Wednesday, 29 December 2010

In the absence of peace - if we don’t act, they will

And so we appear to have reached the end of the latest fruitless attempt at resolving this too long, and too bloody, conflict.
There’s plenty of blame to go around.  The Americans’ early focus on an Israeli settlement freeze ensured that the Palestinians would have a perfect excuse to avoid direct negotiations – even though this had never before been asked of Israel as a condition for peace talks.  Meanwhile, revelations that Mahmoud Abbas had rejected Ehud Olmert’s parting gift of a two-state solution that went beyond anything previously offered to the Palestinians in its crossing of supposed Israeli red lines, was not a promising sign that the Palestinians were even ready to do a deal.

Netanyahu responded to the US’s request by trying to appease Obama while not alienating the settlers, ordering a ten-month moratorium on building in West Bank settlements but insisting it would be a one-time event.  He ignored the advice of wiser heads in his government such as Dan Meridor, who urged him to take the opportunity to make a distinction between the settlement blocs (which, according to all previous peace proposals would remain part of Israel) and settlements that would have to be evacuated in any future peace agreement.

However, far more depressing than this entirely predictable failure, is the unavoidable feeling that, for some members of the government, possibly including the Prime Minister, the situation simply means we can go on as before.

They are surely familiar with the arguments for Israel reaching a two-state deal with the Palestinians.  For the past decade or more, Israeli politicians on the left and, increasingly the center and even the right, have understood that Israel is fast heading towards a situation where the number of Arabs living in all of the territory that Israel controls will outnumber the number of Jews.  Israel would then face a Palestinian demand for a one-state solution which would force Israel to either lose its Jewish character demographically, or to become an apartheid state.

Israel needs to end the occupation of the Palestinians, not for peace, not for the cause of Palestinian statehood, but for Israel.

The reasons for this, in fact, go beyond the 'demographic’ argument.

We should not underestimate how much we gain internationally by virtue of being part of ‘the west’.  As much as we complain, justifiably, about the double standards at play in the western media and among certain European 'liberal', institutions,  Israel is a close ally on the international stage with, not just the US, but the EU states, Canada, Australia and the liberal democratic world.  This status is manifested in numerous ways, from preferential trade agreements, to diplomatic support at the UN, to cultural ties and more.

However, as Ehud Barak said, just a few days ago: "The world is changing before our eyes and is no longer willing to accept, even temporarily, our continued control over another people.

Quite simply, Israel's status as a western democracy will not survive our ruling the Palestinians indefinitely.  Israel's security-based arguments for not returning to the pre-1967 borders are sound, but there is no western government that will accept that Israel's historical and religious ties to Judea and Samaria can justify it remaining in control there while denying the Palestinians equal rights.

If you need another argument how about this one: if we don't act to change the status quo, the Palestinians will.  Palestinian threats to give up on a negotiated settlement and to go to the international community for support are not idle. If the world perceives Israel to be primarily to blame for the hold-up in negotiations (for example by continuing to build settlements in areas of the West Bank that will definitely be part of a future Palestinian state), then there could be widespread support for an imposed solution, with the world – including Israel's allies – recognizing the State of Palestine within borders chosen by the Palestinians.

The final reason for Israel to end, finally, its control of the Palestinians is the simplest of all.  It is wrong.  Eitan Haber, who served as Yitzhak Rabin’s bureau chief, has described how Rabin understood, “that we could not continue to rule 2.5 million Palestinians against their will.  The indications of moral deterioration that had appeared as part of our rule over the Arabs in the territories led him to recognize that we must not continue to dominate another people.  The scenes of what the occupation was doing to the IDF and the behavior of soldiers at roadblocks or in the pursuit of demonstrators concerned him greatly.

Rabin was steeped in the founding values of the IDF. For him, Israel's young men and women should be donning the uniform with the pride that comes with defending one’s country; not preparing to serve as the policemen of a military occupation.

There was a time not so long ago when unilateral withdrawal in the absence of a Palestinian peace partner was a winning political platform.  It was Kadima's avowed agenda when they finished as the largest party in the 2006 Knesset elections.  The public were persuaded that Israel had to draw permanent borders which would be secure and defensible, separating from the Palestinians and leaving to them the majority of the West Bank.

Before long though, that bubble had burst; pricked by the precedents set in the two areas already vacated unilaterally – Gaza and southern Lebanon. Hamas and Hizbullah rained down rockets on Israeli civilians, and the vindicated right punctuated their “told-you-so”s with grim assurances that an evacuated West Bank would quickly become another base for genocidal Iranian proxies.

However, as Haaretz commentator, Ari Shavit, recently pointed out, to cite the increased Qassams following disengagement is to miss the point:

The right was right, but the right was also wrong. It understood the latent dangers in the withdrawal, but completely failed to understand its necessity… The right failed to grasp five years ago exactly what it refuses to grasp today … Israel must take its fate in its hands and act wisely to create a border between itself and Palestine. Only thus can it ensure its identity and legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state.

An Israeli withdrawal from part of the West Bank in the absence of a peace agreement need not be entirely unilateral.  Earlier this year, Ehud Ya’ari, Israel’s most prominent Arab-affairs journalist, proposed an “armistice agreement” with the Palestinians, whereby Israel would evacuate settlers and soldiers from the vast majority of the West Bank, keeping enough territory to ‘thicken’ Israel at its most vulnerable points, but leaving contiguous territory for the Palestinians to establish a state with provisional borders.  The question of final borders, as well as the thorny issues of the refugees and Jerusalem would be left until the Palestinians were ready and willing to negotiate.  Ya’ari believes that the Palestinians could be persuaded to agree to this if the western states that bankroll the Palestinian economy would endorse his plan.

This is not the cry of a utopian peacenik.  Ya’ari’s extensive sources in the Arab world tell him that the Palestinians will soon be pushing for one-state-of-all-its-citizens – that is, one state on all of the land, where Arabs would outnumber Jews.  There would be no Jewish state here, just the latest Arab state:

The process of rethinking the goal of Palestinian statehood within the ’67 borders is already at work, and Israelis have become so apathetic to anything that happens on the other side of the security fence that we as a society are way behind in reading the writing on the wall.

Does this apathy extend to the country’s leaders?  We must hope not.  For one way or another, with or without a negotiating partner, Israel needs to act.  Netanyahu’s principal focus on stopping Iran going nuclear is understandable, but continuing Israel’s rule over the West Bank poses no less of an existential threat to our Jewish and democratic state.

This was published as an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post on 28/12/2010.

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