If you listen to the news in the United States, it is easy to conclude that Israel is focused entirely on a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. However, inside Israel, the conversation is quite different. Over the summer, I was in Israel as a member of the Berrie Leadership Fellows Program. The Fellowship held a series of seminars in Jerusalem and around the country with some of Israel’s leading public intellectuals, journalists, business leaders and academics. The Fellowship’s goal was to focus on some of the complex issues facing Israeli society, to look squarely at its problems, consider its successes, and think critically about how American Jews can contribute to its future.
Surprisingly, the near-universal focus across the political and professional spectrum was on Israel’s internal, civic needs. The protests which began last summer in Tel Aviv have precipitated a serious conversation about social justice and how to broaden access to Israel’s economic success. The biggest political debate did not have to do with ceding lands to the Palestinians, but whether and how quickly the growing Haredi community should be drafted into the army, and relatedly, whether Arab Israelis, previously exempt from any type of military draft, should be compelled to perform national service. We visited and spoke to activists in Beit Shemesh, the suburban town approximately thirty minutes west of Jerusalem, about an earlier clash between the Modern Orthodox residents and an ultra-Orthodox sect that picketed and protested a girl’s school. The incident received international attention, as many were horrified that young Jewish children were being harassed and intimidated by fellow Jews.
It was an entirely new focus from what I, and many others, had heard on earlier stays in Israel. Previously, the general attitude was that, regardless of Israel’s internal problems, security issues needed to be dealt with first. This sudden change from the external to the internal begged the question: was Israel finally secure? Had the moment come when Israel had the luxury to look inward, something most other Western democracies take for granted?
We heard two answers. Some said, “yes.” According to this view, notwithstanding whatever may happen with Iran, Israelis felt confident that they could handle any external threat. They had reached a level of military dominance that their status in the region and the world was finally assured. For others, the answer was decidedly, “no.” Security threats still abound, including Iran, the fallout from the so-called “Arab Spring,” the major changes in Egypt, and of course, the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. Nonetheless, even those who held this view felt that Israel could not wait to deal with social issues. Since the security situation might never be resolved, the internal life of the nation could no longer be ignored.
In terms of my own personal impressions: I was amazed at how calm and confident the country felt. With a civil war raging in Syria, and the threat of Iran on the horizon, Israelis were enjoying the summer atmosphere and tourists were everywhere. I stood on the ridge in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem, which was subject to mortar attacks during the Second Intifada. My group was told that the security situation was so improved that Israel had removed certain concrete barriers that were serving as buffers for those mortar shells (although we also learned they could be redeployed within 48 hours). As a result of this unique serene feeling, Israel was confident enough to engage in needed introspection.
Waiting for the next explosion
And yet, in the shadow of this new focus, an extraordinary threat is developing. One can sense that below the surface of their introspection, many Israelis, too, are waiting for the next explosion. We have already heard inklings of the crises in print, on television, and in the corners of the public debate. Soon, I suspect, it will move to the center of global discourse. That crisis is the prospect that, in the wake of the failures of the peace process, the Palestinians will abandon their stated goal of establishing an independent state, and instead demand that Israel dismantle itself as a Jewish state, and incorporate the Palestinians into a single, bi-national state.
Since the Camp David peace talks of 2000, when the Palestinians rejected Israel’s offer of an independent state, commentators on television and in print repeatedly made clichéd comments along the lines of “everyone knows what the final map is going to look like. It’s just a matter of how we get there.” There was a perception, especially in the Western foreign policy establishment, that all that was needed to achieve a deal was strong external pressure on the parties, especially from the United States.
Two thirds of the way through 2012, that conversation is changing. But the warning signs should have been clearer. After all, if “everyone” did indeed “know” what a final map was to look like, why was the map never accepted by the Palestinians? Israel offered the Palestinians a state using some variation of that map three different times, and Israel’s offers were rejected all three times, without a counter-proposal.
What has become clear is that the Middle East “peace process,” i.e., the framework developed by the Oslo Accords in 1993, has reached its final point of exhaustion. Although the Oslo Accords themselves have been largely supplanted by subsequent agreements, the basic premises, the basic assumptions inherent in the Oslo process, have remained in place. The PLO became the Palestinian Authority, which was created for the purposes of a negotiating a two-state solution with Israel that would end the conflict. It never happened.
