When ideologies fail

When ideologies fail

With an election date for members of the Knesset and the position of prime minister set for March 17, it is worthwhile to consider the positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are likely to emerge, depending on who becomes the controlling voice in Israeli politics and policies.

While Israel faces tremendous issues related to education, the growing divide between rich and poor, the place of Jewish religion in the state, and the cost of living in Israel, none of these challenges seem to be as intractable or as dangerous as the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There are those who disagree and simply live with the status quo regarding the conflict. Indeed, it is only when all hell breaks loose that the conflict’s reality is brought home. Then things quiet down again, and no matter how tragic some events were when its face was not hidden, life goes back to what I would call “Israeli normal.”

That is, people go to work as usual. They shop and go to concerts and the theater. They live as if there were no Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And though there is some edginess about using public transportation or traveling in certain places after violent outbreaks, in some ways it is the same edginess people feel in almost every country about the same or other things. The one thing that is different is the sense that inevitably Israel will have to “mow the weeds” – to go to war, again and again. Many Israelis consider this the necessary price for having their country.

So let’s propose that words have failed and the reality is that negotiations have gone nowhere. What are the alternatives that are being proposed to get out of this quagmire? What hope do they offer for a lasting peace – even if it is a cold one?

The one-state solution

Increasingly, we hear talk about the one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We would imagine that only right-wing Israelis would suggest it, but there are Palestinians (among them Palestinian writer and political scientist Ali Abunimah Abdalhadi Alijla, Palestinian-American producer Jamal Dajani, and Palestinian lawyer Michael Tarazi) who support it as well. Israeli’s president, Reuven Rivlin, and Moshe Arens, Israel’s former representative at the U.N., support it as well. Both Rivlen and Arens claim that given the direction in which Israel is going, the one-state solution is inevitable.

Because both men are honestly committed to democracy and have shown themselves not to be racists, their vision of the single state is one in which an enlarged Arab population could be assimilated into the State of Israel. The sticking point, as they see it, has been the failure of Israel to deal with its Arab citizens in a way that would give them the sense that they were Israelis like all other Israelis. In preparation for the single-state solution, Israeli Arabs should be receiving services in their communities that match those provided to Israeli communities. Israeli Arabs should be encouraged to join Israel’s armed forces. That would give them the sense that Israel is their state, which they, like all other citizens, should be defending. Success in this endeavor would provide the vision for assimilating a larger Arab population into Israel.

Does this sound like it would work?

To remain Jewish and democratic, Israel would require a majority Jewish population and equality under the law for all its citizens. So, would this be a Jewish one-state from the Jordan to the sea, or a binational state open to the possibility of having a majority Arab population with voting rights?

Indeed, this is exactly why many Palestinians (66 percent, according to some polls) support this arrangement. They see it as a means toward their own one-state, from the Jordan to the sea. Further, given almost 50 years of bad blood between Palestinians and Israelis, to what degree would Palestinians be willing to assimilate into Israeli society as Israelis? The Israeli and Palestinian narratives are too different. Is the hope sung about in Hatikvah the same as the Palestinians’ hope? I doubt it.

The alternative one-state solution

I am almost afraid to bring up this “solution,” but there are those who do so – and are not ashamed to do it in public. Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Bayit Hayehudi party, says quite loudly that the one-state solution is the answer to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He suggests transferring Gaza to Egyptian rule. Then Israel would annex Area C – according to present agreements neither side may build there until there is a negotiated settlement. Areas A and B would belong to the Palestinian Authority, which never would be allowed to become a Palestinian state. It would be under Israeli military and security services jurisdiction in perpetuity.

In return, Israel would build up Palestinian economic infrastructure by creating joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial zones and providing roads connecting Areas A and B. According to Bennett, they would not require checkpoints. Essentially, the Palestinian Authority would be under Israeli authority that would “ensure quiet, suppress Palestinian terrorism and prevent Hamas from taking over the territory.” Israeli citizenship would be offered to those Palestinians who desired it. Many right-wing Israelis and politicians support this solution. Others believe in it but would not say so for diplomatic reasons.

What’s wrong with this possibility?

Essentially, it is the end of the Jewish and democratic state envisioned by the founders of Zionist movement. At least as far as I can figure it, the state would be Jewish and perhaps democratic for Jews – but not for Palestinians. Right now it is a lie that Israel is an apartheid state. Would that be the case if Bennett’s one-state became a reality?

And what would be the outcome of using the IDF and Shin Bet to keep the Palestinians quiescent: the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a new stage in rage, bloodshed, and endless violence?

Unilateral declaration of borders

Given the failure of a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some have suggested that Israel simply withdraw from the areas it does not need for its own security and unilaterally declare the border between it and the State of Palestine. In essence, Israel would declare the Palestinian state to be just that, and it might even be the first nation to recognize that state.

