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
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.