Meirav Jones

Meirav Jones

Dr.Meirav Jones is a Faculty Member in the Religious Studies Department at McMaster University in Canada. She studies political theory and the interaction between politics and religion in the history of ideas.

צילום: תמר עבאדי

Lihi Ben Shitrit

Prof. Lihi Ben Shitrit is a research fellow at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, US.

In every attempt to rethink nationality in Israel-Palestine, or to conceive and consider political structures that would express the will and self-realization of its inhabitants, the concept of sovereignty as it appears in contemporary Israeli discourse poses a significant obstacle.

Seemingly, sovereignty is a main organizing concept in the modern political world, and means primarily the self-rule of nations in defined territorial borders, and consequently the nonintervention of nations in the domestic affairs of other nations, a situation that creates “sovereign equality.” Indeed, in the authoritative Hebrew dictionary and thesaurus, Rav-Milim, the Hebrew word “ribonut” is synonymous with “sovereniut” (the Hebraized rendering of “sovereignty”), and other synonyms are self-rule, emancipation, and liberty. The principle of sovereignty is the basis of various partition plans, from the 17th to the 20th century, including the partition of Palestine voted upon by the United Nations in 1947, and the two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the partition aiming to allow different groups to establish self-rule within clear borders.

But in the contemporary Israeli discourse, the concept of sovereignty appears mainly as part of the phrase “imposing sovereignty,” and even when it appears by itself, such as on billboard signs “time for sovereignty” or in political discussions about “the sovereignty issue,” it does not mean self-rule that requires territorial partition and aims for sovereign equality, but annexation, which implies the superiority of a ruling group. Indeed, those whose political agenda in Israel today is “sovereignty” do not define sovereignty as self-rule but as “independent governance of the territory,” and maintain that the sovereignty of the Israeli people over the Land of Israel derives from the power of the biblical promise. Thus, by sophisticated wordplay with the classic definition of sovereignty, sovereignty in Israeli discourse undermines the principle of self-rule and offers a domination discourse of independent rule. This has significance both for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the concept of the state in Israel in general, because a constitutive political concept is given a meaning that supports dominance and structural inequality.

In this brief article, which represents an ongoing critical study, we will show that “sovereignty” in the current Israeli discourse is not understood in its classical sense but in the sense of domination. We will present the change in the term’s meaning as a deliberate ploy by right-wing organizations and right-wing activists who established the Sovereignty movement, a movement acting systematically to register into Israeli awareness the idea that full control of the biblical Land of Israel is a necessary stage in establishing the state, and seeking to explain the settlement movement in terms that make it legitimate to the political mainstream. We will argue that the concept of sovereignty in Israel was de facto annexed to the domination agenda, and that in order to develop a constructive and just discourse we must return to the classical meaning of sovereignty, whether in order to promote the self-rule of nations within a territory (i.e., partition) or to join a local and global discussion over the boundaries of the concept of sovereignty in a multinational reality and conceive of conceptual and practical alternatives.

Sovereignty in Hebrew

Upon the establishment of Israel, “ribonut” was a concept that David Ben-Gurion used often and acted on. The Zionist movement framed its project following a European model of the nation state, and the right of the Jewish people to self-determination within a territory, especially after the UN vote, relied on the basis of the right to self-definition within recognized borders. Immediately after the Declaration of Independence, Ben-Gurion moved to disband militias in order to achieve monopoly over the means of violence, as emphasized by the philosophers of sovereignty from the 17th through the 20th century; according to his view, the enemies of sovereignty were the Jewish militia movements. The expulsion of the Palestinian population in 1948 and the melting pot policy can also be understood as sovereignty-bolstering processes, because the philosophers of sovereignty imagined a relatively homogenous political landscape and preserved the value of inner unity, and the justice of the system depended on a multitude of sovereign states together expressing variance; thus, sovereignty was associated with partition.

