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“It’s too late for the Jewish state”

A discussion on the war in Gaza, free speech and the future of the two-state solution.

By Bruno Maçães and Gideon Levy

In the second part of their two-part conversation, the New Statesman’s Bruno Maçães and the Israeli journalist and author Gideon Levy discuss what it will take to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bring peace to the region. (The first part of their discussion, which focuses on the current war in Gaza, can be read here.)

Levy, now 71, has seen many attempts to achieve peace throughout his career, first as an aide and spokesman for Shimon Peres, then leader of Israel’s Labor Party, and later as a reporter and writer for the leading Israeli daily Haaretz. But, as he explains below, none of those attempts could have possibly succeeded because no one was committed to a true two-state solution.

Bruno Maçães: Looking around Israel, both in the government and mainstream society, what is the dominant feeling now? Is it revenge, rage, or is it something else?  

Gideon Levy: With friends of mine, relatives of mine, 7 October did two things. On one hand, it was such a trauma and such a humiliation for Israelis that they feel that they should do anything possible [in response] because it was really devastating. It was devastating, no doubt about it – [what is happening in] Gaza is much more devastating now, but it was devastating. Israel [was] in shock. My suspicion is that [7 October is] also being used as an excuse to legitimise now all kinds of dark, forbidden ideas. So, the right-wingers are taking advantage. And this is what we are facing. 

BM: Do you see a wrong turn somewhere in the past, where the conflict could have been resolved had other choices been made? I’ve been reading a little bit of the work by the Israeli public intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz and he always says that the weeks after the Six Day War in 1967 was the decisive period where a different choice to withdraw unilaterally from occupied territories could have been made. If you were to go back in the past, to the decisive moment, where would you go? 

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GL: For many years, I would have agreed with Leibowitz. Not anymore. The decisive moment is the Nakba [the Arabic word for “catastrophe”, which Palestinians use to refer to the 1948 displacement of Palestinians, which culminated in the creation of the state of Israel]. The decisive moment is 1948. A people came to a populated land and took it over. That’s the core of everything.  

The problem is that ever since 1948, Israel never changed its policy and its attitude towards the Palestinians. What happened in 1948 is happening now on a daily basis. Gaza is a part of 1948. Therefore, any solution which will not include some kind of accountability of 1948 and some kind of compensation – not only in terms of money – will not be a just solution.

That’s the way Palestinians see it. They cannot care about the connection between the Jews and the land of Israel, based on [the] mythology of the Bible. The fact is that over so many hundreds of years, Jews didn’t come here. And so, if we do not touch the core of the wound, we will never heal it. And that’s the core of the wound. 

BM: Has there been an Israeli government and prime minister that genuinely believed in a two-state solution? It’s very clear that many of them did not. But has there been a moment when there was a genuine effort, not just a publicity effort or something aimed at foreign audiences, but a genuine effort in Israel?  

GL: Never ever. Even those who [attempted peace], like [former prime ministers] Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert – and they did. I don’t underestimate it. And I fell into the trap of [believing in the peace process under the Oslo Accords] like many others. I really thought that was the beginning of a change, which it wasn’t. It was a trick. 

But let’s put Oslo aside. None of them believed in a two-state solution, namely that the two states would be equal. Even the talk about demilitarisation of the Palestinian state and putting Israeli troops on the Jordan River puts a question mark [on the process]. What kind of state would it be? What do you mean demilitarised? I can understand if Israel and Palestine will [both] be demilitarised. But one side will be demilitarised and unable to protect itself at all, and the other side will have all the weapons in the world? What kind of solution is this? A real two-state solution was never born. And now, in any case, it’s totally dead because with 700,000 settlers you cannot really create a Palestinian viable state. No way.  

[See also: The slipperiness of ceasefire]

BM: What do you think is the future? If you were in charge, what would you be trying to do? Do you believe that a one-state solution is more plausible than a two-state solution with equality between Israeli Jews and Arabs, with all Palestinians becoming citizens? This also seems very unlikely. 

GL: Very unlikely, but at least it’s a solution which might solve all the problems, including the right of return. We are very far away from it, but at least there is a vision. While with the two-state solution, there is no vision whatsoever because [Palestine] will not be a viable state. So, I think that continuing to talk about the two-state solution like 90 per cent of the world is doing – from the PA [Palestinian Authority] to the EU, the United States to some [in the] Israeli government – knowing that it’s not possible, is just playing into the hands of the occupation. Israel never did anything to promote this idea. When you speak about the one-state solution, you see a vision.

And you shouldn’t judge the one-state solution according to reality today. Sure, according to reality today, it is impossible that Jews and Palestinians will live together. But the idea is to change this reality. The alternative to a one-state solution is continuing the apartheid state. There is no third solution. We have to decide, or we give up.

