OpinionMiddle East

The resurgence of ‘Political Zionism’

The UAE-Israeli deal may be the first agreement that truly reflects Herzlian Political Zionism, fulfilling a dream of friendly coexistence between the Jews and their Middle Eastern neighbors.

El Al Flight 971 departing from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, on Aug. 31, 2020. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
El Al Flight 971 departing from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, on Aug. 31, 2020. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Yonatan Green. Credit: Courtesy,
Yonatan Green
Yonatan Green is an Israeli-American attorney who is currently a fellow at the Georgetown University Center for the Constitution.

The recent agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, along with the Trump “Peace to Prosperity” vision that many consider to have been the catalyst for the normalization of relations between the two countries, together mark the most significant and resounding achievements of “Political Zionism” since the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan vote, and perhaps since the 1920 San Remo conference.

Since 1947, Israel has been in a continuous diplomatic limbo with regard to her borders and territory, and in her relations with her Arab-Muslim neighbors in the Middle East. Since that time, there have been no purely diplomatic breakthroughs of consequence that can be said to have altered this fundamental reality—until now. The Trump administration “Peace to Prosperity”  plan marks the first serious acknowledgment of Israel’s territorial claims by a global power since 1947; while the UAE peace deal marks the first voluntary commencement of friendly relations with an Arab state, not in the immediate aftermath and shadow of defeat in armed conflict. These developments ought to be considered in the context of the different strategic attitudes that characterized Zionism from its inception as a modern national movement.

Since its very beginning, the Zionist movement diverged into multiple approaches towards achieving the common goal of establishing a homeland for the Jewish people. Perhaps the two most dominant of these were Practical Zionism and Political Zionism. While Practical Zionism focused on the physical immigration of Jews to the Land of Israel and other direct measures, Political Zionism (initially lead and inspired by Theodor Herzl) stressed the importance of obtaining international recognition and sanction of the Zionist objectives and working within a framework of international and legal cooperation. This is manifest in the Basel Program set out in the 1897 First Zionist Congress, which aimed for a “publicly and legally assured” home for the Jews, as well as the attainment of “government grants” to enable Zionist activity.

One can argue that until recently, Political Zionism can boast of (only) three major milestones.

The first is the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British government stated that they “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object ….” This was the first time a world Power publicly endorsed and supported the Zionist project, a policy coordinated with other Allied Powers and pre-approved by the international community.

The second was the post-World War I 1920 San Remo conference and the ensuing 1922 Mandate for Palestine assigned to Britain, both of which explicitly endorsed and incorporated the 1917 Balfour Declaration. If the declaration was merely a letter between the British Foreign Minister and the Jewish Lord Rothschild, the San Remo Resolution and League of Nations Mandate were the unambiguous and formal commitments of the international community to further the Zionist cause. The Mandate went a step further in the preamble by recognizing “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine” and by referring to “the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”

Both of the above were enormous victories for Zionism at a time when its success was far from certain. There is no doubt these diplomatic coups significantly affected the course of history for the Zionist project.

The third achievement of Political Zionism was the 1947 U.N. General Assembly vote on the partition plan. This vote by the international community constituted a clear reaffirmation of the Zionist cause of establishing a Jewish state, in the new post-World War II global order. One may rightly consider this as a lesser achievement—at that point, an independent Jewish state was an almost final and irrevocable reality that could have been challenged only by its violent annihilation (which was, of course, duly attempted). As such, the U.N. vote may be seen as a result of the success of Practical Zionism, and the acceptance of “facts on the ground,” at least as much as that of Political Zionism.

Since that time, the State of Israel and the Zionist movement have not secured significant diplomatic achievements of any magnitude approaching those listed above. There have been no major shifts or breakthroughs with regard to international (or Great Power) support for Israel’s claims to her territory and boundaries. The frontiers set by the 1949 Armistice agreements (the Rhodes Treaties) were explicitly defined as “non-final,” i.e., as not delineating any final borders; the territory captured in the 1967 Six-Day War (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) was immediately branded as “occupied” and the United Nations advocated Israeli withdrawal “from territories occupied.” In some respects, Israel had abandoned the path of Political Zionism as a matter of policy.

At the same time, the Arab-Muslim world has generally refused to recognize Israel as a legitimate member of the international community and as a sister-state in the Middle East neighborhood. The classic example is the well-known Khartoum Resolution of the 1967 Arab League Summit: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.” With or without direct military conflict, most Arab states have remained faithful to this creed and have maintained a formal state of belligerency with Israel.

The two signal exceptions to the Khartoum doctrine must be seen as those that prove the rule, and primarily as achievements of Practical (military) Zionism. Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel after being resoundingly defeated in battle throughout decades of continuous violent conflict. Left to choose between a formal peace and further bloodshed, they chose the former (while indeed, other immediate geographical neighbors chose the latter). The uneasy and tense relationship between Israel and her peace-partners reflects the general nature of the continued underlying antagonism of the Arab world towards Israel. It is worth noting that were we to attribute the Egypt and Jordan peace treaties to Political Zionism, we ought to have seen a wave of additional countries following suit and normalizing ties with Israel. No such shift occurred.

In sum, since 1948, the international community and world powers have generally maintained their approach when dealing with Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Any change was conditioned upon a final resolution between the various parties, and all mediators and “peace-brokers” adopted a neutral (or at times, an openly hostile) stance. During the same period, Israel has generally seen very little progress in its overall formal relationship with the Arab-Muslim world—the only exceptions being those of immediate neighbors effectively coerced into peace by Israel’s military might.

That is, until now.

The dual milestones of the Trump peace plan and the UAE normalization deal reverse the above trends, and constitute the most consequential event in the history of Political Zionism since 1947 and possibly since 1920. These two together revive and revitalize the Political Zionist approach to securing Israel’s future.

The plan broadly recognizes Israel’s claims to her territory and boundaries and should be seen as a joint policy along with the Trump administration’s actions regarding the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and Israeli recognition of the Golan Heights. This is the first time since 1947 that a world power has formally adopted Israel’s own version regarding itself and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The plan acknowledges the historic and national ties between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). The plan further adopts the Israeli legal argument vis-à-vis the territories captured in the 1967 war, according to which Israel may annex (or apply its laws to) any part of Mandatory Palestine (while maintaining all religious and civil rights of any civilian population).

The UAE agreement constitutes the first such voluntary peace not achieved directly by military success. It marks a true and fundamental divergence from past Israeli relations with Arab-Muslims countries. And it may be said to be the first-ever such agreement that truly reflects Herzlian Political Zionism, fulfilling a dream of friendly coexistence between the Jews and their Middle Eastern neighbors. One can also be certain that the UAE did not decide to do so unilaterally; such a radical shift requires coordination with other Muslim-Arab powers and approval in advance.

Thus, the Trump vision and the UAE deal represent a major victory for Political Zionism, such as it has not enjoyed since the U.N. Partition Plan vote immediately prior to Israel’s founding. Zionist history may yet judge 2020 to merit a place along 1917, 1920 and 1947.

Yonatan Green is the executive director of the Israel Law & Liberty Forum.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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