staking out a Greater Israel. They have overwhelmingly supported the political descendants of Revisionist Zionism—the Likud and the national religious parties that make up the Israeli right. They provided these parties with their current majorities in the Knesset. They have contributed to Israel moving toward becoming simply another Middle Eastern ethno-theocracy.
In 1937, the Peel Commission described the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine as “irrepressible.” That same adjective could apply now to the peoples of the former British Palestine. With the triumph of Israeli right after the Second Intifada, Israeli Jews and the Palestinians have embraced diametrically opposed views of the past, present, and future. While the Palestinians continue to see themselves as seeking to escape the bonds of a settler-colonial state, many Jews in the dominant Israeli parties see the Palestinians as an alien fifth column within Israel and as an implacable enemy in the occupied territories that must either be subjugated or driven out. There is little prospect for an equitable two-state solution. Instead, Israel appears heading a single-state solution along the lines, albeit minus Jordan, that the Revisionist Party advocated in the 1920s.
Political movements and governments need to have goals, but they must be achievable within a reasonable amount of time, and these goals must be desirable. Many of those who correctly describe Israel as a settler-colonial state advocate that Israel be decolonized. Israeli anthropologist and activist Jeff Halper described this goal in Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine:
The only just and workable alternative appears to be transforming Israel’s apartheid regime into a single democracy for all the country’s inhabitants, including refugees and their descendants who choose to return.
Such an outcome is not achievable (at least in the foreseeable future) and may also not be desirable.
Those who call for decolonization sometimes compare Israel’s situation to that of South Africa and Algeria—two countries that were decolonized. But in these countries, the settlers had only the most tenuous hold over the native inhabitants. In South Africa in 1990, as apartheid was about to end, whites made up only 17 percent of the population; in Algeria, in 1960, as that country became independent, French settlers made up only 15 percent. In Israel, by contrast, about 80 percent of the population is Jewish.
Israel is more like the United States or Canada—countries in which the settlers have achieved large majorities and built effective institutions, including a powerful police and military. Israel, like the United States, is no longer a nation simply of settlers and their descendants, but through the immigration of the Mizrahi, has surmounted within its consciousness of itself (although not in the view of the Palestinians) its own origins as a settler-colony. (Compare the Mizrahi to the German and Irish emigres to the United States during the 1840s.) There is some, though dwindling, support among Israel’s Jews for an adjoining Palestinian state, but there is no support for a binational or secular democratic state that incorporates the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and the descendants of the refugees of the 1947 and 1948 wars—a state that would threaten the very premise of Zionism. Meretz, the Jewish party most supportive of Palestinian self-determination, currently has no seats in the Knesset. An attempt to achieve decolonization would be adamantly and successfully resisted. To imagine it as a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is comparable to imagining colonies on Mars.
There is also reason to believe that even if by divine intervention, a secular or binational democracy were formed, Palestinians would find themselves at a disadvantage because of their lack of experience in self-government. As Rashid Khalidi argued in The Iron Cage, the Arabs in the British mandate suffered from the lack of any governing institutions, even ones that were subservient to the imperial power. By contrast, the Jews had its own governing authority, the Jewish Agency, that nurtured a leadership that was able to take command in 1948. Under Jordan’s rule and under the Israeli occupation, the Palestinians have still not developed an effective governing class and institutions. The Palestine Liberation Organization was an armed resistance group that proved ill-suited to govern. The Palestinian Authority, which was created under the PLO in 1993 by the Oslo Accords, has failed to win popular support on the West Bank. It is seen as corrupt and sclerotic and as the handmaiden of the Israeli occupation. (In 2021, at Israeli and American urging, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas postponed, and in effect, cancelled legislative elections in the West Bank and Gaza.) Hamas, like the original PLO, is primarily a resistance group. It nourishes the illusion of an Islamic greater Palestine. As the October 7 massacre showed, its strategy for ending the occupation requires sacrificing many thousands of the people it is supposed to govern to Israeli bombs and missiles. The Palestinians need the experience of self-government to develop an effective and accountable leadership.
