One of the many distinctions of life in Israel for American Jews – besides the superior produce and the absence of mint chocolate chip ice cream – is that people here talk about the Occupation. In America, we talk about whether or not we can talk about the Occupation.
From Ramaz High School disinviting Rashid Khalidi, to Hillel after Hillel tying itself in knots, to front-page New York Times coverage of my synagogue’s e-blasts, American Jews engage in a sort of proxy conflict that avoids the real issues. This is a diaspora luxury that Israel and those who care about it cannot afford. American Jews must engage directly and immediately to resolve the terrible conflict with which Israel was born.
Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River there are 4.5 million stateless Palestinians and 8 million Israelis. There are only two choices: either they each live in separate, viable states, or they all live together in one state. The status quo – in which Israelis live in a state, Palestinians live in territory occupied by that state, and settlers live in both at once – is unsustainable. I don’t mean morally unsustainable, though it is that. I mean literally, actually unsustainable.
Without a politically negotiated solution that makes Palestine a truly independent state, Israel as we know it will cease to exist. There are many possible ways this will occur; here are three:
- Growing international isolation will eventually damage Israel’s economy and make it a pariah state, unable to trade.
- Palestinians will demand a one-state solution with full citizenship and equal access to the ballot, the roads, and the economy.
- Religious holy war will break out, with fundamentalists on both sides driving a terrible body count.
In addition to a lifetime of talking with Israelis, I have spent much of the past two months listening to dozens of Palestinians, both activists and ordinary people. I am grateful for this opportunity, since too many of us, myself included, have strong opinions about what should happen to Israelis and Palestinians without ever having talked seriously with Palestinians.
Palestinians say they are ready to make a deal. The Palestinian Authority’s negotiating position, distilled into a PowerPoint I have now heard three times, is clear and straightforward. It has four elements:
- A return to the 1967 borders with some land swaps.
- Dismantling of most settlements.
- A capital in East Jerusalem, with cooperative, possibly international governance of religious sites and municipal resources.
- A resolution of the refugee issue. There are four elements to refugee return: some refugees will return to Palestine, some will stay in the Diaspora, and some will be nationalized in the places where they live in refugee camps. Some will seek to return to what is now Israel, and Israel may decide what happens with those people, including offering them monetary compensation. Palestinians own demographic analysis suggests that far fewer people will seek physical return than once thought.
It has taken the Palestinians 65 years of exile to come to terms with the fact that they lost. Imagine us in the 65th year of our 2000-year exile from this place. It was probably quite raw then too.
You may say, “I don’t care, that’s their problem.” And then return to life in New York, comfortable and safe. But it is Israel’s problem, one that will never go away. A problem for which everyone who cares about Israel must engage in finding a solution.
Palestinians are looking for a solution. They have come to accept the very bitter reality of Israel’s strength. President Mahmoud Abbas and his government are willing to accept a state that — while it seems large to some Jews — is 22% of the land that they lost when Israel was founded.
Meanwhile, Palestinian entrepreneurs are building a state. They built a telecom sector, led by PalTel, founded in part by Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American from Youngstown, Ohio. They are building Rawabi, a planned suburb north of Ramallah, which I toured last week. They continue to nurture a tourism industry, which must exist for Palestine to be economically viable. That industry will starve without access to Jerusalem, the jewel in the crown of our three faiths.
President Abbas, who will soon turn 79 years old, is in the best position to sign a deal that Palestinians will accept. Polling data from respected pollster Khalid Shikaki at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey consistently finds the majority of Palestinians support a two-state solution and President Abbas.
Are there Muslim fundamentalists in Palestine? Of course there are. Does Hamas control Gaza and constantly seek to undermine the PLO? Yes, absolutely. And every day the Israeli government delays on a two-state solution, they strengthen those people.
What Palestinians know for certain is that life over the past 15 years has gotten worse for them. Exponential settlement construction has turned their land into an archipelago. The wall and internal checkpoints have limited freedom of movement and suffocated commerce. Palestinians want a durable solution that will improve their lives, but they are losing faith in the prospect of real resolution.
To my wonderful community in New York City, and American Jews throughout the U.S. – please look up from your navels. Israel needs you to support a two-state solution, to urge the U.S. government to push hard for that solution, and to do so without delay.