But around the time of the establishment of Israel a competing concept to the concept of “ribonut” prevailed in the public discourse, which is the concept of “adnut,” which appears in the document “The Principles of Renaissance” by Avraham Stern’s Lehi. Both “ribonut” and “adnut” draw on names of God from biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew, which is consistent with the idea of sovereignty evolving in the modern era as a divine role transferred to humankind (in Thomas Hobbes, for example). But “adnut” has another dimension even in biblical Hebrew, which is a master-slave relationship. As opposed to ribonut, which derives from alliance and mutual consent – an aspect that was very important to the philosophers of modern sovereignty, who imagined it as a social contract that arose from the presumption of equality – adnut is imagined as imposed from above, as subjugating. In Lehi the aspiration of domination over the land was not concealed, and war and conquest were portrayed as means to domination and redemption. Lehi and the Irgun did not concede the use of non-establishment violence and did not accept the principle of partition.

Seemingly, ribonut became hegemonious in the state and the representatives of adnut were pushed to the margins. But now we are in a reality that undermines that belief, and along with other subjects from Ben-Gurion’s legacy that are currently being questioned, so has the sovereignty question been reopened. With the subsiding of the two-state idea in the Israeli discourse on the right, and to a lesser degree on the left as well, and with the ideological vacuum that was opened, we currently witness the rise of domination under the guise of sovereignty. If we follow the development we will see continuity between Lehi’s concept and the right-wing concept prevailing today. The move began with the 2005 Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip, when wide circles on the right, who had suffered a grave setback, turned to conceptual work to make it harder for the state – not only physically but also ideologically – to concede additional territories from the Land of Israel and allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. The idea of sovereignty, which traditionally supported partition, was perceived as a key concept, and when the Women in Green movement founded the Sovereignty movement, not only did its definition of sovereignty not support partition, it also completely lost the meaning of self-rule. Sovereignty was defined as rule over a territory or nation, and the Sovereignty movement from its inception promoted domination under the name of “sovereignty.” Thus for example the movement’s journal, distributed in hundreds of thousands of copies in 2010, carried an opinion piece by Geula Cohen, a former member of Lehi, that advocated for the idea of “sovereignty” as domination. The representatives of the idea of domination under the name of sovereignty published new definitions of sovereignty on the Internet, and returned the term to the center of public discourse.

The success of the settlement movement and the Sovereignty movement to change the discourse is unmistakable. Today in the Hebrew entry for “sovereignty” on Wikipedia the meaning is not self-rule, as the concept is defined on the English Wikipedia, but rather ruling over a territory or nation. According to the entry, international recognition is not necessary for sovereignty – contrary to the definition in English – and instead of a history of the idea of sovereignty and its application, as appear on the Wikipedia pages devoted to the idea in English, the Hebrew entry carries a section on “colloquial uses of ribonut,” based largely on quoting Israeli generals. There is a cross-reference to “Sovereignty: A Political Journal” (the journal of the Sovereignty movement), and this definition serves young and old people wishing to understand the term, which is also perceived as central in the international political discourse. Beyond Wikipedia, all of the free online dictionaries in Hebrew define “ribonut” according to the Wikipedia definition or the Sovereignty movement.

Another aspect of the Sovereignty movement’s success is changing the discourse. Before the sovereignty concept became central to the right-wing movements, it was hardly discussed in Israel. Even in the days of the Oslo process there was reticence to speak about Palestinian sovereignty, and only during the Sharon government did the idea find its place in the Roadmap Plan. But after 2010 the concept of “sovereignty” received a new status. The frequency of the mention of sovereignty in news reports soared, and it was usually mentioned in the context of annexation. During the time of the rise of the sovereignty discourse there was a decline in the democracy discourse, and out of 10,600 news reports in 2010-2019 that mentioned the term “sovereignty,” only 1,800 also mentioned the term “democracy.” Meanwhile, the Bnei Akiva movement endorsed the sovereignty agenda, as did the Likud party’s Central Committee. 39 of the 120 members of the Knesset, including ministers and deputy ministers from previous and current Knessets, appeared in the Sovereignty Journal. And finally, when the national unity government was formed in May 2020, the sovereignty issue – which is to say domination – was agreed between both sides of the government.

In conclusion, the sovereignty discourse in Israel today includes elements of domination and constitutional inequality. These are presented as inherent parts of sovereignty, which serves as an organizing concept of international politics. If we want to create an alternative to paternalist power structures, we must bring back into the discourse the meaning of the term sovereignty that is accepted throughout the world – whether in order to advocate for partition or to contribute to the conversation over the boundaries of the concept of sovereignty in a multinational reality and to conceive of alternatives to it.