Of course, one can argue that with the rise of the Israeli right, and the continued spread of settlements on the West Bank, the two-state solution is equally unachievable. The creation of a viable Palestinian state would require the massive displacement, most probably by force, of Israeli settlements and the creation of a habitable corridor between West Bank and Gaza. It’s not colonies on Mars, but it’s not something easily imaginable. It seems to me there is only one kind of circumstance under which genuine negotiations for an adjoining Palestinian state could occur.
As I discovered in researching Genesis, Harry Truman, who enthusiastically backed allowing refugees from Nazism to emigrate to Palestine, was not equally enthusiastic about supporting a Jewish state in Palestine. As a Jeffersonian Democrat, he opposed the creation of a what he thought would be a theocracy. As a Missourian from a state that was still scarred by the divisions created during the Civil War, he feared that the creation of a Jewish state would spark continuing conflict between Jews and Arabs and destabilize the Middle East.
Truman favored a British-American plan for a federated or binational Palestine, but in 1946, faced with opposition from Jews and Arabs in Palestine, Arab states, and a powerful Zionist lobby in the United States, he gave up on the plan and supported the UN partition. He and his Secretary of State George Marshall preferred a partition that divided Palestine more equally. But faced once more with pressure from the Zionist lobby, and with a presidential election looming, he gave up and backed the UN plan.
When, as Truman and Marshall feared, war broke out in Palestine, Truman backed a State Department to plan to establish a temporary UN trusteeship in Palestine until the Jews and Arabs could decide on a “future government.” Once again, however, under pressure from the Zionist lobby and from liberal Democrats who in the shadow of the Holocaust enthusiastically backed a Jewish state, he relented, and in May 1948 recognized the new state of Israel. Truman’s motives were primarily political. He feared losing votes in the coming presidential election, particularly in New York, which at the time was the country’s largest electoral prize, over a refusal to recognize Israel. Three days after recognizing Israel, Truman, lamenting the failure the British-American plan, told Dean Acheson, “We had the problem solved, but the emotional Jews of the United States and the equally emotional Arabs in Egypt and Syria prevented that settlement from taking place.” In fact, Truman actually had little choice.
None of the alternatives to recognizing Israel were feasible. The only way that either a binational state, a UN trusteeship, or a partitioned Palestine could have come into existence would have been if it were backed by armed force. The UN did not have an army, and most its member nations had not recovered from World War II. Truman tried to interest the British in remaining in Palestine, but with their economy reeling, their empire crumbling, and the Zionists determined to force them out, they refused to stay. The French said they would participate only if the British did. And Truman, who was facing the Berlin Blockade crisis with the Soviet Union, was unwilling to divert his armed forces to Palestine.
It’s now 75 years later, and the Cold War is over, but there are some disturbing similarities between then and now. There is very little chance that the Israelis and Palestinians could reach an equitable agreement on creating two states in the former Palestine. The Israeli right, which is currently in command of the country’s politics, is bent on creating a greater Israel. There is even talk of Israelis resettling Gaza. The Hamas attack on October 7 may only strengthen the right’s hand, even if it results in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ouster. The Palestinian Authority is in shambles. Hamas, which modified its charter in 2017 to include temporary support for a separate Palestinian state, remains committed to Islam and decolonization.
The only way that the two sides might come to agreement is if outside forces exerted enormous pressure on them to do so. And the pressure would have to be backed up by an armed peacekeeping operation and by a huge aid program to rebuild Gaza and invigorate the West Bank economy and polity. The pressure, it would seem, would have to come from the United States and European Union on Israel and from the Arab states on the Palestinians. Such a development is conceivable, but for the time being extremely unlikely.
The last American administration to exert genuine pressure on Israelis to halt their expansion on the West Bank was that of George H.W. Bush. Barack Obama called for a settlement freeze and negotiations, but he failed to back up his demands, as George H.W. Bush had done, by threatening a reduction of aid. Faced with stiff opposition from Republicans, Democratic donors, and AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups, he gave up. The Trump and Biden administrations ignored the plight of the Palestinians. Instead, they focused on creating ties between Israel and the oil states—an initiative that further isolated the Palestinians. Even if the Biden administration were now to embrace full-throatedly the two-state solution, it would probably be unable to do much about it. The United States and the European Union are both preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and with the economic and military rivalry with China. They are in no position to devote their diplomats and armies to enforcing a two-state solution. As far as the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is concerned, the situation in the former British Palestine is, for the time being, hapless and hopeless.
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