Israel-Palestine: Race against history

What future for Israel? asks Moshé Machover

I will not presume to predict the future of the Zionist state,1 but confine myself to outlining the main contradictory factors and processes that are at work, and whose conflicting interaction will determine its fate.

As I have pointed out on several occasions,2 Zionist colonisation deliberately followed the practice of settler colonies such as those of North America and Australia, in which the aboriginal people were displaced and excluded. Rather than serving as the main exploitable labour force, providing the settlers with the surplus product (as, for example, in Algeria and South Africa), the indigenous Palestinian Arabs were regarded by Zionism as being themselves surplus to requirements.

Historically, the two models of colonisation - the one exploitative, the other exclusionist - differed fundamentally in their political economy, and hence in their evolution and outcome. In exploitative colonies, the settlers were a small, privileged quasi-class, vastly outnumbered by the indigenous people. This made decolonisation possible: in many of these colonies the settlers were either ousted or - as in South Africa - lost their institutional (albeit not real economical) privileges and had to accept legal equality with the natives. In contrast, the colonisers in every exclusionist colony formed a new settler nation that overpowered, overwhelmed and pulverised the indigenous people and in some cases exterminated them altogether. There is no historical precedent of decolonisation in a colony of this type.

Judging by these precedents, it would seem that the ultimate triumph of Zionist colonisation is assured, and the Israeli settler state will fulfil its ‘manifest destiny’. Decolonisation - which in this case means deZionisation - appears to be impossible.


However, Zionist colonisation and its product-cum-instrument, the Israeli settler state, have some unique features that may act as countervailing factors and militate against this prediction.

One such exceptional feature, as I have also pointed out on several occasions,3 is the national form of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What I mean by this is that not only the settlers have formed a new Hebrew (‘Israeli-Jewish’) nation - as indeed is the general pattern in the exclusionary model of colonisation - but the indigenous Palestinian Arab people have also emerged as a single national entity. Moreover, this indigenous national group is a sub-nationality of the all-Arab nation, one of the world’s largest national formations and a major living cultural-linguistic group. It is primarily for this reason that the Palestinian people have not been pulverised, unlike their North-American or Australian counterparts, who were isolated and divided into many national or tribal groups speaking diverse languages. Zionist colonisation and the Israeli state confront not only the Palestinian Arabs, but also the whole of the Arab world, whose masses have profound feelings of solidarity for the Palestinians.

By the way, the fact - exceptional in colonial history - that both the settlers and the indigenous people have formed new single national entities in the colonised territory has given the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the misleading superficial form of a symmetric territorial dispute between two neighbouring nations.

Another exceptional feature is the numerical ratio between colonisers and the indigenous population: in the territory controlled by Israel, the two populations - Hebrew settlers and Palestinian Arabs - are of roughly equal size, with the latter expected to overtake the former in the near future, if it has not done so already.

This is, of course, quite unlike the situation in exploitative colonies, in which the settlers were a small minority. But it also contrasts with other exclusionary colonies, in which the settlers became a decisive majority. Unlike those other cases, the net balance between inflow of settlers and ethnic cleansing of natives did not result in the former numerically overwhelming the latter.

An important reason for this is so obvious that it has been largely overlooked. While North America and Australia accepted immigrants of diverse religious denominations and ethnic origins (provided they were white …), Israel only admits Jewish immigrants and their close family members. Following the last influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, there does not exist a large remaining reservoir of likely would-be immigrants acceptable by Zionist criteria.

This shortage of potential immigrants is one of the consequences of the Nazi genocide of the Jews of eastern and central Europe. While this genocide was no doubt an important argument justifying the establishment of Israel to western public opinion, it also exterminated millions of Jews whom the Zionist movement had hoped to attract as immigrants.4

Onus of self-legitimation

Israel could arguably stabilise itself for the foreseeable future as a Jewish-majority state with a manageable Arab minority, if it would accept a so-called two-state solution, allowing the creation of a Palestinian Arab state in part of pre-1948 Palestine. Indeed, this seems to be such an obvious escape from the ‘ethnic peril’ posed by a large Arab population under Israeli rule that many observers are unable to understand why Israel has done everything to prevent it. But no Israeli government since 1967 has ever made a legally binding commitment to accepting a sovereign Palestinian state west of the river Jordan; and all Israeli governments since the 1967 war have persistently created facts on the ground in the territories occupied in that war that preclude the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state there.

