Zionism's Dead End
by Jonathan Cook
The following is taken from a
talk delivered at the Conference for the Right of Return and the
Secular Democratic State, held in Haifa on June 21
In 1895 Theodor Herzl, Zionism's chief
prophet, confided in his diary that he did not favour sharing
Palestine with the natives. Better, he wrote, to "try to
spirit the penniless [Palestinian] population across the border
by denying it any employment in our own country Both the process
of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out
discreetly and circumspectly."
He was proposing a programme of Palestinian
emigration enforced through a policy of strict separation between
Jewish immigrants and the indigenous population. In simple terms,
he hoped that, once Zionist organisations had bought up large
areas of Palestine and owned the main sectors of the economy,
Palestinians could be made to leave by denying them rights to
work the land or labour in the Jewish-run economy. His vision
was one of transfer, or ethnic cleansing, through ethnic separation.
Herzl was suggesting that two possible
Zionist solutions to the problem of a Palestinian majority living
in Palestine - separation and transfer - were not necessarily
alternatives but rather could be mutually reinforcing. Not only
that: he believed, if they were used together, the process of
ethnic cleansing could be made to appear voluntary, the choice
of the victims. It may be that this was both his most enduring
legacy and his major innovation to settler colonialism.
In recent years, with the Palestinian
population under Israeli rule about to reach parity with the Jewish
population, the threat of a Palestinian majority has loomed large
again for the Zionists. Not suprisingly, debates about which of
these two Zionist solutions to pursue, separation or transfer,
Today these solutions are ostensibly promoted
by two ideological camps loosely associated with Israel's centre-left
(Labor and Kadima) and right (Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu). The
modern political arguments between them turn on differing visions
of the nature of a Jewish state orginally put forward by Labor
and Revisionist Zionists.
To make sense of the current political
debates, and the events taking place inside Israel and in the
West Bank and Gaza, let us first examine the history of these
two principles in Zionist thinking.
During the early waves of Jewish immigration
to Palestine, the dominant Labor Zionist movement and its leader
David Ben Gurion advanced policies much in line with Herzl's goal.
In particular, they promoted the twin principles of "Redemption
of the Land" and "Hebrew Labor", which took as
their premise the idea that Jews needed to separate themselves
from the native population in working the land and employing only
other Jews. By being entirely self-reliant in Palestine, Jews
could both "cure" themselves of their tainted Diaspora
natures and deprive the Palestinians of the opportunity to subsist
in their own homeland.
At the forefront of this drive was the
Zionist trade union federation, the Histadrut, which denied membership
to Palestinians - and, for many years after the establishment
of the Jewish state, even to the remants of the Palestinian population
who became Israeli citizens.
But if separation was the official policy
of Labor Zionism, behind the scenes Ben Gurion and his officials
increasingly appreciated that it would not be enough in itself
to achieve their goal of a pure ethnic state. Land sales remained
low, at about 6 per cent of the territory, and the Jewish-owned
parts of the economy relied on cheap Palestinian labour.
Instead, the Labor Zionists secretly began
working on a programme of ethnic cleansing. After 1937 and Britain's
Peel Report proposing partition of Palestine, Ben Gurion was more
open about transfer, recognising that a Jewish state would be
impossible unless most of the indigenous population was cleared
from within its borders.
Israel's new historians have acknowledged
Ben Gurion's commitment to transfer. As Benny Morris notes, for
example, Ben Gurion "understood that there could be no Jewish
state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst."
The Israeli leadership therefore developed a plan for ethnic cleansing
under cover of war, compiling detailed dossiers on the communities
that needed to be driven out and then passing on the order, in
Plan Dalet, to commanders in the field. During the 1948 war the
new state of Israel was emptied of at least 80 per cent of its
In physically expelling the Palestinian
population, Ben Gurion responded to the political opportunities
of the day and recalibrated the Labor Zionism of Herzl. In particular
he achieved the goal of displacement desired by Herzl while also
largely persuading the world through a campaign of propaganda
that the exodus of the refugees was mostly voluntary. In one of
the most enduring Zionist myths, convincingly rebutted by modern
historians, we are still told that the refugees left because they
were told to do so by the Arab leadership.
