So 1967 was a turning point?

Sternhell: The radicalisation of Jewish nationalism is a product of the Six Day War. For most people in Israel, especially those in power, national identity is far more important than democracy. I remember a famous rabbi, one of the settlement founders in Hebron, commenting soon after 1967 that democracy was not a Jewish value. For religious nationalists, liberal democracy is a foreign, dispensable concept. For them it is majority rule that counts.

The Prime Minister of Hungary would agree to that...

Sternhell: In my opinion what Viktor Orban says about illiberal democracy – he invented that expression – is bullshit. Democracy is either liberal or it does not exist.

Right-wing populists are currently in the ascendant, in the U.S. as well as in Europe.  How much do you see Israel embedded in this global trend?

Sternhell: Israeli right-wing nationalists undoubtedly feel encouraged by that fact that they are part of a global trend. They have close links to various right-wing parties in Europe. The Trump era will not last forever, but here in Israel the right have created a situation in which other Israelis see no alternative. Most Israelis consider the status quo as probably the best situation they can imagine.

Peace activists: waving both Israeli and Palestinian flags (photo: dpa)
"The opportunity to create two states has been missed many times. Unfortunately, those Palestinians who still dream of return are merely helping the Israeli right in their efforts to cement the current situation. A two-state solution might still be possible were we to retreat from the West Bank yet retain the settlements," says Zeev Sternhell

Does that mean the Middle East conflict will remain unresolved?

Sternhell: Do you know people who would be ready and able to go so far to solve the problem? No, they don’t exist. Right now the battle is as good as lost. As long as nothing dramatic happens during this nationalist disaster, as long as life is good and the economy is working, we have no reason to pick a fight with the settlers.

But without a solution to the Palestinian question there can be no democratic Israeli state with a Jewish majority in the long term. Already almost as many Arabs as Jews live between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

Sternhell: For the Jewish majority the Arab vote does not count. Tommy Lapid from the Future party and Avi Gabbay, the head of Labour – Netanyahuʹs sole challengers – have already declared that they will not collaborate with the Arab parties, the Joined List. The right-wing settlers have managed to create a state within the state. They are stronger than we are, because they are ready to die for their ideas, while we are not.

What is all this leading to? Will it be one state at the end?

Sternhell: The opportunity to create two states has been missed many times. Unfortunately, those Palestinians who still dream of return are merely helping the Israeli right in their efforts to cement the current situation. A two-state solution might still be possible were we to retreat from the West Bank yet retain the settlements. We are however incapable of achieving that on our own. A real solution cannot be reached without bringing together Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab states, the USA and Europe – to all intents and purposes, a Sisyphean task.

Interview conducted by Inge Gunther

© Qantara.de 2018

Zeev Sternhell, 83, Israeli historian and political scientist, is one of the worldʹs leading experts on fascism. For many years he ran the Political Science Department at the Hebrew University. In 2008 he was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize. In the same year, he narrowly survived an attack by a right-wing extremist when a pipe bomb exploded in front of his house in Jerusalem. Sternhell has nevertheless continued to speak out, writing insightful and outspoken columns for Haaretz newspaper, in which he is openly critical of Israelʹs occupation and settlement policies.

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