Former Knesset Speaker: The Israel of 1948 Is Over

Avraham_Burg
Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg, holding child, greets new Russian immigrants upon their arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, ‎May‎ ‎10‎, ‎1995. Photo credit: Government Press Office / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Israel as a country should be appreciated and celebrated,” Avraham Burg says, but it should no longer be looked upon as the land of “oranges and equality.”

You might think those comments come from an anti-Israel professor at an elite US university. Instead, Avraham Burg is part of Israel’s history. His father was a member of the founding generation. Burg served as Speaker of the Israeli Knesset and in the Labor government of Shimon Peres before retiring from politics in 2004.

This personal history is why it’s so surprising to hear him declare that the Israel of 1948 is not there anymore.

Burg argues in his conversation with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman, that the only guarantor of today motivations of sovereignty and security is a call for what he sees as a one-state solution. One central government and some kind of confederation of two regimes. He suggests that, in his view of the world, the Israeli-Palestinian issues are no longer at the center of global consciousness. Much of the world has moved on.

Further, he thinks that the Zionist experiment may have passed its sell-by date, and that Israeli politics is “hollowed out.” Zionism was a necessary “scaffolding” for building Israel’s sovereignty, Burg says, but is it’s no longer relevant. The future may require a secular state that maintains a close, fruitful relationship with the Jewish and Israeli diaspora.


