Benjamin Netanyahu and the Ideological Incongruence of Liberal Zionism

By Palestine Center Intern 

The last few years have been devastating for Palestinians. In the last two alone, we have seen assaults on peaceful protestors in Gaza, the adoption of the controversial Nation State Law, the agreement with Trump to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a rapid increase in illegal settlement building, and the illegal demolition of several dozen Palestinian homes located near Israel’s apartheid wall. Israel’s racism against Palestinians seems to be escalating at an alarming rate, and many critics have denounced Netanyahu as the reason for this shocking pivot into right-wing ethnic supremacy and apartheid. At this point, even the most liberal Zionists are finding it difficult to support Israel’s behavior. Famous liberal Zionists in the U.S. ranging from Natalie Portman to the pro-Israel group J Street have openly criticized Netanyahu’s policies and expressed extreme disappointment in the state of Israeli politics. These denunciations follow the same lines: we support the state of Israel but not its current leadership. This is not what Israel stands for, they say. But any serious study of history shows the contrary: this is what Israel has always stood for.

Since its nascent beginnings, Israel’s ideology – the ideology of political Zionism – was based on two main tenets: colonialism and ethnonationalism. The former allowed for a mass immigration movement into Palestine to establish a new state on top of an already existing one, while the latter ensured that this state would be one where full political rights were only granted to its Jewish citizens. The tenets on which Israel lay its legal, political, and social frameworks have thus always been racist and exclusionary. What we see today through Netanyahu’s leadership is not an aberration of this framework, but rather a blunt articulation of it. Netanyahu’s track record of annexing more land, building more illegal settlements, announcing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and increasing the repression, violence, and blatant discrimination against Palestinians is not a recent digression from Israel’s policies; they are Israel’s policies.

The Zionist project that led to the creation of Israel was a lengthy process that was facilitated in its early years by the 1917 Balfour Declaration. To understand the Zionist leaders’ general attitudes towards Palestinians during that time, it is useful to study the language they deployed to characterize Palestinians. Much like any other colonial project, the Zionist project necessitated a total dismissal of Palestinian claims, rights, and existence. As such, Zionists who referenced Palestinians were dismissive at best and dehumanizing at worst. Perhaps the most popular phrase within Zionist discourse was the idea that Palestine was a “land without a people for a people without a land”. First mentioned by Israel Zangwill, a contemporary of Theodor Herzl (the “father” of the Zionist movement) in 1901, this myth was repeated throughout the early 1900s and became “the predominant ideology of the Zionist settler movement.”[1] Chaim Weizmann, who later became the first president of Israel, stated this in his own words years later: “There is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and, on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country.” Undermining and outright ignoring Palestinians has underscored every Zionist action since the beginning of the establishment of Israel.

While Weizmann may have ignored the existence of Palestinians altogether, leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi popularized the idea that although Palestinians were the majority and longtime inhabitants of Palestine, they actually felt no attachment to their land[2], a claim based on nothing more than an arrogant disregard of the Palestinian people in a hungry pursuit to realize the Zionist dream. James Balfour was equally uninterested in Palestinian claims or concerns when, in 1919, he wrote in a memorandum that “we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country…Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires or prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”[3]. It comes as no surprise, then, that when the Balfour Declaration was signed in 1917, it made no reference to the Palestinians’ political rights. Instead, it announced Palestine as the “national home for the Jewish people,” provided Jewish citizens (present and future) with full political rights, while non-Jewish inhabitants would only ever be granted “civil and religious” rights[4].

Since Israel’s formation, Zionist leaders made it clear that Palestinians were never part of the state’s future: their claims were not valid, their presence unimportant, and their intellect underdeveloped[5]. This is precisely the attitude we continue to see today. Israeli politicians’ documented racism which has shocked many is not a new development within Israeli discourse. It may have been hidden behind a rhetoric of liberalism and democracy under previous leadership, but it was always the foundation on which the state of Israel was created.

Now that the land was acquired and the indigenous claims dismissed, the next step in realizing the Zionist project was to create a Jewish majority on the land. A serious discussion ensued around how to deal with the “Arab problem”. Was there any way to ethically expunge the country of its 700,000+ indigenous Palestinian inhabitants? Debate about this topic abound. Various Zionists during the time proposed ways in which a mass “transfer” (or expulsion) of Palestinians could occur. These proposals included “transferring” Palestinians to Transjordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, among others[6]. The likelihood that Palestinians would agree to these plans was low; Zionists knew this fact but only ever discussed it in passing. The main goal was to create a Jewish majority; the resistance from Palestinians would be dealt with accordingly. In the words of Menahem Ussishkin, a powerful Zionist leader and President of the Jewish National Fund, “I will fight for this. I will make sure that we will be the landlords of this land…because this country belongs to us and not to them.”[7] This sentiment was echoed by many other Zionist pioneers: Arthur Ruppin, head of land purchasing for the Jewish National Fund, said, “On every site where we purchase land and where we settle people the present cultivators will inevitably be dispossessed…[There is] no alternative, but that lives should be lost. It is our destiny to be in a state of continual warfare with the Arabs.”[8] Meanwhile, Ben-Gurion himself wrote, “The realization of Zionism is now on the agenda…History does not wait. Non-Jewish Palestine waited 1800 years without Jews…During the next 20 years we have to create a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel.”[9]

When the Nation State Law was passed by the Knesset in July 2018, people across the world were shocked at its blatant racism. This law provides the right to self-determination exclusively to the Jewish citizens of Israel, downgrades Arabic from being an official language to one having “special status”, and establishes “Jewish settlement as a national value”. This was clearly an inappropriate and racist move against Palestinians, and many denounced it as apartheid and argued that this didn’t reflect the “Western, liberal values” on which the state of Israel was established. This brings up the question of when these “liberal values” were ever applied equally to Palestinians. What liberal Zionists refuse to reckon with is the fact that Israel has always practiced ethnic supremacy as part of its governance and has always sought to create and maintain a Jewish majority on the entire land of Palestine. These values were not only embodied by the Balfour Declaration in 1917 but have also been practiced by every Zionist and Israeli leader since the state’s establishment.

Netanyahu’s controversial statement that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people – and only it” may be jarring to an audience unaware of the state’s racist history, but it comes as no surprise to Palestinians who have experienced these apartheid policies and actively resisted them since Israel’s formation. Studying Zionist political thought proves that the Zionist project has always envisioned a land violently dispossessed of Palestinians from the river to the sea. The murderous mentality and increased settlement building of the current Israeli leadership is simply a continuation of what we have all known to be true for over a century: Zionism is fundamentally incompatible with human rights. In order for human rights to be achieved, the very tenets on which this state was established must be dismantled. The only true democratic solution would be one state for one people, granting the right of return to Palestinian refugees, and a state that no longer practices settler colonialism and ethnic supremacy.







[1] Nahla Abdo and Nira Yuval-Davis, “Palestine, Israel and the Zionist Settler Project,” in Unsettling Settler Societies: Articulations of Gender, Race, Ethnicity and Class, ed. Daiva Stasiulis and Nira Yuval-Davis (London: SAGE Publications, 1995), 291.

[2] Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (New York: Olive Branch Press, 1993), 75.

[3] Ibid., 78

[4] Ibid., 65

[5] Ibid.

[6] Nur Masalha, Explusion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992).

[7] Quoted in Ibid., 51.

[8] John Quigley, Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 20.

[9] Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (New York: Olive Branch Press, 1993), 79.