by Joel Pollak
Yosef Gorny introduces his concise yet complex description of the history of Zionist federalism by describing his “disillusionment” about the prospects of confederation between Israel and its neighbors. Indeed, one of the most puzzling features about this otherwise informative and enjoyable book — hinting, perhaps, at a kind of agnostic post-Zionism — is its conclusion, in which Gorny claims that Zionism “is beginning its second historical journey” — back to Europe, where “a third-largest Jewish center [after the U.S. and Israel] … may well come into being.”
Gorny, a historian who now heads the institute for the research of Jewish press and media at Tel Aviv University, is not, like former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, giving up on Zionism and celebrating the diaspora. Rather, he is expressing a deep concern about the fate of the Jewish people if there is no resolution to the Middle East conflict.
At the outset, Gorny defines different versions of the “federal” idea. A “federation” is “a sovereign state composed of autonomous political units that derive their power from one political center”; a “confederation” is “a regional alliance of sovereign states that maintain joint institutions in various domains.” Power devolves down in the former, and up in the latter.
He goes on to demonstrate how different versions of the federal idea have been proposed by various Zionist leaders as a way of bridging the gap between utopian national visions and the practical obstacles to establishing and maintaining a state. Often, federation and confederation were proposed to provide an answer to the fact or potential of a Jewish minority in Palestine and to Israel’s isolation among Arab nations.
Gorny excludes versions of the federal idea, such as certain forms of bi-nationalism, that did not uphold the general Zionist principle of a Jewish majority in the part of Palestine where Jewish self-determination would be exercised. He explores the ideas of mainstream Zionist leaders on both the left and the right, and shows how the federal idea was inspired by various precedents, including federal arrangements in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the United States. Zionist leaders who proposed federal ideas often changed their models as circumstances changed. Thus David Ben-Gurion first proposed (separate) autonomy for Jews and Arabs in Palestine in 1922; a joint federation of Jewish and Arab nations in the mid-1920s; a complex federal arrangement between Jews and Arabs in 1931; and a confederation of a Jewish state within a larger Arab formation in the mid-1930s.
One of the most interesting subjects Gorny addresses is the federal idealism of Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, who is considered a right-wing and militant thinker. Gorny points out that Jabotinsky was in some ways a political liberal, and that despite his view that Jews would have to resort to the use of force, he continued to believe in a federal solution that would recognize the rights of both Jews and Arabs.
Gorny demonstrates that in their deliberations, the Zionist leaders were capable of considering a wide range of different ideas. The idea of “transfer” — which was considered impractical but not “morally illegitimate” in the 1920s, having recently been implemented in Turkey and Greece — coexisted with utopian ideas of shared states and confederations.
Demography played a role in the formulation of the various models, just as it does today. After the Six Day War, Israeli Labor politicians Aryeh Eliav and Shimon Peres proposed different federal models as a way of resolving the moral and demographic challenges of occupation. Today, the “demographic threat” is in doubt, given the Gaza disengagement and questions about the accuracy of Palestinian population projections.
The geopolitical environment has also changed, with Arab states now prepared — at least in theory — to accept peace with (if not the legitimacy of) Israel, in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative.
These two factors, perhaps unforeseen by Gorny at the time of writing, have pushed the federal idea even further to the margins of Israeli discourse. However, it has not disappeared, because the fundamental conflict between Jews and Arabs remains to be resolved.
If the next few years should indeed see some form of Palestinian state emerge, there will also be a need for institutional arrangements between the two states to govern affairs that must be dealt with in common, such as water. The economic success of the Palestinian state will also depend on its ties to the Israeli economy, which will require continued political cooperation. Therefore, Gorny’s pessimism may be premature: For practical reasons, if not for idealistic ones, the federal idea still lives.