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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Back in the 1960s, Richard Nixon would talk and write a lot about the Middle East in general, and about the Israeli situation specifically, and he talked about how it easily could become the flash point of the next world war. Certainly almost 60 years and many crises later, this is still true. Today, as the second and third generation still hears about settlements and a one- and two-stage solution, and peace plans are reconstituted over and over again, one wonders, do we even remember how this all got started? Does the original sin grow out of the post-World War I agreements of 1916, or did something happen after Israel’s success in the Six-Day War, in 1967? Did Israel, to paraphrase our current President, get “tired of winning”?
So one more time, we’re going to go back and look at the past, the present, and the future of the Israeli enterprise. This time, with my guest Avraham Burg. Burg was once the speaker of the Israeli Knesset. He’s a past leader of the World Zionist Federation and the Jewish Agency for Israel. He served in the Israeli Labor Government of Shimon Peres, and back in 2004, he retired from active involvement in politics.
And it is my pleasure to welcome Avraham Burg to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Avraham, thanks so much for being here.
Avraham Burg: Pleasure, pleasure, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: I want to talk a little bit about you personally because it very much ties to this story and what you write about it “In Days to Come.” Talk a little bit about why, in 2004, you decided to retire from the political fray.
Avraham Burg: I take it you mean why not earlier?
Jeff Schechtman: Why at all?
Avraham Burg: I was many years in Israeli politics. Actually, you can say I was born into it, since my father was one of the founding fathers of the state of Israel and a prominent leader there. And for many years or so it is my public mission. And then one day, literally I woke up and I discovered that not only I’m hollow, but the Israeli politics has no direction. I mean it’s a great kingdom, but where’s the prophecy? And I tried to look around and I got lost. So, one of the reasons I retired from the Knesset because I wanted to contemplate, I wanted to solve, and the outcome of this thinking and contemplation were five books already, and the last one of them is the one full of hope. Yes, new paradigm. Yes, new direction. Yes, alternative Israel, but with a lot of hope.
Jeff Schechtman: And yet, some would argue, looking at the situation today, that there’s less hope. That the situation has metastasized in ways that don’t seem to be curable.
Avraham Burg: You know, we used to ask my mom, “Mom, what are you? Are you an optimist or a pessimist?” And she said, “Me? Of course I’m an optimist. Today is much better than tomorrow.” So, I don’t share my mom’s kind of optimism, but I would say as follows: On one hand, the old paradigm of liberal Zionism, of [inaudible 00:03:26] two-state solution, Israeli-Jewish privilege, reality is over. We are facing a much more severe situation when it comes to us and our past aspirations. On the other hand, it’s the wake-up call, was called and people wake up. People, the Palestinian side realize many of them, not all of them, but many of them realize that violence is not the solution [inaudible 04:00] the Israeli side realize that occupation cannot continue forever. So, there is a potential for a new discourse and this potential I try to offer a couple of alternatives.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the sense of, and you touch on this a little bit, the sense of fatigue. That the reason this can’t continue, the reason you think something may change, that there’s cause for hope, is that there’s a sense of exhaustion from all of this.
Avraham Burg: Yes, but this is not the only thing. You know, you opened up in your preamble with these certainties and Nixon, et cetera, then the Middle East was, literally speaking, the forefront of the Cold War, the influential zone between the Communist hemisphere and the Western democracy, et cetera. As for today, as hectic, and burning, and chaotic as the Middle East is, it’s marginal, or at least our conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is not as central as it used to be. Iran is, ISIS is, Syria in a way still is, Neo-Turkey and Neo-Russia are coming back. Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not anymore the front fire. Being there at the side eases a little bit the tension, I would say the burden off the shoulders of [leadership?] and people, we can talk differently.
And talking differently is something that you do not hear much, but I give you two examples. I hear more and more in Ramallah, and in Nablus, and in Hebron and I go there very often, people say, “Listen it’s not about territorial rights, we want to vote, one person one vote. You are the only democracy in the Middle East, we want to vote.” I hear it from the Palestinian side. On the Israeli side I have four grandchildren, I mean I have 8, but 4 of them are fluent in Arabic. They are going to bilingual kindergarten and bilingual school and they know both languages, not just the verbal language, but I would say the [inaudible 00:06:14 – the value of the symbolic one?] and these are for me indications that the new generation is ripe for change.
Jeff Schechtman: But of course there are those from previous generations, and I suppose some in even in the new generation, that will tell you that that kind of a one state solution with everybody having the right to vote would mean the end of Israel as we know it.
Avraham Burg: The Israel you knew is not there anymore. I mean Israel of ’48, it’s about oranges, and equality, et cetera. We’re not there anymore. Israel is a transformed reality like by the way North America is going through a transformative period. But as that follows I’m not married to any solution, whatever is agreed upon by a serious substantial majority of both societies, I would say go for it.
And so now, the formula or the rhetorics of the formula of the two-state solution is not a product with no expiration date. In a way it’s expired, it is not there on the shelf forever and the dilemma the Israelis and the Palestinians and the world’s community are facing is not whether to have an empty, hollow two-state solution formula or something else. It is one government, one state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, with two different regimes. One full of privileges for the Jews and one short of privileges for the Palestinians, and I say, “Okay, if you prefer because of settlements, because of point of no return, because of fears and phobias, or even lack of capability of the Palestinian side, you want to go for one state solution at least let’s do it a fair, good, decent one state solution, based on a very simple working assumption, every individual between the Jordan and the Mediterranean has the right to have the same rights and so on.” So it is not between two state solution and one state solution, but between one state solution with two regimes and one state reality with a better regime.
