Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, November 01, 2002
There have been a number of news stories about this entirely predictable development: PLO contemplates abandoning two-state solution. It has been clear since at least 1996 that Arafat had no interest in establishing a Palestinian state if that meant declaring an end to the conflict with Israel and settled borders with Israel. Whether his hesitancy was due to fear for his neck (Hamas would bump him off for giving up on the sacred cause of the Palestinian people) or because he thought he could win a war against Israel, I don't know or care. But several times from 1996 to 1999 Arafat threatened to declare a state unilaterally if his demands were not met. Bibi basically dared him to do it, and he never did. So this much is no surprise.

But it always struck me that this tack - that the Palestinians should be made equal citizens of Israel - was always the smartest and most dangerous one for them to take. Israel is going to have a very hard time explaining why it will not do this. They won't, of course, nor should they have to. But the simultaneous refusal to withdraw unilaterally, or dismantle settlements, or make the Palestinian population citizens will be a very difficult one for Israel to maintain.

What are Israel's alternatives? They have always been: unilateral withdrawal, negotiated return of the territories to other states, negotiated establishment of a Palestinian state, expulsion of the Palestinian population, giving the Palestinians full Israeli citizenship, or negotiated establishment of some kind of Palestinian autonomy short of statehood or equal citizenship.

Unilateral withdrawal, in the context of the current war, would be surrender. Surrender is not an option. Moreover, it would solve nothing, because if the Palestinian side of the wall of separation became a terrorist state, Israel would be vulnerable to attack, and the only viable response to attack would be to reoccupy the territories previously withdrawn from. Which would put us right back where we started. Maintaining a military presence while dismantling the settlements, meanwhile, would just be a holding action towards unilateral withdrawal or a negotiated solution. In the current context, this would also be surrender, and therefore very dangerous. And in any context it would be conceding a point unilaterally; why should Israel do that? And if the end-goal is problematic, then the holding action is pointless.

Negotiated return of the territories to Jordan has not been an option since Jordan renounced all claims finally and formally in 1988. Jordan would need a hefty bribe to take on the huge liability of the Palestinian population, and Israel is in no position to provide such a bribe. It is barely conceivable that, if promised the oil fields of Iraq in the bargain, the Hashemites might agree to take back Nablus. Barely. In any event, Israel can't make it happen, so it can't be the basis for Israeli policy.

Negotiated establishment of an independent Palestinian state has been Israeli policy for nearly 10 years. It has been an abject failure - even a disaster. But quite apart from the perfidity of Yasser Arafat, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state was always a dubious proposition, because there is no conceivable viable Palestinian state that could be created that would not be a deadly security risk to Israel. Any Palestinian state that Israel could agree to would need to be a practical dependency on Israel and/or Jordan, whatever its nominal independence. Moreover, the acceptance by Israel of the basic notion of Palestinian nationalism has been devastating to the credibility of Zionism, and has therefore undermined Israel in its internal self-confidence and in international diplomacy.

The expulsion of the Palestinian population has the appeal of seeming to solve the problem "once and for all." And that it would - by the likely destruction of the Israeli state. Short of an attack on the level of a nuclear explosion, Israel will not have a plausible justification for such action, and the United States will not permit it. The advocates of "transfer" like to compare to the Greek situation after independence from Turkey, the Indo-Pakistani situation after those countries' independence, or the situation of the Sudeten Germans. But in all three cases there was another country eager and ready to accept the refugees. That is not the case with the Palestinians. The expulsion of the Palestinian population would ignite a general regional war. It would be a war in which Israel would be truly and completely isolated internationally - indeed, the international community might intervene early on to force Israel to surrender and establish terms. This is not a serious option for discussion, and people who talk about it are only indulging in dangerous fantasy. (You will note, I have not bothered to argue that expulsion would be wrong, which it would be.) The only context, again, in which a transfer of populations could be discussed is as a negotiated solution with another state in the region that would agree to take the people. That's conceivable, but less conceivable than trading away the territory, which we have already deemed to be a solution not under Israel's control.

Giving the Palestinians full citizenship would result in the destruction of Israel as the Jewish state. Since Israel's reason for being is to serve as the Jewish state - the state which serves as the basis of Jewish national aspirations and which exercises power in Jewish self-defense - this is an unacceptable outcome. Israel has always maintained that it has no obligation to give citizenship to Palestinians living in the territories, unlike the Arabs who lived within the 1949 borders and did not flee during the War of Independence. Israel is right that it does not have to offer them citizenship. But it cannot remain the case that the Palestinian population of the territories is ruled by force by another people. This will not stand morally or practically. So how is the situation to be resolved?