If all went well and things stayed quiescent while Palestine developed its national self-rule, governing institutions, and economy, further conversations between two sovereign states about borders might be held. At the very least, Israel, trusting in its armed forces’ capabilities, would cease to be an occupying police force. If the independent state of Palestine engaged in an act of war, then instead of attacking “the occupied territory of the stateless Palestinians,” the Israel Defense Force would indeed engage in defense. Soldiers would be soldiers and not adjuncts to the Israeli police, a role for which they are not generally or properly trained. In such a case they would have every right to use any and all the legitimate tactics of war to defeat an attacking power.

Would it work?

In theory the answer is yes. But it would be hard – if not impossible – to sell it to the Israeli public. It would mean taking a terrible risk – that the state of Palestine would not become Hamastan II, along with Hamastan I in Gaza. On the Palestinian side, why would the Palestinians accept what Israel thinks are appropriate borders for them? If they were “given” statehood, would they really want it on Israeli terms? Or would this “gift” be viewed as chutzpah, wrapped in a seemingly generous package?

The two-state solution

The two-state solution, which has been on the table for what feels like an eternity, appears to be the most reasonable option. It frees Israel from having either to assimilate or to control almost 2 million Palestinian Arabs, which is what a one-state solution would entail. At least in theory it would silence continuous international condemnation of Israel as the illegitimate expansionist occupier of the West Bank. (I say “in theory” because those who hate Israel or Jews or both always will find ways to demonize the Jewish state.) Internally, this solution would make many Israelis feel that they held the moral high ground by allowing others what they have allowed themselves – the right to national self-determination in a nation-state of their own.

Why has such a reasonable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not gained enough traction to become a reality? The single-word reductive answer is “ideology.”

Since Menachem Begin’s rise to power in 1977, the ideology of Greater Israel became dominant. This meant extending Israel’s borders to include areas that had historical meaning in the narrative of the Jewish people. This meant extension of the borders of Israel to include what has become to be known as Judea and Samaria, the biblical heartland of ancient Israel. This ideology produced the settlement movement, which brought many Jews into what internationally was considered to be occupied territory. This ideology, which has been and continues to be the point of view and policy of the government since 1977, makes it difficult to accept the idea that all or a large part of the West Bank would become Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The Jerusalem issue is particularly difficult to negotiate, given the historical and religious meaning of the city. To overcome the need to negotiate about the city, Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem has been ongoing. While it is true that settlement beyond the 1948 borders started under the liberal Mapai government, that settlement was based on security concerns, not ideology.

In sum, the two-state solution has failed to become a reality because the government of Israel is at the very least ambivalent if not negative about it on ideological grounds. This means that Israel enters the negotiations toward a two-state solution with extremely mixed feelings, searching for a way to free itself of the “Palestinian problem” without giving up territory that would become Palestine.

The issue of ideology as a cause for the failure of the realization of the two-state solution is not one-sided. The Palestinian Authority’s negotiators come to the table with ideological demands based on a narrative of their own. Among these demands is Palestinians’ right of return to their families’ former homes in what is now Israel. The narrative supporting this is that these Palestinians were forcibly and illegitimately exiled from their residences during Israel’s War of Independence. Further, Palestinians would argue that their historic and religious connections to Al-Quds (Jerusalem) are as meaningful to them as the Jews’ are to Israel. Since the majority population of East Jerusalem is Arab, why should it not be the capital of Palestine?

The Palestinian perception of Jewish settlements is that they amount to stealing Palestinian lands. They should be removed. This might mean civil war for Israel – but that is not a Palestinian concern. Alternatively, if the settlements were allowed to remain in place as part of a negotiated agreement, then land swaps of equal size should be made to increase Palestine’s land area. Any Palestinian Authority negotiator who did not demand these things probably would have no credibility with the Palestinian street. Therefore, there is little that he or she can offer that Israel would accept.

With ideology rather than realpolitik driving negotiations, it is no wonder that from the Quartet to Clinton to Kerry, there has been no movement toward a two-state solution. If that situation is ever ameliorated, peace may have a chance.

Choosing depression – or hope against all odds

Daniel Gordis has described the Israeli mood as depression, and my experience with many Israeli friends is the same. Gordis holds that rather than endanger the state of Israel by negotiating a bad deal, living with depression and accepting that the immediate future means ongoing war is the better option. Those who can’t handle the sadness of an endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not fool themselves into false hopefulness.

I respect Gordis for his passionate love of his country and his incredible intellect. For me, however, and for others as well, the “we have not yet lost our hope” line of Hatikvah still epitomizes what will make us “a free people in our Land.” Zionism’s beginnings were filled with risk-taking. But there are reasonable and unreasonable risks, and the next government of Israel will be taking one form or another of risk in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I have tried to be fair, or at least honest, about what appears to me as reasonable and unreasonable about every solution that has been offered to ameliorate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I remain hopeful about Israel’s voters’ wisdom, that they will bring to power a government that will risk intelligently and finally bring peace and hope to a people that should not have to live with ongoing depression.

March 17 will be the beginning of a test about whether my hopes, along with the hopes of so many Israelis, are realistic. I pray that they are.