The social sector once famously described as Israel’s ‘enlightened public’ has undergone a profound moral and intellectual crisis over the past ten years.footnote1 Comprised largely of secular, educated and well-to-do Ashkenazim, historically affiliated with the Labour Zionist movement, this layer had been shaped by opposition to Israel’s occupation of the territories captured in 1967 and stood for a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The demise of the Oslo peace process at Camp David in July 2000, the Second Intifada that followed it—marked not least by the Palestinians’ resort to suicide bombings—and the election of Ariel Sharon as Israel’s Prime Minister in 2001 threw this perspective into question. Most members of the ‘enlightened public’ reacted by moving to the right and adopting the prevailing state discourse which portrayed the Palestinians as responsible for the failure of the peace efforts; the historian Benny Morris was a celebrated example of this shift.

Among those who continued to be critical, to one degree or another, of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians, a number of prominent intellectuals have recently reassessed their positions. In this essay we interrogate three works by authors belonging to this category; each adopts a different approach in dealing with the new political reality.footnote2 In This Regime Which is Not One, Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir seek to uncover the structure of Israeli rule over the occupied territories, and its relation to the democratic order within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, through a thick description of the occupation regime, divorced from the history of Zionism. Boaz Neumann’s Land and Desire is an ecstatic depiction of the early Zionist pioneers’ love for the land, devoid of historical or any other context. In The Time of the Green Line, Yehouda Shenhav celebrates the end of the pre-1967 border and constructs another dividing line, between the Ashkenazi liberal elite and its victims: not just Palestinians but Mizrahim and all religious Jews as well.

All three, we argue, end up by affirming, directly or indirectly, the basic tenets of Zionism and, indeed, Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories captured in 1967. This may seem a surprising statement, since the authors in question are considered to be among the most radical and outspoken critics of the occupation and of Israeli society in general. But, as we show in the remainder of this essay, a close reading of their texts reveals an underlying commitment to Zionism and to maintaining Israel’s character as a Jewish state, as well as a reluctance to offer any sensible alternative to the defunct two-state solution.

The most ambitious project is that of Azoulay and Ophir. Over 500 pages, This Regime Which is Not One aims to decipher the structure of Israel’s dominion over the occupied territories and their non-citizen Palestinian residents. The authors term this a ‘control system’ because, as they correctly argue, the term ‘occupation’ implies a temporary state of affairs—as envisaged in the legal status of ‘belligerent occupation’ in international law—whereas Israel’s control of the occupied territories is anything but temporary. The evolution of this control system, they claim, has gone through three stages: first, a ‘project’ that ran from 1967 to the beginning of massive Jewish settlement in the West Bank in 1981; second, a ‘regime’ which obtained from 1981 to 2000, during which time it remained separate from the regime prevailing inside Israel’s 1967 borders; finally, since 2000 the two regimes have fused, to form a dual structure that is still ‘not one’.

Azoulay and Ophir describe this dual structure as made up of an ‘occupation regime in the territories and a democratic-ethnic regime in Israel itself’. The use of the term ‘occupation’ here and throughout the book is puzzling, in view of the authors’ emphatic statement that their opposition to the occupation includes a critique of the term itself, which is discursively part of the occupation.footnote3 This semantic inconsistency, or duality, is not as trivial as it may seem. It is symptomatic of the authors’ indecision as to their unit of analysis: is it a unitary ‘control system’ in Baruch Kimmerling’s sense, encompassing both pre-1967 Israel and the occupied territories, or is it a system comprised of two clearly defined bodies, an occupying power and its colony?footnote4 Each of these options has profound political implications, and the authors’ reluctance to commit themselves to either one, we will argue, reflects their inability, or refusal, to commit themselves to any particular course of political action.