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On the Very Idea of Israel as a State


How could Israel have been so troubled by conflict for sixty years? Its mature institutions form a solid internal hierarchy and with the fourth strongest military in the world its external autonomy is guaranteed. These are the factors on which stability of states in the international system is based. Ever since Israel was proclaimed into existence in 1948 it has been strong. At the time it didn’t have to depend on foreign peace keepers to defend it’s newly acquired sovereignty. On the contrary, it managed to make additional territorial conquests. More conquests were made in 1956, 1967, and in 1982. Israel’s position of hegemony has continued to this very day. It has the regional monopoly on nuclear bombs and is able to threaten and bomb both near and faraway states with impunity. Such evident strength is supposed to guarantee a state’s safety. So how come we still hear about threats to Israel’s very existence on a nearly daily basis?

According to the Western consensus a resolution of the threats to Israel consists of two separate parts. First, the neighboring states should make peace with Israel. Second, a new state next to Israel should be created for Palestinians and that state should also make peace with Israel.

This should make us think. If the solution for the conflict resides in statehood, couldn’t this concept help us to identify the conflict’s causes? But how to look at statehood?

The standard definition of a state under international law is summed up in article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States of 1933: "The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states." Let’s consider the degree to which Israel matches these conditions for statehood one by one.

First, Israel doesn’t accept the notion of population as a foundation of the state. It defines itself not by the people inhabiting the area but as the state of all Jews, whether they live in Tel Aviv, Hebron, Tehran, Frankfurt or New York. Thus it excludes from the state the many non-Jews who have been living for many generations in places like Jaffa, Jerusalem or Nazareth. Furthermore, a vast number of people that is by international definition considered part of the population has been driven from the area because they are not Jews. This is not merely an event of a bygone era as even today politicians in the highest government positions are clamoring for the removal of the remaining non-Jewish part of the population from Israel.

Thus Israel not only does not have a permanent population, but it rejects the very idea of it.

Second, Israel doesn’t define its own borders. Its history is characterized by a sequence of territorial conquests: the war of 1948; the war on Egypt of 1956; the war on Egypt, Jordan and Syria of 1967; and the conquest of much of Lebanon in 1982. Currently, Israel occupies a small part of Lebanon; occupies and ethnically cleansed part of Syria; and rules all of Palestine. Israel designates much land in the West-Bank territory as "state-lands" of which it can dispose as it wishes while at the same time not considering the people living in this territory to be legally or democratically integrated in the state. Furthermore, East-Jerusalem, a small area in southern Lebanon, and the conquered territory of Syria are contrary to international law considered to be part of the state. So where exactly are Israel’s borders? Not only did Israel never define them, its different approaches to different areas make clear that Israel doesn’t subscribe to the very idea of a border.

Third, given the elusive demarcation of population and territory it is hard to see what a government of Israel could be a government of. Is is the government of all areas which its armies control? Is it the government of those allowed to vote for the Knesset? Of the Jews in the West-Bank but not of their non-Jewish neighbors a few hundred meters down the hill? Is it the government of the millions of non-Jews living in the territories it conquered forty years ago and who are living under laws it has set and its monopoly of violence but who do not have voting rights? Is it the government of those who applied for Israeli citizenship among the few Syrians that escaped ethnic cleansing in the annexed part of Syria or of the non-Jews in annexed East-Jerusalem? And if Israel is the state of the Jews in New Jersey, Amsterdam and Paris does it follow that Israel’s government is their government?

These are legitimate and important questions. Both affirmative and negative answers to any of these questions are problematic. Thus they demonstrate how the indefinite character of Israel’s borders and population carries over to the nature of its government.

However, to investigate the conditions on statehood in isolation we should not mix matters. Israel has a solid internal hierarchy which has a monopoly on violence in the area. That minimalist definition suffices to conclude that, yes, Israel has a government.