This would indeed be difficult to explain if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were a symmetric national conflict between two neighbouring nations over disputed territory. The obvious bourgeois nationalist way to resolve such a conflict is by territorial compromise.

But this is not the real underlying nature of the conflict. And Zionism has a profound ideological reason for rejecting such an ‘obvious’ resolution. It concerns the very core of Zionist self-legitimation.

Zionism has always denied that its project is one of ‘ordinary’ colonisation of a territory by foreign settlers. Rather, it claims that this is the ‘return’ of an alleged Jewish nation to Eretz Yisrael, its ancient ‘historical’ homeland. In the Zionist myth it is not the Jewish settlers but the Arab residents who are aliens in the Land of Israel.

What could legitimise an Arab state in any part of that territory? There is only one possible legitimation: the right of a people inhabiting a territory, or constituting a decisive majority in it, to national self-determination. But Zionism cannot accept such legitimation, because if it applies to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip now it surely also applied by the same token to the whole of Palestine in, say, 1923, when its population was overwhelmingly Arab. This implies that Zionist colonisation was not legitimate. Thus, accepting the legitimacy of an Arab state anywhere west of the river Jordan would totally undermine the self-legitimation of a Zionist Israel.

As general Moshe Dayan pointed out in a remarkable speech:

“Fundamentally a Palestinian state is an antithesis of the state of Israel ... The basic and naked truth is that there is no fundamental difference between the relation of the Arabs of Nablus to Nablus and that of the Arabs of Jaffa to Jaffa … And if today we set out on this road and say that the Palestinians are entitled to their own state because they are natives of the same country and have the same rights, then it will not end with the West Bank. The West Bank together with the Gaza Strip do not amount to a state ... The establishment of such a Palestinian state would lay a cornerstone to something else … Either the state of Israel - or a Palestinian state.”5

In other words, if an Arab state west of the Jordan is legitimate, then Zionist colonisation and its state were and are illegitimate. So by acting consistently to prevent a ‘two-state solution’ Israeli governments since 1967 were not behaving impulsively or opportunistically: they have been driven by a deep commitment to the Zionist self-legitimation of Israel itself.

Risky gamble

Admittedly, by pursuing this policy, Israel’s leading politicians are taking a very risky gamble. The risk, from a Zionist viewpoint, is that Israel will be stuck with having to control a sizable Arab population - eventually considerably larger than the Hebrew settler nation - whose national identity would be impossible to obliterate and whose national aspirations and demands for equal rights would be increasingly hard to suppress.

At the same time, changes in the Arab world may alter the balance of power in Israel’s disfavour. These and other international developments may also lead the US, Israel’s all-important backer and senior partner, to reconsider its vital support for the Zionist state. That would spell doom for the Zionist project.

It is a race against history, which makes the so-called Sharon plan of a new round of massive ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs very attractive to the Zionist gamblers.6 Whether they will be able to pull it off remains to be seen.


1. The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra, p12b) warns that “since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been denied to prophets and given to idiots and infants”.

2. See my book Israelis and Palestinians: conflict and resolution London 2012 (especially chapter 35). Also ‘Breaking the chains of Zionist oppression’ Weekly Worker February 19 2009.

3. Ibid.

4. Vladimir Jabotinsky, in his otherwise offensive ‘Iron wall’ article, published in 1923, argued explicitly against expulsion of the Arabs from Palestine. He counted on massive immigration of Jews from eastern Europe that would relatively rapidly reduce the Arabs to a manageable minority. See www.jabotinsky.org/multimedia/upl_doc/doc_191207_49117.pdf.

5. Ha’aretz December 12 1975. For other Zionists putting forward the same argument immediately following the 1967 war, see chapter 19 of my book, cited above.

6. Martin van Creveld, ‘Sharon’s plan is to drive Palestinians across the JordanThe Sunday Telegraph April 28 2002.