The Palestinians Wanted Chaos

Gidi Grinstein is one of Israel's most interesting thinkers. The founder and president of the country's leading think tank, the Reut Institute, he is a former negotiator in the government of Ehud Barak. I sat down with him recently to talk about Israel's future. Here are some excerpts. Gidi blogs, by the way, at

I have a simple question: has Zionism worked?
Tremendously. I believe that we are one of the most successful national movements of the 20th century and moving forward into the 21st century.

Are the Palestinians one of the least successful national movements?

Probably. The secret of Zionism--the resilience of Zionism--is its ideological agility. Zionism has been driven by... ideas that are inconsistent with each other. So Zionism has been and remains a balancing act.

First I'd like to give you the concept. If there was rigidity in Zionism, there would be no way Zionism could survive the tremendous turmoil of the last sixty or seventy years. But these ideas are not in a hierarchy with each other--they are on a platform, they have equal footing and in every window of time there is a realignment of these ideas to meet the challenges of the day with new priorities.

What are these ideas? First there is the commitment to a special place on the face of this Earth--the land of Israel, the cradle of our civilization. The second big idea was about security for Jews. The third was about the well being of Jews. Not necessarily about wealth but more about economic independence, economic self determination. Then it was a whole nexus of ideas about humanism, liberalism, democracy. The Zionist movement since its inception has been democratic to a fault. That is still reflected and projected into the Knesset, which is a highly ineffective body.

It was about leadership among the family of nations--tikkun olam--repairing the world. It was about being light unto the nations, and the quest to create a model society. It has been about the Jewish character of the state of Israel--which means its language, its national day of rest, the Shabbat, its national holidays. This is the only place on the face of this earth where Jews experience being a majority. We assume full responsibility. This is a radically different existence than being a minority--as economically and politically powerful as a minority can be. Here we take care of sewage, we're responsible for security.

Has Israel achieved what it set out to achieve in terms of physical security?

We're getting to a point where the advancement of the Zionist cause may compromise the resilience of the Jewish people.

Do you mean crowding all the Jews of the world into one small spot?

Yes. We in Israel still haven't lifted the burden of proof that we know how to run countries better than anyone else. History is full of stories of rises and declines of nations. We have not proven we are immune from decline.

What's the biggest proof that you're not immune--the mediocrity of government, the factions within Israel, the settlers who value one Zionist vision?

I love these factions and disputes. I think they're the source of tremendous creativity.

But the dispute over the settlement movement, which places one Jewish or Zionist value over all the others you listed, eats up an enormous amount of goodwill and reputation.

If they take over the national agenda, it would be a problem. But if they are a faction, they are a very important voice of our people. They are a faction that represents the view that there should be ownership, sovereignty, and control of the Jewish political body over the areas that are the cradle of our civilization. They also say, "We are waiting for the messiah, and our messiah will come." It's a messianic view of the world. It's very important, and I'm saying this as a secular people. It's hard to imagine the survival of our people in the Diaspora without this idea of a messiah.

This return to Zion.

The return to Zion as an essential phase in the messianic redemption. I may agree or disagree with them, but they are a very important voice. As long as the equilibrium is preserved--see, I belong to a very small faction of Israelis that believe that the struggle between Israelis democracy and its Jewishness cannot be resolved and should not be resolved.

No constitution for you?

There can be a constitution, but that constitution will only lay out the tension. It would create a framework for future generations to work out their arrangement.

A constitution with a lot of open questions.

Yes. It will lay the ground rules. It will lay some basic principles for engagement. But it will not resolve the tension and it cannot resolve the tension. Why? Because any resolution of the tension is contextual. It is in a time and a place. We don't know what will happen.

Go back to the issue of how Zionism could undermine the resiliency of the Jewish people.

No, I didn't say it has undermined it. Zionism may deplete the Diaspora. A few years down the road we Zionists need to begin to question our quest to eliminate the Diaspora. The point that I'm making is that a vibrant Diaspora is a Zionist imperative.

Not because they raise money and send it to Israel.

It's insignificant. It's important for them, not for us. Jewish financial contributions to Israel will remain significant if they get focused on the areas where only philanthropy can make a difference. Today, it is being spent across the board in a way that marginalizes the impact of Jewish philanthropists on Israel.

Talk about the importance of settling the Palestinian problem.

I think that we have been very successful in containing the Palestinian issue. What I mean by containing is that day-to-day decisions of the vast majority of the Israel population are unaffected by our conflict with the Palestinians. This is precisely the opposite of what the Palestinians wanted to achieve. They wanted to bring chaos.