Jeff Schechtman: What you talk about, and In Days to Come, is a kind of one state solution, but two state confederation. Talk a little bit about that.
Avraham Burg: You know I wish everything was simple like one plus one gives you two, three, something okay? But never mind how you add the numbers in the Middle East it’s never mathematical, it’s never scientific. So I ask myself, “What are the components, what are the motivations around there.” Those people, both sides, for them that territory is sacred. Be it Jewish territorialist, be it Palestinian territorialist, are those for them security, are those for them sovereignty. I mean there’s so many motivations it’s not a clear cut clause. The ground floor is the one we stated already, constitutional one. Every individual between the Jordan and the Mediterranean has the right to have the same rights. The mezzanine, is the one which says here is the Jewish political entity called the state of Israel in which most of the issues of the Jewish collective are being resolved. And next to it, literally, lives the Palestinian entity, Palestinian state, in which most of the Palestinian political and national issues are being dealt and resolved. And on top of it, the third floor, the roof, is [inaudible 09:56] confederative structure which deals with, let’s say, infrastructure might be jointed in a value system. It’s impossible to put Jeff in a room lives next to each other. For me you are a freedom fighter, I am a freedom fighter and for you I am a terrorist. It’s no go. We need some kind of shared value language.
So, if you take the three floors, constitutional freedoms at the bottom, political definitions of the collective at the mezzanine, and shared infrastructure at the top confederative structure, it might lead to a situation in which many will find a solution for their aspirations. Territorial, sovereign, power, independence, still labors and sharing together the shared space.
Jeff Schechtman: And certainly, as a political solution, everything that you’re saying makes a great deal of sense. What is the nexus, though, between that and the idea of Israel as a Zionist state?
Avraham Burg: It’s a little bit, if I may, a different discussion. In a sense that we are, how will I say it, we are so fully obsessed with definition that it doesn’t let us look beyond the definition, beyond the paradigms. So, I would like to start out of the box before I walk into the box okay?
Jeff Schechtman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Avraham Burg: I’m living in a space in which I love to see as much possible, or as many possible shared spaces. It’s roads and highways and hospitals and schools and infrastructure, and even political sharing, geographical and others. So this, it means that the regional, ancient paradigm of the vision, dividing the land, separation, et cetera, should be replaced by a decent one and decent sharing, which means from doing alone and secluding each other it is moving through a more inclusive policy. Once I have this, I can read it and once we define or we build a better future for ourselves or at least for our children it will be easier to revisit the past, but if everything is about let’s fight about the past, who was right in ’48, who was wrong in ’29, who was bad in ’73 or whatever it is, it will never let you off to move onwards and I say let’s first deal with a better future. Once we have, let’s revisit the past.
When I presently revisit the past I say as follows, “Zionism was a necessary movement to transform the Jewish people from exilic structure to a sovereign one.” And it was a kind of scaffolding that enabled us to restructure and rebuild our political structure. In May ’48 the restructuring was completed. We were a state, we succeeded. Zionism, at least in Israel and for Israelis, is not needed anymore. From ’48 and on I have a state and I have a society, I have a culture, I have a civil life. And it belongs to all the citizens of this place. And therefore, for me, Zionism was a fantastic, successful story for the Jews, quite a tragic one for the Palestinians, both the Israeli citizens — 40% of them — and those who are living outside of Israel, but nonetheless from this moment and on I move with a new reality. And the new reality is that I who was born into the already existing state of Israel is a different political animal than my parents who were born before it, as simple as that. And I do not need the Zionism definition in order to define myself, it succeeded, I can remove the scaffolding, and enjoy the new house.
Jeff Schechtman: What do you see in terms of the polarization that exists today? I mean it exists everywhere in the world and we see this rise of nationalism and similar trends everywhere we look. How does that play out in Israel today against the backdrop of what you’re proposing and suggesting?
Avraham Burg: Take everything you know, the populist movement, the local supremacy versus xenophobia, Islamophobia, Jewdophobia, immigrant-phobia, everything you know from here in America the last couple of years, whatever you know in Europe, you have it in Israel maybe a little bit even more intensive because the echo box is smaller and the proximity of people to people is actually next door. If we have it all, at the same time there is a huge question hanging over the Jewish existence over there, and I’ll try to define as follows. In our generation, just in [inaudible 00:15:13] generation, 98% of the Jews are living in the democratic hemisphere. 24,000 Jews are living in Iran, 3,000 Jews in Morocco, two Jews are living in Afghanistan I presume, we do not talk to each other and that’s it. All the rest of the Jews are living outside of any immediate threat to their individual or collective life.