Fourth, does Israel have the capacity to enter into relations with other states? Clearly, this question can be answered in the affirmative. Israel is a member of the United Nations. It has embassies all over the world and other states have embassies in Israel. It has treaties and agreements with many states. Western states relate to Israel enthusiastically.

On the other hand, relations with neighboring states are strained. In 1948 these states fought the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Since then some have reluctantly entered peace treaties with Israel and others haven’t. Syria and Lebanon are each partly occupied by Israel. One might take issue with the assignment of blame for this situation, but the fact is indubitable that Israel has trouble relating to neighboring states.

But even more telling than uneasy bi-lateral relations is Israel’s disregard of the norms regulating the relations between states. Basically, it claims that international norms with regard to annexation of conquered territories, transferring populations to or from occupied territories, the inadmissibility of collective punishment, and the prohibition on bombing other countries don’t apply to it. Israel’s actions indicate its unwillingness to relate to other states according to internationally acceptable norms.

Israel’s excellent relations with powerful Western states and its strong government explain its strength. But as is demonstrated above, Israel doesn’t live up to the conditions on statehood. There are two ways to approach this shortcoming.

The first is for Israel to define its borders, accept its population according to international standards and to adhere to the norms regulating the relationships between states. This approach dominates Western discussions and policies. It still allows for heated differences of opinion, e.g. between those that want Israel to finally accept the borders of the 1949 Armistice line and deal justly with the Palestinian refugees, and those that consider the current situation a temporary necessity as certain conditions dependent on outsiders have to be fulfilled before Israel can be finalized as a state. In this view the failure of Israel to live up to the conditions of statehood indicates that either reality or Israel is wrong.

The alternative approach is to change the terms of description to better match reality. If Israel doesn’t fulfill the conditions of statehood, then one should not speak of it or treat it as if it were a state. From this viewpoint the idea of Israel as a state is weak.

That may seem farfetched at first, but it is a viewpoint that is rapidly gaining adoption. Three examples of current approaches to the conflict illustrate the diminishing role of the idea of the Israeli state.

The violence surrounding the creation of the state of Israel has long been described from the perspective of the Israeli state in relation to neighboring states. In The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine historian Ilan Pappé re-frames these events. As he wrote in the book’s introduction: "I want to make the case for the paradigm of ethnic cleansing and use it to replace the paradigm of war as the basis for the scholarly research of, and the public debate about, 1948." And with the "paradigm of war" the framing in terms of the state and relations between states is relegated to the background.

Not looking at past events but at future possibilities are the many works proposing a "one-state solution" for the conflict. Details may differ but the basic assumption behind this theorizing is that Israeli statehood is not a good basis for the future. Instead a re-united Palestinian state is envisioned in which Jews and non-Jews have equal rights. This is less utopian than it may sound at first. Many have now taken the position that a re-union has already taken place since Israel’s occupation of the entire land of Palestine four decades ago. This approach is framed in terms of the rights of the individual, rather than in those of the state.

But possibly most destructive for the idea of Israel as a state are the actions of its "friends". The US and the EU governments refuse to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international laws. The result of this attitude is that it effectively places Israel outside the system of norms restricting relations between states. The ground is that the "friends" insist on Israel being a Jewish state. We see this in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in the UN partition plan of 1947, in disregarding territorial conquest and the removal of a large part of the population in 1948, the colonization of the West-Bank after 1967 and the blockade of Gaza which will continue until its government recognizes Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Critics have pointed out that the latter notion has no definition in international law. My point is rather that this demand demonstrates that the "friends" frame Israel as a Jewish movement with regional aspirations and not as a state with a given permanent population and well-defined borders.

What we have seen above is that the very idea of the state of Israel is weak. Its governing organization and the nature of its relations explain why Israel is capable of dominating the region, but its rejection of standard notions of population, borders and relations with other states explains why it is perpetually in conflict. Israel’s existence is not threatened by external violence but by its statehood being unfulfilled. After vainly attempting to create a state for sixty years the time has come to draw the conclusion that Israel has failed.

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