Moreover, if a comprehensive peace agreement was elusive in the past, it would be nearly impossible now. As of today, President Abbas and the Fatah party control the West Bank. Hamas controls Gaza, which, despite Israel’s complete withdrawal in 2005, has remained a source of continuing threat and conflict. Any agreement reached between Israel and Fatah — based on the principle of “land for peace”, i.e., a Palestinian state in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the end of the conflict — would almost certainly be rejected by Hamas, which would render it largely meaningless. And Hamas has not demonstrated any willingness to moderate its view that Israel must be destroyed. As such, it cannot be part of any peace negotiations. With the Palestinian leadership divided, Israel has no party to negotiate with that can speak on behalf of the entire Palestinian community.
So long as negotiations were ongoing, the parties could hold out hope that a resolution was somewhere in view. Now, no such hope is possible. As a result, the Palestinians may seek to create one bi-national state. Even if the Palestinians don’t entirely give up on the idea of an independent Palestinian state, they will start to argue that Israel is, de-facto, already one big bi-national state where they are being discriminated against. Rhetoric which supports this argument has already begun to enter the public discourse. For example, in his new, much criticized book, “The Crises of Zionism,” Peter Beinart divides Israel into two parts: “democratic Israel,” or the Israel within the June 1967 borders; and “nondemocratic Israel,” which is the West Bank.
Similarly, in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, King Abdullah II of Jordan said that unless Israel granted the Palestinians their own state soon, Israel would become an apartheid state. As a hereditary monarch, King Abdullah has limited credibility on the subject of democracy. However, on the very next night, former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon essentially agreed with the king. If Israel does not figure out a way to permanently withdraw from the Palestinian-populated areas beyond the 1967 borders, it will need to make an impossible choice: either give up on being a democracy and commit to ruling over a minority — but projected to become a majority — population, without political rights, or cease to be a Jewish state and give all Palestinians the right to vote in Israeli elections. It bears noting, however, that Israel has already withdrawn from the major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank. The Palestinians have their own extensive security forces, and a political establishment. In fact, even in the midst of a global economic crises, the West Bank has experienced significant economic growth in the last several years. All of these factors, in my view, make any use of the term “apartheid” inappropriate and inapplicable.
However, if the Palestinians began demanding political rights within Israel, and called for the establishment of a single bi-national state, the international pressure on Israel could be extraordinary. In reality, this demand for the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state has been heard since 1948, but is now cloaked in new garb. One can easily imagine protests in European capitals, if not the United States, with demonstrators carrying signs demanding that Israel “Let Them Vote.” Commentators and pundits around the world would call for a boycott, not just of Israeli settlements but of Israel itself. Many would conclude that the Israeli experiment “did not work.” The fact that the Palestinians have refused three offers to create a state will not matter; nor will their already existing autonomy in Palestinian populated areas; nor will Hamas’s consistent calls for Israel’s destruction, which will be seen as unimportant, somehow unrelated to the quandary.
However, this argument is at best naïve, at worst nefarious. In a bi-national state, does anyone believe that Israel would turn over the keys of its military to its new Palestinians comrades? Does anyone believe that Palestinians would welcome Jews living in the West Bank (they would no longer be settlers, but neighbors) to vastly expand their cities in this newly shared country? Simply calling Israel a bi-national state would not eliminate the religious or nationalist inclinations of either side. Rather, those feelings, now suddenly threatened, would be heightened and exacerbated.Many well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) people will argue that a bi-national state would be good progress. They will argue that at the core of the conflict are dueling nationalist narratives which can never be reconciled, since they both make claims to the same land. Instead, they will say, Jews and Palestinians should relinquish their national aims and begin a new society based not on national identity or religion, but rather on mutual cooperation and respect for each others’ connection to the land. The idea of a land-based identity for Jews and Arabs alike is not new. An Israeli movement called the “Canaanites” advocated some version of it. Many, especially on the far left, were never comfortable with the idea of Israel as a Jewish state, and the failures of the peace process would give them a new opportunity to call for its dismantling. Many thoughtful and articulate people will make bi-nationalism sound like a rational, positive alternative to a constant state of war and unrest.