The other camp, the Revisionists, had
a far more ambivalent attitude to the native Palestinian population.
Paradoxically, given their uncompromising claim to a Greater Israel
embracing both banks of the Jordan River (thereby including not
only Palestine but also the modern state of Jordan), they were
more prepared than the Labor Zionists to allow the natives to
remain where they were.
Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of Revisionism,
observed in 1938 - possibly in a rebuff to Ben Gurion's espousal
of transfer - that "it must be hateful for any Jew to think
that the rebirth of a Jewish state should ever be linked with
such an odious suggestion as the removal of non-Jewish citizens".
The Revisionists, it seems, were resigned to the fact that the
enlarged territory they desired would inevitably include a majority
of Arabs. They were therefore less concerned with removing the
natives than finding a way to make them accept Jewish rule.
In 1923, Jabotinsky formulated his answer,
one that implicitly included the notion of separation but not
necessarily transfer: an "iron wall" of unremitting
force to cow the natives into submission. In his words, the agreement
of the Palestinians to their subjugation could be reached only
"through the iron wall, that is to say, the establishment
in Palestine of a force that will in no way be influenced by Arab
An enthusiast of British imperial rule,
Jabotinsky envisioned the future Jewish state in simple colonial
terms, as a European elite ruling over the native population.
Inside Revisionism, however, there was
a shift from the idea of separation to transfer that mirrored
developments inside Labor Zionism. This change was perhaps more
opportunistic than ideological, and was particularly apparent
as the Revisionists sensed Ben Gurion's success in forging a Jewish
state through transfer.
One of Jabotinsky's disciples, Menachem
Begin, who would later become a Likud prime minister, was leader
in 1948 of the Irgun militia that committed one of the worst atrocities
of the war. He led his fighters into the Palestinian village of
Deir Yassin where they massacred over 100 inhabitants, including
women and children.
Savage enough though these events were,
Begin and his followers consciously inflated the death toll to
more than 250 through the pages of the New York Times. Their goal
was to spread terror among the wider Palestinian population and
encourage them to flee. He later happily noted: "Arabs throughout
the country, induced to believe wild tales of 'Irgun butchery',
were seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their
lives. This mass flight soon developed into a maddened, uncontrollable
Subsequently, other prominent figures
on the right openly espoused ethnic cleansing, including the late
General Rehavam Ze'evi, whose Moledet party campaigned in elections
under the symbol of the Hebrew character "tet", for
transfer. His successor, Benny Elon, a settler leader and rabbi,
adopted a similar platform: "Only population transfer can
The intensity of the separation vs transfer
debate subsided after 1948 and the ethnic cleansing campaign that
removed most of the native Palestinian population from the Jewish
state. The Palestinian minority left behind - a fifth of the population
but a group, it was widely assumed, that would soon be swamped
by Jewish immigration - was seen as an irritation but not yet
as a threat. It was placed under a military government for nearly
two decades, a system designed to enforce separation between Palestinians
and Jews inside Israel. Such separation - in education, employment
and residence - exists to this day, even if in a less extreme
The separation-transfer debate was chiefly
revived by Israel's conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.
With Israel's erasure of the Green Line, and the effective erosion
of the distinction between Palestinians in Israel and the occupied
territories, the problem of a Palestinian majority again loomed
large for the Zionists.
Cabinet debates from 1967 show the quandary
faced by the government. Almost alone, Moshe Dayan favoured annexation
of both the newly captured territories and the Palestinian population
there. Others believed that such a move would be seen as transparently
colonialist and rapidly degenerate into an apartheid system of
Jewish citizens and Palestinian non-citizens. In their minds,
Jabotinsky's solution of an iron wall was no longer viable.
But equally, in a more media-saturated
era, which at least paid lip-service to human rights, the government
could see no way to expel the Palestinian population on a large
scale and annex the land, as Ben Gurion had done earlier. Also
possibly, they could see no way of persuading the world that such
expulsions should be characterised as voluntary.