This is a situation that, at least in the West, particularly in North America, raised an unbelievable question, for the first time in our history ever. Can the Jewish people in the era of freedom, can these Jewish people survive without an external enemy? Give me war, give me program, God forbid don’t give me holocaust, but I don’t know what to do. Give me peace, give me tranquility, give me emancipation, give me equality and I am lost. And part of the issue that many Israelis are subconsciously are concerned is if there will be peace the way of rule describes here, and yes there is no Iraqi threat and there is no Egyptian threat and there is no Jordanian one, not even a Palestinian one, and even the Iranian one is under control more or less when you listen to the experts. So we in Israel, the Jews, are going to face the question of the West. How to survive an era of peace. We don’t have an answer for this, we don’t have experience there. And this is part of the problem why so many people are reluctant to demolish the walls of the shtetl we’ve built around us.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course, the other part is that it is fed constantly by Israeli politicians who want to gin up that threat, who want to gin up the fear of Iran or anything else simply because it serves their political interests.
Avraham Burg: No doubt that fear is a fantastic political tool, I mean, listen to  your presidential rhetorics.
Jeff Schechtman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Avraham Burg: Listen to the Hungarians, listen to some of the German supremacy in Germany and the neo-Nazis out there in the new Polish government, fear is a fantastic tool. And especially in an era like ours with a fantastic acceleration, frightening acceleration of mother earth anger, and technology speed-up, and the economy uncertainty. No doubt people are full of fears. No doubt about it, okay? Nonetheless, when it comes to the Jewish fear, which is also fed with our recent and not so recent history and this raises the ground for it, I’m not the one to deny the existence of fear, I’m not the one to ignore the potential of that, but I’m the one who does not want A, to surrender to it, and B, to exploit it cynically for political profit. I think that the role of leadership, any leadership, but especially at my people’s leadership is to come with a platform of hope, maybe reluctant, maybe cautious, maybe very careful, but a platform of hope rather than a platform of fear and frightening.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you find this change to be generational?
Avraham Burg: It goes both ways. On one hand, one day you and me will wake up into, and our audiences will wake up into a world in which the last Nazi criminal and the last Holocaust survivor will pass away and this will be a day in which the Holocaust will not be anymore a personal experience, but a kind of a collective memory. So this is a new day no doubt that around the world Jews and non-Jews are born a distance in, historically speaking, chronologically speaking are moving away from the horrors of the second World War. On the other hand, the fears of this generation are known as [inaudible 00:19:24]. With the class fear, nuclear fears, environmental fears, fundamentalist fears, even virtual fears. And therefore, I think that by the beginning of the day it’s a psychological, educational approach before it is a generational one. Do you trust or do you trust trauma? My nation for too many years, my country for too many years, got addicted or is addicted to trauma. And I would like to replace it with trust, with a policy and strategy of trust.
Jeff Schechtman: How do you think Israel goes about that, how does that begin to happen?
Avraham Burg: The good answer, which is very naïve, is by persuasion. If I go from individual to individual, from school to school, from meeting to meeting, from interview to interview, myself and my friends and my colleagues eventually will accumulate into a kind of a policy avalanche. So that says the positive answer. The more realistic one is the Israeli society, you can say, like maybe other societies, but for sure the Israeli society, is very attentive to traumas. We used to wait till the very last moment and then there is no other option, but then we adopt what we had to do day one. Only after ’73 war did we make peace with Egypt though it was on the table a couple of years already. Only after the first Gulf War did we go to Madrid, only after the first Palestinian Intifada did we make Oslo. Could we make it earlier, the answer is yes, but the public opinion was not ready and the leadership was reluctant and people were cowards.
So the road today of people like myself and others who are intellectuals, who are thinking and trying to develop new paradigms, is to prepare the tools and the content for the days to come. And then one day when the opportunity will introduce itself, will offer itself, we shall be ready with paradigms and content to say, “Okay, you arrived the Israeli society, you arrived the Israeli leadership, here is the content. Adopt it, you have the policy, go for it.”
Jeff Schechtman: And in your view how far away from that are we?
Avraham Burg: Is it around the corner or down the historic road I have no clue. I have no clue. You know when you ask me, when I walk around the country and when I talk to people, be them Israeli, be them Palestinian, be them newcomers, be them people who were born in Israel, many, many people do not necessarily agree with me, but unlike 10, 15, 20 years ago they are ready to listen, because many surveys indicate that 70% of the Israelis that think that Israeli goes by one direction. There is two to that disagreement, which one direction. But at least there is a feeling that we need a shift, that we have to have a kind of a u-turn away from the dangerous direction we take now.
That’s the corruption of the leader, be it in passivity on the political front, be it the church-and-state tensions, be it whatever it is. I have a feeling in that what we start to describe earlier in our conversation, in the fatigue, people are tired of all the fatigue. There is a readiness for activism, you see it every Saturday night. In Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem you have three different kinds of demonstrations growing full of thousands of people, against the malicious policy, against the African asylum seekers, against the terrible corruption of the Prime Minister, and against the occupation. It’s not the same demonstration and worry, but still, people all of a sudden go out in the streets and [inaudible 23:38]. So the readiness to listen is there.
Jeff Schechtman: Avraham Burg, his new book is, In Days to Come: A New Hope for Israel. Avraham, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on radio WhoWhatWhy.
Avraham Burg: Thank you very much Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you, and thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Ben-Gurion (Rudi Vaisenshtin / Wikimedia).

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