The position of Likud from 1967 through 1996, when Netanyahu abrogated this understanding, was: through autonomy. The Palestinians would be made an offer that would be more attractive than Israeli citizenship, and they would take it. They would be offered something like the status of Puerto Rico: control over their general vicinity, economic advantages such as tax-haven status, freedom to work in Israel and trade with Israel proper, freedom under some circumstances to live in Israel proper, and local democracy. Would they take it? We'll never know, because the offer was never really made in earnest. Israel has never been willing to pay the price necessary to win the loyalty of the Palestinian population - or, for that matter, it's own Arab population. That price is not primarily monetary but is a matter of having control over one's own life and immediate environment.

Israel could easily create two or three regions in Judea and Samaria that were governed by strong Palestinian governors. These would not be "Bantustans" because the objective would not be to corral the Palestinians into ghettos but to give Palestinian Arabs civil control over the territories where they already live. It is even conceivable that Israel could accept a formal role for Jordan as the protector of these people, so that on paper at least they were not at the mercy of the Israeli military. (In practice, of course, Israel could only agree to this if Jordan were cooperative on security matters, and did not allow terrorist groups free reign in these areas.) If this were part of a general constitutional reform of the Israeli political system, it could potentially be part of a far more stable order in the country, one that gave everyone, from haredi Jews to Bedouin, greater control over their own lives and less dependency on the whims of the Knesset and the bureaucracy.

I believe that many Palestinian Arabs would take this offer, if offered sincerely. Indeed, I think Israel would face demands from Arabs in the Galil to have a similar arrangements, and Israel could well accept these demands, again, if the state were restructured such that they did not threaten the Jewish character of the state and if necessary security arrangements were in place. Why would the Arabs of Palestine accept this offer? Well, think about it from their perspective. On the one hand, they can fight tooth and nail for either independence, which means a rump state with little viability, run by thugs, and living behind a wall of separation from Israel, or for equal citizenship, which means being a bare minority or bare majority sharing a land and a state with people you don't like and don't like you and are constantly fighting with you for control of scarce resources. On the other hand, they can have control over their own lives, preferential tax treatment, security from thugs and terrorists, and freedom. Let's face it: most Puerto Ricans prefer their island to remain a Commonwealth rather than to become a state; they believe it is the best way to protect their unique culture and the best way to serve themselves economically. Is it so inconceivable that Palestinian Arabs would feel the same way, if offered a similar deal?

Perhaps it is. There is the matter of dignity, and the Arabs of Palestine have an awful lot invested in the notion that without a flag and an army and a currency of their own, they have no dignity - regardless of whether it means impoverishment, misery, and subjection to thugs. Maybe we only think they feel this way because the terrorist thugs have so much power that people can't think and speak freely, or maybe this is something deeply rooted - or maybe it's just the result of decades of propaganda. But Israel has to have another card to play, and has to try to play it.

If the Palestinians take this new "equal citizenship" tack in earnest, I fear that Israel will wind up on the receiving end of some very difficult criticism. The Israelis need to think now about how they are going to respond. I think that part of the response needs to be a vision for coexistence that does not depend on an independent Palestinian state or equal citizenship in a bi-national state.

The founders of Zionism - particularly, interestingly enough, the Revisionist, right-wing Zionists - all believed that partnership with the Arab population was necessary to fulfil the Zionist dream. This is still true. But the terms of the partnership matter. Those terms cannot be structured to destroy the Zionist dream, which would be the case if either Israel was put in peril physically by establishing a Palestinian state or if Israel ceased to be a Jewish state after absorbing a huge Arab population. But the partnership cannot be evaded. Israel cannot be built without it, and it is up to the Jews as much as the Arabs to come up with terms that can work.

Meanwhile, the quicker Israel wins the war on terror - which means ending Arafat's rule and wiping out the military wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and, most difficult of all, destroying the Hezbollah - the easier it will be to move on to these other more intractable questions. Sharon is right, as I have maintained, that time is not on the Arabs' side. Israel can win a war of attrition. Barak and Rabin underestimated the strength of the Israeli people under fire, and the left has long undersestimated the Jewish people's ability to fill the land, and overestimated the Arab demographic time bomb. But Sharon is wrong if he thinks that Israel can defer these constitutional questions forever. The time to address them is now, and therefore the time to win the war is now.