In recent years we have seen what happens when different ethnic groups within the same country come into conflict. Even the slightest awareness of the conflict in Syria should serve as a chilling warning of what could occur were Israel to relinquish its role of protecting itself and the Jewish people. Far better than any new Arab-Jewish utopia, a bi-national Israel would be in a constant state of civil war.
The vast majority of Israelis do not want to permanently rule over a growing Palestinian population — nor should they. But that is precisely the prospect that Israel faces if a resolution is not found. So what is to be done? How can Israel disentangle itself from the Palestinians, and ensure its survival as a Jewish-democracy? How can Israel stave off the coming one-state juggernaut? Three general proposals have been discussed in one forum or another. All are problematic.
The first option, notwithstanding all previous difficulties and failures, is to try and achieve a comprehensive peace agreement. Under this option, Fatah and Hamas would enter into some type of unity government to negotiate with Israel. Agreement would have to be reached on all core issues, including security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. This remains the preference of the United States; the Quartet; and, at least in public, both Fatah and Israel (although Israel has said it will not negotiate with any government that included Hamas). This option keeps intact the core assumptions and modus operandi for the entire Oslo process. The problem, as should already be clear, is that this approach has proved ineffectual after nearly 20 years of effort.
The second option is a long-term provisional agreement. Under this option, Israel would immediately agree to recognize a Palestinian state, with provisional borders, in both the West Bank and Gaza. Once the Palestinian state was created, and the Palestinians began to enjoy the benefits of statehood, Israel and the new Palestinian state could, over time, negotiate and deal with the remaining issues. In many respects, this is the best option for Israel because it solves the demographic problem. But it is also good for the Palestinians because it would give them what they say they have always wanted, namely, a state. However, while I believe that Israel would immediately agree to this arrangement, the Palestinians, thus far, have demonstrated no willingness to do so. Up until now, the Palestinians have insisted that they would only agree to a comprehensive agreement. Perhaps they realize that a long-term provisional agreement gets Israel out of its demographic dilemma.
The third option is unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank. This option would work similarly to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Here, in the absence of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, Israel would simply withdraw to the security barrier in the west, and its defensive positions on the Jordan River valley in the east, leaving the Palestinians to do what they like in between. Such a withdrawal, as with Gaza, would necessitate the dismantling of many Israeli settlements on the eastern side of the security barrier.
This third option is problematic because the Gaza withdrawal is not an encouraging example. After Israel withdrew, Hamas took over and began firing a constant barrage of rockets into Israel. Not long after, Israel launched a massive military operation to stop the rocket attacks. The damage inflicted from a lawless Gaza is considerable, although, until now, it has not threatened the life or livelihood of Israel as a nation. This is due to Gaza’s small size and distance from Israel’s major population center — the twin poles of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the suburbs in between. The long stretch of the West Bank, which would be turned over to Palestinian control with an Israeli withdrawal, runs largely parallel to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor. If Israel withdrew from the West Bank, and a situation similar to that in Gaza arose, rockets could be fired at the Israeli heartland, including, potentially, Ben Gurion Airport, which could literally force Israel to shut down until they were stopped.
Of course, these three problematic options are not the only alternatives to a bi-national state. Other possibilities can be imagined. For example, the international community could try to “impose” a solution on the parties. Perhaps the so-called “Arab Peace Initiative” can be revived as a basis for region-wide negotiations, especially now that Israel and many of its Arab neighbors have a common enemy in Iran. No option will be perfect.
Whatever the scenario, Israel must recognize that sooner or later the Palestinians and their supporters will again call for what many have been striving for since 1948 — the dismantling of the Jewish state; this time, in favor of a bi-national, multi-ethnic one. The groundwork is already being laid. Although Israel has attempted to give the Palestinians their own state three times, and had their offers rejected three times, the results of Palestinian rejectionism has become Israel’s problem to deal with. In order to remain a Jewish democracy and stave off a one-state juggernaut, Israel must find a way to separate itself from the Palestinians. Now, while there’s still time.