Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said on March 19, 2023, that there is “no such thing as Palestinians because there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people”. These days, you won’t hear such language from more moderate Israeli politicians, but it wasn’t always this way. Former Prime Minister Golda Meir, then leader of the Labor Party, once said that, “There’s no such thing as Palestinians”.
There is a big difference, however, between moderates like Meir and extremists like Smotrich. Moderates have long accepted the idea of a Palestinian state next to Israel. There are indications that even Meir herself did. She is reported to have said in October 1970, “It will be necessary to leave the Arabs of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] an option to earn self-determination at a later stage, if and when it suits us. In other words, there will be another country [alongside Israel].”
Extremists like Smotrich and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, on the other hand, want to do everything to eliminate the option of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, which is at least part of the reason why they are eager to see a faster increase in settlements.
But let’s not be naïve in thinking that only the extremists are uncomfortable with the fact that the Palestinian people exists and therefore that a Palestinian state is inevitable if Israel is to remain a Jewish state. Even Israelis who are willing to accept a Palestinian state are uncomfortable with the prospect of such a state. How could they not be? I am not Israeli or even Jewish, and yet I am uncomfortable.
Reminders of why that discomfort exists are frequent. A recent reminder is a speech by supposedly moderate Palestinian leader Mahmood Abbas, where he repeated ludicrous fabrications about Jewish history, and he even attempted to provide justification for the Holocaust when he said, “They say that Hitler killed the Jews because they were Jews and that Europe hated the Jews because they were Jews. Not true. It was clearly explained that [the Europeans] fought [the Jews] because of their social role.”
Yes, in 2023, eight decades after the end of the Holocaust, the leader of the Palestinian people is still trying to justify the murder of six million Jews. How can one not be uncomfortable with the Palestinian people attaining independence in a state that would be literally adjacent to the largest Israeli population centres?
And yet, like it or not, for better or worse, the Palestinian people exists. Any solution to the conflict that is based on ignoring this fact is bound to fail. Settling the West Bank in the hope that the Palestinian residents will somehow disappear or will somehow stop being a problem is such a delusional “solution”.
Golda Meir was right in October 1970 to say that like it or not, the prospect of a Palestinian state must be left open, and yet every Israeli government since then has, to various extents, pursued the same policy of settling the West Bank with no plan (certainly no rational plan) on what comes next.
The thing is, while the behavior of Abbas and other Palestinian leading figures is often hateful and appalling, and while it justifiably angers Israelis and any decent human being, for Israel to respond to that hatred with an angry and irrational policy in the West Bank will not help Israel in the long term. It is likely, in fact, to give Abbas and company exactly what they want, the end of the Jewish state.