This week, Israelis and Palestinians will once again begin the march towards the elusive compromise that both combatants, and the world have been waiting for. Although I am skeptical of the true intentions of the Palestinian negotiating team, they do seem to advance a unified and steadfast position. The same can’t be said for Israel. Various coalition partners are at best circumspect and ambiguous of peace talks. The motivation and tactics for Israel’s lead negotiator Tzipi Livni, however, is clear. To protect Israel’s Jewish identity it must give up land. It is the demographic threat posed by Arabs west of the Jordan River that motivates her stance in negotiations. Quoted in a December 2010 Jerusalem Post interview, she says,
“My vision, shared by most of the Israeli public, speaks of the existence of Israel as a Jewish, democratic, secure state, a state living in peace, in the Land of Israel. If I want all of the Land of Israel, I have to give up on either the Jewish or the democratic aspect. I don’t want to give up on either, and by the way, I think that Jewish values are democratic values. The only way to maintain those values is to relinquish part of the Land of Israel…”
The dilemma with the Israeli position, is that government leaders are unable to agree with Tzipi Livni as to whether failure to conclude an agreement will lead to a negative demographic consequence. In a January 2012 Haaretz article Prime Minister Netanyahu was quoted as saying that there are only 1.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank. If there was doubt regarding the legitimacy of that position in the current government, it was erased when Bayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett was quoted in a June 2013 Washington Post interview repeating the same figure. The problem is that if you ask any legitimate demographer the population of Palestinians living in the West Bank, you will get a figure of between 2.3 million and 2.6 million people. The difference gives rise to two completely different strategies for Israel. One says we can keep the West Bank and the Arab population, even give them citizenship, and continue to be a Jewish and democratic country. While the other, under the same circumstance, directly leads to an opposite outcome; the nation of Israel will cease to be Jewish. Paradoxically, Israel’s right wing, the people who so ferociously stand up for Israel’s Jewish identity, may be the ones who force the state to lose that identity. What they are undertaking is foolhardy.
The strategy for Netanyahu, Bennett and others seems to rely on voodoo population statistics and hope for the best. As Naftali Bennett claimed this past June, “Right now, the demography is good in Israel, and it’s in fact getting better.” Typically, only those that hope to cede very little, if any land, believe this.
It wouldn’t be so bad if these hardliners acknowledged a situation that took into account the higher population estimates, but they refuse to give it any legitimacy. It feels like we’re witnessing a train wreck in progress with nothing else to do but wait and pick up the pieces.
If there was some advice I would give American mediator Martin Indyk, it would be to sit down with all Israeli leaders making up the coalition, and ask one simple question, “How many Palestinians do you think live in the West Bank?”. The various numbers bandied about by the disparate factions would be an eye opener. If the Americans intend to be an honest broker they have to expose this rift. Furthermore, they should find a way to resolve the demographic disparity debate. This simple manoeuver is so obvious, it seems strange that nobody has seen fit to highlight it.
Part of the governing coalition believes that Israel should give up land to save its democratic and Jewish soul. The other part of the coalition feels no need to give up any land because there is no risk of losing anything. This government has a split personality when it comes to the basic facts of the problem. If they can’t agree on the facts then how can they be expected to agree on a solution?!
If the best Israel can do is to negotiate in bad faith, then the outcome would be far worse than the status quo. The Palestinians would rightly argue that no agreement can be reached. Israel would be further delegitimized, and would face calls to extend citizenship to all people living west of the Jordan River. At that point there would just be two options for Israel to choose from. Either it will offer all residents of the West Bank Israeli citizenship, or they will annexe Area “C”, the least populated areas of the West Bank already under it’s security control. Both options, without a negotiated settlement, will lead to a future that would be violent, bleak, and depressingly unpredictable.