Israel therefore declined to move decisively
in either direction, neither fully carrying out a transfer programme
nor enforcing strict separation. Instead it opted for an apartheid
model that accommodated Dayan's suggestion of a "creeping
annexation" of the occupied territories that he rightly believed
would go largely unnoticed by the West.
The separation embodied in South African
apartheid differed from Herzl's notion of separation in one important
respect: in apartheid, the "other" population was a
necessary, even if much abused, component of the political arrangement.
As the exiled Palestinian thinker Azmi Bishara has noted, in South
Africa "racial segregation was not absolute. It took place
within a framework of political unity. The racist regime saw blacks
as part of the system, an ingredient of the whole. The whites
created a racist hierarchy within the unity."
In other words, the self-reliance, or
unilateralism, implicit in Herzl's concept of separation was ignored
for many years of Israel's occupation. The Palestinian labour
force was exploited by Israel just as black workers were by South
Africa. This view of the Palestinians was formalised in the Oslo
accords, which were predicated on the kind of separation needed
to create a captive labour force.
However, Yitzhak Rabin's version of apartheid
embodied by the Oslo process, and Binyamin Netanyahu's opposition
in upholding Jabotinsky's vision of Greater Israel, both deviated
from Herzl's model of transfer through separation. This is largely
why each political current has been subsumed within the recent
but more powerful trend towards "unilateral separation".
Not surprisingly, the policy of "unilateral
separation" emerged from among the Labor Zionists, advocated
primarily by Ehud Barak. However, it was soon adopted by many
members of Likud too. Ultimately its success derived from the
conversion to its cause of Greater Israel's arch-exponent, Ariel
Sharon. He realised the chief manifestations of unilateral separation,
the West Bank wall and the Gaza disengagement, as well breaking
up Israel's rightwing to create a new consensus party, Kadima.
In the new consensus, the transfer of
Palestinians could be achieved through imposed and absolute separation
- just as Herzl had once hoped. After the Gaza disengagement,
the next stage was promoted by Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert.
His plan for convergence, limited withdrawals from the West Bank
in which most settlers would remain in place, has been dropped,
but its infrastructure - the separation wall - continues to be
How will modern Zionists convert unilateral
separation into transfer? How will Herzl's original vision of
ethnic cleansing enforced through strict ethnic separation be
realised in today's world?
The current siege of Gaza offers the template.
After disengagement, Israel has been able to cut off at will Gazans'
access to aid, food, fuel and humanitarian services. Normality
has been further eroded by sonic booms, random Israeli air attacks,
and repeated small-scale invasions that have inflicted a large
toll of casualties, particularly among civilians.
Gaza's imprisonment has stopped being
a metaphor and become a daily reality. In fact, Gaza's condition
is far worse than imprisonment: prisoners, even of war, expect
to have their humanity respected, and be properly sheltered, cared
for, fed and clothed. Gazans can no longer rely on these staples
The ultimate goal of this extreme form
of separation is patently clear: transfer. By depriving Palestinians
of the basic conditions of a normal life, it is assumed that they
will eventually choose to leave - in what can once again be sold
to the world as a voluntary exodus. And if Palestinians choose
to abandon their homeland, then in Zionist thinking they have
forfeited their right to it - just as earlier generations of Zionists
believed the Palestinian refugees had done by supposedly fleeing
during the 1948 and 1967 wars.
Is this process of transfer inevitable?
I think not. The success of a modern policy of "transfer
through separation" faces severe limitations.
First, it depends on continuing US global
hegemony and blind support for Israel. Such support is likely
to be undermined by the current American misadventures in the
Middle East, and a gradual shift in the balance of power to China,
Russia and India.
Second, it requires a Zionist worldview
that departs starkly not only from international law but also
from the values upheld by most societies and ideologies. The nature
of Zionist ambitions is likely to be ever harder to conceal, as
is evident from the tide of opinion polls showing that Western
publics, if not their governments, believe Israel to be one of
the biggest threats to world order.
And third, it assumes that the Palestinians
will remain passive during their slow eradication. The historical
evidence most certainly shows that they will not.
Jonathan Cook, a journalist based in Nazareth,
Israel, is the author of Israel and the Clash of Civilizations:
Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press,
2008). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.