BM: What is your vision for a one-state solution? Is it a federal state? Is it a state that is neutral and secular and no longer a Jewish state? How would you describe it?

GL: I mean, if we’re talking about the vision, it must be a total vision, one vote, one person, as in any other democracy. When you start with federations, you create again a tension. [Would] the Palestinian Federation have an army? No. So, if they don’t have an army, they are not equal to the Jewish Federation. So, what do you do? It’s very complicated, I know. But at least I see something on the horizon. And you know, many times in history, the unthinkable did happen.

BM: But to be clear, a one-state solution could not be a Jewish state.

GL: Not Jewish and not Zionist. Obviously, that’s the end of the Jewish state. But you can’t have it all. You can’t have a Jewish state with half of your population, which is not Jewish, which is Palestinian. We [have been] living in one state for 55 years now. It’s all about the regime. In some places it’s even working somehow.

But it’s not a democracy, it’s an apartheid state. So, all you need is to change the regime. Those who wanted the Jewish state and Zionism – it’s too late, friends. If you want the Jewish state, you should have pulled out of the occupied territories a long time ago. You didn’t do it. Too bad for you. I couldn’t care less about the Jewish state. I want to live in a democracy.

BM: Final question on this. How do we get from where we are now – where voices in Gaza are not heard in Israel, the rights of people in Gaza are not considered, very few people truly care about suffering in Gaza – to a state with equal rights? Would Israel have to go through some kind of defeat? Would international support have to be withdrawn? It seems that it would have to be a rather traumatic process to get from point A to point B. 

GL: First, just to correct you, it’s not that the Israelis don’t care about Gaza. They don’t know about Gaza. They are not exposed to anything. You’ll turn on the [news on] TV, which is now 24 hours a day, seven days a week, only about the war, and you will hardly see a clip from Gaza. Nothing. Now it’s not imposed on the media by anyone. It’s their choice because they know the viewers and the readers don’t want to see it.

Unbelievable. We were always laughing at Russia covering the war in Ukraine. Here it’s much worse. Because in Russia [censorship] comes from the government. Here it’s totally commercial and totally voluntary.

No doubt that we must reach a point in which Israelis will understand that the [current situation] is impossible [and] they will have to pay such heavy prices for the status quo that they will need a change. For now, Israelis can live with it. It’s not unbearable, you know, for most Israelis. Go out now in Tel Aviv: life is very good. I don’t want to underestimate this, it’s not normal times even in Tel Aviv, but it’s not like Israelis are saying, “We can’t take it anymore.”

So, first, it must reach a point in which [the status quo becomes] unbearable. And above all, nothing will move without the international community. Not in words and condemnations, but in actions. Maybe one day the world will say enough is enough, but in terms of enough is enough in actions, not enough is enough with another resolution in the UN – which Israel knows how to ignore. 

BM: Let me ask you about the international environment, because you talked about changes in Israel over the past 15 years. It also seems that the US and Europe have moved much closer to some extreme Israeli views, particularly the US. You remember that during the Lebanon War in 1982, Ronald Reagan called Prime Minister Menachem Begin and told him to stop. He said that what Israel was doing was “holocaust”.

Now, there has been no phone call. And in Europe, where the Palestinian cause was quite popular when I was younger, it has now become difficult to talk about. In some countries like Germany, it has even in some cases become dangerous: the police might visit you if you go to a protest and have the Palestinian flag with you. What is your impression? Do Israeli authorities and the government feel almost unconditional support right now?

GL: The only hope is the next generation. This generation is lost. And it started to become a domestic problem in Europe [with] freedom of speech because you cannot express yourself. And that’s a hell of a [win for] the Israeli propaganda policy. They really succeeded to label any criticism about Israel as anti-Semitic. And it paralysed Europe. We had the prime ministers of Spain and Belgium [visit Israel] at the beginning of the war. And [officials] took them, obviously, to see the burned houses [from 7 October]. Then they went just to watch Gaza from a distance, and they said, “this is horrible too”. Both were labelled as anti-Semites. Because they dare to say that it’s also horrible [what is happening in Gaza].

But you [also] see what’s going on, mainly in the US, in the younger generation. And this younger generation will become the establishment in ten years, 15 years. Polls show that they carry [the] most radical emotions and attitudes towards Israel, including preferring Hamas over Israel – not the Palestinians, but Hamas. 

So, wherever we look, there are enormous obstacles. But you can’t live just with the feeling that it’s all lost, because then let’s close the business. Something will happen, finally, that will change it. You see, every few years the West [becomes] sick and tired of this conflict. And then it comes again and again, and we will never be able to run away from this. Finally, there will be a situation in which there will be no choice but to go for a real solution. But we are far from it now.

[See also: The risk of a wider Middle East war is growing]

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